RIDGWAY – Danny Powers is a man with a plan. Parks Manager for the Town of Ridgway, Powers cares for the town’s greens and gardens using only non-toxic, organic methods of weed and pest control.
There’s a reason for that. Years ago, Powers and his wife bought a house in Texas that happened to have a roach problem. They bought some insect spray that, Powers said, had been snuck over the border from Mexico and “was way over the limit” in terms of its toxicity. They sprayed the shower one night, and the next morning he got in and took a shower. Within two hours, Powers said, he developed flu-like symptoms, and shortly afterward, muscle convulsions. Before long he was bleeding from every orifice. “I was rigid. Literally, you could touch my skin and I would bleed there. I came very close to death,” he said. “I made a decision at that time that the consequences [of using chemicals] are just too great. It’s unfortunate that we store these poisons in our bodies.”
In response to the argument that a regulated and approved chemical may not have created the same response, Powers shook his head.
“People make mistakes all the time,” he said. While most over-the-counter chemicals must be mixed with water in a certain ratio to be safe, he said, there are “a lot of people who are naïve or don’t realize the danger. They say, ‘I’m going to kill everything so I’ll mix it stronger.’ When you do that you can really damage what’s in the earth, but also yourself if you absorb it through your skin or breathe it.”
Ron Mabry, Ouray County Weed Manager, who uses synthetic chemicals regularly to control weeds in his jurisdiction, echoed Powers’s sentiments. “The problem is the stuff is available to everybody. People won’t do the math to figure out how much to put in their tank, they don’t calibrate their sprayers. Those are the kind of [reasons why] I personally think the chemicals should be regulated more than they are.” Mabry also pointed out that chemicals vary in when they should be used and how to apply them, and misuse can result in a failed application, a waste of product, and unnecessary pollution of waterways or air. “The label is the law when you’re talking about any pesticide, and you need to read the label to know how to use it correctly,” he said.
So what’s the answer for people who don’t want to deal with synthetic chemical herbicides for controlling weeds, be they state-listed noxious weeds or the garden-variety obnoxious ones?
There are some commercial herbicides marketed as natural and non-toxic, and there are recipes for making your own at home. All have as their main active ingredient a strong preparation of acid or vinegar, which burns the plants’ leaves and if successful, kills the plants’ upper parts. Other ingredients may include orange oil, a volatile oil made from oranges, and lauryl sulfate, a detergent usually found in soaps, shampoos and toothpastes that has fallen into disfavor with some health advocates.
Mabry said that the vinegar used in such preparations is actually acetic acid, which he said is produced synthetically in what most would consider a rather toxic manufacturing process. In addition, he said, the herbicides are basically ineffective on deep-rooted perennials, which comprise most of the state-listed weeds that he works with.
“It’s just like the mechanical controls, basically you’re just chemically chopping off the top of the plant when you use them,” Mabry said.
The mechanical controls he refers to constitute the other type of non-toxic weed control, basically the frequent and repeated cutting of weeds that, if performed diligently, eliminates seed heads (seeds must be incinerated) and depletes the rootstock. Coupled with restoration of the soil with compost, other organic soil amendments and soil shading, mechanical control is the method favored by people who suffer from severe chemical sensitivity. For these people, even natural herbicides and plant-based chemicals are too strong, and exposure to them can result in severe, even life-threatening reactions.
A Matter of Life and Death
Gary Duncan and Ruth Davis are two such people. Duncan is the founder of the Smart Shelter Network; Davis is a land steward with the network’s Land Steward Program. Both have suffered complete medical disability due to their sensitivity to environmental pollutants, including electro-magnetic fields (Davis’s primary sensitivity is to EMFs). They have regained functionality by detoxifying their bodies and their environments, and they must carefully maintain a clean lifestyle in an environment that is free of factors that might aggravate their conditions.
While the Smart Shelter Network originally focused on creating healthy home environments for people suffering from multiple environmental sensitivities (Duncan was a well-known builder and cabinet maker when he became suddenly disabled), it has expanded to include creating a safe outdoor environment as well. The Land Steward Program attempts to provide sensitive individuals with a safe place to live in exchange for their work performing non-toxic, mechanical weed control.
“The only thing that an invasive species can’t develop resistance to is being pulled kicking and screaming from the breast of the mother earth,” Duncan said. “So that’s the process we use.”
Land stewards work throughout what they call the Tabeguache Corridor, a triangle cornered by Telluride, Aspen and Moab, and work with both private landowners and public partners including the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado State Parks system and the Canyonlands Field Institute. Davis and Duncan have worked diligently for the past three years at the Ridgway State Park to control thistle as well as bindweed, houndstongue and Russian knapweed. Davis is currently trying to establish a colony of bindweed mites, which she obtains from the Palisade Insectory, to control the bindweed.
As to their work in general, “I would call it successful,” Park Manager Kirstin Copeland said. “One of the reasons I feel they are successful is because they keep the project size manageable. Smart Shelter Land Stewards like Ruth work well in defined and appropriately sized areas as a part of an overall weed management program. I think it is a good matching of needs and skills for public land managers and the land stewards.”
In order to further educate the public about their system of non-toxic land management and weed control, Duncan and Davis are available on a consulting basis, either with groups or with individuals.
“We don’t sell anything. There are no strings attached. We will come help you for free and then we’ll go away,” Duncan said. Why for free? For them, a non-toxic environment is a matter of life and death. And they claim that their methods are 100 percent effective, and manageable, if performed properly.
“It takes consistency, diligence and an intimate relationship with the land,” Duncan said. “What it doesn’t take is an exorbitant amount of work.”
To contact Duncan, go to smartshelter.com. To contact Davis, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 970/275-6124. To get bindweed mites and to learn more about biological, insect-based weed control, contact the Palisade Insectory at 866/324-2963.
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series on state-listed noxious weeds. The first article focused on the weeds and laws that require their control and eradication.