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Everett Neighborhood Experiments with Pesticide Free Park

By Debra Smith
the Everett Herald

Megan Dunn's anti-chemical crusade began after she spotted masked workers spraying at the park near her home in the Lowell neighborhood.

Her two young children were playing not far away. That gave her pause.

"I started to think there's got to be a better way," she said. "We don't need to use pesticides."

Now she heads a pilot project at Lowell Park testing what happens when a park goes pesticide-free. Volunteers weed landscaped areas. City workers continue to mow grass and trim branches.

The city has agreed to abstain from applying pesticides.

The parks department is working actively with the group on the project, said John Petersen, the assistant director for park planning and maintenance.

"I'd like to see it succeed for the people who want it to succeed," he said. "That said, I don't think we are doing a thing that is wrong."

Before the city commits to expanding the idea to other parks, they have to make sure it will work, he said.

Officials want to see if they can meet the public's expectation for park appearance without using chemicals.

They also want to take a hard look at the cost.

The city has reduced its pesticide use by an estimated 80 percent in the past decade, Petersen said. For instance, the city has moved toward using a deep layer of mulch in areas to ward off weeds.

The chemicals typically used in Everett's parks are herbicides -- products designed to kill weeds. Last year in Everett, 1,960 pounds of a granular herbicide were spread over 21 acres of landscaped beds in 52 locations.

Another 870 gallons of herbicide was sprayed over that same area. Most of those gallons were water diluting the active chemical ingredients, Petersen said.

Workers apply an herbicide in the spring to keep weeds from sprouting and then spray problem areas again later in the season, he said.

Going pesticide-free in public spaces is an idea slowly and sporadically taking hold in the Northwest.

Cities including Snohomish, Seattle, Shoreline and Redmond have made more intensive efforts to reduce pesticide use in public parks, said Josh Vincent, a spokesman for the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, based in Eugene, Ore.

"The No. 1 challenge is money," Vincent said. "Cities are concerned it will cost them more to manage the park at the aesthetic level people expect without a chemical tool."

Chemical controls are cheaper than paying for more labor, he said. However, there might be other "hidden costs," such as lawsuits, that aren't readily apparent.

It makes sense to forgo chemicals because other alternatives exist that don't pose an impact to people or the environment, Vincent said. Parks draw the very people most susceptible to the long-term effects of chemicals: children.

His organization advocates that cities use integrated pest management, a strategy that greatly reduces but doesn't completely eliminate chemicals. Under IPM, a city would improve the conditions for plants by design or by improving soil so plants can naturally compete better against weeds. Workers chose to take care of problems manually -- for instance, pulling weeds instead of spraying. Chemicals are used as a last resort.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency puts tremendous effort into ensuring that pesticides are safe for use in public spaces, said Catherine Daniels, a pesticide coordinator with Washington State University and an expert on the safe and proper use of pesticides.

The EPA requires extensive testing of pesticides before they're put on the market and employs chemists and toxicologists who keep on top of new research about the effects of those products. In the past, regulators have been quick to tighten safety standards if researchers turn up concerns.

"I put quite a bit of faith into the EPA's effort that there is a reasonable safety standard," she said.

She also pointed out that integrated pest management costs more and that eliminating 100 percent of pesticides might not be practical.

"It's hard to run a government that way," she said.

The two-year project at Lowell is scheduled to wrap up this winter. So far, the pilot project has demonstrated at least one thing: It's hard to find volunteers.

Dunn, the project organizer at Lowell, said she has a committed but small group of helpers who come regularly.

Friday, those committed few were crouched in the dirt at Lowell Park, tugging at weeds alongside their neighbors. The 10-acre park looked at least as well maintained as other city parks.

One of the volunteers, Laura Wilson, has lived in Lowell 27 years. At first, the self-described "pitiful gardener" was a little intimidated about helping take care of such a large park. Now she's glad she gets to spend time with some of her neighbors.

She hopes city leaders expand the project to other areas of the city and perhaps get their hands dirty, too.

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