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Environmental board makes poison ivy recommendations

Wednesday, October 14, 2009 by Bill McCann

South Austinite Daniel White is on a one-person crusade against poison ivy. He wants to wipe out the nuisance plant on any city lands where people may be exposed to it.


But to the city’s environmental and parks staffs, White’s efforts, while sincere, are misguided. And they are dismayed that White has taken matters into his own hands by spraying poison ivy with chemicals in a city park without permission.


The two viewpoints clashed last week at a meeting of the Environmental Board.


For years, White has criticized city staff for failing to rid Austin’s parks and other public areas of poison ivy, which can cause an itchy and painful rash on those susceptible to it. This summer White took his case to the Environmental Board, which requested a staff briefing on the subject.


At that briefing last week, staff from the Watershed Protection and Parks and Recreation departments told the board the city has no plans to eradicate poison ivy on city lands. Instead, given the limited funds available for park maintenance, staff treats poison ivy based on specific complaints. Typically, staff treats poison ivy when it invades public places, such as trails, playgrounds, or picnic areas. But in natural areas, the plant is left alone, where it can help discourage people from tramping into environmentally sensitive lands, they said.


“We allow it to grow in natural areas if it is not bothering anyone,” said John Gleason of the Watershed Protection Department. Despite its reputation, the plant has redeeming qualities, according to Gleason. Its root system helps hold the soil, preventing erosion, and a berry that it produces is a food for wildlife.


Poison ivy is a shiny, perennial plant that grows as a ground cover, shrub, or vine. It can be controlled by being smothered in mulch, removed physically, or sprayed with herbicides. A chemical compound, urushoil, produced by the plant is what causes inflammation and blistering to those who touch the plant or who touch equipment, clothes, or animals that have been in contact with the plant. Some people are minimally affected while others are very sensitive.


The city tries to minimize the use of herbicides for killing plant pests and only uses licensed applicators, who must follow strict guidelines when herbicides are used, Gleason said. Herbicides are not only a potential risk to nearby desirable plants but to applicators as well, if the job is not done right, he said.


Board Member Jon Beall said when he recently took up White’s offer of a poison ivy tour of city property he saw a lot of it. At the same time, Beall said he was “very concerned about a personal crusade to use chemicals on public property,” referring to White.


White told In Fact Daily he first became concerned about poison ivy about 20 years ago when he saw the plant growing in widespread areas near Travis Elementary School and in Stacy Park where children walked and played.


“No one would do anything about it,” he said. “What kind of society allows poison ivy to run rampant where there are people, especially children?”


White acknowledged that in recent years he has sprayed an herbicide to kill poison ivy at Duncan Park along Shoal Creek near downtown. He said he took the action to demonstrate to the city that it could be done safely. 


“We have asked him (White) not to spray on city property,” Troy Houtman, operations division manager for the Parks and Recreation Department, told In Fact Daily. “He is not a licensed applicator and if there were an accident it could affect the creek.”


“We appreciate that he is showing goodwill,” Houtman continued. “But he is not showing good judgment.”


After hearing the staff presentation, the Environmental Board voted 5-0 (with two members absent) to recommend to the City Council to increase the future parks maintenance budget for poison ivy control. No dollar figure was specified.


Houtman told In Fact Daily he appreciated the board’s gesture, but with the city’s budget problems he did not expect to see additional funds in the foreseeable future. White said he did not believe city staff would be motivated to address the poison ivy problem, even if it had more maintenance money.

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