When residents of Thurston County started pressing for reduced pesticide use in the late 1980s, they had few models to look to.  It took two years for a Citizens’ Advisory Committee to develop a Pest and Vegetation Management Policy for the county, but once they did, Thurston County became a true pioneer in developing an IPM program and reducing pesticide use.  Today, the county has one of the most comprehensive IPM programs in the country, and county departments use few to no pesticides.

Building Political Support

In the 1980s, a number of individuals and organizations banded together to convince Thurston County to reduce its pesticide use on roadsides, in parks, and on other county property.  Leaders included members of the Audubon Society as well as the Sierra Club, who built a base of support with the assistance of the Washington Toxics Coalition.  Jean McGregor, who represented the Black Hills Audubon Society, said, “We wanted to break the cycle of chemical dependence in the county around herbicide use.”

As a result, then-county executive Tom Fitzsimmons (and current director of the state Department of Ecology) created a Citizens’ Advisory Committee and charged them with developing a policy.  A key breakthrough in the process occurred when the county surveyed residents about its attitudes toward herbicide use.  According to Jean, “there was overwhelming interest in reducing herbicides and moving toward alternatives.”  The committee passed a policy after two years of intense work, and with minor changes, that policy guides the county today. 

Creating an IPM Program

Shortly after the policy was adopted, the county hired Mark Swartout to serve as its IPM Coordinator.  Despite the lack of models in other cities and counties to look to, Mark led county departments in the process of developing comprehensive IPM programs.  Mark now has a four-inch-thick binder containing the written programs of each county department, together with specific prescriptions for each department on how it will deal with certain pest problems.  The “IPM programs” provide general guidance to the department on how it will manage pests and vegetation.  For example, for roads and transportation, the program lists goals such as protecting water quality and encouraging native plants; provides a full description of the road system and associated vegetation; presents policy statements on how wildlife, water quality, and other benefits will be protected; and details the techniques and decision-making process for the use of mechanical, biological, cultural, and chemical controls.  

Procedures associated with the program include public notification, communicating with the public on the use of pesticides, and handling of pesticides.  The roads program also developed specific “prescriptions” or techniques that will be used for certain problems.  The department developed a number of these prescriptions for noxious weeds, in addition to prescriptions that detail what controls will be used for what portions of the roadside.  The department now uses no pesticides for regular vegetation management, using mowing instead, and applies pesticides only to control noxious weeds.

Other county departments that have similar IPM programs and prescriptions include the Solid Waste Division, which manages a landfill as well as transfer stations; the Noxious Weed Control Board, which provides chemical-free removal of noxious weeds for private property owners (for a fee); the Storm and Surface Water Utility; Facilities, which manages structural pest problems in county buildings; Parks, which manages 2,595 acres of parks and other landscapes; and two lake management districts managed by the county.

Once the programs and prescriptions were developed, departments found that in most cases they could manage with no pesticides or least-toxic pesticides.  One striking example is Parks’ management of a group of plum trees that had persistent infestations of scale, aphids, and whiteflies.  These pests were “managed” through yearly applications of insecticides, but the applications did not solve the problem.  After the policy was passed, the applications were stopped, as was harsh pruning that was stressing the trees.  Since the trees regained health, there have been no problems with insect pests, and no pesticide applications have been made.

The Facilities department found that the best way to deal with indoor pest problems is to correct the structural problems that are allowing the infestation.  In one building, a carpenter ant nest was located and removed to solve an ongoing problem.  In a covered walkway, rotten wood that was harboring ants was removed, and boric acid was applied to prevent future problems.  According to Mark, “Unless you deal with the structural problem, you can spray until you’re blue in the face and you won’t get rid of insects.”

Restrictions on Pesticide Use

Any pesticide proposed for use must be approved by the Thurston County Environmental Health Division or the Board of Health, according to criteria in the policy.  The policy states that pesticides may not be used if they are linked to cancer, reproductive or developmental toxicity, or if they are mutagenic; if they are mobile or persistent, or if they have high acute toxicity.  Other factors that are considered are degradation products, aquatic toxicity, bioaccumulation, and “inert” ingredients.  No product may be used if its inert ingredients (which are all ingredients besides the active ingredient) are considered to have a known or suspect toxicological concern by the Environmental Protection Agency.  The policy gives preference to pesticides whose manufacturers disclose the identity of inert ingredients.  Under this policy, nine pesticides are currently approved for use within the prescriptions developed by departments.

Accountability and Public Involvement

Since the policy was first established, the county has made a practice of releasing annual reports detailing pesticide use.  Mark says, “We shine a bright light on what we do because public advocates are the way we can keep the political will to continue the program.”  The report for 2001 details each pesticide use by the roads and transportation department, including the purpose of the application, with similar information for parks and recreation.  In 2001, the other departments made no pesticide applications. To provide ongoing citizen oversight to the program, the policy created the Pest and Vegetation Management Advisory Committee, which includes representatives from the agricultural and environmental communities as well as citizen representatives.  According to Mark, the committee has provided important expertise and has served as a key body for developing solutions for persistent management problems.

Ten years after the policy’s implementation, community members involved in establishing it are pleased with its progress and hopeful that the model will spread. “The county is only one of many public entities that need to deal with weeds and other pest problems,” says Jean McGregor. “We have state government, we have city government, ports, and schools, all of which could be doing more to reduce pesticide use.  With more public entities learning the ropes of IPM, more sharing can occur and we can continue to build up these good practices.”