Maintaining the Living Landscape

By Frankel, Steve; Bluck, John | The World and I, December 2002 | Go to article overview
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Maintaining the Living Landscape

Frankel, Steve, Bluck, John, The World and I

With goats displacing herbicides, traps taking the place of pesticides, and composted landscaping debris replacing chemical fertilizers, the NASA Ames Research Center has emerged as a model for institutions seeking to minimize their disruption of the local environment.

In 1997, the U.S. government paid for and used about 4,000 gallons of pesticides and herbicides to maintain the facilities and grounds of the 2,000-acre NASA Ames federal research park in the heart of California's Silicon Valley. The government also paid for dumping a few thousand cubic yards of landscaping debris at the local landfill.

At NASA Ames, our approach to the environment probably typified that of many large government facilities: we followed conventional practices of using chemicals to control weeds, insects, and animals and shipping wastes to an off-site repository. Although we knew that chemical contamination of groundwater was an important issue, the suggestion that our grounds and facilities could be maintained without using the essential pesticides and herbicides would have seemed unreasonable. We certainly didn't imagine that our landscape wastes could be converted into a valuable product.

We used the pesticides and herbicides around a diverse complex of buildings, roads, lawns, and other infrastructure ranging from an airport runway to large fuel-storage tanks. If weeds grew in cracks in pavement, we sprayed them with Roundup herbicide. If cockroaches became a problem in a building, we would go in on a Friday night and spray the building with insecticide. If mice were a problem, we placed poison at strategic locations.

Our chemical storerooms were busy places requiring regular monitoring, replenishment, and reams of regulatory compliance paperwork. Our spraying equipment ranged from large tank trucks with spray booms for spraying roadside vegetation to backpack units that would typically be used inside a building.

Not surprisingly, our crews working with herbicides and pesticides operated under various levels of stress related to the perceived health hazards of their jobs.


This July, NASA Ames received the EPA's 2002 Environmental Achievement Award for programs that reduced pesticide and herbicide use in 2001 by 98 percent over earlier years and that recycled all landscaping debris instead of sending it to a landfill.

We reduced pesticide and herbicide use from the 4,000 gallons before our programs began to less than 50 gallons after we shifted to programs of integrated pest management (IPM) and integrated vegetation management (IVM). IPM and IVM are strategies that preferentially use less-polluting methods for managing plant and animal pests. Not only did we reduce workers' exposures to chemicals, but we also probably reduced exposures of local wildlife (including some endangered and protected species) to these dangerous chemicals.

As a result of these environment-friendly efforts, Ames had won a previous award as well. In September 2000, Californians for Pesticide Reform, a coalition of more than 130 public interest organizations committed to protecting public health and the environment from pesticide proliferation, presented Ames with its Pest Management Alternatives Pioneer Award.

Ames is one of NASA's 10 field centers across the country. Within the sprawling site, the NASA Ames Research Center occupies a core campus of 430 acres. In addition to the NASA presence, other tenants include the California Air National Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and research and technology partners such as Carnegie-Mellon University, which lease facilities. Altogether, roughly 4,500 people work at the Ames site, including NASA personnel, other government employees, military people, students, and part-time workers.

Shifting our vision

Ames began more aggressive efforts to minimize use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers in the fall of 1994 out of concern for employee safety.

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