Greening the grass
Chemical-free parks push sets deep roots in Durango

SideStory: Natural landscaping 101

The Schmitt family enjoys lunch in Brookside Park on Tuesday. the park, located at 27th Street off of N. Main, has been chemical free per citizens requests, since 2008. Deemed a success, the city is now looking at expanding the concept to other parks./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Will Sands

The City of Durango could be in for an organic makeover. Following a successful three-year test drive at Brookside Park, the City is considering expansion of its chemical-free parks experiment. Neighborhood sentiment at Pioneer and Fanto parks is currently being gauged as the City works to expand chemical-free offerings.

Early in 2008, a group of concerned mothers, spearheaded by Mikel Love and Sheryl McGourty, approached the Durango City Council. The group shared its concern that the use of herbicides and fertilizers in the city’s parks could pose health threats to children. Chemical runoff into the watershed, the health of wildlife and the integrity of the soil were also concerns that were raised. Turtle Lake Refuge quickly joined the rally, citing potential health impacts from the City’s “weed-and-feed” spraying of the herbicide 2,4-D and chemical fertilizer. 2,4-D is a widely used herbicide that is toxic to broad leafed plants but less harmful to grasses.

“While 2,4-D isn’t the worst chemical out there, we do have numerous concerns,” said Katrina Blair, of Turtle Lake Refuge. “Children are more susceptible to it, pollinators are hit hard by the chemical, and the herbicide and fertilizer have been linked with dead zones in rivers and oceans. We just think it’s better to play it safe and not expose young people, adults, wildlife, dogs and honey bees to a potentially harmful chemical.

Members of the council immediately honored the request and agreed to set aside Brookside Park, located at 24th Street and Main, as a trial project. For the past three years, the small park adjacent to Junction Creek has seen no chemical fertilizer, herbicide or pesticide. Instead, Turtle Lake Refuge, in collaboration with the City of Durango, has employed alternative methods such as organic compost tea, weed harvesting parties and bat boxes. And as the City’s only designated chemical-free park, Brookside has seen a major increase in use.

“I think the experiment has worked at Brookside Park,” said Mayor Michael Rendon. “A lot of people seem to be fine with a few extra weeds in exchange for a safer environment. I think it’s important that the City provides people with those options.”

Durango Parks and Recreation has kept a close eye on Brookside Park since 2008. Prior to the experiment, weeds accounted for less than 5 percent of the park’s turf, according to Cathy Metz, Parks and Recreation director. Today, weeds make up approximately 30 percent of Brookside’s ground cover. But that’s not the point, Metz added.

“It’s obvious that you’re going to have more weeds in a chemical-free park,” she said. “But what we’ve heard from the public is that Brookside is green, can be mowed and the presence of things like dandelions and clover doesn’t impact the experience. Plus, we’ve heard no complaints from the neighborhood.”

Blair commented that the last three years have demonstrated that a chemical free park can stay healthy and continue to serve as a community amenity. She added that the Brookside experiment succeeded admirably on another front. Now that three chemical-free years have passed, the park qualifies as an “edible park” and its proximity to Junction Creek offers a variety of wild food options ranging from chokecherries and rose hips to apples and berries.

“The park is perfect,” Blair said. “It has a fantastic green playground area, and you really can’t tell the difference. A lot of young families choose to go to Brookside exclusively, and the park has definitely become more popular.”

The City of Durango is now determining whether the chemical-free push should extend beyond Brookside Park, Metz said. Pioneer Park, located off of 37th Street and N. Main, and Fanto Park, the park and playground adjacent to Park Elementary School, are the next candidates for natural weed and pest control. A neighborhood meeting was held at Pioneer Park last week, and a similar session is set for this Thursday for Fanto Park.

“The first meeting at Pioneer Park went well,” Metz said. “The neighbors want the park to continue to look well maintained but are supportive of the chemical-free concept.”

The Durango Parks Advisory Board will weigh public sentiment at Fanto Park this week and then forward a recommendation to Durango City Council. However, Turtle Lake Refuge’s push will not end at Pioneer or Fanto. Many would like to see Durango follow in the footsteps Arcata, Calif., and Portland, Ore., and become a chemical-free city.

“The fact is that the 1950s model of the perfect lawn is outdated, and I’m so thankful that Durango is open to making changes that will benefit the entire community,” Blair said. “We would love to see this movement spread to all city parks and all of Durango’s public schools.”

That said, the City of Durango is taking the issue one step and one park at a time. Metz noted that the City has always used the least toxic herbicides and fertilizers and employs pesticides only in select and dire situations. She added that the Parks and Recreation Department must honor the sentiments of the entire community.

“There are different opinions in our community, as there are in any community,” Metz concluded. “The goal of this process is to provide choices for the public. If people are concerned about exposure to chemicals or have sensitivity, we want to be able to offer them alternatives.” •



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