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PANUPS: Roadside Herbicide Spraying

                         P A N U P S
                   Pesticide Action Network 
                        North America
                       Updates Service

May 5, 1997

Groups Stop Caltrans Herbicide Spraying

California's transportation agency, Caltrans, manages 230,000 
acres of roadsides situated along 15,000 miles of state 
highways. The agency spends $30 million each year maintaining 
roadside vegetation, most of it on the application of weed-
killing herbicides. Rural grassroots activists recently 
prevailed against this colossal agency in their long fight to 
stop pesticide applications on public highways. Eight hundred 
miles of California highways are now herbicide-free. 

Communities in the rural northwest corner of California 
scored a big win in their quarter-century battle for 
herbicide-free public roads when Caltrans announced in March 
1997 that it would halt spraying on highways in the region at 
the behest of local governments.

With 230,000 acres of roadside under its management, Caltrans 
has long been the largest single user of synthetic pesticides 
in the state. However on March 17, officials in District 1 -- 
covering Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties -- 
announced they will stop spraying wherever local governments 
request it.

Two weeks later, Humboldt County Supervisors voted 
unanimously for non-toxic roadsides, joining elected 
officials in Mendocino County and the city of Arcata. Only 
one community, Fortuna, opted to keep highway spraying.

Residents of the rugged, sparsely populated north coast of 
California have mobilized against spraying of herbicides -- 
initially 2,4-D and simazine, more recently Roundup and 
diuron -- on roadsides since 1972. Most counties and cities 
in the area gave up herbicides for roadside weed control 
during the 1980's in response to intense pressure from local 

But Caltrans persisted until 1989 when Californians for 
Alternatives to Toxics (CATs) -- a clearinghouse for 
community anti-toxic groups scattered throughout northern 
California -- organized 23 groups in 14 counties to sue under 
state environmental law. To avoid litigation, Caltrans agreed 
to halt spraying in the district while it wrote an 
environmental report.

Six years later, District 1 resumed full-scale spraying and 
the reaction was intense. Within a year, several vocal 
grassroots groups sprang up. Neighbors Against Herbicides, 
Poison Free, Toxic Outcry and others joined forces with 
established organizations Center for Ethics and Toxics, Lake 
County HEAL, Mendocino Environmental Center and Friends of 
Del Norte. CATs was a resource for information, networking 
and regional strategy. 

By early 1997 rallies were occurring somewhere almost weekly, 
and more than 4,000 people had signed petitions. Protests 
escalated dramatically in the month preceding Caltrans' 
policy reversal. Several well-attended rallies were held at 
sites located hundreds of miles apart, then the arrest of 
four protesters who blocked a spray truck galvanized 
resisters region wide; many vowed to do the same. The actions 
helped generate high-profile media coverage. Representatives 
to the state legislature took a strong position in defense of 
local determination.

Caltrans submitted this time when it realized that the issue 
transcended traditional community divisions and had gained 
broad support. Opponents included Indian tribes (one demanded 
an end to spraying on reservation highways), loggers, parents 
of schoolchildren, tourism promoters, rural mail deliverers, 
farmers, disabled and immune-compromised people, health 
practitioners and thousands of others who rarely, if ever, 
consider themselves hard-core environmentalists.

As conservative Humboldt County supervisor Bonnie Neely put 
it, "This is a roadside vegetation management problem to 
Caltrans -- but to the people of this county it is a health 
issue. The county doesn't spray its roadsides and neither 
should the state."

In its long-awaited environmental report which was published 
in 1992, Caltrans proposed a snail-paced schedule of a 50% 
reduction in herbicide use by the year 2000 and an 80% 
reduction by 2012. The agency claims to have reduced its use 
of herbicides by 34% statewide since then, mainly by 
narrowing the width of the area defoliated on highway 

To help steer its way into a less toxic future, Caltrans 
recently published a several hundred thousand dollar report 
on alternative vegetation control and is currently building 
an extensive, site-specific data-base about native plants, 
one of the most promising options to replace chemicals. 
Nevertheless, the sprawling agency has been slow to employ 
alternatives. In several districts, herbicides are still 
applied at a rate of several pounds per acre each year -- and 
overall only a handful of local managers are aware of non-
chemical vegetation control options.

Although Caltrans' local determination policy is currently 
limited to northwestern California, it could have broad 
implications for anti-toxics activists in other areas of the 

Source: CATs, April 17, 1997; Center for Ethics and Toxics, 
April 8, 1997; The Crop Duster, April 1997.
Contacts: Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, 860 1/2 
11th Street, Arcata, CA
95521; phone (707) 822-8497; email cats@igc.org.
Center for Ethics and Toxics, 39175 S. Highway One, P.O. Box 
673, Gualala, CA 95445; phone (707) 884-1700; fax (707) 884-
1846; cetos@cetos.org.
Toxic Outcry, P.O. Box 211, Comptche, CA 95427; phone (707) 
937-1140; fax (707) 937-4250; gkrouse@mcn.org.

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