Activists, residents pushing for pesticide-free parks

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When the City Council passed a resolution in August declaring Minneapolis a pollinator-friendly city, many of the activists and residents who urged the city to take action cheered a job well done, took a breath, and then moved on to what they considered the next step — eliminating pesticide use in the parks.

So far, that mission has been more difficult than they had anticipated.

Though it is commonly assumed Minneapolis’ city government runs the park system, it does not. Independently elected by voters, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) oversees they city’s 6,790 acres of parks, biking and walking paths, playgrounds, gardens, lakes, nature sanctuaries and the parkway system.

Further complicating things is state law stipulating that local governments cannot regulate any pesticide-related matters (pesticide includes substances that control or kill plant or animal pests). So while the new resolution declares Minneapolis a pollinator-friendly community and pledges to end pesticide use and more bee-friendly plants on city-owned property, it can’t actually ban pesticide. The resolution also doesn’t affect the Park Board or other government entities.

This has been an eventful year for the Park Board. Several issues involving pesticide use in public parks have produced public outcry. In July, a contractor hired by the board to do some plant restoration following sewer line work, sprayed herbicides in the Roberts Bird Sanctuary near Lake Harriet.

Constance Pepin, a member of the Friends of Roberts Bird Sanctuary board, remembers being shocked when she saw the company’s chemical application signs in the grass along the path.

“It was heartbreaking because it’s a bird sanctuary, and we knew the grass that was sprayed was where the turkey family we’ve been watching feeds,” she recalled.

Around that same time, the wetlands adjacent to Lake Calhoun were also treated with herbicides, though the area has long been the focus of restoration efforts intended to improve water quality while encouraging wildlife and pollinators. Pepin, who often walks in the area, was one of several people to make the issue public, noting that in some places, pesticide application warning notices were placed right next to shoreline restoration signs.

Liz Wielinski, the Park Board’s president, acknowledges that the chemical treatments in the bird sanctuary and the Calhoun wetlands should not have happened.

In both cases, the board believes that the contractors hired to work in those areas used herbicides in ways that were not in line with Park Board policy.

“Contractors write in their contracts that they will take care of what they will do, but they don’t always get into the details,” she explained. “Clearly, we need to be more specific in our contract language and indicate what can and cannot be done in certain areas.”

But the issue is much broader than that. Wanting to better understand the scope of the Park Board’s chemical use, Minneapolis activist Matt Johnson filed a Freedom of Information request in July and obtained MPRB records detailing more than 2,400 chemical applications in parklands, including golf courses, over the last seven years. Wielinski said that number at first surprised commissioners because they believed chemical use had been declining since the board passed a chemical reduction plan in 2008.

But after reviewing the data, the report wasn’t as alarming as it seemed.

“Data requests are just raw information that is not in context,” she said, explaining that once they put the data into graph form it was clear that there had been a reduction in use since 2010.

Activists, including Johnson, an organizer of the movement and online petition calling for a ban on pesticide use in Minneapolis’s public parks counters that the Park Board’s graph doesn’t tell an accurate story.

“We have reason to believe that all of the chemical applications are not listed in the report, so they are not on the graph and the public is being misinformed,” Johnson said.

More importantly, he says the graph offers no information about the amount of chemicals used. “The report showed that there were some applications that were hundreds of pounds of chemicals in a single afternoon,” he said.

Following the release of the report, Russ Henry, one of the activists behind the pollinator resolution and co-chair of Homegrown Minneapolis, a citywide local food initiative, has talked with hundreds of people and found that almost without exception, they assumed parks were already pesticide free.

“Commissioners have told us that golf greens must be manicured to a certain standard and they can’t rent out the ball fields if they’re full of clover because the balls don’t hop right,” he said. “But people don’t realize that they, and their kids and dogs are playing on grass and walking through gardens and woods that have been treated with chemicals that could be harmful.”

In August, the Park Board again came under fire for its plan to use the herbicide, Aqua Neat, to control the proliferation of hybrid native- and non-native cattails in Loring Park’s ponds. The MPRB has for years been battling the cattails, which they maintain are so pervasive they are threatening the ecological health of the ponds. Last year, frustrated by the Department of Natural Resources’ limits on cattail clipping, Park Board lobbyists got legislative approval to take more drastic action to knock back the invaders using additional cutting and applications of herbicide.

But some activists and neighbors, including members of the Citizens for a Loring Park Community, are unhappy with this approach. At a heated public meeting, people questioned Justin Long, the board’s assistant superintendent for environmental stewardship, commissioner Anita Tabb and Park Board staff about the lack of public debate about using chemicals in and around the ponds. Many expressed their wishes that the Park Board continue using manual and mechanical means to remove the cattails rather than resorting to chemicals.

People also strongly questioned the safety of using Aqua Neat, which contains glyphosate, the same active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, in areas where aquatic life, wildlife and pollinators would surely be affected. After decades of being deemed relatively safe, glyphosate has recently made headlines in The New York Times and other media as ongoing research and reevaluation has resurrected past questions about whether it may cause cancer and other health problems. Earlier this year, for example, an agency of the World Health Organization announced that glyphosate “probably” causes cancer in people.

Henry attended the Loring Park meeting and said the public’s concerns felt roundly ignored.

“They basically said they weren’t there to get feedback, just to inform the public on what they were doing,” he said. “They were astoundingly dismissive of people’s concerns.”

Outside of the meeting, however, at least one commissioner appeared shocked over the Park Board’s use of glyphosate in Loring Park.

On Aug. 13, longtime commissioner Annie Young posted a note on E-Democracy’s online forum saying she was thinking of resigning and explained: “I have fought for 25 years for the reduction of the use of chemicals in the parks and for years thought we had actually quit using Round Up (sic) so this latest scene and actions have made me sick — just plain sick.”

Commissioner Brad Bourn has also expressed publicly his concern over the Park Board’s use of chemicals in Loring Park and elsewhere. In addition to supporting Young’s recent request that Park Board staff prepare a comprehensive report on MPRB’s use of herbicides and pesticides, he also called for a temporary ban on chemical applications until the report, which will be presented in February, can be considered.

At the time of this writing Bourn’s suggestion has not been taken up by the board. But Wielinski says the board will seriously consider whatever recommendations staff makes it the February report.

One thing that won’t be considered is the outright ban on chemical use in parks that Henry, Johnson, Pepin and others would like to see. Such a ban, Wielinski said, would not only be cost prohibitive, but would result in a landslide of complaints from citizens upset about unkempt ball fields, weedy playgrounds and imperfect golf courses.

To that Henry responded: “Let’s bring it to the people.”

While it’s true that the Park Board needs to respond to constituent demands, he believes the public will choose safety over perfection.

“It’s time to talk about innovation, about how we can transition away from chemicals,” he said. “There are nine elected officials on the board and it takes a majority of five to change things. The public needs to give them a mandate to do better.”

Meleah Maynard is a freelance writer and editor and author of the Southwest Journal’s Everyday Gardener column.