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Political, pesticide success story from the forested Northwest

In the wake of disastrous pesticide leaks, the names Bhopal and Institute, W.Va., have become synonymous with the hazards of toxic chemicals. But in the outcry over such disasters, successes are sometimes overlooked. Last year, Lane County in western Oregon had the largest-ever infestation of gypsy moths west of the Rocky Mountains.

A major pest of forests, the gypsy moth was imported from Europe to New England in the 1860s as part of an amateur silkworm breeding program. Wherever the pest goes, it can cause massive defoliation of trees and shrubs.

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Since the late 1970s, sporadic outbreaks have occurred in Western states, but the huge infestation verified in late 1984 stunned Oregon's wood products sector, the state's No. 1 industry. When neighboring California, a prime outlet for Oregon products, slapped a quarantine on Lane County wood products and Christmas trees to contain the infestation, Oregon officials had to act quickly. The quarantine meant a potential loss of $500 million in annual sales.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) proposed aerial applications of the biological agent Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) over the 227,000-acre infestation zone and treatment of ``hot spots'' in Eugene and nearby Pleasant Hill with two chemical agents, Orthene (acephate) and Dimilin (diflubenzuron). Bt is derived from a naturally occurring bacterium that attacks the caterpillars of certain butterflies and moths.

While industry applauded the proposal, many local residents were alarmed. Despite ODA assurances to the contrary, many questioned the safety of the two chemicals. Environmental activists in the community quickly geared up to challenge the ODA proposal.

Local environmental groups formed an umbrella organization to press for full public discussion of the situation and to lobby for elimination of the chemical agents from the spray program.

The ODA countered by holding a series of public meetings in the infestation zone. An outpouring of grass-roots sentiment against the use of chemical pesticides caught them by surprise. Some of the strongest objections to the chemical agents came from people unaffiliated with the environmental movement.

Meanwhile, county commissioners and most local legislators went on record against the use of chemicals. The Springfield News, a local newspaper, editorialized for the use of Bt alone. Litigation was threatened to block the ODA program while an earlier federal antipesticide suit awaited a hearing.

The ODA had also made tactical and procedural errors that undercut their case for the chemicals. One was leaving the state Division of Health and the Departments of Fish and Wildlife and of Environmental Quality out of their deliberations. This fueled suspicions that the public was not getting the full story. Another mistake was insisting on the safety of the chemicals, despite the fact that Orthene received USDA approval as a result of testing by the Industrial Bio Test Laboratory. In 1976, that firm w as exposed as having faked its tests on many common pesticides, including Orthene.

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The clamor against chemical pesticides escalated. Finally, in the face of mounting public pressure, the ODA announced in late March that it would use Bt only.

In May and June, helicopters sprayed Eugene and surrounding communities three times with Bt. A massive moth trapping program followed -- the largest in history. By autumn, fewer than 1,000 male gypsy moths had been found, prompting ODA director Leonard Kunzman to declare Bt a success and to announce that no chemicals will be used in the 1986 moth program.

While some environmental and health issues remain unresolved regarding the large-scale use of biological pesticides, observers agree that Bt is far safer than the available chemical agents. Its effective application in Oregon may mark a watershed in pest control. It is no doubt a political watershed, in that the decision in favor of biological control was a direct result of grass-roots concern and activism on the pesticide issue.

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