Susan Calhoun

OU Landscape Coordinator Susan Calhoun and her team of undergraduate groundskeepers are currently clearing the slope along the Baker Center service way of porcelain vine, an invasive species that inhibits tree growth. Photo by Amanda Weisbrod.

Ohio University just got a little greener with a new approach to pest control.

On July 1, just in time for back-to-school preparations, the university approved an Integrated Pest Management Plan (IPM) that focuses on minimizing risks to humans and the environment when treating the Athens campus for natural pests, such as invasive insects and weeds.

This comes amid growing domestic and international concerns about the popular weed-killer Roundup.

Bayer, the parent company of Monsanto, which has produced the Roundup herbicide since the 1970s, faces cancer-related lawsuits from more than 13,400 plaintiffs across the United States, according to a Reuters article published on July 25. 

Bayer denies a direct correlation between using Roundup and contracting cancer. However, since 2016, it has been on the losing end of billions of dollars in jury verdicts. It lost its third consecutive cancer trial in May of this year.

Watching these proceedings carefully, realizing the impending effects of climate change, and understanding safety for “people, the planet and prosperity” combined to persuade the Ohio University’s Grounds Department to push for enacting the Integrated Pest Management plan this year, according to Sam Crowl, associate director of OU’s Office of Sustainability. 

“If you’re doing IPM right, it will certainly be better for the environment; it will be better for the people who use our green spaces; and it will be economical,” he said. “With the IPM plan, I feel like our eyes are closer on everything now, and with the climate changing so rapidly, that’s so much more important.”

The IPM plan, at its core, revolves around identifying pests and understanding their habits in order to fight them in the most efficient and safest ways possible.

Grounds Department Executive Director Steve Mack said this means severely limiting pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer use on campus, although some fertilizer is still used on intercollegiate athletic (ICA) fields due to safety concerns.

“The only places that we were really using pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers were on the ICA fields,” he said. “Outside of that, we had dramatically cut back on pesticides and herbicides, and we don’t use any fertilizers anywhere other than the playing fields.”

OU LANDSCAPE COORDINATOR Susan Calhoun explained that following the plan means setting action threshold levels, monitoring current pests and learning their habits, removing conditions that attract pests, and controlling pests only once they become an issue. While that sometimes means using pesticides, she said, sustainable and organic options are prioritized.

Under the plan, different areas of campus have varying thresholds, or allowances, for weeds before the Grounds Department considers taking action. High-profile lawns, such as College Green, have a threshold level of 20% before treatment is discussed, while athletic areas such as the Chessa soccer field and Bob Wren Stadium & Trautwein baseball field only have a 5% threshold for weeds.

Calhoun, who has worked in the OU Grounds Department since 1987, wrote the IPM plan with master’s student Meg Little, who graduated in 2019 with a degree in environmental studies.

“The plan forces you to monitor; it forces you to establish threshold levels. We don’t have to kill every last little sprout; we don’t have to kill every bug,” Calhoun said in an interview from October 2018, when she and Little were in the midst of writing the plan. “And it pushes cultural techniques that don’t use chemicals. It’s all about looking at your problem in a much more sustainable way.”

Crowl said the IPM plan has been a goal of the university since 2011, but wasn’t officially put into place until this summer.

Grounds Department Director Mack added that this delay had to do with time constraints, though both he and Calhoun stressed that many of the sustainable practices outlined in the IPM plan already had been put in place.

“It’s an aspirational goal, and it just took us that long to carve out the time to get it done,” said Mack. “It existed, but it didn’t exist in an official codified type form. What we have in the IPM plan is not really much different than what we’ve been doing.”

Other than the plan’s obvious benefits to the environment and human health, Mack said following these guidelines can help ensure the Grounds Department is using the best-possible methods to treat Ohio University’s “iconic” green spaces.

“It’s a selling point. We have a beautiful campus; we clearly want to keep it that way. There’s an aesthetic appeal to them, but there’s also a functional appeal,” he said. “In a few weeks, you’ll see hundreds of students having conversations or doing their homework in our green spaces, and we want to make sure it’s a safe environment for them.” (This interview was from earlier this summer.)

Mack and Calhoun revealed that the Grounds Department is currently exploring new practices with environmental safety in mind, including treating certain green spaces with compost instead of mulch. Mack said this would cut down on both fiscal costs and the carbon footprint of the university because the compost is sourced from the OU Compost Facility on The Ridges, whereas the mulch has to be trucked to Athens from Cincinnati.

Calhoun said the IPM plan encourages this quest for finding new ideas for sustainable groundskeeping techniques, which is close to her heart. She said educating her crew of 22 groundskeepers and continuing to search for cutting-edge maintenance practices are the best ways to preserve native species on the OU campus by fighting the effects of climate change.

“With the rapid change in climatic conditions, that education need is huge; it’s first and foremost in my mind,” she said. “For anyone who’s watching, (the effects of climate change are) so easy to see. It’s happening right before our eyes.”

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