The battle of Trenton: a debate over safe playing fields
By Rich Watson
Over the past 10 years, I have given many presentations, written articles and answered phone calls and emails on many topics. One of those topics is Integrated Pest Management and its relationship to safe playing fields. I am currently starting my fifth year on the STMA’s Environmental Committee where I am proud to have taken part in the creation of the Environmental Certification Program for sports fields. My promotion of IPM as a way to improve field safety has definitely taken on a life of its own. I was giving a talk a few years ago about infield skin maintenance at Rutgers University and after the talk someone approached me to ask a question. The question was: “Aren’t you the IPM guy? I didn’t know you did baseball too.” So there it was, I am the IPM guy even at a baseball field maintenance talk.
How did this happen? With more than 25 years of experience as a sports field manager, what changed the way people viewed me? Simply put, the introduction of “The Safe Playing Fields Act” in 2011 and the legislative debate in New Jersey that ensued has propelled me from high school groundskeeper to an industry leader who became a voice of the sports field manager throughout the state of New Jersey and beyond.
The Safe Playing Fields Act
I remember sitting in my office reading a headline from the local newspaper: “New Jersey Passes the Toughest Pesticide Law in the Country.” That headline certainly grabbed my attention. As I researched more closely, I discovered the Safe Playing Fields Act legislation sought to ban synthetic pesticides from use at schools, parks, and day care centers and had been approved by a committee but was not an actual law yet. This was a relief; but how could something like this occur without anyone who manages sports fields knowing about it or having input into this proposed legislation? I looked up the sponsors of the bill and attempted to call their offices. After speaking with some junior staff members, I soon realized that I was not getting any more information from them than I had already read in the newspaper. I wanted to get involved but was getting frustrated because I didn’t know how.
In 2011 I was on the Board of Directors for the Sports Field Managers Association of New Jersey (SFMANJ). Our President at the time was Don Savard, CSFM. Within a day of this legislation being proposed, Don was contacted by the New Jersey Green Industry Council (NJGIC) for the purpose of helping to bring some clarity to the issue of safe playing fields from the people who actually maintain them. The Environmental Committee that had passed this proposed legislation received a lot of testimony about how playing fields were being maintained but unfortunately most of it did not come from people that maintain sports fields. The general consensus from the original hearing was that pesticides are harmful and schools needlessly apply them to maintain their fields. Reading some of this testimony was upsetting because they were talking about me and how I go about my job. There were a lot of people with good intentions but poor facts driving this legislation forward. It seemed like a one-sided conversation. That was about to change.
The Board of Directors for the SFMANJ was about to head into uncharted waters with this issue. Our mission is to promote safe playing fields in New Jersey and the Safe Playing Fields Act was going to directly impact the safety of those fields if enacted. We are not a politically active group; however the political process in this instance needed the testimony of people with experience maintaining playing fields in New Jersey. The SFMANJ Board decided that it was necessary to represent the concerns of our members. There was going to be another chance to have our voices heard as the proposed legislation was going to be discussed again in another upcoming committee hearing. NJGIC encouraged our organization to testify at this hearing. NJGIC is an advocacy group that represents and defends the interests of the Green Industry in New Jersey. They employed a lobby firm and were on the front lines leading the opposition to the Safe Playing Fields Act. As we learned more about the process, it became clear that SFMANJ was going to play a key role in crafting the opposition to this legislation. Our participation was not simply going to end after giving testimony at a legislative hearing. While the game plan included testifying at hearings, it also incorporated informational meetings with legislators and their staffs, follow-up strategy sessions with NJGIC and their lobby firm, and educating our members throughout the process to make sure that they understood the importance of the issue.
The first step in the debate was giving testimony at an upcoming state congressional committee hearing. At the time, I was the grounds supervisor for the Pine Hill School District. Having to take off work to testify, I made sure that my school administration was aware of where I was going and was able to get them to review and approve my testimony for the upcoming hearing. This was important for a couple of reasons. First, as a state employee it was important for me to make sure I was going to be testifying on my own time. Second, it removed some of the anxiety of testifying knowing that my school district approved of what I was doing. Moving forward, I represented myself as a board member from SFMANJ to build awareness that there is an advocacy group that represents the people who devote their lives to maintaining playing fields.
As someone who has lived in New Jersey for the majority of my life, it seemed odd that the only time I had been to the capital city was to watch a Trenton Thunder game. While Trenton is a great place to watch a minor league baseball game, the state capitol building is where most of the action takes place in the city. There is a certain amount of apprehension when you are about to do something different. “Getting involved” usually meant rolling up the sleeves and physically fixing something with a direct outcome. This was different. Don Savard, CSFM, Scott Bills, CSFM and I were walking into a situation that was new for all of us. We had a pre-hearing meeting with NJGIC lobbyists in the morning and then made the short walk across the street to the capitol building. It was an interesting scene in the chamber where the hearing was held. Everyone who had an interest this legislation was packed into this room; it was an overflow crowd. There was a lot of testimony based on emotion and rhetoric about how schools were maintaining playing fields with many applications of synthetic pesticides and refusing to consider other methods. Our testimony was based on the work we had done and the experiences that we had maintaining athletic fields in New Jersey. An emphasis was made to show the role that the current New Jersey School IPM law played in how pests are controlled. The terms thresholds, cultural practices, resistant seed varieties and spot treatments were woven through our testimony. It was also imperative to make the point that removing synthetic pesticides from sports fields does not automatically make them “safe playing fields.”
The members of the committee were interested in this type of testimony and had several follow up questions with regards to organic control products and related costs of these products. Through the genuine expression of real life working knowledge, the testimony we gave was received positively and it was the first step in our becoming recognized as industry leaders regarding safe playing fields.
After testifying, there was still work to be done. Scott Bills and I had become the spokesmen for SFMANJ when it came to legislative issues. We had a good working knowledge of the issues at hand and were able to make arrangements to attend meetings and events as they came up. The testimony at the congressional hearing was very well received so we took the same information and brought it to other legislators who were not in attendance. This was done through a variety of different avenues. There were meetings at the office of several legislators, stakeholder meetings and informational (fund raising) dinners where we had the opportunity to speak with the individual legislator and their staff members. Combined together these scheduled events gave us an opportunity to get the facts directly to the people who were considering the passage of this legislation.
Educating the legislators about safe playing fields was just one part of the equation. In addition, it was also very important to get the same information to our members. SFMANJ hosts an environmental session at the NJ Green Expo every year in Atlantic City. It is a very well attended session where attendees are given updates on environmental issues by the NJDEP and other speakers from around the country and state. It also gives us the chance to give the membership legislative updates and answer any questions as they come up during the course of the session.
Since the original committee passage of the Safe Playing Fields Act in January 2011, the same legislation has been proposed every year without becoming law. What has made the difference? I am not really sure but the reason “why” we became involved might have been a factor. The proposed legislation did not reflect what I know sports field managers stand for. The myth that opposition to this legislation was driven by the industry that profits from pesticide use was proven to not be true as the process played out. Conversely, the sports field manager was portrayed as the first line of defense when it comes to safe playing fields. In the end, those of us who opposed this legislation were able to explain exactly how we maintained safe playing fields in New Jersey and those who were supporting the Safe Playing Fields Act clearly wanted to ban pesticides in the name of safety without fully understanding the consequences that would follow.
This experience has shaped my thinking on how I see environmental issues as they relate to athletic fields. It has reinforced the concept that a sound and well thought out IPM program is the best way to deal with pest pressures on athletic fields. Before I moved on from my grounds supervisor position in Pine Hill, I had stopped using herbicides and was enjoying a certain amount of success by focusing on cultural practices, aggressive seeding and following a balanced fertility program. Truth be told, it was not perfect but I firmly believe that this is the way to proceed into the future rather than legislating our way to achieving safe playing fields by banning pesticides. The debate over safe playing fields is most likely not over but I am confident that when fair minded people look at [START ITAL]why[END ITAL] both parties were involved in this century’s Battle of Trenton, the outcome will be the same.
This article is based on a talk given by Rich Watson and Scott Bills, CSFM at the 2016 STMA Conference in San Diego. The entire talk is available for viewing on www.stma.org.
Rich Watson is currently the Vice President of the Sports Field Managers Association of New Jersey and, since retiring last November, has joined the sales team at Laurel Lawnmower in Blackwood, NJ. Rich can be contacted at email@example.com.