Thursday, April 29, 2010

Westville Schools a model of Integrated Pest Management

Westville Schools a model of Integrated Pest Management

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

As director of operations at Westville Community Schools, Seth Miller bears a wide range of responsibilities, among them, pest control. For years, this meant maintaining a contract with a commercial pest control company, which would come in on a routine basis to spray, while the custodial staff worked to control rodents.

Like others around the state in his position, Miller was aware that Westville was required to implement a new approach called “Integrated Pest Management,” or IPM, but as of last April, he was just beginning to figure out how to do it.

That’s when he met Susan Ratcliffe, director of the North Central Integrated Pest Management Center. At a school IPM training meeting Miller attended, Ratcliffe announced she was looking for a school district to serve as a model for verifiable IPM in Illinois—and that she had substantial resources to help implement it. Miller leapt at the opportunity.

What Ratcliffe was offering was the collaborative help of University of Illinois Extension, the Illinois Department of Public health, and other national experts in school IPM, a package worth $25,000.

According to Ratcliffe, there are compelling reasons for retiring the current routine of spraying for insects that occurs in most schools in favor of IPM, chief among them the links between pesticide exposure, asthma and increased absences. She also points out that there’s much we don’t know the long-term health effects of exposure to pesticides in schools.

The goal of IPM is not to eliminate the use of pesticides entirely, but to greatly reduce their use by making human environments less conducive to pests in the first place. This includes eliminating access to food, removing habitat and closing off travel corridors.

Some of the greatest challenges the IPM team identified in Westville’s schools were where you might expect them, in the cafeterias, the teacher’s lounges and in classrooms where food is stored and prepared. [Photo: Susan Ratcliffe and Seth Miller check the sticky trap at an IPM monitoring station in the cafeteria kitchen at Westville high school.] Teachers, other staff and students have all helped to resolve these challenges by changing their practices, moving all food into plastic containers with tight-fitting lids, and not leaving dishes with food residue to sit on counters or in sinks.

Teachers were also important agents in the project of eliminating habitat. They removed clutter and items attractive to pests from classrooms and they exchanged cardboard boxes for plastic tubs to store materials they wanted to keep.

Members of the custodial staff at Westville schools, led by Tyrone Atwood, have been especially enthusiastic and effective in helping to implement IPM. They are the ones who maintain the high level a sanitation that is key to successful pest management and they work with the IPM team to seal out pests and eliminate pest conducive conditions.

The effectiveness of the steps implemented to control pests through the IPM program is gauged at monitoring stations throughout the schools. At each of these there is a sticky trap on the floor to catch pests, and a notebook for recording what’s found there. When something is caught, the team makes a management decision based on pest type and its location within the schools.

The institution of the IPM program at Westville schools has not caused Seth Miller to sever ties with the commercial pest control technician who had done the spraying there in the past, but it has changed what the district asks of him. He is now called in to help diagnose and treat specific problems rather than to spray as a routine, and pesticide applications have been reduced by 87 percent.

When I asked Miller to comment on why he had adopted IPM with such enthusiasm he replied, “Number one, it’s the law. But beyond that, it’s the health of your kids, and the health of your community.”

For more information about school IPM and training contact Susan Ratcliffe at 217-333-9656.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

U of I student efforts reach far beyond Earth Day

U of I student efforts reach far beyond Earth Day

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

As we celebrate the 40th Earth Day, let me call your attention to one of the most effective ways University of Illinois students are working to promote the health of the planet. That is by assessing themselves fees to invest in initiatives that make campus more sustainable.

This spring, they approved by a three to one margin an increase that will bring the total amount of fees supporting sustainability to $14 per semester, so that they now will have roughly a million dollars a year to fund projects.

I spoke recently with Suhail Barot, who is chair of the Student Sustainability Committee, which allocates these funds, to get the story on how they are used.

Barot emphasized that even with the recently approved increase, the funds generated by student fees are nowhere near sufficient to cover the costs of routine conservation efforts for an entity as large as the university. As he put it, “[Students] can have the greatest impact when they fund pioneering projects, not things the institution should be doing anyway.”

He cited as an example the $450,000 loan students made to help upgrade lighting in the lobby at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, a project that was completed this past winter. Without the use of student funds, that upgrade would have been limited to replacement of incandescent lights with fluorescents. With the student money, the project was able to use state-of-the-art LED lighting. LED lights costs more up front, but they pay back more in energy savings over time. In the years to come, that money will be used first to repay the SSC loan, and then accrue to the university. On top of this, support from student fees enabled the Krannert Center lighting project to secure a grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, substantially reducing the cost of the project for the university.

In addition to loans for extraordinary energy conservation projects, student sustainability funds have been allocated as grants for a variety of other efforts. Among them are the Sustainable Student Farm, the “green” renovation of an underutilized older building used by the Department of Dance and the School of Architecture, the prairie plantings at the School of Veterinary Medicine and the newly established Campus Bike Project. [Photo: Suhail Barot working with other student volunteers to erect greenhouse-like structures at the U of I Sustainable Student Farm last fall.]

Barot was especially enthusiastic to report there is renewed hope student clean energy funds will soon be used to accomplish the purpose for which they were originally established in 2003, and for which students have continued to fight--to bring wind energy to the UI campus. (You may remember that this effort was put on hold when the university was unable to meet its commitment to the project in the face of mounting budget concerns in late 2008.) The current plan would use a combination of funds from student sustainability fees, the university and the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation to erect a one megawatt turbine, which would supply roughly 1 percent of electricity used on campus.

In these times, wouldn’t that be a breath of fresh air?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Catching up with the rarest bird in Illinois

Catching up with the rarest bird in Illinois

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

A week ago Saturday, just before dawn, I was ensconced in a plywood-sided blind with my friend Greg Lambeth at the Prairie Ridge State Natural Area, southeast of Effingham. Over the rat-a-tat noise of rain on the tin roof, and through the fog of a nap, I was awakened by a clipped whisper, “They’re here!”

“They” were greater prairie chickens, and despite the rain and gusting wind they had begun to congregate on the communal breeding ground, or “lek,” our blind looked onto.

Greater prairie chickens, which belong to the grouse family, are not striking to look at under most circumstances. They’re about the size shape of a small barnyard chicken, marked by beige and brown barring. But on mornings in March and April when males congregate on the lek, they strut their stuff in a show that fully justifies the effort required to observe it.

After pausing to survey the field a prairie chicken bows, and stretches his neck forward, creating a horizontal line from tail to head. Suddenly, his tail flips up into a fan and on either side of his throat out flashes a round expanse of featherless skin the size and color of a navel orange. The inflation of these air sacs produces a low, otherworldly call, known as booming, that may be heard a mile or more away. Raising long feathers on the back of his neck into a headdress, he completes the performance by dancing, a hyper-fast stutter step that may propel him in partial circles.

Male prairie chickens on the lek also vie for choice territories in brief, but surprisingly violent battles. It’s like watching a ballet where occasionally one dancer crosses the stage to butt heads with another, or even attack him with a flying kick.

Prior to European settlement, prairie chickens thrived in the grasslands of Illinois, and their numbers even increased during the middle years of the nineteenth century, thanks to the introduction of high-energy grain fields into their favored habitats. The hunting of prairie chickens for sale as food and the intensification of agriculture in the years following the Civil War brought on a long decline that would have ended with their extirpation from the state were it not for creation of refuges at Prairie Ridge in the 1960s.

And habitat preservation alone was not enough to save them. The population of prairie chickens surviving in Illinois was so small and so isolated from remaining populations in other states that by the late 1980s it had lost the genetic diversity needed for successful reproduction. What scientists call a “population bottleneck” had been reached.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources resolved this problem during the 1990s by translocating prairie chickens to Prairie Ridge from healthier populations in Kansas, Minnesota and Nebraska.

The prairie chickens my friend and I observed are part of a population that has remained relatively stable over the past decade. According to Scott Simpson, long-time manager at Prairie Ridge, the total number of prairie chickens there currently includes about 180 birds.

You can link to video of prairie chickens booming here.

Better still, you can see them for yourself, either from the roadside or from your own spot in a blind at the Prairie Ridge State Natural Area.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Boneyard Creek Community Day, Clean Water Restoration Act both promote healthy streams

Boneyard Creek Community Day, Clean Water Restoration Act both promote healthy streams

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

This Saturday, April 10, you are invited to join hundreds of other people from Champaign-Urbana and surrounding communities to participate in the annual Boneyard Creek Community Day.

This event, which boasts a list of sponsors and organizers as long as your arm, encourages people to appreciate local streams with a clean-up, storm drain marking and a variety of stream naturalization efforts. On top of that, it includes a free lunch and t-shirt for people who volunteer. Boneyard Creek Community Day will be headquartered at Scott Park in Champaign, but will also include activities at two satellite locations, Parkland College in Champaign, and the Anita Purves Nature Center in Urbana.

According to Eliana Brown, stormwater coordinator with UI Facilities & Services, Boneyard Creek Community Day provides a unique, hands-on opportunity for people to learn how their everyday behavior affects local waterways. [Photo: Participants from the 2009 BCCD celebrate what they accomplished.] As she puts it, “When people realize that litter from Campustown sidewalks winds up in the creek, they begin to understand just how thoroughly our lives are connected with streams.”

If the spirit and energy people put into events such as the Boneyard Creek Community Day were sufficient to keep the waters of the United States healthy, I think Americans would enjoy the cleanest streams, lakes and coastal waters in the world. But they’re not.

Most of the waters of the United States are much cleaner today than they were three or four decades ago. But that change for the better owes more to our adoption of effective federal environmental law—the Clean Water Act of 1972—than our willingness to participate in clean-ups.

Unfortunately, the effectiveness of the Clean Water Act has been curtailed in recent years. Rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and subsequent administrative activities by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers have served to exclude certain wetlands and smaller streams from the protections of the law. The signal to polluters has been that it may again be profitable to treat certain water bodies as sewers.

In a March 1, 2010 story for the New York Times Charles Duhigg and Janet Roberts write, “Companies that have spilled oil, carcinogens and dangerous bacteria into lakes, rivers and other waters are not being prosecuted, according to Environmental Protection Agency regulators working on those cases, who estimate that more than 1,500 major pollution investigations have been discontinued or shelved in the last four years.”

Measured in terms of miles, more than half of Illinois’ streams are small enough to be at risk of losing Clean Water Act protections. Also vulnerable are some 150,000 acres of Illinois wetlands, which could now be considered “isolated” and thereby outside of Clean Water Act safeguards.

Legislation titled the “Clean Water Restoration Act,” which would remedy this situation, has been kicking around in Congress for more than two years now, but it has yet to gain much traction. For that to happen, those of us who value waterways enough to pick up litter must also make time to pick up the phone and let legislators know where we stand.

You can sign up to volunteer at the Boneyard Creek Community Day at You can learn more about the Clean Water Restoration Act through the National Wildlife Federation at