The “lawns” of the National Mall are notoriously dustbowl-esque.
But for a few glorious months, several acres of grass were looking pretty swell. (They’re easy to find in the photograph above. Hint: look toward the top.) This spring, people were even spotted taking off their shoes and running around.
The reason? SafeLawns.org, a Maine-based nonprofit, was managing two roughly two-acre plots of land, using only organic products; meanwhile, the National Park Service had replanted and cultivated another plot of land.
Then sadly and abruptly, part of SafeLawns’ new lush carpet of green turned to a depressing brown mat. Employees at Safelawns discovered the change in May. The effects were traumatic for, well, some.
“It was like seeing your child with a scar,” says Paul Tukey, founder and director of Safelawns. “Your heart bleeds. But your child, if you put a bandaid on it, and continue to nurture the child, it will get better.”
Tukey’s organization advocates for natural, “environmentally responsible” lawn products, in favor of chemical pesticides, which made Tukey sick in the early 1990s, back when he owned a lawn care company.
“[The chemicals] affect everyone differently,” he explains, “It’s like alcohol. Some people get drunk on one beer. Some people can drink and not show any effects. These lawn chemicals don’t make everyone sick. But they make enough people sick that it’s a really big problem.”
Safelawns coordinated the Mall project through a partnership with the National Park Service. The experiment was a test run to see if “environmentally friendly soil treatments such as compost tea can improve the viability of the soil enough to make grass more viable under the extreme compaction conditions of the National Mall,” according to the agreement.
Yet, Safelawns always knew that its land would not be protected from the usual trampling and ongoing festivals, ceremonies, and protests. That was part of the deal.
When word got out about the newly-browned lawn, some local gardeners were none too pleased. “What a wasted opportunity to teach the public that they CAN really give up the poisons and pollutants without incurring the scorn of their neighbors,” wrote Susan Harris on the blog Garden Rant.
The rumor mill started churning. Soon, a culprit had been fingered: George Washington University. The school had held its graduation on Sunday May 18 on the National Mall.
“Black, plastic tarp was laid over the entire site, then chairs were set out and the lawn just cooked and cooked and cooked,” according to DC Urban Garners News (the post was also compiled by Harris).
Not so, says Bill Line, spokesperson for the National Park Service.
“No ‘permitee’ is allowed to put down any tarp, so I can disabuse you and I can disabuse Paul Tukey of any tarp,” Line told the Washington City Paper. “That issue is off the table. There is no tarp involved.” But there are two approved materials that can be used for vehicles driving equipment or materials onto the Mall.
And GW was not the offending group, adds Line. As far as he knows, the GW folks just set up their chairs and stage one day, and took ’em down the next. The Council for Excellence in Government, a national nonprofit, actually laid down the destructive material during their time, April 28 to May 8, on the Mall.
The group did put down a deposit for damages, like all other groups that obtain permits to hold events on the Mall. They were not billed additionally.