No wonder I felt distressed when Gunn High School's "Strawberry Hill" was defoliated this year.
Barron Park's back yard is several acres of hilly grassland leased by the Palo Alto Unified School District from Stanford University. Someday Strawberry Hill may be part of a Gunn expansion, but for now it provides habitat for a diversity of wildflowers and grasses, herons and hawks. Barron and Matadero creeks border the Hill, providing a home for ducks, fish and playful little kids.
A network of footpaths is well used by Gunn students and neighbors.
A few months ago a private contractor applied herbicides to the hill as a fire-prevention move. The result was defoliation, loss of beauty, habitat and plant life. The creeks have been tested for run-off residue, but that was just the beginning of our questions.
Why was herbicide used on such a large area? What herbicides were used? Were there health and safety ramifications? Were the creeks affected? Why was mechanical weed control not used as it was in the past?
Looking forward, can we speed the recovery of Strawberry Hill?
And there are underlying questions: Is the district using toxics appropriately? Is there a plan to minimize the use while maximizing effectiveness? Is the contractor applying the least toxic product and the District prioritizing the health and safety of people and the environment?
Well-intentioned employees who are hard-pressed to oversee 18 school sites on a too-tight budget chose the herbicide option. These employees deserve support, not recrimination, and were only doing their best to save the district money.
Many of the above questions have been individually addressed, but a comprehensive policy is needed. The district has adopted the Healthy Schools Act (HSA) that calls for reduced use of toxics and encourages the creation of an integrated pest management (IPM) plan to do so.
The HSA has four mandatory requirements:
* Annual written notice to staff and parents identifying pesticides and herbicides the district expects to use during the year.
* A staff and parent registry to request prior notice of individual toxic applications at a school.
* Warning signs posted 24-hours in advance and remaining up for 72-hours after application in each area to be treated.
* Maintaining publicly accessible records of all pesticide and herbicide use at each school for four years.
Currently, the district fulfills only one of the four requirements ñ warning notices.
The district needs to come into compliance with the HSA by putting into practice the mandatory requirements as a priority. An integrated pest-management policy should be adopted that minimizes the use of toxics. Other school districts and governments have adopted IPM policies, so the District could borrow from the best.
Private toxics contractors should be subject to serious oversight to ensure they abide by a minimal-use goal of the HSA. Complying with the Healthy Schools Act is a matter of health and safety -- parents, the PTA and the public should insist upon it as we become a greener community.
As for Strawberry Hill, Acterra, members of the Sustainable Schools Committee, Barron Park residents, and the Gunn Green Team wrote a vegetation management plan for Strawberry Hill. The proposal includes using volunteer labor to remove manually opportunistic weeds (ongoing), spreading mulch and gradually planting the area with fire-resistant native grasses and plants, which help keep the invasive plants out.
This could increase the habitat value for wildlife, including predatory birds that hunt rodents, thereby lessening the need for pesticides and herbicides.
A properly planned restoration of the Strawberry Hill area could also have significant educational value in fields relating to science, the environment, biology and chemistry, among others, and involve volunteer students in the caretaking of a once-lovely corner of their own campus.
This story contains 688 words.
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