A Greener Place to Play
Pesticide-free parks take root in Eugene
BY KATIE LEWIS
When celandine, an invasive low-growing perennial, began encroaching on the section of Spring Creek that skirts Awbrey Park, landscaping crews had to stop and think. Tough invasive species like celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) represent one of the few cases when the crews reach for herbicides. But this popular Santa Clara park was recently designated pesticide-free. After brainstorming, the crew devised a non-toxic solution: The affected areas were burned in two stages several months apart. The effectiveness of this tactic will not be evident until the winter, which is when the plant is most active.
Awbrey Park was one of five parks included in a one-year pesticide-free pilot program implemented in June 2006 by Eugene Parks and Open Space and the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP), a nonprofit based in Eugene. For the parks department, this meant rethinking management strategies in a more sustainable way. For park patrons, particularly the scores of children and pets who happen to be most susceptible to toxins, it’s a breath of fresh air. And decreasing chemical use in public green space not only minimizes health risks for park users but also sends less toxic runoff into local waterways, like Spring Creek.
The pilot included neighborhood parks in five of the six city park districts: Awbrey Park, Berkeley Park, Gilbert Park, Scobert Gardens and Shadow Wood Park. All are relatively small parks (Awbrey is the largest) and in total comprise 10.24 acres of the city’s 1,025 acres of park lands (that total includes natural areas in parks with some developed acres). “Our goal in the first year was to take the biggest step we could with the resources we had,” explains Kevin Finney, park operations manager.
The five parks have served as a testing ground for sustainable landscaping practices such as propane-powered flame weeders, mulching and hand weeding, all of which necessitate added time and labor from grounds crews. “We are aware that pesticides are cheap and quick,” says Megan Kemple, public education coordinator for NCAP. “However, the long-term costs to the environment and human health are not incorporated.”
Finney reports that landscaping crews adapted to the new management techniques smoothly. “The crew has a very high aesthetic, and they are under increased pressure: Park lands have expanded but the funding hasn’t increased as fast,” Finney says. “Overall, they see the benefits of the program and have been positive about changes.”
Six months into the pilot program, the parks department lost access to Waipuna Hot Foam, an effective non-toxic method for curbing the spread of weeds. The foam is derived from sugars in coconut and corn. Finney continues to seek innovative technology with a level of effectiveness comparable to hot foam. Though methods such as hand weeding are very effective, they are impractical for larger applications.
In part, the management strategy has relied on shifting aesthetic expectations to tolerate the presence of more broadleaf and slightly taller grasses in parks. The prototypical perfectly manicured jade green lawn is likely laced with a bevy of harmful chemicals.
And the movement towards a more natural appearance does not appear perceptible to park patrons thus far. “We haven’t noticed any changes in the number of bugs or weeds in the last year,” says Tom Lindskog, a Santa Clara resident. Lindskog and his wife, Houng, live within walking distance of Awbrey Park and average three to four visits per week with their two young children during the summer. “I definitely think the fewer chemicals they can use, the better.”
The most challenging areas from a management standpoint are the areas that can’t be reached with a mower, such as lampposts, fence lines, tree wells and sign bottoms. Controlling invasive species, particularly during park renovations and in natural areas, without chemical means proves even thornier. In fact, Finney estimates that 90 percent of herbicide usage occurs during park development and renovation to clear out invasive species. “The most important reason to keep herbicides in the toolbox is invasive species because they have the potential to cause so much habitat destruction,” he explains.
In 2006, the city used 145.1 pounds of herbicides, including 132.6 pounds of glyphosate and 9.2 pounds of trichlopyr, according to the city’s Toxics Right-to-Know database. Glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) is use primarily to control invasives such as Himalayan blackberry, false brome and knotweeds in natural resource areas as well as weeds in shrub beds, medians, tree wells and fence lines. Trichlopyr (brand name Garlon) is used to control woody invasives and broadleaf invasives in natural resource areas, according to Finney.
By scaling back the use of chemicals in public spaces and seeking healthier alternatives, Eugene’s program mirrors parallel efforts in parks throughout the Pacific Northwest and nationwide. NCAP launched a three-year pilot program in three city parks in Portland in 2004. Seattle and Bozeman and Helena, Mont., have implemented similar programs in recent years. In Lawrence, Kan., 34 of the city’s 52 parks are pesticide-free. Springfield is currently mulling over ways to decrease pesticide usage and hopes to implement a pesticide-free pilot program within the next year, according to Joel Miller, Park Services Division director for Willamalane Parks Department.
Many sites rely on the aid of community volunteers to sustain pesticide-free parks; however, Eugene elected not to use volunteers during the first year. Kemple explains that there are latent costs inferred by engaging volunteers, including staff time to coordinate groups and supplying tools.
The growing movement to create non-toxic community space to play and rejuvenate hinges on education — of both the public and parks maintenance personnel. This is where NCAP comes in. The organization recently received a one-year grant from the Western Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Center for nearly $30,000 to provide resources to facilitate peer-to-peer exchange of information, including sustainable management techniques, among parks in the Pacific Northwest.
Eugene is among the 20 cities involved in NCAP’s grant and will continue managing the five pilot sites sans chemicals. Brewer Park, in the city’s sixth park district, will likely be added to the program next spring. (Brewer was slated to participate in the pilot but was removed the due to extensive renovations that implied the possible use of herbicides.)
Expansion to additional local parks is contingent on the level of community support, which the city will gauge via communication from neighborhood associations. If a consensus regarding a potential park is reached at the neighborhood level, the city will review the request and identify the additional resources necessary. “If a very energetic neighborhood association stepped forward and were well organized and volunteered to take care of weeding for a particular park, we would certainly not turn away the help,” Finney says.
The parks department will also consider budget constraints associated with expansion of the program. “In the near future, we’ll have to be conservative about the resources we have available over the next couple of years,” Finney says.
NCAP continues to monitor the program and serve as a resource for the parks department and the community. “We would like to see all of Eugene’s parks become pesticide-free,” Kemple says. “We are really happy with the first step, and we would like to see the program grow in a way that makes sense in the long term and that the park staff supports.”
For more information on pesticide-free parks, contact Kevin Finney at 682-4809 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Megan Kemple at email@example.com or talk with your neighborhood association.
Current Pesticide Policy for the City of Eugene
This June, the city finalized an official Integrated Pest Management (IPM) document that outlines herbicide use and posting policies as well as details on treatment and assessment of usage. The parks department has practiced IPM, which uses chemical methods as a last resort for weed control, unofficially for 20-plus years. Initiating the pesticide-free pilot program increased the sustainability of management practices. “The pilot program has provided us with an opportunity to revisit and rethink our personal values as an organization in a sustainable sense,” Finney says. “One of our goals is to move away from the maintenance use of herbicides as much as possible.”
Herbicides (the city doesn’t use insecticides or fungicides) are used as a controlled approach rather than an ongoing management policy. For example, the city does not spray clover and tolerates more broadleaf plants. Additionally, the city does not spray in playgrounds, dog parks or the school sites they manage (or within 25 to 50 feet of any of these sites).
In May 2007, a spray notification policy was reinstated. Signs are posted at least 24 hours before and after spraying in park areas. The signs include the date and time of application, the herbicide used and the reason as well as contact information. Applicators are state-licensed and always use a blue dye when spraying.