Following in the footsteps of the Newsom administration, state lawmakers are repurposing integrated pest management as a means to eliminate the use of certain controversial pesticides. A new bill scrutinizes the state transportation department for maintaining glyphosate in its IPM strategy for controlling roadside vegetation and preventing wildfires.

“The goal of this bill, simply put, is to rein in pesticide use by Caltrans,” said Assemblymember Damon Connolly of San Rafael, who has authored three other bills aimed at boosting organic agriculture. “Caltrans technically has a policy in place to use IPM that prioritizes the least harmful methods. But it does not appear to have resulted in any meaningful reduction in pesticide use.”

Caltrans manages about 230,000 acres of roadside vegetation, applying herbicides along with mowing, weed whacking, hand removal and goats to reduce brush.

Assembly Bill 99 is riding a wave of pesticide bans that has swept through liberal coastal enclaves in California. The city of Malibu, for one, has banned the use of all pesticides, while Ventura County and others have specifically targeted glyphosate.

Damon ConnollyAsm. Damon Connolly, D-San Rafael

The local bans have frustrated UC cooperative extension specialists who view glyphosate as the most cost-effective tool for controlling invasive plants like stinkwort, star-thistle and spotted knapweed, which promulgate more fires. Nearly all ignitions start along roadways and utility corridors. According to Caltrans, they often result from a car bottoming out or a trailer dragging a chain on the road. Mowing can exacerbate the problem by spreading the plant seeds. Bare ground, the agency reasons, is a better fire barrier than mowed weeds. Caltrans maintains it has greatly reduced its reliance on herbicides over the past decade and implements strict buffer zones during applications.

“I work with community members who live along state highways and have through-the-roof levels of glyphosate in their bodies,” said Megan Kaun, who directs the environmental group Sonoma Safe Ag Safe Schools, during a recent policy committee hearing on AB 99. “The chemicals Caltrans uses contribute to their kids’ asthma and rashes.”

Kaun asserted that the human health threat extends to state workers, cyclists, passengers at bus stops, and homeless populations. Her group is pushing to convert landscapes along roadways to habitat corridors for pollinators.

Through his bill, Connolly wants to require Caltrans to notify the public of applications 24 hours ahead of time and annually report on the exact amount, location and type of pesticides it uses. The Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) is in the process of launching such a notification program for all agricultural applications statewide.

Yet Taylor Roschen, a lobbyist for the Western Plant Health Association and other agricultural organizations, criticized AB 99 as overly prescriptive and contradicting the tenants of IPM.

“IPM does not mean pesticide free,” said Roschen. “The point of IPM, as a UC-defined term, is to require a systems approach. It's not just use what you have available or use what's easiest.”

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Practitioners take a landscape-level strategy—considering the pest pressure, environmental and public health impacts and the severity of the problem, she explained. They choose a plan with the lowest risk and a combination of tools to deploy.

Roschen argued AB 99 would instead prevent them from taking an IPM approach to pest management.

The bill could set hurdles in combating wildfires as well. It would prohibit the use of both conventional and organic pesticides for managing fuel loads until a wildfire emergency is declared. But those declarations often follow wildfires, after the destruction has already occurred, Roschen pointed out.

Two dozen other farm groups oppose the measure as well. It passed the committee along party lines and awaits a second debate.

Similarly, the Newsom administration has faced industry criticism for appropriating IPM under its initiative to eliminate or reduce the use of certain controversial pesticides. The Department of Pesticide Regulation subsequently rebranded its effort as “sustainable pest management” to avoid further confusion as it began to outline goals for slashing the use of pesticides in agricultural and urban settings by 2050.

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