Joplin city officials are looking at ways to maintain park gardens and lands after a city volunteer who is a master gardener said the use of spray weedkillers is wiping out flowers and beneficial plants.

Sara Fisher, a longtime gardening volunteer in city parks, told the Joplin City Council on Sept. 3 that the chemical sprays have twice wiped out the flower beds in the Landscapes of Resilience Butterfly Garden and Overlook in Cunningham Park. That is an $800,000 feature of the park donated to residents in remembrance of the Joplin tornado.

"We got that through a generous gift ... and the Butterfly Overlook was created as a sacred space for people who had been involved in the Joplin tornado to heal," Fisher said.

She showed photographs of the blooming flower garden when it was dedicated on the third anniversary of the tornado and shortly after that when it had been so overcome by weeds that the flowering plants were being choked out and there were few blooms. At that time, she enlisted volunteers weed it by hand.

But when the weeds later spread again, the parks department sprayed a glyphosate herbicide to kill the growth rather than pulling the weeds by hand. The department has been using the spray on all parks land to clear weeds and keep edges of property cleaner rather than using trimmers.

The problem is, Fisher said, that under the terms of the agreement with garden donors, that type of chemical was never to be used on the overlook garden.

"By using it, it kills different plants," she said. "If you get something called drift, the wind blows and it can just touch something and it's gone."

That chemical weed spray soon killed the plants, and the parks department had to replant the garden at the city's cost.

The parks department replanted the overlook garden, and it flourished for more than a year. In 2017, the master naturalists planted more pollinator plants in the Butterfly Overlook.

But in 2018, it was overrun with weeds most of the summer. Fisher notified the parks department, and it was cleaned up again. But earlier this year, the roses were again sprayed, killing or damaging many of the plants. Again it had to be replanted.

"I am fully aware of the substantial and wide-ranging responsibilities for which the parks and recreation department is responsible," Fisher said. "I know the parks department gets handed the hardest and least appreciated job to maintain our parks. However, the maintenance cannot be an off-again, on-again exercise. Just like the (tornado) recovery, which is ongoing."

The department also uses the chemical weedkiller sometimes to edge parklands rather than doing mechanical trimming, she said, showing a photograph of a park in her neighborhood. "It looks terrible," she said, and the weedkiller gets washed into the stormwater drainage that goes into Joplin and Turkey creeks.

Fisher called on the council to set policy and goals for regular maintenance of the parks gardens and grounds, and to end the use of spray weedkiller.

As a volunteer, she still weeds park gardens periodically.

"You would be amazed at the number of people from out of town that come to that park still," she said of the Butterfly Overlook.

She said that the parks director, Paul Bloomberg, is trying to improve maintenance methods.

She recommended that the city hire a horticulturist, at least part time, to oversee plant maintenance. She said it is possible that the city might get some grant money from donors of the Butterfly Overlook for that purpose.

Councilman Ryan Stanley asked if the parks director and the interim city manager, Dan Pekarek, could get together and develop a plan to protect parks from weedkiller use and for regulation maintenance of the gardens.

Bloomberg said Fisher is right.

"I think we have used too much (weedkiller)," he said. "But we don't have the staff" to do weed removal by hand. The reason is because more and more land has been added to the department without a corresponding increase in staff. He said that goes back at least to the addition of the Joplin Athletic Complex in 2007 on 110 acres of land the city bought in 2003 west of Schifferdecker Avenue. Now the city has added Mercy Park on land that was a gift from Mercy Hospital in remembrance of the site where St. John's Regional Medical Center stood before the tornado. It is across the street from the overlook garden.

Bloomberg said the department is testing organic herbicides, though they are a lot more expensive and don't last as long.

The council agreed that a program or policy should be developed and asked to hear back from city staff on a plan to address Fisher's comments.

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