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KILLARNEY, ONTARIO – We park the truck along the highway into Killarney and begin walking through dense forests. The air is thick with the songs of toads and crickets, and the drone of billions of flies and mosquitoes. There is so much ground cover, I feel as though I am wading through knee-high mud. My feet are invisible through the web of plants and I step gingerly, trying to avoid holes, roots and rotting tree stumps.

Doug Maki, a silviculture forester with the Vermillion Forest Management Company (VFMC), seems at home in these woods. He has brought me here to see for myself what a forest looks like after it has been harvested and sprayed with glyphosate herbicide. There are noticeably few deciduous trees – including maples, birch trees and poplars – but to my untrained eye, the two forest blocks we visit do not resemble the scorched earth images of a napalm-soaked Vietnam or the clear cuts of British Columbia. The first patch we stroll through was harvested five years ago, planted four years ago and then sprayed three years ago. The second block was harvested six years ago and then ground sprayed for site preparation (before planting) five years ago. New conifers were planted four years ago and it was aerial sprayed for tending in September 2012.

“We harvested conifers in this area and we’re legally and morally obliged to regenerate conifers in this area,” Maki says, noting that if left to their own devices, the tiny pine trees would not stand a chance against the more aggressive deciduous trees, shrubs and bushes. “We need to free existing, established small pine from competing vegetation.”

The Vermillion Forest Management Company is a partnership of eight regional lumber companies licenced by the Ministry of Natural Resources to harvest timber on Crown land. It manages 476,000 hectares (ha) of Crown forest that extends from the French River to Lake Wanapitei, and from Warren to Nairn Centre. It was announced recently they would be spraying 2,200 ha of forest with the herbicide glyphosate as part of their annual program, representing 0.5% of the Crown land they manage. This year’s spray includes forests north of Capreol and in the Killarney area, but not near Windy Lake or Tyson Lake, as reported in earlier media coverage.

“It’s always a sensitive topic and I completely understand that people are uncomfortable with chemicals being sprayed in the forest – it’s natural and normal and totally understandable that it would make people uncomfortable,” he says.

While Maki admits that leaving the forest to regenerate naturally is preferable, even in the forestry industry, he says it would ultimately compromise its sustainability.

“Economically speaking, it would be best for the loggers to cut and allow natural regeneration but there would be no semblance of sustainability because wherever you cut conifers, you would get a very high percent of hardwoods,” he says.

Maki argues that spraying and harvesting wood actually creates new opportunities for wildlife.

“In a mature closed forest, the amount of ground vegetation is relatively low, but when we cut that area, we allow light and heat to the forest floor, which stimulates trees and brush, so the amount of ground vegetation goes (way up),” he says. “That includes berries, which animals love.”

LU professor says glyphosate dangerous to amphibians

Glyphosate is known commonly as Roundup (for use in agriculture) or Vision (in forestry), although VisionMax has recently replaced its predecessor. The herbicide is generally prohibited in Ontario for cosmetic and residential use, according to the David Suzuki Foundation.

Charles Ramcharan, a biology professor at Laurentian University, says glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide. Its targets include deciduous trees and ground cover. He points out, however, that conifers can typically withstand the spraying because their needles have a waxy coating.

“Glyphosate is pretty well-tolerated by animals,” he adds. “At the application doses, it doesn’t kill them, except for things like frogs and salamanders, which take up substances through their skin very easily.

This stuff is pretty bad for amphibians,” Ramcharan emphasizes. “Their skin is very absorbent, so it will pick up chemicals from the environment very easily. It doesn’t have the protection that reptiles and mammals have.”

He says amphibians may die on contact or may become more susceptible to disease. They may also develop mutated body parts, if eggs had been laid when the spraying occurs. But frogs will not pass on a mutation to their future offspring. At this time of year, there should be no eggs; however, Ramcharan says there could be “longer-lived tadpoles” that could be impacted.

Amphibians consume moths and other insects, and Ramcharan says glyphosate can negatively impact the general biodiversity of a forest, which may render it more vulnerable to climate change and invasive species.

“While there are no direct toxicity effects on animals, there are strong ecological effects,” he says. “If you wipe out the understory of the forest, you wipe out food sources for animals. These also provide cover for animals. You basically change the ecosystem.

“On the other hand, if the forest is going to be harvested anyways, it doesn’t really matter that much to the animals, since their forest will be lost.”

Local group opposes glyphosate

Benjamin Baker, a local activist, is spearheading a group that recently formed to oppose the spraying. He says his coalition, while in its infancy, is trying to raise awareness and galvanize a community response.

“Our land holds water because it has a ground cover and we’re shaded. We actually have the forests in place to hold it here and that’s why we have what we have,” he says. “We take that for granted. … We need to protect it, we can’t just poison it. We’re drinking glyphosate. It’s not good for us, it’s in our water table and in our tap water. Enough is enough. Sometimes you’ve got to put your foot down.”

He says glyphosate is a systemic concern. It kills mycorrhizal fungi and nitrogen-fixing bacteria, as well as foliage. Mycorrhiza enjoy a symbiotic relationship with many plants, thereby contributing to the overall health of the forest.

“Every living thing in a forest is incredibly important, and all things are connected,” he says.

Baker argues the problems associated with glyphosate spraying are cumulative and can lead to devastating consequences.

“Soil that does not contain bacteria or mycorrhiza is often erosive and can have serious issues controlling pH and humidity,” he notes.

“Without trees, there is no shade. With no shade, there is less moisture. With less moisture, there are fewer plant species. With fewer plant species, there are fewer animals, and so on and so forth,” he adds.

The Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), a division of Health Canada, determined in December 2012 that under laboratory conditions, glyphosate products containing a surfactant, which is used to bind the herbicide to leaves, “are indeed more toxic to amphibians than glyphosate alone. Yet, when seen in the context of all the studies available, these results did not offer credible and compelling evidence that glyphosate products created a serious possibility of an unacceptable risk to the environment.”

Early results from ongoing field studies have shown no ” significant effects on breeding effort, reproductive success, or abundance and fitness of wood frogs in herbicide-treated areas,” according to the PMRA.

Danger to human health disputed

The degree to which glyphosate may be carcinogenic to humans is disputed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined the herbicide is non-carcinogenic; however, a 2001 study by Canadian researchers found “an increased risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma associated with glyphosate use, and the risk was associated with increases in the number of days used per year,” according to a 2006 report prepared for NorthWatch, a coalition of environmental groups in northeastern Ontario, by Dr. Susan Sang, a former senior conservation manager for the World Wildlife Fund. Sang has more than 15 years experience in environmental contaminant research.

People are advised to stay out of the forest block for 24 hours following a spray. Afterwards, Maki, an avid paddler and outdoorsman, says he would not hesitate to let his own child play in a spray block.

Ramcharan concedes that at the doses foresters typically apply, there will be effects on the forest ecosystem, but he points out there are no direct toxicity effects on humans.

“In general, glyphosate is the herbicide I would be least worried about. There are lots of other nastier things out there. It’s not benign, but in terms of direct toxicity, it’s not as bad as other things they could be using. In terms of ecological effects, it’s the same as other herbicides – it could have devastating effects. You’re taking out so much of the ground cover in the forest – it’s almost like a selective burn of everything except for the conifers.”

The Sudbury Star published this story on Sept. 3, 2013