The Minneapolis Park Board will cut back on the use of pesticides throughout its 6,800 acres of parks, trails and recreation centers, hoping to reduce risks to health and the environment.

It reached the decision followin­g a years-long struggle pitting activists who demanded a blanket ban on synthetic pesticides against scientists who warned against the false advertising of organic products as being inherently safer for people and pollinators.

The staff-recommended policy ends cosmetic use of pesticides except for formal gardens and other areas where the purpose is aesthetics. If pesticides are needed, the Park Board requires licensed professionals to apply the least toxic products available.

"In this situation, there wasn't a consensus from the community," said Park Board Commissioner Steffanie Musich. "So the board moved forward with a policy direction that we thought worked toward an achievable goal of prioritizing nonchemical controls, significantly reducing pesticide use overall and working toward identifying the least toxic chemical control products for when all other control methods fail."

State law mandates the removal of "noxious weeds" harmful to people and the environment, such as poison hemlock. Park workers use a variety of chemical-free methods to control weeds, including mowing, prescribed burns, grazing goats and hand-pulling. But chemicals are sometimes necessary because each of those alternatives has its drawbacks, parks staff told the board.

In 2018, the Park Board passed a moratorium on glyphosate, the herbicide used in Roundup, because of a potential link to cancer. At the same time, it created an advisory committee to inform its new pesticide policy.

For two years, the committee met and argued before it disbanded without consensus.

The committee was made up of six technical experts chosen by park staff and nine applicants of varying experience appointed by park commissioners. The Park Board president at that time, Brad Bourn, tapped Russ Henry, president of the organic Minnehaha Falls Landscaping company, to head the panel.

Henry had recruited organics activists wearing yellow bandannas to "swarm the Park Board" through the political action organization Our Revolution. According to e-mails obtained through a data practices request, fellow committee members complained that Henry bullied and silenced those with differing views.

Most of the other committee members, including the technical specialists, advocated using pesticides only as a tool of last resort — such as when dealing with gypsy moth and Japanese beetle infestations on native plants — and then only to use chemicals developed to target pests instead of beneficial bugs.

Henry and a smaller faction of the committee advocated pesticide-free parks, framing their position as an imperative to protect children from cancer.

Committee members requested an outside facilitator to establish decorum, said Jeremy Barrick, the Park Board's assistant superintendent for environmental stewardship, who staffed the meetings. He hired strategic planning consultant Anne Carroll, who attended a few times before Henry dismissed her. Committee members then elected a co-chair: botanist and restoration ecologist Michael Lynch.

"Everybody who served on that committee, our goal was to reduce pesticide use," said committee member Alex Roth, a Friends of the Mississippi River ecologist. "The difference was there was the camp on the committee that thought one drop of any pesticide is a drop too many and the other camp, which wanted a nuanced approach, realizing that not everything can be managed in the same way."

During the pesticide committee's final meeting in February 2020, in which several members were absent due to personal reasons, Henry called two key votes without notice. Lynch was deposed and Henry's partner, Chesney Engquist, was elected the new co-chair. The committee also passed a recommendation that the Park Board adopt an organic parks resolution calling for the immediate disposal of the parks' stock of synthetic pesticides "not allowed in organic production" and directed staff to work with Bee Safe Minneapolis to create an annual forum on organic land management.

Bee Safe is Henry's "education and advocacy" organization, backed by his company Minnehaha Falls Landscaping.

Eight out of 15 members of the committee then penned a dissent letter that became known as the "minority-majority opinion" because although it was signed by a majority of the committee, it was not its official recommendation.

The letter described the committee as "disorganized" and "contentious." It criticized the organics plan as being "largely without scientific merit." There is no certification for "organic landscape management" programs, its authors pointed out, because federal guidelines deal solely with food production, not landscaping.

Organic pesticides, such as spinosad and azadirachtin, also are toxic to people and bees, said committee member Vera Krischik, University of Minnesota entomologist.

"There is no real thing as organic lawn care. It's a misnomer that business people use to get consumers to use their services," she said. "It was completely politically motivated."

Henry later resigned in protest, using social media to blast fellow committee members, park commissioners and park staff including Superintendent Al Bangoura as "toxic" and "pro-pesticide."

"It doesn't surprise me that a toxic board would allow this continued use of toxic pesticides that's why I had to resign in protest, this park board isn't interested in pesticide reduction," he wrote in a statement after the Star Tribune declined to interview him off the record. "I chaired the committee in accordance with its charge and in a manner consistent with every other [community advisory committee]."

Engquist did not respond to a request for comment.

At the Park Board's June 2 meeting, Bourn and Musich debated why the staff-recommended resolution included advice from the pesticide advisory committee's "minority-majority" letter rather than assuming the mantle of Henry's Organic Parks Resolution.

"We're passing something that … the committee did not support at a duly called vote, at a duly called meeting, is that correct? ... It just slaps our entire procedure in the face," Bourn said.

"What we're trying to achieve here with this resolution is a path forward, taking into consideration the desires of all members of the advisory committee," Musich responded.

Commissioners Kale Severson, AK Hassan and Londel French voted with Bourn. Commissioners Musich, Chris Meyer, Meg Forney, LaTrisha Vetaw and Jono Cowgill voted for the staff-recommended pesticide resolution, narrowly approving it.

It includes a key recommendation from the "minority-majority" faction to revise the Park Board's science-based Integrated Pest Management policy that was formulated in 1998 and has not been updated since 2008, Barrick said.

Susan Du • 612-673-4028