Activists push for pesticide-free parks

The Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden
The Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden is a native plant botanic garden where the Park Board uses pesticides to combat invasive species like buckthorn. An advocacy group is trying to push the the board to an organics-only system. File photos

Fewer pesticides are used in Minneapolis parks than ever before, but a growing group of advocates are pushing to eliminate synthetic-based treatments entirely.

While the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board used almost 80 gallons of liquid pesticides outside of golf courses in 2011, usage has dropped considerably in recent years, down to about 13 gallons in 2019, according to horticulture supervisor Kaitlin Ryan. Today more than 100 park properties are pesticide free and glyphosate, the active ingredient in Round Up, is banned.

But the activist group Bee Safe Minneapolis wants the MPRB to take faster and bolder steps. The group has drafted a resolution that sets a firm timeline for the MPRB to cease using synthetic pesticides in the park system in favor of organic products. The resolution would cease synthetic pesticide use in wetlands, gardens and athletic fields by Aug. 1 and in natural areas and golf courses by April 2021.

In 2018 the Park Board formed a Pesticide Advisory Committee (PAC) to recommend best practices.

Russ Henry, a co-chair of the committee, has been encouraging commissioners to embrace the Bee Safe timeline. He was among the dozens of Bee Safe advocates who wore yellow bandannas and swarmed the Park Board meeting on Jan. 8 to support the group’s resolution. The MPRB still uses pesticides in several areas where children play, Henry said, referencing uses in premier athletic fields, golf courses and natural areas.

Chesney Engquist, a newly appointed PAC member and Henry’s partner, told commissioners that people ask her if it’s safe to bring their kids to the parks.

“The Minneapolis Park Board, by introducing toxic chemicals into the environment, has knowingly violated human rights to clean water, clean air and healthy soil,” Engquist said.

But many feel there are appropriate uses of pesticides, particularly to fight off invasive species and restore native plants and came to express those views at a Park Board meeting a couple weeks later, on Jan. 22.

Jim Proctor, a longtime volunteer steward at the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Theodore Wirth Park, told commissioners herbicide treatments made it possible to take out large buckthorn plants and restore the area with native species that are helpful for birds and pollinators.

“If we make the mistake of assigning catastrophic toxicity to the minimal, temporary uses of herbicide in habitat work like this, we will lose the ability to restore enough land to make a difference in the extinction crisis,” Proctor said.

Pesticide Advisory Committee co-chair Mike Lynch, a botanist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said the PAC is sharply divided on synthetic pesticide use. Some want to eliminate usage entirely while others want to continue using pesticides on golf courses and to remove invasive species.

Lynch believes some people are conflating the impact of pesticides used in large-scale agriculture to the way the treatments are used in gardening or natural areas to combat invasive species.

“Right now there’s a lot of fearmongering on Facebook about pesticide use,” Lynch said.

Several Park Board commissioners and Superintendent Al Bangoura have said they believe there is a lot of misinformation being spread.

The MPRB improperly used the Garlon herbicide in Minnehaha Falls Regional Park in 2019, which resulted in a loss of trust from PAC members and anti-pesticide activists, Lynch said. In October, claims were leveled by a former Park Board employee that pesticides had been dumped into a pond near the Roberts Bird Sanctuary in 2017, causing a frog to mutate. That incident is being investigated by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. 

When the MPRB does use pesticides, staff members try to time applications to avoid park users, they mark and fence off the area and they strategically select products, Ryan said.

To pick the least harmful product, MPRB staff use the Environmental Impact Quotient formula. The formula accounts for the list of risks for using all known pesticides and gives users a scientific way to measure which technique will have the biggest environmental impact, Ryan said.

The biggest reduction in pesticide use in the past decade has been in cosmetic treatments. A cultural shift toward pollinator gardens and away from manicured lawns has led the MPRB to stop using pesticides in neighborhood parks.

“This public support has helped us change our policies,” Ryan said.

In December, the PAC asked commissioners to support a public engagement campaign to get feedback on if or how park users want pesticides used in the parks. Right now, the PAC doesn’t know if users want to have totally pesticide-free parks, Lynch said.

The PAC has also organized an organics treatment pilot program for Neiman Athletic Fields and Fort Snelling Golf Course, set to begin this spring. The group wants to take three years to see how the courses respond to treatments in multiple seasons, Ryan said. She believes the pilot is a good step.

But organic pesticides are still pesticides and can still cause harm to applicators or people who come in contact with them, Ryan said. Many organic products need to be applied multiple times.

“I think it’s a pretty divisive issue on our board,” said Commissioner Brad Bourn (District 6), adding that he is unsure if there is enough support to institute organics-only policies.