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DOT tries no-spray alternative

In an unusual sight Saturday, members of a Whidbey Island environmental group were seen working with the state Department of Transportation.

About 25 members of Whidbey Island No-Spray coalition worked with members of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station’s color guard, Island Transit and members of some local organizations, including a couple adopt-a-highway members. They were there to put plants and trees into a steep slope on Highway 525 near Greenbank to prevent exotic weed growth.

The project began earlier last week when the DOT cleared most of the weeds at the site, laid down compost and bark, brought in the plants and trees and dug the holes. The volunteers then spent more than an hour kneeling in six-inch bark and compost to plant 2,000 snowberry, nootka rode, Oregon grape, ocean spray and Douglas and Grand Fir.

The most unusual sight, however, was seeing the orange reflective vests of the DOT walking amongst the no-spray workers. In the past, the DOT and Whidbey Island environmental groups, including no-spray and Whidbey Environmental Action Network, or WEAN have often sparred with each other.

It’s that contentiousness that spurred the $50,000 project. The project is part of the DOT’s vegetation management practices plan to restore an area overrun with weeds. Ray Willard, a DOT roadside maintenance program manager said putting in native plants would provide canopy’s ranging from five to 15-feet that will eventually block out the weeds. Willard said it’s part of the effort to use feedback given by island residents in April to cut down herbicide spraying.

“This is a follow up with meeting with people on the island,” he said.

Willard said Saturday’s project will serve as a test to determine if putting in plants and trees will prevent weeds from growing.

But it’s an effort that’s been met at best with mixed reactions from island environmental groups. No-spray member Laurie Keith said progress was made, but the DOT could have done more to ensure the project’s success and that no-spray will continue to keep a watch on the DOT.

WEAN’s Marianne Edain, however, said she and the network oppose the project, which is “setup for failure.”

Opposed to any herbicide spraying, Edain said the DOT should instead use a program which integrates the vegetation management manual and the mechanical removal of plants. The conflict between environmentalists and the DOT mainly stems from the DOT spraying herbicide from trucks and hand spraying onto vegetation alongside Highways 525 and 20. Citing the ill-effects of the herbicides on humans, wildlife and the environment, groups such as Whidbey No-Spray and Whidbey Environmental Action Network have worked to stop it.

The conflict reached a boiling point in an April meeting between the DOT and Whidbey No-Spray and WEAN. At the meeting, the DOT was threatened with a lawsuit if state-sponsored spraying in the county did not stop.

The DOT must also cope with the animosity from WEAN and no-spray members about a recent incident. After promising not to spray conifers at the April meeting, Edain and Keith said some island residents saw the DOT spraying herbicide on the side of Highway 525 earlier this month.

Willard said the DOT crew was spraying red alders because the trees were growing too close to the road. He said some of the herbicide hit the conifers during the spraying. The DOT will use what happen as a good learning experience, Willard said.

Despite that spraying, though, the planting project has met with a small measure of approval from at least No-Spray.

“We want to work with the DOT as much as possible,” Keith said.

That wiliness seems to indicate to Dave McCormick, assistant regional administrator for DOT operations, what he said an improvement in over the last several months.

WEAN, however, did not share Keith’s an McCormick’s optimism about the relationships.

Despite a promise by Willard to hand pull any weeds and only use hand spraying as a last resort, Edain said the DOT will ultimately use hand spraying. She said the DOT should have talked to locals before preparing the site. Not doing so meant it was prepped badly.

“We consider it greenwashing,” she said of the project.

Edain added that many environmentalist are angry that the DOT broke their promise not to spray conifers.

Still work to do

Even with Saturday’s planting, Keith said the DOT still should have done more, she said. Motioning to the top of the slope where thick patches of weed are still growing, she said the weeds underneath the firs should have been cleared and compost laid down. There’s also not enough compost in other spots along the slope, Keith said.

In addition, she said no spray and WEAN are concerned that water will flow down the slope and the plants might not receive enough water.

Willard said to catch the water, basins were dug around each plant. Moisture will come from the subsurface as well. He said there has been three inches of compost spread all along the planting area, but there was not enough money for the trees and laying three inches of bark everywhere.

One part of the project Keith said she’s excited about is compost tea. It’s test product the DOT plans to use in some areas to monitor if it makes plants stronger and the weeds down by making the soil more stable and decrease runoff.

“It brings back the natural healing ability of plants and organisms in the soil,” Keith said. By comparison, herbicide may kill the weeds, but it disturbs the soil “cycle of life,” which invites weeds back.

The DOT and no-spray are now negotiating who would pay for the compost tea.

The replanting became necessary because the contractors hired by the DOT to widen the road did not restore the vegetation from Greenbank to Clinton, said Willard, the state DOT’s roadside maintenance program manager. As a result, the steep side of the widened highway, called a cut slop, became covered with weeds.

According to the plan, Willard said every year the DOT plans to plant more plants and trees along cut slopes in South Whidbey. In North Whidbey, he said the DOT will tell any future contractors that after widening the highway, they must replant vegetation as part of the contract.

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