GM [Greater Milwaukee, Wisc.] Today, July 21, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: "The bottom line is that if you have an opportunity to reduce an obvious toxin that people are electively putting all over their yards, it would make a significant impact on the health of the environment... If there is risk associated with something, why take the chance?"]

By Howard Hinterthuer

In an era when natural and man-made environmental disasters are making daily headlines, it can be difficult to decide whether to panic now or later. Whitefish Bay's Amy Joyce, co-founder of the Healthy Communities Project, has opted to channel concern into action.

Joyce and co-founder Melanie Ariens launched the Healthy Communities Project in 2001 as a way to voice their concerns about herbicide use and misuse in Whitefish Bay and beyond. The group currently counts 15 active members plus 15 to 20 others who lend ad-hoc support.

"Pesticides," Joyce says, "is the umbrella term for everything that includes rodenticides, fungicides, insecticides and herbicides. Our primary issue in terms of excessive use in the Northshore is herbicides. We have one of the highest rates of commercial lawn care application in the state," she says. "When you and several thousand other residents are doing it two or three times a season, it adds up. And there are serious health concerns."

Applicators are required to notify owners, take precautions and flag the areas for a good reason, she says.

Joyce points out that herbicides have a valid purpose in terms of extreme circumstances where there is a major weed infestation that can't be controlled any other way. "There's a spectrum of the way we feel about pesticides or any of these toxins that are used," she says. "My personal opinion has always been that if everyone knew more about them and used them judiciously, and only when absolutely necessary, we wouldn't even have this issue.

"The bottom line is that if you have an opportunity to reduce an obvious toxin that people are electively putting all over their yards, it would make a significant impact on the health of the environment," Joyce says. "It also reduces the chance that you or your family or your pets are going to have any kind of inadvertent exposure. While one dose of this group of chemicals may not hurt you, they don't know the effects of repeated, long-term, low-dose exposure, the kind you might get when you're walking your dog, when you smell it in the air or you walk across someone's lawn and you have no idea it's there."

The group has been guided by this precautionary principle, Joyce says: "If there is risk associated with something, why take the chance?"

Though alternatives to expanses of manicured lawns are gaining in popularity, such as created prairies, rain gardens and enlarged flower and vegetable beds, grass is here to stay. Ball diamonds and soccer pitches are grass-dependent. So are cemeteries and golf courses. Are there alternative strategies to control lawn weeds?

"Yes," says Darrell Smith, proprietor of Natural Oasis Landscaping. "It requires a different mind-set," says Smith. "Weeds invade because they out-compete the grass. The chemicals contribute to the problem."

Melanie Ariens (left) and Amy Joyce, with sons Liam Peregrine and Joe Joyce, are co-founders of the Healthy Communities Project. The group's goal is to reduce the public's exposure to toxins.

Chemical lawn treatments can cause a quick green-up in spring, he says, but all the roots develop on the surface. "The chemicals can harm the vibrant soil ecology so that worms, for example, aren't there to loosen the soil. Then the roots have difficulty penetrating deeply," Smith says. If there's a drought later on in the season, the chemical lawn may actually die, while a healthy lawn will simply slow down and go dormant, he says. Meanwhile, the root system is still finding moisture and nutrients.

Smith uses a three-pronged approach to weed control. He applies organic fertilizer, a deodored fish emulsion with extra biological components, to improve the soil and its ability to break down and deliver nutrients. He applies corn gluten meal during the spring and fall during periods of peak weed growth. Corn gluten meal has been found to be effective against 23 different types of common weeds such as crabgrass, quack grass and dandelions. Corn gluten naturally interferes with seed germination. "There's no bad news for pets, children or the environment," Smith says. "Corn gluten meal is also a slow-release nitrogen fertilizer and a common ingredient in pet food."

Smith also "over-seeds" with high-quality grass seed so that any gaps are filled with new grass instead of new weeds.

Independently, Joyce has been applying corn gluten meal to her lawn for about three years. "You have to create the right underlying soil conditions to allow grass to thrive and out-compete the weeds. If you have a ton of weeds in your lawn it's probably indicative of an underlying issue.

"They are more of a symptom than the problem itself," she says.

Joyce recommends doing simple things like mowing higher, keeping your lawn mower blades sharp, applying better watering practices, pulling the weeds and over-seeding with good-quality grass seed.

Currently the Healthy Communities Project is working for modifications to herbicide use policies and procedures in public parks and other places where children and pets romp. "We tried to get the village to look at alternatives, but it came down to money," Joyce says.

She credits Gary Siegman, buildings and grounds supervisor for the Whitefish Bay School District, for his efforts in reducing the amount of herbicides on school grounds. "He's willing to try new things," she says.

Other efforts to reduce herbicides on public grounds include a multiyear pilot project that started this spring at School House Park in Whitefish Bay and efforts at Buckley Park on Lake Drive.

River Hills resident Darlene Lochbihler, another corn gluten advocate and founding member of the Northshore Environmental Roundtable, says this about the Healthy Communities Project: "I think they are taking a very balanced approach to this issue, uncovering the facts and being thoughtful about proposing workable alternatives."

The Environmental Roundtable brings together groups like the Healthy Communities Project, the Sierra Club, Milwaukee Audubon Society and others to share information on initiatives while offering support and coordination. Like the Healthy Communities Project, a key goal of the Environmental Roundtable is to provide reliable environmental information to area municipalities and decision-makers.