The National Association of Landscape Professionals is applauding EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt for “ensuring that the EPA does not unduly burden businesses with unnecessary regulations.”
By Zach Mortice
In early March, the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP), the trade group that represents professional landscape contractors and maintenance professionals, released a statement warmly embracing the new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in the hope that he would roll back pesticide regulations. Three weeks later, Pruitt gave them a strong positive signal. On March 29, ignoring the EPA’s own research, he signed an order denying a petition that would ban the use of chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to memory loss and neurological damage.
NALP executives declined to comment on Pruitt’s rescinding the ban, because chlorpyrifos is no longer used by landscape contractors. (It has not been manufactured for nonagricultural use since 2000 because of the risks it poses to human health.) But NALP Vice President of Government Relations Paul Mendelsohn said in an email that the group’s goal in pushing back on pesticide regulations is to make sure its members, who purchase and use pesticides for much of their landscape maintenance work, have as many options as possible: “We have members who offer organic services, and others who use synthetic products,” Mendelsohn says. “Our goal is to strive for a regulatory environment that offers our businesses and their clients a choice in what products are used when providing services.”
NALP’s welcome for an EPA administrator who has spent much of his career suing the agency he now runs stands out among other landscape professional associations and conservation groups. Most have rejected Pruitt and the dramatic cuts being proposed at the EPA outright—ASLA released a statement flatly opposing cuts to EPA’s budget. Trade associations that, like NALP, focus more on the construction of the designed environment have been lukewarm to neutral toward Pruitt. The Associated General Contractors of America released a statement saying, “AGC supports AG Pruitt’s appointment and will work with him to promote a pro-construction agenda at EPA,” while the Associated Builders and Contractors has not taken a public position.
Meanwhile, NALP supports Pruitt because of his “stated mission of ensuring that the EPA does not unduly burden businesses with unnecessary regulations.”
NALP shares something else with Pruitt beyond a preference for unregulated pesticides. Neither has voiced concern that climate change resulting from carbon emissions is damaging the planet’s ecology. Pruitt denies that human activity is the reason 2016 was the hottest year on record. Mendelsohn says NALP won’t take a position on climate change because it’s “outside of the purview of NALP and our members.”
Opposition to pesticide regulations is one of NALP’s primary advocacy issues. Of its eight advocacy “core beliefs,” one is: “We believe peer-reviewed science should guide public policy making on technical issues and believe misinformation, including politically motivated ‘junk science,’ is damaging to our communities.”
Mendelsohn says this “junk science” is the result of the EPA changing its research vetting procedures. “Some individuals are pushing the EPA to abandon their assessment process, which bases regulatory decisions on ‘real world’ risk in favor of a much more subjective process that makes determinations based on ‘potential harm.’ This philosophy completely abandons the science-based cost-benefit analysis process that has always been used by the EPA, and instead encourages evaluators to cherry-pick research to justify action.”
In the case of chlorpyrifos, the New York Times reported that the EPA’s initial decision was based in part on research conducted at Columbia University, and veteran EPA staffers were convinced of its legitimacy.
The Oakland, California-based Pesticide Action Network filed a petition in 2007 to ban the pesticide, and has now (with the Natural Resources Defense Council) turned to the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to force the EPA to follow the recommendations of its own research. Pesticide Action Network Program and Policy Director Kristin Schafer criticized Pruitt’s actions preventing the ban “without any justification or any evidence” that further study was needed. “You legally can’t make that decision without justifying it,” she says. Pruitt’s decision could be a test case of the agency’s latitude to snub its past research in favor of dismantling regulations that industry groups find cumbersome.
Beyond impacts on human health, pesticide use can have dire consequences for water quality, wildlife, and overall ecological health. Sharon Selvaggio studies how pesticides affect water and wildlife for the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, and she says fish, for example, are particularly susceptible to pesticides, as are bees and other critical pollinators.
While 80 percent of pesticides are used in agricultural settings, the remaining 20 percent can have an outsized impact, she says, because landscapes treated with pesticides (such as schoolyards or public parks) are more likely to be frequented by multitudes of people.
Despite NALP’s staunch support for pesticides, there are alternative landscaping methods that sidestep these chemicals by relying on natural ecosystem processes to stop pests from overwhelming plantings.
Dave Alba, of the Pacific Northwest Coalition of Organic Land Care Professionals, says that moving away from traditional pesticide use means shifting from a “product-based approach” to landscaping to an “integrated approach.” For Alba, a former professional landscape contractor who now teaches about organic landscaping practices, this means evaluating each planting site’s ecology from the ground up: first its soil health, then the plantings themselves (favoring native or well-suited species), and when necessary, specific inclusion of organisms meant to control pests.
This method, he says, might have higher labor costs, but it also promises lower input expenses. And it can work for nearly all landscape types, even hyperartificial environments such as golf courses. Some, he says, have reduced pesticide use to only spot applications of fungicide.
And landscape architects play a critical role in reducing pesticide usage as well. By studying soil quality and specifying plantings, they can set the foundation for successfully integrated, pesticide-free landscapes, Alba says. “When a landscape architect works hard to bridge connections with the installers and the maintenance people,” he says, “that’s when the program works.”