Highway departments across the nation put time, energy and resources into maintaining the side of the road, often preferring to keep it clean and clear of plants. But, as Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, in Oregon, some residents don’t want chemicals used to keep the highway shoulders bare.

GELLERMAN: Along the sides of the nation’s highways are strips of space; some covered in grass, trees and flowers, others stripped bare. And as Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, it’s these areas that cause concern for some who travel the roads.


LOBET: Lisa Arkin pilots her Subaru wagon along a highway outside Eugene, Oregon. She gazes at the road shoulder and shakes her head.

ARKIN: We just passed over the Willamette River and you can see acres and acres of dead vegetation, dead from herbicide spray.

LOBET: Arkin is executive director of Beyond Toxics, a non-profit that’s been trying to persuade the state of Oregon to find other ways of maintaining the highways.

ARKIN: When they spray, people with immune deficiencies, someone going through a cancer treatment, someone with allergies or asthma - you might have children in the car, you might be a pregnant woman, and you have no idea that you have driven through miles of a recent spray.

LOBET: Arkin’s disagreement is with the state, not with this county. Unlike the state, Lane County has a no-spray policy. And the contrast between state roads and county roads is plain to see.

In contrast to the state as a whole, Lane County, Oregon has a no-spray road policy.(Lisa Arkin)

ARKIN: And now, we are merging onto a highway that’s managed by the Lane County public works department and we start to see–flowers! And vegetation that is still green.

LOBET: Opposition to herbicides is not uncommon here in Lane County, home to Eugene, a university town. It’s a part of Oregon where organic agriculture is strong. Last spring, when the Oregon Transportation Commission heard testimony about roadside herbicide policy, farmer John Sundquist spoke up.

SUNDQUIST: I have testified before you several times in the past urging you to protect citizens and the environment by stopping the poisoning of state-maintained roads in Lane County. And I asked you to enjoy the green, beautiful, poison-free, salmon and wildlife-enhancing roadsides of Lane County.

LOBET: The State of Oregon and its Department of Transportation is much like other state DOTs. It sprays herbicides, such as glyphosate, that disrupt plant metabolism. That can be once or several times a year. Will Lackey coordinates the teams that work in that space to the right of the white line in Oregon, and he describes how it should look.

LACKEY: We really would not like to have any vegetation growing six to eight feet from the pavement. That is primarily for drainage, for a safe recovery zone for cars so they have a safe place to pull off, visibility, fire hazards–and it’s also–if we can keep it bare, that is our first line of defense for noxious weed control.

LOBET: Two of the main questions that preoccupy highway workers when they contemplate any stretch of shoulder are: is it free of plants, in general? And specifically, are there any noxious or invasive plants like rush skeletonweed or puncture vine?

LACKEY: We target a lot of just noxious weed control. So we have people out on four-wheelers or even just backpack spraying, just going after individual plants.

LOBET: Washington State, Oregon’s neighbor to the north, also uses herbicide but has dramatically reduced the amount in recent years. Ray Willard manages roadside maintenance in Washington State. He’s a landscape architect by training. He says when his department first scrutinized its use of herbicide, it found some was unnecessary.

WILLARD: I think what was happening at that time is a lot of the decisions that were being made, were being made by the crews out in the field, and so there really wasn’t as much oversight in terms of: ‘Is this really the right thing to do? Is it necessary or is there a more effective way to do it?’

Oregon Highway 36, maintained by the state, is routinely sprayed with herbicide. (Photo: Lisa Arkin)

LOBET: As Willard’s department reevaluated, it found there wasn’t much research to help predict what would happen if they sharply reduced herbicide use. Would they need much more staffing? Would it cost much more? They set clearer guidelines and instituted annual training for highway workers, and Washington cut its herbicide use by 66 percent, from 126 thousand pounds of active ingredient in 2003 to 42 thousand. Last year, they actually used more than the year before. Willard says that’s because they’ve gone back to spraying some stretches.

A different section of the same Oregon Highway 36 where herbicide is not permitted

(Lisa Arkin)

WILLARD: What we found was that it is actually, in a lot of cases, cheapest to treat that band of earth with herbicides. And so, as a result, some of the areas that we had let go and grow back to grass now, we are maintaining them as vegetation-free again now with herbicides.

LOBET: He points out some plants when they’re cut come back stronger each year.

WILLARD: If we can make very precise, specific applications we can do that very safely in terms of worker exposure and environmental exposure and we are much more efficient and effective in terms of our budget and use of the taxpayers’ money.

LOBET: But those who oppose this method of keeping the roadside clean and bare say taxpayer money also goes to uncalculated health costs. The public health effects of herbicides is an area of research that’s still developing. People are unlikely to be severely poisoned. But the jury is still out on more subtle effects to developing fetuses or people with genetic predisposition to greater sensitivity. The concern over herbicides was enough to persuade Oregon’s former Transportation Commission Chair Gail Achterman to send a message last year that the status quo is not acceptable.

ACHTERMAN: I am very worried about this issue. I don’t think it’s good for our employees nor do I think it is good for society to be using herbicides when other alternatives are available. We are going to start running into real liability exposure on the continued use of these toxics.

LOBET: That message was heard. Oregon Vegetation Management Chief Will Lackey says change is happening.

LACKEY: Over the next five years we are going to reduce our pounds of active ingredient by 25 percent. So our bare shoulders, our brush treating and some of our landscape – we are going to reduce our pounds of active ingredient by 25 percent.

LOBET: There have been similar public rebellions against highway herbicide over the last 30 years in other parts of the West, Northeast and in Minnesota, and the trend is toward reduction in those regions. The issue is, so far, not an issue in much of the Midwest and the South.

LOBET: For Living On Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet.