Chemical-free city

A chat with organizers from Pesticide-Free Sacramento

Paul Schramski and Amy Barden are working with the city of Sacramento to stop the spraying of pesticides in our public parks.

Paul Schramski and Amy Barden are working with the city of Sacramento to stop the spraying of pesticides in our public parks.

Photo By Anne Stokes

A group of activists concerned about local pesticide spraying formed Pesticide-Free Sacramento in June of 2007. The coalition has been working with the city Department of Parks and Recreation on a pesticide-free pilot program for small- to medium-sized parks. In February, the city will start to transition one local park away from pesticide use.

SN&R recently sat down with coalition founder Paul Schramski and coordinator Amy Barden.

What’s the latest with Pesticide-Free Sacramento?

Schramski: We’re at an exciting point. We’re working on four components—parks, schools, neighborhoods and workplaces. Our focus for the next several months is on parks and schools. We’re going to transition at least one park this year and use that park as a model for the rest of the city.

We want it to be a teaching experience for people. We want signage, we want materials so people walking the dog around the park can pick up a brochure and see, ‘Oh, this is pesticide-free? So, wait, that means all the other parks are full of pesticides.’ So how do I then go back to my neighborhood and change it there?

Barden: We’re working in conjunction with the city parks department to pursue a pesticide-free pilot parks program. The advisory board decided that a good way to explore the best candidates would be to do a field trip. We tried to evaluate criteria, including features that could complicate a transition; we looked at features like ballparks, picnic areas, amount of use, user groups, neighboring land uses, visibility, condition of the landscape, ease of transition and, of course, size was a huge thing. We’re focusing on small to medium parks. The large ones are more complicated and would be a big bite to take right now, and we want this to be successful.

One thing we’ve learned from working with organic-landscape folks is that the grass will be more vibrant, the trees will be healthier, the foliage will be healthier and the soil will be healthier. It’ll be a much more beautiful park, as well as a healthy space for children and dogs and adults.

What area of Sacramento are you focusing on?

Schramski: Mostly, the southwest end of the city. Because we work a lot with Council member Rob Fong’s office, our priority has been to work there because we have support.

Barden: Because of the city’s financial situation, they are not comfortable doing too many parks at once. We’d love to do all of them at once, but that’s not too realistic for a first try.

Schramski: This is the only park in the Central Valley that I know of that would officially be the first pesticide-free park, and one of very few in California. It sets a precedent for the whole state. While totally pesticide-free is our goal, the other thing we’re thinking about is we’re in times of a water crisis and the debate about the Delta, and that’s a subpoint of what we’re talking about. Pesticide-free also means using less water, which solves some of our other environmental problems. But we’re also rethinking [public green space], adding more community gardens, building upon this greater demand for having local access to food.

Barden: Native landscapes, inherently acclimated to our wet weathers and hot, dry summers don’t require the kinds of chemicals that a lot of imported plants would. We hope to integrate that more.

So how did Pesticide-Free Sacramento come about?

Schramski: A group of community activists and leaders said they were concerned about the way pesticides were being used in Sacramento, part of that being aerial spraying for West Nile virus, and lawn-care pesticide use in general they were seeing in their neighborhoods. So they said let’s re-envision how we think about pesticide use in Sacramento, let’s think about it as a comprehensive effort and let’s work collectively to build a board coalition of different backgrounds and neighborhoods—not just traditional environmental groups, but let’s reach out to mothers’ groups and religious groups and a diverse coalition to build a campaign.

Amy, how did you get involved in this campaign?

Barden: I went to a protest at Garcia Bend Park in the middle of the [West Nile virus] pesticide spraying of the Pocket. Afterward, we did some canvassing. People in my cul-de-sac had no idea it was happening, and that was shocking. When I went door to door, it was really horrifying. People with little children out playing and some with severe asthma, one had a heart condition, and they were out because it was the middle of summer.

[My husband and I] have two dogs with cancer and another with kidney disease, which have been linked to pesticide exposure. I had been very angry and frustrated about the spraying at my local parks for years.

Right next to the Pocket Canal there are ducks and birds. Today it was beautiful; it was the biggest flock of egrets I’d ever seen. So then, OK, all their baby chicks are being impacted by unnecessary pesticides. Anyway, I just felt powerless and it made me grumpy.

Why are you targeting parks and schools first?

Schramski: It has to do with the receptivity of the city, and the simplicity of regulations. The parks department is one entity, and then the city council above them. Schools, it’s the school board ultimately. Workplaces, it’s the gamut. One of our focal points starting this year will be health-care facilities. If you’re being treated for something inside a hospital, you shouldn’t at the same time be exposed to toxic pesticides inside and outside the building.

Individuals right now are the only ones who can makes decisions about what pesticides are being used on their homes and lawns. Only the state currently has the authority to regulate that. One of the statewide bills we’re pursuing this year is about repealing pesticide pre-emption, something passed 25 years ago that says local governments don’t have the ability to regulate pesticides except for on their own land. So a city or county can’t regulate pesticide use. We’re working to remove that.

Is the city’s financial situation the biggest obstacle to the pilot parks program?

Schramski: The budget is one, then the skills. The city doesn’t have the training to maintain organically right now.

Barden: It’s also a shift back to more manual labor, which is costly. It’s also political will. [The city] has relationships with chemical distributors, and we’re eliminating that with the unknown. How do we do organic stuff and where do we get the material and how do we know this works? Until they are able to disentangle from the traditional methods, it’ll be difficult.

There’s also a concept in our society about what a beautiful park is, a school ground, a lawn. It’s a very Western European, groomed, traditional English garden concept, where the bushes are very square and the lawn is very short, and golf course-looking. It’s not that we’re advocating 3-foot-tall crazy weeds; it’s that a more natural landscape with native plants can be more beautiful, but it’s a different concept of beauty.

Schramski: It’s the disconnect between what our parks currently look like and what gets them to that point. Our mission is to bridge that gap. Do you prioritize the health and safety or do you prioritize the cosmetics of the park? I think most people would say the health; they’ve just never been presented with that scenario.