Highway spray mostly goes away

The first 17 miles of Highway 525, from the Clinton ferry dock to just beyond Greenbank Farm, will be set aside as a no-spray test area for the next five years, according to a new state plan that is still on the drawing board.

The set-aside represents a turnaround in state Department of Transportation planning for Whidbey Island, which earlier this month introduced a highly criticized plan to use herbicides on about 90 percent of the state’s roadsides. The new plan will drop that number to about 60 percent island-wide and nearly — but not completely — eliminate herbicide use on the south end of Whidbey Island.

State maintenance crews are scheduled to begin their annual herbicide spray program starting next week, said Ray Willard, the department’s Roadside Maintenance Program manager. But, herbicides will only selectively be applied in the test area, which runs from Clinton to milepost 26.5.

In fact, Willard doesn’t want to call it a “no-spray” zone. The plan still calls for limited herbicide use along most guard rails and to control noxious weeds in nearby ditches that cannot easily be mowed.

The plan does, however, stop spray along the shoulder of the road, usually an area about 3 feet wide that traditionally received the vast majority of herbicide spray.

“We’re going to allow grasses to reestablish along the shoulders,” Willard said, using mowers and other physical means to control the vegetation.

“It’s a big deal,” he added. “It’s a commitment to five years of measuring and monitoring.”

The state plans to work with researchers from the University of Washington to monitor the test area and draw conclusions as to the effectiveness and the cost of the program.

Steve Erickson, of Whidbey Environmental Action Network, said the new plan sounds like an improvement, but he will reserve judgment until he sees the details for himself. “When I see it in writing,” he said, leaving the sentence dangling with skepticism.

Willard was busy writing up the plan at press time. He did not yet have details as to how much herbicide would be used under the new plan. One test will involve the laying of matting around some guard rails to see if vegetation can be controlled without chemicals, he said.

Willard admitted the new plan was drawn up in direct response to the public’s mostly negative response to a draft vegetation management plan, introduced at an open house in Coupeville earlier this month. Most of the people testifying against the use of herbicides were from South Whidbey.

Joe Hunt / staff photo

County crews were out in force recently to physically remove vegetation along the shoulders of Wahl Road. The county adopted a no-spray policy two years ago.

State acquiesces, takes South Whidbey off herbicide plan

17-mile section to go mostly no-spray for five years

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