How Lincoln County Community Rights Won Its Landmark Ban on Aerial Pesticide Spraying

In May 2017, Lincoln County, Oregon, passed an aerial spray ban against every oddsmaker’s bets to the contrary.

A coastal temperate rain forest in Drift Creek, Oregon, in Lincoln County. Photo: Sam Beebe, CC

The group that made it happen, Lincoln County Community Rights, is like a lot of groups fighting for their health and environmental rights. There is no nationwide central organization they report into. There’s no big money pot backing them. They don’t have an office. The organization, which includes the owner of a small business which installs solar panels, an organic farmer who breeds llamas, and a weaver trained by the Navajo, has no experience in political activism. It’s just a small group of volunteers with diverse backgrounds who came together for a common cause.

Yet this is the group that managed to fight off a major campaign by CropLife America, the largest pesticide industry trade group, and passed a tough law banning the spraying of pesticides from either helicopters or aircraft. That law prohibits not just the spraying but also “all actions taken to prepare for that physical deposition”. And even though the word “pesticide” is used throughout in the law, what is banned is far broader than that. As it says in section 2 of the law, “Definitions”, section (e):

“Pesticides means any synthetic chemicals, or synthetic chemical mixtures, that can e classified as algaecides, avicides, bactericides, fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, miticides, acricides, molluscicides, nematicides, rodenticides, or virucides, and shall include, but not be limited to, restricted and non-restricted pesticides used to destroy plant, fungal, and/or animal ‘pests’.”

Lincoln Country Community Rights managed to pass this bill by intense grass-roots lobbying, much of which was done by old-fashioned means of knocking on doors, holding gatherings in people’s homes, and just talking to those they know. They also did it by leveraging strengths of key members of the group. Debra Fant, a retired nurse, emails, makes calls, and publishes social media on behalf of the group. John Colman-Pinning, a farmer who raises organic vegetables and a llama herd, does background research to support the group’s work. The owner of the solar panel company, Rio Davidson, designed and updates the organization’s Facebook page and its dedicated website.

The stories of the group’s members have some similarities. They all come from stumbling onto the ugly truths about many different big agribusinesses, including what poisons they spray from the air and why they spray them. One of those, Barbara Davis, an intensive care nurse, moved to Lincoln County, Oregon, from Reno, Nevada, seeking the comfort and freshness of a place with 90% forests. As she said when she arrived there with her family, “We came here in 2004 thinking it was clean and green.”

It wasn’t. As Davis learned, despite that the Forest Service had banned aerial spraying in national forests in 1984, the timber companies continued to apply fungicides and herbicides from the air. These chemicals, which include deadly glyphosate and 2,4-D, identified as linked to cancer by the World Health Organization, and atrazine, a disruptor of the endocrine system in living beings, were sprayed to rid the forests of other plants that might compete with the trees after clearcutting takes place. They were also applied from the air because it is less costly for the companies to do it that way. By doing so, the toxic chemicals drifted over water supplies and even onto people and animals not included in the lands being treated by the companies.

Davis became involved by creating leaflets spreading word about the concerns. She knocked on neighbors’ doors, sat down with them and talked. She learned about many cancers in the area, including two neighbors down the street from her who contracted brain cancer. She learned about Debra Wand, the wife of a local farmer and landscaper, who had been exposed to aerial spraying from helicopters when in her twenties; she died of cancer at age 44.

Davis was scared because it was clear the spraying was linked to the cancers and cancer deaths. She was also angry.

In the end she and her fellow activists in Lincoln County Community Rights took that anger and rallied the voters of the county to create an ordinance to stop the spraying – and to pass it. They did so despite an industry association called the Coalition to Defeat 21-177, which spent $34 on every voter in the country to convince them to vote against the ban. They did so also despite CropLife America clearly having spent a great deal of money locally to block the ban as well.  

Other groups which went up against Lincoln County Community Rights on this included the Fertilizer Institute, the Koch-family supported Oregon Forest Industries Council, DuPont, and a number of small farm bureaus. There was even a group with the deceptively-sweet name of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, which, according to its now-defunct website, was created in 1980 to “do battle with activists seeking an initiative to ban the aerial application of forest herbicides”.

The ordinance passed by the slim margin of 61 votes out of a total of 14,000 who voted on it. That’s small enough that a future vote to overturn it could happen.

CropLife America, according to documents later discovered, was apparently frightened by the power of the activism they saw. Backed by companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences LLC and DuPont Crop Protection, lobbying group CropLife America overall spent $10 million on staff, consultants and vendors in 2017, and applied at least some significant part of that to stop the Oregon group from getting their ordinance through. It also fought against other projected bans in Lane County, Oregon, further south and the home of Eugene, Oregon, the second-largest metropolitan area in the state after Portland and well-known for its activist actions.

CropLife America and its funders are also gearing up for bigger fights now, especially after the recent $289 million award against Monsanto for that company’s glyphosate and its role in causing cancer. Then again, so are even more groups like Lincoln County Community Rights, who see the dangers in these chemicals growing ever worse and realize that even a small activist group can make a big difference against even the biggest of Big Business.