Outing aims to stamp out buffelgrass

With the coming of the monsoon season, Saguaro National Park is expected to begin helicopter spraying of herbicides on Park buffelgrass infestations. Arizona has declared Penisetum ciliaris a “noxious weed” but the federal government and Texas state agencies continue to develop more hardy strains and Mexico’s government subsidizes planting el zacate buffel in Sonora. Buffelgrass crowds out native plants and can fuel devastating wildfires. The park’s action come despite a majority of public comments opposing aerial spraying. So just what is “public comment” and is it working?    

Congress passed the Administrative Procedures Act in 1946 to compel government agencies to listen to the concerns of affected people. That way, legislators reasoned, agencies would make better informed decisions. It was called a “Bill of Rights” for the public in dealing with bureaucracy. Looking at the public comments and National Park Service responses over the issue of aerial spraying of herbicides on buffelgrass in Saguaro National Park, one wonders if the process has broken down?

The buffelgrass issue is current and local, and using it as an example does not mean to single out the park. Many notices of public comment periods for various agency rules, environmental impact reports, etc. are published in the Federal Register, or the Daily Territorial, or on a website, none of which are much read by people not intimately involved with a situation.


Who is the public?

A Freedom of Information Act request produced copies of the 40 comments, with names redacted. Several were obvious due to their content, but most were anonymous. Some were questionable.

Comment number 27 appears to be an internal memo suggesting some language changes in the final “Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI)” report rather than a public comment. A request for clarification has gone unanswered.

Three comments were dismissed as not relevant. But they clearly opposed aircraft flights over the park and a reasonable person would deduce that they opposed use of more aircraft over the park to spray herbicides.

One very supportive comment came from the Coronado National Forest who hopes to begin aerial spraying of herbicides in 2015. Is that really a “public comment,” coming from a similar federal agency? Another supportive comment, number 34, came from the National Parks Conservation Association, which consistently support park policies.

The bottom line is that what was advertised as a 17 – 17 split in the public comments is more of a 21- 14 division opposing the park’s plan. Interestingly, eight of those opposing aerial spraying identified themselves as Park neighbors, while only one supporter claimed that distinction.


Dismissing the public?

As part of the FONSI the Park responded to the concerns raised, including quite substantial and detailed analyses from the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity. FONSI signers Darla Sidles, Park Superintendent, and Sue E. Masica, National Park Service Regional Director, accepted none of those comments, basically repeating what the original plan said. One could infer that their minds were made up before the public commented.

Sidles and Masica declare: “The preferred alternative (aerial spraying of herbicides) will not have a significant effect on the human environment…There are no unmitigated adverse results on public health, public safety, threatened or endangered species….Implementation of the action will not violate any federal, state or local environmental protection law.”

The more detailed responses to specific concerns dismiss science-based concerns and questions. Concerns about dangers to humans and wildlife were dismissed by again quoting their original plan document and declaring, simply, that they “are not considered poisonous and pose very little risk to humans and other vertebrates.”

Health hazards

No reference was made in the original plan or in the FONSI to the many medical studies from around the world that find glyphosate is linked to hormone disruption, DNA damage, cancer, birth defects and neurological disorders. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the herbicide of choice, Roundup. Poorly-tested “inert” ingredients, like Roundup’s POEA, killed human cells in a recent study.  On Oscar Garcia’s Avra Valley ranch glyphosate runoff killed his bermudagrass cattle forage and mesquite trees after Tucson Water’s aerial spraying a few years ago.

Missing also is any mention of brain and thyroid cancers in male rats from exposure to another herbicide being considered for use in the park, Imazapyr. Made in China and used as a border defoliant in Texas, Imazapyr was banned by the European Union in 2003. It’s been reported that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finds Imazapyr a threat to endangered species in 24 Eastern states.

Opposition from Park neighbors was succinctly expressed in comment number 38: “We don’t need to create a public health hazard to solve the problem. Please hire workers or gather local community efforts to remove the buffelgrass and make it a joyous project. Let’s pursue humane, sane, and truly environmental solutions. Our earth is polluted enough.”

 According to the Attorney General’s Manual on the Administrative Procedure Act, its basic purpose is to require agencies to keep the public informed and to provide for public participation in the rulemaking process.

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