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Taking a stand: Maggy Howe, seen with her 5-year-old son Zane, says she will resist any attempt to enforce a pesticide spraying order near her home.

In the Air

Threat of widespread pesticide spraying sparks resistance

By Tara Treasurefield

FIVE-YEAR-OLD Zane Howe, who has raised painted-lady butterflies since he was 2, says that butterflies are his best friends and believes that their lives are as valuable as his. When his "friends" unfold their wings for the first time, he releases them into his family's organic garden outside of Occidental. But Zane's mother, Maggy Howe, is convinced that both Zane and his butterflies are in danger, as pesticides may soon be sprayed in residential areas of Sonoma County to control the glassy-winged sharpshooter, an insect that carries the deadly-to-vineyards Pierce's disease.

Is this woman nuts? Didn't the local daily run an article last week titled "State Rejects Wine Pest Sprays, Quarantines"? Well, yeah. But those who read the article carefully know that the headline is only half true: Bill Lyons Jr., secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, has rejected quarantines, but he has not rejected pesticides, or even the possibility of enforced aerial spraying to control the pest.

In fact, chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxin banned last month by the Environmental Protection Agency for residential use, was sprayed recently by aircraft in Riverside County on a 260-acre orange grove adjacent to a housing development. In Porterville and Fresno, two areas where the pest has caused extensive crop damage, another powerful neurotoxin, Sevin, was sprayed on the ground in residential areas.

"Zane's current batch of butterflies is in the cocoon stage," Maggy Howe says. "He's given names to all of them. How do you explain to a 5-year-old what's going to happen to his butterflies--or what did happen to them?"

Howe is also concerned about her son's health. "You can cover the sandbox, but there's no guarantee that the pesticide won't get on the child's toys," she says. "How do you wash it off? Can you wash it off? As a mother, I am completely outraged."

She is among a growing number of residents who believe that their lives--and, in some cases, livelihoods--may be placed in jeopardy by enforced spraying against the pest. The situation has escalated in recent weeks, owing to pressure from the federal government and the multibillion-dollar wine industry, laying the groundwork for political action and fomenting talk of civil disobedience.

"The wine industry has brought this on itself," says Brock Dolman, a biologist at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, "through unsustainable vineyard practices. Monocropping, excessive irrigation, and overuse of chemicals make vineyards vulnerable to the sharpshooter and other pests."

Organic farmer Bob Cannard, who will lose his livelihood if his property is sprayed, thinks that public officials are being short-sighted in their response. "Moving directly to the full-kill approach is our cultural response," he says. "This makes a lot of money for those that do the killing, and that's what they're into."

Howe, Dolman, and Cannard are among a considerable contingent of critics who say that state and county agricultural officials are not giving enough credence to alternatives to spraying. "It's ludicrous not to declare a quarantine," says Robin VanSickle, a nurse at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa. "The bugs didn't fly 500 miles to Northern California; they were transported in trucks--'Express Mail' for the bug. If you want to contain an insect, you don't put plants infested with it in garden centers for people to take home and disperse."

Still, the CDFA continues to allow shipments of nursery stock and grapes from infested areas. Glassy-winged sharpshooter egg casings have been discovered at two Sonoma County ornamental plant nurseries, yet officials argue that a quarantine would unfairly penalize nurseries.

"Government officials don't have their priorities straight. Above all, they should protect the health and welfare of our environment and communities," says first-time father of a newborn Sean Callaway. "The commerce of a particular industry, in this case wine grapes, should never take precedence over the health of a community and its ecosystem. Hundreds of citizens are now aware of the dangers of the chemicals being sprayed all around us. This is not acceptable, and we intend to put an end to it."

But why would the state endanger children, organic farms, and even butterflies? "The state has decided that business profits supersede the health or rights of its citizens," says Will Shonbrun, publisher of the Sonoma Valley Voice. "Californians are being forced to submit to the spraying of highly toxic pesticides on their property. As a private property owner, I consider this an invasion.

"As a private citizen, I consider it a usurpation of my right and my family's right not to be endangered by forced poisoning."

HE'S NOT ALONE in that sentiment. A couple of weeks ago, several Sonoma County residents spoke passionately at a Board of Supervisors' hearing to express their alarm over the possibility of aerial or ground spraying. A couple even defiantly told the supes that they will resist any attempt to enforce a pesticide-spraying order.

Now a group of county activists is preparing to organize civil disobedience training for those opposed to the spraying. Speaking for the Town Hall Coalition, an Occidental-based group that has fought vineyard expansion and related issues, Lynn Hamilton is inviting concerned citizens to plan actions to derail the "full-kill approach" at an upcoming pesticides forum. Speakers will include CDFA Secretary Lyons and Nick Frey of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association.

"We need to go to our state representatives, organize a demonstration, and start a petition saying we object to both ground and aerial spraying," says Hamilton, a former Sebastopol mayor who worked as a community organizer in South America before returning to the west county two years ago.

In the meantime, others have their own plans. "I have a 10-year-old daughter and a 75-year-old grandmother in my household," says Shonbrun. "I will not permit them to be put in harm's way through enforced home invasion and pesticide spraying for the sake of the wine industry. Others who oppose what I consider to be immoral and illegal government actions must decide what course of action to take, but I will resist and protect my family and property, regardless of the consequences."

Dolman says that the 10 people who own the OAEC's extensive organic farm "would have to have some very serious collective discussions about how to respond. I'd venture to guess that some resistance would be put forth to prevent any efforts to contaminate our property," he says.

VanSickle says she's not willing to be martyred on the altar of wine-industry profits. "They haven't sprayed me yet, and they'd better not try. Better the vines than me, my kid, my husband, my neighbors, my quail."

Maggy Howe agrees. "If they come to my door, I'll protest in any way I can," she says. "Civil disobedience is a possibility."

The Town Hall Coalition pesticide forum will be held on Thursday, July 27, at 7:30 p.m., at the Occidental Community Center, 3920 Bohemian Hwy., Occidental. 874-9110.

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From the July 20-26, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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