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January 17, 2018

Volunteers to maintain Lancaster County park trail with no weed-killers or pesticides

They don’t want chemical weedkillers to be used in parks where kids and adults frolic, so a new group of local volunteers is taking matters into their own hands.

With hoes, saws, gloves and elbow grease, they are going to naturally maintain a section of trail in Lancaster County Central Park, keeping it free of noxious and invasive plants such as poison ivy and garlic mustard.

Poison-Free Public Spaces Lancaster is the group behind the chemical-free effort, which it hopes is adopted by other public parks in Lancaster County.

“This is a test plot, to see how wildlands can become poison-free,” said Wilson Alvarez, a leader of the group, of the Central Park trail section.

The group grew out of a recent visit Alvarez and his family made to their favorite part of the county’s Central Park, a 544-acre plot dotted with pavilions and looped by trails that is located south of Lancaster.

The family likes to frequent the area near Pavilion 21 and walk the Mill Creek Trail, where Alvarez said there are some rare and beautiful plants such as dwarf ginseng and putty root.

“The day before I had gone for a run and saw plants that looked really yellow along the trail,” Alvarez said. “The next day, I said, ‘Let’s go take a walk,’ and everything was completely dead.”

Alvarez said he and his wife, Natasha, are both experienced landscapers. They knew that someone had used a chemical weedkiller on the trail’s margins.

Upset, Alvarez called Paul Weiss, county parks head, to ask him about it.

Weiss acknowledged that the area along the trail had been sprayed, by someone certified to do so, who used state-approved chemicals.

County parks employees do use chemicals to control invasive plants, such as Japanese honeysuckle and tree of heaven, and noxious plants, such as poison oak, poison ivy and stinging nettles, Weiss said.

The employees oversee 2,080 acres of land in nine parks. The county simply does not have the manpower to maintain all of that land naturally, by hand.

But Alvarez asked for the chance to try the natural approach, and Weiss agreed.

The Poison-Free group formed, launched a Facebook page and began to meet and organize, gathering at 6 p.m. Wednesdays, near Pavilion 21. It has about 25 active members.

Alvarez said he hopes to not only control the noxious plants along about a 2-mile stretch of the trail, but also to remove invasive plants, such as garlic mustard, that grow in the area.

He wants to be careful about how the plants are managed, not pulling them when they are going to seed, which can help them spread.

Instead, in the spring, he envisions a workshop where people could pull out and learn how to use garlic mustard, which he said is both delicious and nutritious.

He also envisions replacing noxious or invasive plants with better alternatives. The group is inventorying the plants and trees in the area, and will submit a list to the county parks department for approval of possible replacements.

Those plants will include wild ginger, spice bushes and other native plants or shrubs, Alvarez said. Because it is operating on a shoestring budget, the group may transplant replacements from other areas of the park or grow them from cuttings.

Alvarez praised the county parks staff for being willing to work with his group.

Weiss said, “It’s a very labor-intensive way of trying to control weeds of that nature. They want to demonstrate it can be done as easily as spraying. … We certainly are willing to give them a try.”

The Poison-Free group also plans to call officials for every park in the area, asking them about their policies on and use of herbicides.

The group will provide the parks with pamphlets and information that show how natural plant management is being done in other areas of the country, particularly the Northwest.

Poison-Free also is keeping records of the hours that its volunteers work, so other parks can see that it might be feasible to actually pay people to do the work.

“I just want to be able to educate the public,” Alvarez said. “Why are they using poisons? Do they have to? What are the alternatives to it? We are concerned about the long-term effects.”

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Volunteers to maintain Lancaster County park trail with no weed-killers or pesticides

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