Killing the zombie weed of Loring Park is the Minneapolis Park Board’s worst nightmare

Loring Park's cattails cost Minneapolis taxpayers tons of cash each year, but neighbors are reluctant to either nuke them or let them be.

Loring Park's cattails cost Minneapolis taxpayers tons of cash each year, but neighbors are reluctant to either nuke them or let them be.

Minneapolis’ oldest and most heavily used park — the host of Pride Fest, Aquatennial, Chipotle Cultivate, and Holidazzle — is also the battle grounds of a rip-roaring neighborhood dispute.

Loring Pond, the dumbbell-shaped reservoir in the heart of the park, is overrun with invasive cattails. The entire north end is choked out with a floating mat of them, and the south end is surrounded. Residents strolling around the park in the summer can barely see the water through the weeds in some areas.

The Park Board started razing them in 2012. For $21,000, workers cleared a 100-foot test area, cutting the cattails three inches below the water so their hollow stems would flood and suffocate. It seemed to work, so in 2014 the Board ordered total annihilation of the cattails, spending $78,000 that fall. But by the spring of 2015, the bastards had grown back.

Faced with the prospect of throwing away tons of money each year pruning a single park’s zombie weeds, the board allocated $130,000 to a three-year attack plan to get them under control once and for all. That plan would continue with the mechanical cutting of previous years, but it also calls for applying herbicide where cutting below the water is impossible.

Loring residents flipped their shit. Though most neighbors insisted that the cattails should die, a loudly outspoken faction denounced the use of herbicides at any cost. A few were so scandalized by the use of chemicals that they were willing to let the invasive cattails take over, allowing the man-made pond to revert back into a swamp. At least one scientist tried to defend the board’s choice of herbicide, AquaNeat, pointing out that it is actually less toxic to humans than alcohol. Others jumped to accuse him – and environmental researchers in general — of being in the pocket of agri-bully Monsanto.

Pat Davies, a member of the Citizens for a Loring Park Community, says that ever since she threw herself into the issue, she has learned more about cattails than the Park Board has ever known.

“It’s such a scandal that I just can’t believe it,” Davies says. “They said 'We’re just going to have to use pesticides because we can’t control them,' but pesticides don’t control cattails. Everybody knows that if you use pesticides they’ll grow back again.”

The technique that works is to mechanically cut the cattails below the water just as they emerge, Davies says, but the Park Board didn’t get started early enough in past years. Herbicides wouldn’t be necessary if they’d only done the job right in the first place, she says.

Russ Henry, an organic landscaper, believes that the cattails should simply be allowed to live. They might be invasive, but they also provide habitat for the birds and butterflies and bees.

“The Park Board likes to speak about them as if they are a monoculture,” Henry says. “It’s all hogwash. I, as a landscaper, went down with my plant identification eyes on, and I myself took down half a dozen plants just within a small area that were growing in and around and with the cattails. It’s not a monoculture, and it’s certainly the right type of plant for Loring Pond.”

Meanwhile, the Park Board is spraying the cattails with poison that will kill fish and give the neighborhood kids cancer in the process, Henry says. All because local businesses and certain neighbors don’t like the look of them.

University of Minnesota ecologist Lee Frelich just wants everybody to calm down and let the Park Board carry on.

Cutting down the invasive cattails has allowed some native plants to return in recent years, Frelich says, but herbicides are essential for removing the cattails that grow on land. Plus, the herbicide that the Park Board has chosen, AquaNeat, poses little risk to humans, he says.

“When you look at the science for the type of herbicide they’re using, it has glyphosate in it as the main ingredient, and it’s really not very toxic, and it doesn’t persist in the environment,” Frelich says. “A lot of people kind of lump all chemicals together in one basket and think they’re all equally bad, which is just not true.”

Henry responds by challenging Frelich to drink a pint of glyphosate.

As the expensive controversy rages on, the Park Board is preparing to ask Minneapolis taxpayers for $210 million over the next 20 years to maintain its sprawling programs and facilities.