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Putting scores of idling school buses next to an organic botanical garden is a bad idea

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: October 11, 2018
  • Published October 11, 2018

Alaska Botanical Garden. (Sarah Bell / ADN archive)

I should start with a reader alert. This column is what some will call "political." Others will call it a typical Lowenfels rant. For 42 years of answering questions, I get to do this sometimes. Still, if you are not interested in the intersection of Alaska gardening with Alaska politics, skip this week's column, and by all means please come back next week.

Let's start with the municipal official or officials who even thought to suggest acreage next to the Alaska Botanical Garden would be suitable for a new bus barn for the Anchorage School District. It is one of the suggested sites being recommended to the Planning and Zoning Commission on Dec. 10.

Really? What is wrong with our government when it thinks having 75 to 120 buses idling to warm up is good for soil and plants, not to mention visitors? Really? Right next to an almost fully privately funded institution that aims to give residents and visitors a horticulturally unique, peaceful, healthy (it is still the only organic botanical garden in the United States as far as I know) and relaxing experience?

Wow. That is some real thinking going on there. It is wrong thinking, of course, but government so often feels constrained by engineering studies that lack the slightest bit of sense when it comes to non-engineering factors. And, just in case any elected politician doesn't get where I am coming from, there are few institutions in Alaska that have more members (and members who are easily contactable and who vote) than does the Alaska Botanical Garden. Why would our own government think that such a large-membership organization would stand for this? Please do not ever try to put anything that even remotely resembles a bus barn near the Alaska Botanical Garden.

Next, perhaps, the bus barn location list comes from the same group of muni officials who think using glyphosate to kill all of the invasive mayday trees in and around Valley of the Moon Park is a good idea. Sure, it is a good idea to eradicate mayday trees, which are a terrible, invasive species that poisons moose and will lead to the loss of wildlife habitat. I am not suggesting that getting rid of them isn't a noble thing. This is an awful problem we created and one we must fix.

However, using glyphosate to get rid of these trees only compounds the mistake. It is a controversial herbicide that some very credible scientists and institutions claim possibly causes cancer and affects bees and other insects (among other things). Using it is not the answer to our mayday tree problems.

Glyphosate has its proponents, and there are studies that say it is not a cancer-causing agent. There are many who feel otherwise, however, and none of them are paid by the industry that produces glyphosate. Regardless, you and I have glyphosate in our bodies and I am sure we didn't ask for it and don't want any more. The human system may not react to it, but bacteria in our bodies do (and we contain more bacteria than human cells). Right or wrong? There is just too much controversy. I am a parent and grandparent. I believe in applying the cautionary principle until a controversy is resolved, when it involves the health of my family and neighbors.

I know spraying glyphosate (it will blow all over town, by the way) is the easiest way of getting rid of mayday trees. I know it is an extremely difficult operation to eradicate them and that the use of glyphosate is considered a last resort. However, glyphosate is the easiest herbicide to use for all manner of "problems" these days. There is a creeping incremental use of glyphosate by well-meaning Alaska public officials who, independent of others, insist it is the only way to solve their particular problem.

Right now it is the Anchorage Parks Department suggesting its use (and near a water body!). Sometimes it is the Alaska Railroad that insists glyphosate application is the only way to clear weeds on the tracks. We have to ask ourselves, how many more public entities in this state feel entitled to use glyphosate as an item of last resort because it is so easy to use (and I suppose cost-effective)?

Toss in a few extremely misguided Alaska farmers, landscapers and, shudder to think, too many gardeners using RoundUp and you can see why all of a sudden a state whose rivers and lakes are the only ones in the nation that do not have measurable amounts of glyphosate might soon start to.

I can tell you where this all leads me. First, it is time for the Anchorage Assembly to step up and ban glyphosate and other toxic herbicides and pesticides in Anchorage while we wait for the Legislature to do the right thing for the state. In a place as pristine as Alaska, we must start to treat toxic pesticides and herbicides just as we do invasive plants: Get them out and then keep them out. This is Alaska, not Florida or Texas or California. We must lead the way and spend what it takes to find the right answers.

And it is time for the municipal bureaucracy (please, this is not the mayor) to re-think how studies are put together and use more sense. You all represent more than just developers, bus companies and builders. It doesn't take much common sense to see that a working bus barn with 120 buses idling for hours a day, right up against the most popular garden in Alaska, is not a good idea in any instance. If a study's parameters made you consider it, then there is something wrong with those parameters because it is wasting money. Change them.

Let me assure you that Anchorage is a city of gardeners and the state has lots more. Gardeners, especially Alaska ones, lead the way in our own yards. We don't expect our government to do otherwise in our collective backyard.

Alaska Garden Calendar

Mayday trees, Prunus paduca: Let's make this a learning session. Did you know the Anchorage Assembly passed an ordinance banning their sale? Cut down ALL of yours. Mow over seedlings until they stop coming up. If you see seedlings in the wild, cut back as many as you can. Do not bring these trees to cabins, where it may still be legal to plant them. They are a real danger to the Alaska ecosystem.

Plant A Row for the Hungry: If you have extra food from your garden or yard, take it to someone who needs it or a food bank or soup kitchen.

Driveways and walks: Mark yours before snow sets in.

Outdoor plant containers: Make sure yours don't fill with snow and water this winter. This will freeze and can cause them to crack.

Question of the week: Better to rake if you can't mulch leaves? No! If you can't get to them, leave them (no pun there, or intended).

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