Nontoxic Rewilding

In Iowa, students are proving that landscape restoration can go herbicide-free.

Native landscape restoration is popular among environmentalists, and for good reason. Removing nonnative species and restoring endemic habitat creates space for native wildlife, increases the presence of native plants, and boosts biodiversity. However, restoration projects often have a darker underbelly: the use of toxic herbicides to eliminate nonnative flora. Herbicide-Free Campus (HFC) student fellows at Grinnell College faced this issue head-on when they undertook a project to re-landscape lawns on campus with native prairie grass.

Located in central Iowa, Grinnell College sits on land that was once a prairie. The campus is now indistinguishable from most other colleges, its land covered in swaths of fresh cut, labor-intensive, and herbicide-coated, sprawling green lawns. This past school year, HFC fellows joined forces with student initiative Too Much Grass to propose re-landscaping areas on campus with native prairie grass, creating a campus that is more representative of its pre-colonial ecological roots.

Located in central Iowa, Grinnell College sits on land that was once a prairie. This past school year, HFC fellows joined forces with the student initiative Too Much Grass to propose re-landscaping areas on campus with native prairie grass.

Grinnell President Anne Harris and the groundskeeping team quickly got onboard, and this spring the school hired a botanist consultant to help plan the first site, a 5,000-square-foot area in the middle of campus. But students soon faced a dilemma: In order to transform the plot during the 2020-2021 schoolyear, it would need to be planted with native grass seeds in mid-May. That left just over a month to plan and prepare. Given the short timeline, the botanist and groundskeeper agreed a one-time application of glyphosate was necessary to clear the land of nonnative grasses.

Their reasoning was simple: Glyphosate is effective and efficient. But that efficacy does not come without risks. The herbicide is classified as a probable by the World Health Organization. From an environmental perspective, glyphosate decimates soil microbes, harms wildlife, and can run off to impact waterways and oceans.

Despite widespread concerns about glyphosate, it is ubiquitous in habitat restoration due to its ability to fully eradicate nonnative plants. For example, in 2019, the University of California temporarily banned the use of glyphosate-based herbicides on all nine campuses due to concerns raised by HFC about the use of toxic chemicals. But the ban included an exemption for habitat restoration.

HFC Grinnell students did not want to perpetuate glyphosate’s use in restoration work. After all, the goal of Herbicide-Free Campus is to reduce toxic herbicide use on campus. So, the fellows compiled research and suggested an alternative, nontoxic weed killer that has been shown to be nearly as effective as glyphosate. They were told that this product was too new and not enough was known about its efficacy. Using it could put the prairie restoration project at risk.

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The students regrouped again, and after reevaluating their priorities, they came to a consensus: The organic nature of the project was of the utmost importance. As Tommy Hexter, a member of HFC Grinnell, put it: “The Western logic of domination and its Green Revolution have made it frighteningly easy to rapidly destroy, transform, and control the environment. In my opinion, it would be egregious for this planting to begin from this logic … Achieving a true ethic of sustainable land management will require sacrifice, patience, and ingenuity. It will require a slower and more composed intervention.”

The students did not want to perpetuate glyphosate’s use in restoration work, so they suggested another, more labor intensive, option.

So, the students suggested another option: using a sod cutter to remove the nonnative grass and replacing the lost soil with compost. Although this method would take longer and require more people power (they would need to move 828 wheelbarrows total), it would stand out against the restoration norm. The idea was approved. On the weekend of the sod removal, over 30 people showed up to help the students, and community members excitedly hauled away rolls of sod for their own landscaping projects, giving it new life.

Ultimately, their hard work and determination will result in 5,000 square feet of campus restored to native prairie without the use of toxic herbicides. It will serve as a reminder of the pre-colonial landscape of Grinnell and will be a rich home for wildlife. It will offer an alternative model for landscape restoration, including for other projects on campus, and help disrupt the narrative that faster is better and that our dependence on chemicals is forever necessary.

Herbicide-Free Grinnell is showing us that with grit, commitment, and a whole lot of wheelbarrows, an herbicide-free future is possible.

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