Showdown in the West: Durango Pesticide Debate Offers New Twist

Brookside Park is one of two parks in Durango, Colorado, that is managed with organic protocols.

DURANGO, CO.–(ENEWSPF)–August 24, 2012.  Defiantly declaring that pesticides used to control weeds and insects are safe when used as directed and stating “I don’t believe we’re making any children sick here,” the mayor of this remote town led the charge on a 5-0 vote late Tuesday night against an ordinance that would have removed both synthetic chemical pesticides — and fertilizers — from all town-owned property.

That is only the beginning of the fight, however, in the highly independent Home Rule Municipality in the southwest corner of the state. Because organizers of the petition drive collected more than 1,000 signatures in support of what would be a historic restriction on synthetic fertilizers as well as pesticides, the initiative may now be placed on the November ballot for the town’s 16,000-plus residents to decide.

SafeLawns was brought into the discussion in Durango approximately a month ago, after the ordinance had been written, but before the first of two public hearings on the matter. This past Monday, Aug. 20, I was on hand to present excerpts from our film, A Chemical Reaction, and to offer a seminar on how and why to maintain lawns naturally. The following day I met with city officials, as well as representatives from the city-owned golf course and a member of the youth soccer association. That evening I attended an emotion-packed city council meeting that featured nearly four hours of testimony and discussion about the merits of the ordinance.


The issue of lawn care pesticides is invariably polarizing. No matter where the debate has raged in the nearly three decades since Hudson, Quebec, began hearing from Dr. June Irwin back in 1985, some folks believe the pesticides like 2,4-D and Roundup are safe; others feel that these products fall somewhere between dangerous and lethal.

If one were to tape the testimony any any town in North America taking up the pesticide debate, it would sound virtually identical to the rhetoric in any other town.

In Durango, where author Katrina Blair and massage therapist Tricia Gourley are among the leaders of a group known as Organically Managed Parks Durango, a new twist has emerged. The group’s members, consisting of lawyers, health care practitioners and other local citizens, idealistically threw the kitchen sink into their ordinance.

“We want what is best to protect the place where we live,” said Blair, an international expert on foraging for wild plants.

Members of the city’s five-member council, the city manager and parks and recreation director, and numerous other citizens deeply resent the efforts of Blair and others. Bringing the issue of pesticide-free lawns to referendum “puts a gun to their heads” and removes what they call “the collaborative process.”

“This just isn’t the Durango way of doing things,” folks said again and again during our visit to the town.

Whereas most municipalities across the U.S. and Canada have focused their pesticide prohibition laws on only “cosmetic” weed killers, the Durango legislation seeks to limit insect controls, weed killers and fertilizers if they are derived from synthetic substances — except as last resort when a public health emergency such as West Nile Virus arises.

Gourley and Blair say they’ve tried to work with city officials in the past to come up with a reasonable compromise. City officials say they’ve acknowledged the group by allowing two city-owned parks, Brookside and Pioneer, to be maintained without synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

But even that has not come without contention. Many city officials call the appearance of the parks an abysmal failure and an example of why organic protocols can’t work on a larger scale.

Some city officials in Durango, who see this playground as unsightly due to the plantain growing amidst the grass where the children play, would prefer to spray the area with a synthetic chemical pesticide. The obvious problem is compaction from the children playing, which could be treated with aeration, an application of gypsum and overseeding with grass seed in the fall.

“We put up signs to let residents know the parks were maintained organically as a way to apologize for how badly they look,” said the city’s Parks and Recreation manager Kathy Metz during an informal meeting Tuesday at which she held firm to her position that organic lawn care is not economically viable without droves of laborers to hand pull unwanted plants. “Those two parks are at least 50 percent weed-covered.”

Durango city councilor Dick White discusses the condition of pristine organically maintained Pioneer Park with organic advocate Tricia Gourley.

Visiting the two parks, however, tells a different story. The smaller of the two parcels, Brookside — which serves as a playground for a children’s daycare center — is covered by mostly lush, green grass in most areas. Some of it does contain a significant amount of plantain, which grows as a result of the compaction from children playing.

Pioneer Park, which we visited with city councilor Dick White, was actually stunningly verdant. Predominantly coated with Kentucky bluegrass, it did have some clover and a few dandelions, as well as some plantain growing in the compacted areas by the parking lot. By and large, though, it was one of the best-looking public parks I’ve seen in the U.S. or Canada and clearly superior to several parks in Durango that are maintained with synthetic chemicals.

Metz’s obvious bias against organic lawn care is clearly backed by the city’s mayor Doug Lyon, who categorically denounced any suggestion that synthetic chemical pesticides were in any way dangerous. The products’ approval by the Environmental Protection Agency, he said, was proof enough for him that the federal government was looking out for the safety of its citizens.

“It’s not Durango’s job to second guess the EPA,” he stated, emphatically. He graciously allowed every voice to be heard during the marathon session Tuesday night, but he was clearly red-faced and frustrated by midnight. He also twisted the truth and took facts out of context to suit his own belief that products like weed ‘n feed and Roundup pose no unreasonable health risk.


Despite the city council’s 5-0 vote against the petition, Blair, Gourley and their group of organizers still hold the best cards in this spirited poker match. If they allow the issue to go to the November ballot in an election year — in which the state of Colorado is also debating the legalization of marijuana — they know they will probably win. Numerous polls have shown that younger voters especially favor anti-pesticide initiatives.

At heart, Blair, Gouley and others really don’t want to compromise on the obvious health and safety issues presented by constant spraying of synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Yet they’re also agonizing about the issue of pitting neighbor against neighbor in a tightly knit town.

“We would compromise if the city would truly offer a compromise,” said Gourley. “But it’s hard to know if we can really trust certain people’s sincerity.”

The pure democratic move, according to Blair, is to let the voters decide in November.

“I’m not interested in letting the city spray poisons for another two to five years while we work out a compromise,” said Blair, a naturalist who is known to live for days at a time on wild plants that most consider weeds. “We’ve been trying to get the city to focus on this issue for years; their idea of a compromise seems to be to give us a few more (pesticide-free) parks, but otherwise keep spraying everywhere else. That’s not a compromise.”

Since Tuesday night’s meeting signs have emerged that, in fact, a pre-ballot resolution could happen. With the story making front-page headlines all week, phone calls have been exchanged and new proposals are in draft phase — but a clock is ticking. If the city can’t reach an agreement with the organic advocates by Sept. 7, the initiative will go to the ballot.

It’s still anyone’s guess as to how this showdown will play out. Ultimately, however, the Organically Managed Parks Durango group has succeeded like few others in the U.S. in getting its town to talk about the dangers of pesticides.

City officials can complain all they want about having a gun to their heads. The truth is they never would have given this group this much consideration without feeling the heat.

Pioneer Park in the city of Durango, Colorado, has been maintained organically for two years.