Cody Reinheimer on Parks are for People and Pets, Not Poison
Guest Opinion: Cody Reinheimer on Parks are for People and Pets, Not Poison
A public park is exactly that—a place where the public can park themselves in the grass and relax, or play with their children and pets, enjoying outside time in a safe and clean environment. We are lucky to have so many public parks and open spaces in Durango. I believe our parks system is a well-utilized asset to the community. My family and I are grateful the city has made parks, river-trails, and public access to open spaces priorities.
As I enjoyed time with my daughter and her friends playing at public parks, I began to have questions about how the parks were being managed. What do those yellow flags really indicate? Why are the men spraying chemicals on the grass dressed in biohazard suits with thick rubber boots and gloves? Why do the chemicals emit noxious smells and set off my asthma? How do I feel about seeing children and pets rolling around on grass treated with pesticides? I decided to play it safe and began going to Brookside Park, the small park next to Junction Creek, which had been chemical-free for many years. I also began to educate myself, and I got involved with an advocacy group. Here is what I learned.
ARE CHEMICALS SAFE?
This can be a highly contentious question. The EPA admits, “There is general agreement that prevention of pesticide poisoning remains a much surer path to safety and health than reliance on treatment.” In 2013, medical professionals from the American Academy of Pediatrics affirmed, “…evidence demonstrates associations between early life exposure to pesticides and pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems.” In 2015, the Harvard School of Public Health published findings of 16 separate studies conducted over the past 23 years, concluding, “A significant increase in risk of leukemia was associated with herbicide exposure.”
To me, these are clear indications that medical science is warning us about the inherent risks of exposure to pesticides, especially for our children. More information on this subject can be found in the links below.
Research has also addressed the assumption many of us have had regarding the safety of grass once the chemicals dry up or are watered in. The reality is that those chemical compounds are present long after they have “dried” and are clearly there in high levels as long as weeds are not growing. They do not decompose. They are only diluted by water and rain, eventually making their way to the groundwater, rivers, and drinking water. The City of Durango hires a private contractor who sprays chemicals that are internationally known to be toxic, including 2-4-D and Round Up, the latter containing glyphosates, which have been linked with an assortment of serious health disorders, and have been banned in many countries. A U.S. study cited by the Canadian Environmental Health Atlas states, “…extremely low levels of toxins can impact brain development (in children) . . . there is no safe level of exposure.”
WHO DO OUR PARKS SERVE?
Public parks are intended for use by the public, are maintained by the Parks and Recreation Department funded with public money, and are directed by the publicly elected City Council. Becoming aware of the dangers of pesticide use at our public parks caused great alarm for me as a parent. When kids play, they roll and fall, coming into extensive physical contact with the grass that has been saturated in pesticides. I have even heard of kids having “grass-eating contests.” While adults don’t generally engage in this type of play, their pets sure do. Dogs roll in the grass, put their snouts in it, and track those pesticides into homes.
THE PUBLIC PROCESS
The advocacy group I joined is called Organic Parks Durango, comprised of local parents, professionals, and medical practitioners. It is our mission to advocate for and celebrate organic land stewardship within the City of Durango. This same group was responsible for helping the Parks and Recreation Department designate Brookside Park as a chemical-free park. We tried working with the Parks Department to create more chemical-free parks, but our concerns were not addressed as we had hoped. Though we had minimal political leverage, overwhelming community support helped us gather the signatures needed for an initiative on the 2012 ballot. The initiative called for a 100 percent organic approach to public lands management, including parks, open spaces, and the golf course. City officials were concerned with the extensiveness of the plan and asked us to negotiate. Obliging, we worked with the City on a compromise that was agreeable to all involved—a phased approach, ensuring the public parks would eventually become organically managed and leaving the golf course and open spaces as is.
On September 4, 2012, City Council passed a resolution establishing the Organically Managed Lands Program for the City of Durango. The resolution states, “The goal of the City of Durango Organically Managed Lands Program is to extend organic management practices to all City lands and to minimize the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on such lands,” and also clearly calls for, “…the assistance and advice of the expert consultant(s) engaged by the City.” Chip Osborne, the country’s foremost expert on helping municipalities convert from chemical to organic systems, was hired for a one-year contract to help Durango make the transition.
BUT WHAT ABOUT COST?
With an organic program, we nurture the soil and support the grass, rather than attack the weeds and remain dependent on synthetic fertilizers. With proper implementation, an organic program requires less input over time. According to the non-profit Grassroots Environmental Education, within three years an organic program can cost less than a chemical program.
In Durango, Osborne’s recommendation for year two was a 15 percent cost decrease. Conversely, Parks and Recreation recommended a $20,000 increase for year two. When the Parks Department threatened to abort the Organically Managed Lands Program because of cost barriers in purchasing equipment, Organic Parks Durango raised $51,000 to help buy a special truck to spray organic liquid compost. In a recent conversation, Osborne informed Organic Parks Durango that the products he recommends have come down in cost by 50 percent since 2013.
At the end of his yearlong contract, Osborne made it clear that he would be available for questions from Parks and Recreation, free of charge. He never heard from them.
WHY NOT EMBRACE EXPERTISE?
Chip Osborne has a track record that speaks for itself (see link below). He has helped many cities make the transition, including: Boulder, CO; Portland, OR; Riverhead, NY; Fairfield, CA; and Chicago, IL. Can Durango join the ranks of these model cities, leading the way in a trend sweeping the nation? Many in our community think so.
With Osborne’s expertise available, why has the program in Durango been characterized as a failure by our Parks and Recreation Department, with the recommendation that the program be cut because of poor results and high costs? Why do our City’s budget numbers involve high costs when Osborne’s involve a cost savings? Why have parks like Needham and Fanto been characterized as failures when Osborne’s program has improved the turf despite daily trampling from school children? Why was Riverview dropped from the program in 2013 following a three-day rain event, during which time back-to-back soccer games were not rescheduled? Why was the organic program cited as a reason for these soccer fields’ deficiencies?
ACCOUNTABILITY TO THE CITIZENS
The mixed results of the first three years of the program along with the Parks and Recreation Director’s continued resolve to cut parks from the Organically Managed Lands Program leads Organic Parks Durango to advocate that City Council appoint an Organic Lands Manager to carry out the Organically Managed Lands Program. We would like to see a qualified Natural Turf Specialist employed or contracted by the city to carry out phase two of the program. It is essential to have someone leading the program who is qualified and committed to seeing the program through to success. It is important that the wishes of the community and City Council’s 2012 resolution are carried out, delivering phased conversion of all parks in Durango to organic management.
Organic Parks Durango would like to see the program move forward and retain all eight parks in the program, while adding more acreage to the program and bringing the organic program up to a total of one-third of total park acreage. Our highest priority for parks to be added are schools, playgrounds, and parks adjacent to waterways. In alignment with literature from the Green Industries of Colorado, distributed by the Parks and Recreation Director, we would also like to see greater emphasis on Best Management Practices (such as aeration, fertilization, mowing, and irrigation) at conventional parks, and more detailed analysis of each individual park being considered for pesticide application, rather than blanket applications twice a year.
It has always has been our intention to work with the city towards mutually beneficial solutions that meet safety requirements and standards for our parks. It is our belief that the City’s standards should be set with regard to the health and safety of park users, especially children, first and foremost. Even with a strict threshold of weed intolerance, there will always be some bio-diversity, but is that a bad thing? I have fond childhood memories of picking dandelions and searching for four-leaf clovers in the grass. Aren’t these parks designed for children?
Turf management will always pose some challenges, such as bare spots, but there are always solutions, like re-seeding, that do not require chemical application.
I hope the reader can see that it is possible to have safe, fun, and beautiful parks of thick rolling green grass that are organically managed and provide cost savings over time. Going organic is the responsible trend, and the Organically Managed Lands Program provides the path to chemical and pesticide free park management, which means better health for our park users, our community and our environment.
By Cody Reinheimer