Scatchet Head really digs spartina
June 25, 2008 · Updated 12:10 PM
"Photo: Dore Holte, Angela Brown, and Tasha Blasko dig at a tough spartina clump Saturday as they work with dozens of other volunteers to remove the invasive weed from Cultus Bay.Matt Johnson / staff photoHerbicides and pesticides are not welcome in Scatchet Head.Residents of the large South Whidbey housing community made this abundantly clear Saturday when they slogged onto the Cultus Bay tidelands with shovels and buckets to stop what they viewed as state-sponsored chemical warfare against weeds. For about five hours, more than 40 Scatchet Head and South Whidbey residents dug clumps of spartina from the dense, wet tideland sands, eliminating the invasive weed from the center of the bay and the Scatchet Head shoreline. And all the while, television and newspaper journalists recorded the event, which became the human interest story of the week in the north Sound region.The diggers did the work to stave off Department of Agriculture weed control specialists, who have spent the past four years killing spartina in Cultus Bay and other north Sound bodies of water with the herbicide known as Rodeo. The effort was the community's second this summer in a campaign to keep itself free of the chemicals some residents view as health hazards. In June, Scatchet Head declared itself a No Spray community and barred Island County from its annual application of Roundup to roadside weeds.The convictions of those who turned out to dig were strong. Lori O'Neal, one of the dig's organizers, brought a shovel to the beach and put her back into the digging even though she is chemically injured. Last year, she said, Rodeo overspray from spartina treatments made her so ill that she could not leave her home for days. Humans may not be the only creatures affected by the spartina herbicide program. While digging one clump of spartina, O'Neal found a nest of baby crabs. Certainly, she said, they would also absorb some of the chemicals in Rodeo.If we spray, they're in there, she said.Most of those who dug Saturday were not chemically injured. Nonetheless, diggers like Janine Schierbeek were definitely not fans of Rodeo.It's community work. We belong to it and we want to keep it clean naturally, Schierbeek said.Dore Holte, a newer Scatchet Head resident, said community pride and a desire to protect his own health enticed him onto the windy, rainy tidelands with shovel, pick and bucket.I'm pretty much a non-believer in chemicals, Holte said. This is a good way to get to know the community.Even a few children, like Tricia Hibbard and Kristine Kane, found incentive enough to hack away at the tough, grassy clumps of spartina for a few hours -- although that incentive was not the same as that which drove the adults working in the tidelands.We were trying to be on TV, Hibbard said.There were plenty of opportunities for that, and to get in the newspaper, and in a short film about spartina. Journalists from several Seattle-area television stations and newspapers braved the tidelands almost in turns during the dig day, recording the volunteers' work. Even though the dig lasted only about five hours, diggers and organizers made it onto the evening news on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and onto Saturday and Sunday morning news programs.Blaine Reeves, the state's spartina control coordinator, said digging is an effective way to control spartina. Three years ago, however, it probably would not have done the job. In 1997, more than 60 acres of spartina thrived in Cultus Bay. The non-native plant has devastated salmon and bird habitat around the state during the past decade, Reeves said. The Department of Agriculture began spraying spartina plants in Cultus Bay with Rodeo three years ago. Now, only six acres of scattered spartina plants remain in the bay.Regular digs like Saturday's could go a long way toward restoring habitat all over the Puget Sound area, Reeves said.If we had that in every community, it would be a lot easier to control (spartina), he said. I'd love to see people dig this out all over.Reeves said only about 10 percent of the plants will return next year. Regular digs should eliminate it from Cultus Bay within a few years.State, islanders debate herbicidesOn the one hand, common sense says that a chemical that kills plants inside of 24 hours cannot be good for humans.On the other, some scientific studies say that same chemical is no threat whatsoever to people or animals.The chemical Rodeo, and more specifically its active ingredient glyphosate, was the topic of discussion during an outdoor meeting Wednesday between Scatchet Head residents and officials from the state's Department of Agriculture. The meeting was a prelude to a spartina digging party in Cultus Bay Saturday and brought up questions for which there are few clear answers at present.During the meeting, Lori O'Neal, a chemically-injured Scatchet Head resident, told Agriculture's Blain Reeves that Rodeo applications to spartina in Cultus Bay last year incapacitated her for days. The information came as a surprise to Reeves, who said years of testing have yet to show glyphosate as a toxin to humans or animals.You're the first person I've ever heard of who has been sensitive to this, Reeves said.Agriculture used about 750 gallons of Rodeo to control spartina in the Puget Sound region last year. Reeves said the chemical, which is manufactured by Monsanto, does not accumulate in aquatic life and breaks down into inert chemicals within days of application.But many disagree with the studies that show these results. Last year, a court injunction prevented Agriculture from spraying Rodeo for two months. Local Indian tribes have yet to allow Agriculture to spray Rodeo on tribal lands because they believe it to be highly toxic. Glyphosate may even be linked to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer that strikes white blood cells. O'Neal said an independent study has shown this to be true.While there is not evidence enough to convince weed control specialists at Agriculture to stop using the chemical, Reeves said he does prefer to use alternative weed control methods when possible. Mowing and digging have worked well against some spartina crops, he said. But manpower often lacks for these methods. And, when it comes down to it, some spartina infestations are so large that Rodeo is the only solution.Agriculture contractors spray Spartina on foot at ground level. They may not spray if wind speeds in a treatment area rise above 10 mph."