History of Organic Parks in Durango
Organic Park Management in Durango, Plus a Q&A with Cathy Metz, Parks and Recreation Director
Last week on “Your Front Seat,” guest contributor Cody Reinheimer wrote a blog post on Durango’s efforts with organic park management and the Organic Parks Durango organization. This week, I’ll begin with a summary and brief history of the topic. Then, I welcome Cathy Metz, Director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Durango, to share the department’s experience and recommendations regarding the program.
After a three-year trial run, the Organically Managed Lands Program in Durango is once again front and center in our community. At issue is whether the program should be continued at its current level, expanded or minimized. The success of the program itself is in question. As with so many issues that affect our community, the definition of success is nuanced and more complex than initially it would seem.
Brief History of the Organically Managed Lands Program
With informal citizen-led, city-supported experiments prior, 2012 was a turning point for organic lands management in Durango. In 2012, a group of local citizens formed Organic Parks Durango (OPD) to advocate for organic land management practices for parks and open spaces within the City. Initially, the group proposed a comprehensive ban on chemical (or synthetic) treatments, such as herbicides and pesticides, on all City lands. Enough signatures were obtained to submit the initiative to the 2012 ballot.
Recognizing that the initiative would compel a substantial, urgent and likely underfunded change in management practices, the City and Organic Parks Durango (OPD) negotiated a compromise. Instead of a ballot initiative, a resolution was passed to establish an organically managed lands program. The resolution allowed for a phased approach to implementing organic techniques and determined that selected parks would be used in a test program. The resolution allowed the City to “obtain the advice of expert consultants” and acknowledged that a “reasonable time frame” must be allowed before determining the success of such a program.
The City hired Organic Parks Durango recommended consultant Osborne Organics to advise on transitioning from a conventional synthetic-based management plan to an organic management plan. Based on Osborne Organics’ general recommendation, a trial-period of three years was agreed upon. The full report can be found online on the City of Durango website (http://www.durangogov.org/documentcenter/view/973)
The program officially kicked off in August 2013. Initially, nine local parks were slated for organic management. After park users – most notably sports teams that relied on the facility – lodged concerns about the quality and safety of the turf, the Riverview Sports Complex was removed from the program after one year. As of today, eight parks are still under organic management. Those parks are Pioneer, Brookside, Riverfront, Iris, Schneider, Needham, Fanto and Folsom.
Organic Management versus Conventional Management
At the most basic level, organic management forgoes synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides for organically-derived (non-synthetic or colloquially “chemical-free”) options. This includes, but is not limited to: applying organic, plant-based compounds for enrichment; manually removing weeds by hand or mower; finding alternative solutions to synthetic pesticides; and focusing on soil development and nutrient balance.
Organic and conventional practices both rely on mowing turf to certain heights, watering as needed, aeration and overseeding. The latter two practices are done more frequently under organic management than conventional.
Specifically, the organic chemicals applied via the Organic Parks program are OMNI-certified:
- Plant-based, water soluble Nitrogen (15-0-0)
- Soluble humic acid from decomposed organic matter
- Soluble potash from seaweed, kelp (0-0-15)
- Richlawn, organic granular (8-2-1)
Applications are typically made two times per year, when temperatures are above 50-degrees F.
Synthetic chemicals applied at parks managed via the conventional methods include:
- Fertilizer products include N-Sure, KTS Inorganic Salts, Ammonium Phosphate 10-34-0, Urea, Ferrous Sulfate Heptahydrate, 18-18-18, 20-10-20 and 28-0-0 UAN
- Weed control products include Vessel Broadleaf Herbicide and spot spray for specific weeds with Q4 Turf Herbicide, Curtail and Roundup
Applications of fertilizer and herbicide at conventionally-managed parks typically occur twice each year, spring and fall. The City contracts with a licensed, local contractor for these applications. Some low-use and residential parks without significant turf stress will only receive one application. High-use, sport-intensive facilities will receive additional applications throughout the year.
The relative safety of synthetic chemicals is to be debated. Some would argue the same for organic chemicals. Each side of the debate can back up its arguments with multiple studies from legitimate agencies. There are long-term questions that may not have concrete answers. Therefore at this stage, the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and organic chemicals becomes both a scientific and a philosophical argument.
The philosophical questions are equivalent to those we ask about the food we eat. Produce grown in conventional methods is approved by the FDA and deemed safe. While that’s sufficient peace of mind for many, some may choose to eat entirely organic. Others still may choose to buy a blend of organic and non-organic produce.
To move forward as a community, it can be assumed that there are two points not in debate:
- A vocal number of Durango residents prefer organic management for local parks, and
- The City’s concern for public safety and well-being is the top priority. In all cases, chemicals used in the park management are approved by national and state agencies and are within stringent safety standards.
Other factors that come into consideration while determining the success of a park management plan are: weed proliferation, aesthetics, safety, turf resiliency, turf health, usage restrictions and availability, economic impacts of high quality public parks, liability for potential hazards in the turf due to uneven surfaces and bare spots, impacts to the environment and wildlife due to invasive/noxious weeds, State and County regulations on noxious weed control, and costs.
Fiscally-speaking, the Parks and Recreation Department estimates that materials and maintenance for the eight organically managed parks will be $35,352 ($23,787 materials; $11,565 labor) for 2017. For comparison, the Department estimates costs for the same eight parks in a conventional (non-organic) management program would be $12,807 ($11,246 materials; $1,561 labor) for 2017. These costs only reflect the application of conventional turf management products versus organic chemicals in the current trial program and do not reflect additional costs to maintain City parks including mowing, trimming, irrigation and trash removal.
Editor’s note: Cody Reinheimer’s Guest Opinion indicated that costs have come down 50 percent for the recommended organic products. Cathy Metz confirmed that those lower costs are reflected in the 2017 estimated budget referenced above.
Current Status of Durango’s Organic Park Management Program
With three complete growing seasons under its belt, the Organic Park Management program is up for community review.
As Mr. Reinheimer noted in his Guest Opinion, OPD wants to see the program not only continued, but expanded. The organization advocates that parks free of synthetic chemicals are healthier options for our children, pets and community at large. At minimum, OPD is encouraging the City to prioritize parks closest to schools and waterways for organic management.
On behalf of the City of Durango, Cathy Metz, Director of Parks and Recreation, is recommending to City Council and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board that the organic park program continue with modifications. For reasons expanded upon in her blog post interview, Cathy Metz is recommending that Folsom, Needham and Fanto parks transition back to conventional management since these parks are heavily utilized for sports fields.
All City Council and Parks and Recreation Advisory Board Meetings are open to the public and interested members of the community are welcome to attend and have their voices heard.
There will be a Parks and Recreation Advisory Board meeting on January 11, 2017. Public comments are welcome as a point of agenda at the beginning of each meeting, as with all City Council officially posted meetings. On January 24, 2017, the City Council will meet for a Study Session and consult with City staff and members of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. Members of the public are welcome, though Study Sessions do not typically include opportunities for public comment.