Pesticides are the primary tool of the “restoration” industry

Over 20 years ago, my initial reaction to native plant “restorations” was horror at the destruction of healthy trees.  It took some years to understand that pesticides are used by most projects to prevent the trees from resprouting and to control the weeds that thrive in the sun when the trees are destroyed.  Herbicides are a specific type of pesticide, just as insecticides and rodenticides are also pesticides.

Because pesticide application notices are not required by California State law for most of the herbicides used by “restoration” projects, the public is unaware of how much herbicide is needed to eradicate non-native vegetation, the first step in every attempt to establish a native plant garden.  California State law does not require pesticide application notices if the manufacturer of the herbicide claims that their product will dry within 24 hours.

Herbicides used to eradicate non-native plants

In 2014, the California Invasive Plant Council conducted a survey of 100 land managers to determine what methods they use to kill the plants they consider “invasive.”  The result of that survey was a wakeup call to those who visit our parks and open spaces.  62% of land managers reported that they frequently use herbicides to control “invasive” plants.  10% said they always used herbicides.  Only 6% said they never use herbicide.  Round Up (glyphosate) is used by virtually all (99%) of the land managers who use herbicides.  Garlon (triclopyr) is used by 74% of those who use herbicide.

Pesticide use by land managers in California. Source California Invasive Plant Council

Land managers in the Bay Area use several other herbicides in addition to Garlon and Round Up.  Products with the active ingredient imazapyr (such as Polaris) are often used, most notably to kill non-native spartina marsh grass.  Locally, the San Francisco Estuary Invasive Spartina Project (ISP) “defines a need for a zero tolerance threshold on invasive Spartina in the San Francisco Bay.” 2,000 acres have been repeatedly sprayed with herbicides on East and West sides of the San Francisco Bay since the project began.  The result of this project has been bare mud where the imazapyr was aerial sprayed from helicopters the first few years of the project with annual spot spraying continuing 15 years later.  Imazapyr is very mobile and persistent in the soil.  That is the probable reason why attempts to replace the non-native species with the native species were unsuccessful. The loss of both native and non-native marsh grass has eliminated the nesting habitat of the endangered Ridgway rail, decimating the small population of this endangered bird in the Bay Area.

Pesticide Application Notice, Heron’s Head, 2012

Aminopyralid (brand name Milestone) is also used.  Although it is considered less toxic than other herbicides, it is the most mobile and persistent in the soil.  New York State banned the sale of Milestone because of concern about contaminating ground water.

With this knowledge of widespread use of herbicides by land managers, we followed up with specific land managers in the Bay Area to determine the scale of local herbicide use.  East Bay Regional Park District significantly reduced their use of Round Up for facilities maintenance in 2018, in response to the public’s concerns after multi-million dollar product liability settlements of lawsuits from users who were deathly ill after using glyphosate products.  In 2019, the Park District announced that it would phase out the use of Round Up in picnic areas, camp grounds, parking lots, and paved trails.

Source: East Bay Regional Park District

At the same time, the Park District restated its commitment to using herbicide to control plants they consider “invasive.”  Unfortunately, the Park District’s use of herbicide for “resource management projects” has skyrocketed and is by far its greatest use of herbicides.  “Resource management project” is the euphemism the Park District uses for its native plant “restorations” that begin by eradicating non-native vegetation such as spartina marsh grass and 65 other plant species.

These trends in pesticides used by East Bay Regional Park District continued in 2019.  Glyphosate use continued to decline by 82% since reduction strategies began in 2016.  Use of Garlon (active ingredient triclopyr) to control resprouts of non-native trees and shrubs increased 23% since 2017.  Use of Polaris (active ingredient imazapyr) to eradicate non-native spartina marsh grass increased 71% since 2017.  “Resource management projects” have been renamed “ecological function.”

San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department (SFRPD) reduced use of herbicide briefly in 2016, after glyphosate was classified as a probable carcinogen.  However, herbicide use has since increased, particularly in the 32 designated “natural areas” where SFRPD is attempting to “restore” native plants by eradicating non-native plants. In 2019, SFRPD applied herbicides 243 times, the most since 2013.  Of these, 144 applications were in the so-called “natural areas” (this includes properties of the Public Utility Commission, San Francisco’s water supplier, managed in the same way; i.e., eradicating plants they don’t like).  Though the “natural areas” are only a quarter of total city park acres in San Francisco, nearly half the herbicides measured by volume of active ingredient were used in those areas.

Data source: San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department. Graphic by San Francisco Forest Alliance

San Francisco’s Parks Department has been using herbicides in these areas for over 20 years.  Plants that are repeatedly sprayed with herbicides eventually develop resistance to the herbicide, just as over use of antibiotics has resulted in many bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.

Spraying Garlon on Twin Peaks in San Francisco, February 2011

UC Berkeley recently announced a temporary ban on the use of glyphosate on playing fields and similar landscaped areas.  The use of glyphosate to kill non-native plants considered “invasive” was specifically exempted from UC’s temporary ban.

The more pressure the public puts on land managers to restrict the use of herbicides, the more vociferous native plant advocates have become in defense of herbicides.  In October 2017, California Invasive Plant Council published a position statement regarding glyphosate that justified the continued use of glyphosate, despite its classification as a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization.

Mounting public pressure to ban the use of glyphosate has also pushed land managers to try newer herbicides as substitutes (e.g., Axxe, Lifeline, Clearcast).  Less is known about these products because less testing has been done on them and we have less experience with them.  It took nearly 40 years to learn how dangerous glyphosate is!

Why are we concerned about herbicides?

The World Health Organization classified glyphosate (the active ingredient in Round Up) as a probable human carcinogen in 2015.  That decision suddenly and radically altered the playing field for the use of glyphosate, which is the most heavily used of all herbicides.

Since that decision was made, many countries have issued outright bans on glyphosate, imposed restrictions on its use or have issued statements of intention to ban or restrict glyphosate-based herbicides. Countless US states and cities have also adopted such restrictions. Locally, the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) made a commitment to not using pesticides—including glyphosate—in 2015.  MMWD had stopped using pesticides in 2005 in response to the public’s objections, but engaged in a long process of evaluating the risk of continuing use that resulted in a permanent ban in 2015.

Several jury trials have awarded plaintiffs millions of dollars as compensation for their terminal medical conditions that were successfully attributed to their use of glyphosate products by product liability lawsuits. There are an estimated 125,000 product liability lawsuits in the US against glyphosate awaiting trial. 

In 2020, plaintiffs in a class-action suit against Monsanto alleging that it falsely advertised that the active ingredient in Roundup only affects plants were awarded $39.5 million.  The settlement also requires that the inaccurate claim be removed from the labels of all glyphosate products: “…[plaintiff] says Monsanto falsely claimed through its labeling that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, targets an enzyme that is only found in plants and would therefore not affect people or pets. According to the suit, that enzyme is in fact found in people and pets and is critical to maintaining the immune system, digestion and brain function.”

It took lawsuits to establish the toxicity of glyphosate because the “studies” that are used to approve the use of pesticides in the US are done by the manufacturers of pesticides.  The studies are manipulated, often with the active participation of government employees who are responsible for regulating dangerous chemicals.  The lawsuits succeeded by revealing the fraudulent studies used to exonerate glyphosate.

What little research is done on the effect of pesticides on wildlife indicates that pesticides are equally toxic to animals.  New research finds that western monarch milkweed habitat contains a “ubiquity of pesticides” that are likely contributing to the decline of the iconic species:  “’We expected to find some pesticides in these plants, but we were rather surprised by the depth and extent of the contamination,’ said Matt Forister, PhD, a butterfly expert, biology professor at the University of Nevada, Reno and co-author of the paper…’From roadsides, from yards, from wildlife refuges, even from plants bought at stores—doesn’t matter from where—it’s all loaded with chemicals. We have previously suggested that pesticides are involved in the decline of low elevation butterflies in California, but the ubiquity and diversity of pesticides we found in these milkweeds was a surprise,’ Dr. Forister said.”

Damage to the environment

In addition to harming humans and other animals, herbicides used by native plant “restorations” are damaging the soil, undoubtedly contributing to the failure to successfully establish native plants. (1)

  • Both glyphosate (Round Up) and triclopyr (Garlon) are known to kill mycorrhizal fungi that live on the roots of plants and trees, facilitating the transfer of moisture and nutrients from the soil to the plants.  The absence of mycorrhizal fungi makes plants more vulnerable to drought because they are less able to obtain the water they need to survive.
  • Glyphosate is known to bind minerals in the soil, making the soil impenetrable to water and plants more vulnerable to drought.
  • Both glyphosate and triclopyr also kill microbes in the soil that contribute to the health of soil by breaking down leaf litter into nutrients that feed plants.
  • Because herbicides are mobile in the soil and the roots of plants and trees are often intertwined, non-target plants are often harmed or killed. 
Pesticides kill the soil food web.

Despite knowing that glyphosate probably causes cancer in humans and that many herbicides cause significant environmental damage, native plant advocates continue to push land managers to use toxic chemicals to kill non-native plants and trees.  They do so because herbicides are the cheapest method of eradicating vegetation.  They do not have the person-power to eradicate all the vegetation that is being killed by herbicides.  Using herbicides enables native plant advocates to claim larger areas of parkland and open space than they would be able to without using herbicides.


(1) Montellano, et.al., “Mind the microbes: below-ground effects of herbicides used for managing invasive plants,” Dispatch, newsletter of California Invasive Plant Council, Winter-Spring 2019-2020.

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