Interview with Cathy Metz – Director of Parks and Recreation
Q & A with Cathy Metz
Cathy Metz has served the City of Durango as Parks and Recreation Director for 20 years. The Parks and Recreation Department is nationally accredited by the Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies. Under her leadership, the Parks and Recreation Department has earned many accolades, including the National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in the Field of Parks and Recreation Management, presented by the National Recreation and Park Association.
The following is an interview between Cathy Metz and me, conducted in person and via email for follow-up questions. It has been edited for length.
Melissa Youssef (MY): Thank you for sitting down with me. I appreciate that you have a lot on your plate. One of the biggest issues facing the community and the Parks and Recreation Department right now is the question of organic parks management. What do you think the successes and failures have been of this trial period?
Cathy Metz (CM): One area of success has been the response of the City in listening to and working with the community members who are concerned about the use of synthetic fertilizers and weed control in City parks. The City and organic parks advocates mutually agreed to an organic park turf management program and the City implemented the program methodically and carefully. The City was responsive to community concerns, dedicating a lot of resources to support the program, and Parks staff worked hard to make it work. The City, in collaboration with the organic parks advocates, put effort into finding a qualified consultant, and we followed his recommendations. The Parks and Recreation Department has heard that the responsiveness of the City has been appreciated and regarded as positive by the organic parks advocates.
What has not gone well: the outcome of the parks treated organically since 2013, when the program began under the advice of a qualified consultant. The organically managed parks simply have more weeds and the turf is thin and less resilient. When the program began, these parks had approximately five percent weed pressure and today the weed pressure is dramatically higher. Despite organic treatment, the City cannot achieve the turf quality in the organic parks to a similar level as those that are treated with the conventional program.
The City wants to be careful to not let parks in the organic program get to such disrepair that they have to be rescued. In that case, conventional practices would be required to re-establish the quality of the turf, which can be costly.
MY: Some organic advocates suggest that weeds aren’t such a critical problem. What is your response?
CM: The success of the program is really a matter of perspective. The organic park advocates believe that weeds can be mowed and that weeds are acceptable in a higher concentration in turf. Weeds do pose a problem, however, particularly when those parks are used for athletic facilities. Bare spots and broadleaf weeds can be slick, opening up risks to slipping and injuries for users. The City has observed that it is problematic for athletic facilities to be treated organically.
In 2013 all nine parks initially in the program contained approximately five percent weeds. When the City utilizes conventional methods, Parks staff are able to stabilize the weed pressure to provide high-quality and safe turf. With organic methods, the City is observing much more clover, bind weed, plantain, dandelions and noxious weeds in the turf. Interestingly, clover indicates that there is not enough nutrients in the soil to support the grass.
MY: Is there a key factor that determines the success or failure of parks treated with organic methods?
CM: Yes. Heavy use parks and athletic fields have not done well under organic treatments.
MY: How do you respond to the argument that playing on the conventionally-treated grass can cause health risks?
CM: The City of Durango and the Parks and Recreation Department is very conscientious about the safety and welfare of residents. It’s our first priority. The Parks and Recreation Department did extensive research on conventional turf management practices because we were very concerned about the allegations of harm to children and dogs.
The City is aware that an excess of many commercially available compounds can cause cancer. Harmful effects of chemicals can have adverse impacts if inappropriately utilized. Therefore, Parks staff and hired licensed contractors strictly follow all of the proper procedures, protocols and use for all chemicals – organic or synthetic.
MY: From where did you pull most of your research?
CM: The Parks and Recreation Department staff researched several reliable and credible sources to obtain the proper information on the harmful effects of the synthetic fertilizers and weed control. Research was gathered from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Colorado Department of Agriculture, the La Plata County Weed Manager, Rod Cook and the Colorado State University Extension Specialist – Turf College of Agricultural Sciences.
Rod Cook was extremely helpful regarding human health factors and legal obligations (city and statewide) pertaining to weed control efforts. He provided information on widely used active ingredients, such as 2, 4-D in herbicides, and he referred the City to sites for further research. Rod also advised that any chemical used should be tested and certified as safe – whether organic or synthetically produced.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture regulates chemical use and application methodology in the state and licenses applicators to apply herbicides. Contractors hired by the City use only chemicals that are approved by the both EPA and the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
The Parks and Recreation Department completed a lot of research through the EPA since the EPA is the regulatory authority and authorizes chemicals for public use. There is no credible research that documents synthetic fertilizers are harmful to human and animal health.
MY: You mentioned 2, 4-D, which is a point of concern for many. What did you learn?
CM: 2, 4-D is the active component in herbicides that is most concerning to organic park advocates. It is used in agriculture for food production, so it’s highly regulated and has been studied extensively. A United States Department of Agriculture Study reviewed the 2, 4-D epidemiology and toxicology data and concluded after decades of extensive use that 2, 4-D herbicides are low in toxicity to humans and animals, and no scientifically documented health risks, either acute or chronic, exist from approved uses of 2, 4-D. It appears the concerns that people are expressing specific to 2, 4-D are not scientifically supported and the herbicides used by approved applicators in City parks are safe.
The City understands the public’s concern that repeated exposure of low doses causes problems. There are a lot of chemicals in our society that can have harmful effects. If chemicals are not managed appropriately, they can be harmful. That is why there are standards and protocols established that Parks staff and licensed contractors follow. All products on the market have directions on how to properly use them and the City follows those requirements. Parks staff read the material safety data sheets and take all recommended precautions. That is standard in the industry for use of any chemicals.
The City uses certified and tested products in turf management and follows the correct application rate. Herbicides such as 2, 4-D are absorbed by the grass and are not flowing into the river or harming the environment. The conventional turf management practices implemented by Parks staff are not harmful to members of the community or children or pets or wildlife. According to the 2, 4-D website at www.24d.org, 2, 4-D was introduced in 1946 and it is the most widely used herbicide in the world. The EPA would remove this produce from public use if it were scientifically proven that it is harmful to human health.
MY: Tell us about the soil study.
CM: The Parks and Recreation Department completed soil tests this year with a qualified laboratory to conduct a biological analysis to answer the question of whether the conventional turf management program was sterilizing the soil and killing beneficial soil microbes. The soil tests were done at Santa Rita Park (not in the organic program) and Schneider Park (in the organic program). The soil report indicated that the health of the soil at Schneider Park was not well balanced and was too fungal for turf. In contrast, the Santa Rita Park test reported the soil is correctly balanced fungal and bacterial biomass for turf. So the assertion that the City’s conventional turf management program is killing microbes and sterilizing the soil is false.
The City can observe that parks that have been treated with conventional methods have a very strong, healthy stand of grass. Whereas at Schneider Park, there is a lot of clover and the soil is not properly balanced for turf. After three years in the organic program the parks are struggling and the soil is not healthier in these organically managed parks.
MY: Are you hearing from anyone in the community who supports the conventional management?
CM: The Parks and Recreation Department has heard recent complaints about the athletic fields at Folsom Park, Fanto Park and Needham Park. Early in the organic program, there were complaints about the turf at Riverview Sports Complex, and this site was subsequently removed from the organic program. Community members have expressed concern that the condition of the grass is not safe for the sports played by children at these locations. Kids are having problems because of the condition of the grass, and concerned parents ask if there is something the City can do to make the grass better, thicker and healthier. While the Parks and Recreation Department has heard parent concerns for children participating in City programs, we have heard concerns expressed in much higher numbers from those participating in club sports..
MY: You’ve said that how a park looks is a factor in your recommendation.
CM: Aesthetics are definitely a consideration and quality public parks are important to the economic vitality of our community. The City of Durango economy is diverse and tourism is a factor as a result of all the wonderful outdoor recreation activities available here. For example, athletes and their families come from all over the region to play soccer at the annual Durango Shootout, and the quality of the turf is a crucial draw for this youth sports tournament. Participants and their families spend money in local restaurants and hotels. Also, home values have been documented to be higher because of the proximity to an attractive park. Another issue to consider is that healthy turf covers dirt, reduces dust and helps keep the air clean by absorbing pollutants. Green spaces also cleanse stormwater.
MY: How about the costs over the longterm? Taking materials and labor into consideration, which program (organic or synthetic) is expected to be more cost effective?
CM: Based upon the data collected and analyzed by the City, the conventional management of parks is more cost effective. Across the United States, conventional park management is the most frequently implemented method to ensure safe and quality public parks.
MY: I’d like to give you the opportunity to address a point in Cody Reinheimer’s Guest Opinion about costs. Osborne Organics suggested a 15 percent cost decrease in year two of the trial, while Parks and Recreation suggested a $20,000 increase for year two. Can you explain the discrepancy?
CM: The cost estimates for the Organic Park Program provided by the consultant, Osborne Organics, and referenced in Cody’s Guest Opinion, were projections and not actual figures. The actual cost of the Organic Park Program compared to conventional management practices was documented by the Parks and Recreation Department in 2016 to be $22,545 higher for the Organic Park Program than if these same parks were conventionally managed. This higher cost was a result of $12,541 in organic materials and $10,004 in labor.
MY: Your department is recommending that three parks transition out of the organics program and back to conventional management. Can you please explain your selection?
CM: City staff are recommending the rescue of three high-use parks to restore the health of the turf using conventional management practices, similar to what was previously completed at Riverview Sports Complex:
1) Folsom Park is used for baseball and soccer. There is currently a higher than normal weed pressure and the sports fields are becoming unsafe for play.
2) Needham Park is a high-use facility for soccer and play throughout every school day, and there are bare spots and a high concentration of weeds on the playing field creating a hazard.
3) Fanto Park is also a high-use park near an elementary school that is used for a variety of turf sports, with bare spots and a high concentration of weeds on the playing field creating a hazard.
MY: This recommendation seems to diverge from Organic Parks Durango’s hope that, “Our highest priority for parks to be added are schools, playgrounds, and parks adjacent to waterways.” Can you comment?
CM: The City of Durango Parks and Recreation Department’s highest priority is to provide a system of parks, open space, trails and recreation facilities that are safe for all users. All conventionally managed and organic parks are safe and the chemicals used have been tested and approved for use in turf management by the City and/or licensed contractors.
The City is presently considering removal of Needham Park and Fanto Park from the organic program. Both of these parks are similar to Riverview Sports Complex (which was removed from the organic program in year one) in that they need to be rescued and returned to conventional management for the safety of the children. The consultant acknowledged that high use organic parks may need to be rescued. At Riverview Sports Complex, the consultant recommended that in addition to the organic chemicals, the City should also use synthetic fertilizers. It was evident to the City and the consultant that the grass could not withstand the high use and recover quickly enough to provide a safe playing field with only organic chemicals. Since Riverview Sports Complex was deemed not sustainable in the organic program, it was returned to conventional management practices.
MY: Is it fair to summarize that the recommendation to reduce the organic program comes down to labor costs, weeds, sports concerns (bare spots, etc.) and general aesthetics?
CM: The Organic Park Program has completed the three-year trial. According to the resolution, which established the program, it is time to evaluate the efficacy of the program. The recommendation of City staff to decrease the number of parks in the organic program is directly related to the results of the program. Organic parks are more costly to maintain, have higher weed pressure, and the turf may require a costly rescue procedure in the future. The current recommendation is to remove the high-use parks that are used as athletic fields, including Fanto Park, Needham Park and Folsom Park. The recommendation also acknowledges the desire of some City residents to have a choice to use an organically managed park. The following five parks are recommended to be continued in a revised organic program to improve upon the current results: Pioneer Park, Brookside Park, Schneider Park, Riverfront Park and Iris Park. Furthermore, the City is exploring a blended program of organic and conventional turf management of Folsom Park to evaluate whether this approach could be utilized at other park sites in the future, and to implement a more sustainable alternative turf management program.
MY: Anything else you’d like to add?
CM: When there are differences in opinion about an issue, it can become contentious. The City recognizes that many residents have the same goal, which is to have healthy and welcoming parks for everyone. The difference is what people believe is the best way to achieve this goal. Local residents have a difference in that opinion, but there is significant common ground. The City of Durango values the environment, as well as the health and well-being of local residents. The Parks and Recreation Department will continue to work with all members of the community to provide quality, safe and healthy parks.