Fixing It: Edwina von Gal and the Perfect Earth Project

From August’s Hamptons Beach House magazine – a great article about The Moore Charitable Foundation partner Perfect Earth Project.

Our land and water has become polluted to the point of being hazardous. Edwina von Gal is changing that, and she needs all of us to get on board.

Edwina von Gal on her deck overlooking wetlands in Accabonac Harbor. Photo by David Harry Stewart/AGEIST.

Edwina von Gal on her deck overlooking wetlands in Accabonac Harbor. Photo by David Harry Stewart/AGEIST.

Owning land is at the heart of the American Dream – a little corner of the earth that you can call your own. But the concept that our land is somehow separate from our neighbor’s, separate from our waterways and farms and aquifers, is entirely manufactured by the human mind. No hedgerow or picket fence will stop the chemicals we put on our land from seeping into the environment because we are a part of the environment: we literally cohabitate with it.

That’s why, in 2013, Edwina von Gal, a fixture in the landscaping industry since she launched her business in 1984, created the Perfect Earth Project.

“My goal is that we will ultimately transform the landscape industry into a community of land stewards,” said von Gal. “It’s everyone’s job to be a conservationist on their own property. You can have your own piece of the environment. That’s what it is. It’s all part of one thing.”

The Madoo Conservancy, located in Sagaponak, celebrated its 50th year of toxin-free gardening this summer. Photo by Mick Hales.

The Madoo Conservancy, located in Sagaponak, celebrated its 50th year of toxin-free gardening this summer. Photo by Mick Hales.

Bob DeLuca, President of Group for the East End, has seen water quality deteriorate over the years. There are four categories of contaminants that make their way into our waters, explains DeLuca, and two of them are directly related to the landscaping industry. Phosphorous and nitrogen from fertilizers, categorized as nutrients, can affect surface water, which creates problems like algal blooms. This can increase toxicity to the point of hazard, as one Georgica Pond resident realized when her dog died after drinking from the pond in 2012. Georgica was closed to swimmers earlier this month because of the toxicity.

“We are seeing more harmful algal blooms in our surface waters, they’re lasting for longer periods of time and are existing in greater profusion,” said DeLuca. “Whether it’s Hook Pond, Georgica Pond, or Lake Agawam, problems that were once occasional are now catching up with us.”

When it comes to bigger, more global change, DeLuca is a firm believer in the power of local government.

“Years ago, Western Long Island Sound was given up for dead,” he said. “Over the course of two decades, investments were made, and in the last couple years nitrogen levels have gone down and oxygen levels have gone up. We’ve had beluga whales and dolphins back in the sound. It’s evidence that the investment works.”

Pesticides are a second problem.

“Presently, there are about 117 pesticides and pesticide bi-products found in Suffolk County drinking water,” he said.

To that point, von Gal recalls starting out in the landscaping industry, when Roundup was considered benign. Roundup, manufactured by Monsanto, is the brand name for Glyphosate, which is still one of the most widely used non-selective herbicides in the United States even after the World Health Organization designated it as a probable carcinogen last year. It kills everything herbaceous, i.e., not woody, without damaging monocots like grasses and corn.

“We used it on everything,” said von Gal. “We were told it wouldn’t leave any residuals. Just spray it on and in a few weeks it’s gone.”

Since then, von Gal says that Roundup has proven disastrous for reptiles and amphibians and has appeared in our drinking water. The impact on amphibians is like the canary in the coal mine: it tells us when something is wrong.

“Amphibians’ skin is so porous – they literally breathe through their skin,” said DeLuca. “They are an indicator species, and they’re being born with mutations.”

And it’s not just Roundup. Chemicals have become such a part of the landscaping industry that von Gal says there are 255 million pounds of pesticides put on American landscapes every year. A study done with golf course turf managers, who are exposed to large quantities of lawn chemicals over the course of their careers found they were twice as likely to be diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Parkinson’s disease. von Gal’s goal through the Perfect Earth Project is to eliminate those chemicals. Entirely.

This, from a landscape designer whose waterfront Springs home is a work of art, no matter where your gaze falls. She’s not saying stop having beautiful landscapes. She’s scraping away the myth that beautiful landscapes require chemicals. The first step, she says, is awareness.

Bridge Gardens is a public toxin-free garden in Bridgehampton, maintained by the Peconic Land Trust. Photo by Peconic Land Trust.

Bridge Gardens is a public toxin-free garden in Bridgehampton, maintained by the Peconic Land Trust. Photo by Peconic Land Trust.

“We need to retrain the landscape industry and land management decision makers,” she said. “This is a process. Not a product.”

She says many products are applied to lawns unnecessarily because there’s a one-size-fits-all approach that blasts landscapes with a cocktail of chemicals. If you were treating your lawn with chemicals to kill crab grass, she says, and you just stopped using those chemicals, of course the crab grass would grow.

“But if you take the chemicals out and put observation and intelligence in,” she said, “then you can deal with the problem. Mow higher to block out the sun for the crab grass, and fix your lawn in the unhealthy patches where crab grass is taking over.”

She points out that lawns get a lot of attention but trees, shrubs and gardens are all part of the landscape, and none of them require chemicals to thrive. But once a landscape has become dependent on chemicals, it’s much like a person dependent on drugs. There may be withdrawal symptoms.

“The more you use chemicals, the more your lawn needs them,” she said, “because you’ve destroyed its immune system. The process of going chemical free is simple, but it requires some attention.”

She compares it to the diet pill fad in the 80s, when people were so thrilled to find they didn’t need to eat well or exercise. They could just pop a pill and lose weight.

Bridge Gardens is a public toxin-free garden in Bridgehampton, maintained by the Peconic Land Trust. Photo by Peconic Land Trust.

Bridge Gardens is a public toxin-free garden in Bridgehampton, maintained by the Peconic Land Trust. Photo by Peconic Land Trust.

“Everyone was basically taking speed,” von Gal said with a laugh. “It was so simple! Take the pill and you have no appetite and, boy, was your house clean! But then we realized there were some serious downsides. This is the same. We are asking people to become conscious.”

On the practical, hyper-local level, that consciousness means looking at your lawn and your plants and noticing what they need. Perfect Earth offers tips to maintain a beautiful, chemical free lawn. Try mowing high, for example, to give each blade of grass maximum surface area for photosynthesis. Water infrequently-and deep-to draw the roots down instead of watering a little bit every day, making your lawn dependent on keeping the roots shallow to soak up the water.

When feeding, they recommend you think of feeding the soil, not the plants. Soil is the foundation, and that’s where a healthy root system starts. Raking compost, compost tea, or slow-release organic fertilizer into the soil surrounding trees and shrubs stimulates soil health and also reduces run-off, which helps protect our waterways. This should all be done in the fall, because spring fertilizing encourages weeds and disease.
Letting-go fits with Perfect Earth’s  overall approach. Allow clover to grow – it’s a natural fertilizer. “Clover is a nitrogen fixer,” said Jess Tonn, Director of Communications at Perfect Earth, “so it gives the lawn an extra boost of nitrogen when mowed. We also encourage people to leave their grass clippings because they’re an excellent source of nitrogen for the soil.”
While Perfect Earth emphasizes that a “perfect” lawn doesn’t need to be overrun with dandelions, it’s helpful to note that these “weeds” do help to aerate the soil and create diversity for pollinators like bees and butterflies. If you prefer to be dandelion-free, they recommend mowing high and then pulling out any remaining dandelions by hand.
They also encourage people to trust that trees and shrubs can take care of themselves most of the time, and don’t need intervention. Even organic sprays often kill beneficial insects alongside pests.

Perfect Earth - Lief - Toxin-free landscapesAt Perfect Earth, the primary objective is awareness. That’s where Lief, their little insignia that’s popping up from the Madoo Conservancy to Bridge Gardens, comes in. The little dancing leaf was conceived in the spirit of the Certified Organic symbol. It serves as a trustworthy notice that a certain landscape is toxin free. The town of East Hampton, Guild Hall, and the High Line in Manhattan are all in talks with Perfect Earth to get Lief on their property. The idea is they’re already perfect: this is just giving them the recognition they deserve.

“That’s what the name ‘Perfect Earth’ is all about,” said von Gal. “What is perfect? Nature is perfect. Look at your landscape: If it’s toxic, how perfect is that lawn?”

This coming November, voters will have a chance to advocate for this kind of change in our water quality. The Community Preservation Fund, which has preserved tens of thousands of acres of open space on the East End, could now allot 20% of its funds to water quality improvement. That’s an estimated $500-$600 million over the next twenty years.

“That ballot proposition could serve as the foundation to put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” said DeLuca.

Von Gal has watched the concept of consciousness in landscaping ebb and flow over her decades in the industry, but she feels it’s now gotten to a critical point.

“There’s so much pressure on the environment now that every single piece of land has to be counted,” she said. “You can’t put land into a category where we can destroy this because we’re saving that. If we can get the people of the United States and then the world to treat their land in a way that promotes it as a place that is biodiverse and toxin-free then we’ve made a small revolution.”

Perfect Earth will host the third annual Perfect Picnic Benefit at the Springs home of artist Cindy Sherman on September 3 from 3 to 7 pm. Isaac Mizrahi will be the MC, and Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie will headline an amazing musical lineup. Visit the Perfect Earth Project for tickets or more information.


How Three Generations of a Family Kept Their Agricultural Heritage Alive with the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust

Since 1995, The Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust (CCALT) has partnered with landowners across Colorado to protect productive agricultural land. This work has helped agricultural families to achieve their estate planning goals, pay down debt, save for retirement, pay for long-term health care and college education, diversify and expand operations, and preserve their agricultural heritage. It has also helped to preserve the natural resources that make Colorado such a special place to live and visit.

On a recent trip to visit partners in Colorado, a topic of conversation was the importance of family land – families keeping their agricultural heritage and traditions alive through generations. The CCALT focuses exactly on this – and their work with the 19,000 acre Patterson Ranch near Kim, Colorado in Las Animas County is a success story in this remote and rugged portion of Southeastern Colorado. Here is that story, from the CCALT website.

For years, the family grappled with the challenge of estate planning and how they would transfer the family’s agriculture business from one generation to the next without facing crippling taxes and having to sell some or all of the ranch.

The 19,000 acre Patterson Ranch near Kim, Colorado represents three generations of a family keeping their agricultural heritage and traditions alive

The 19,000 acre Patterson Ranch near Kim, Colorado represents three generations of a family keeping their agricultural heritage and traditions alive. Photo (c) CCALT

The Patterson family worked with CCALT and several other conservation partners to convey a conservation easement that enabled the Patterson family to reduce their estate tax liability, generate income and preserve the entire ranch as a viable agricultural operation. The conservation project was completed in 2000 and achieved all of the goals established by the family.

After years of operating with a conservation easement, the Patterson family is still going strong, valuing the partnership with CCALT that has enabled them to continue the family’s strong agricultural heritage in Southeastern Colorado. The Pattersons occasionally reminisce on the struggles they faced when deciding whether or not conservation was the right option for their family.

“Looking back, the decision was really very simple,” said Bob and Bunny Patterson. “We wanted to remain in agriculture and we wanted to pass the ranch on to our kids and grandkids. The conservation easement allowed us to do just that, and over the past decade, not much has changed. We continue to run the ranch the same way we did before the easement and the only thing that really did change is that now we have a better peace of mind as to what the future will hold.”

CCALT is proud of the hundreds of thousands of acres that they have been able to conserve in partnership with landowners. Read more about these families, their love of the land, and their commitment to protecting Colorado’s heritage and way of life.

The Trinchera Blanca Foundation and Founder Louis Bacon are proud supporters of the CCALT.

The National Audubon Society’s 2016 Rachel Carson Award Honorees tackle Climate Change By Air, Land & Sea

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Audubon’s Women in Conservation strives to celebrate the incredible work of female conservationists and environmentalists through the prestigious Rachel Carson Award, and to empower future female leaders through its work in schools and Professional Development for Young Women. Founder and conservationist Allison Whipple Rockefeller posted the following blog on Huffington Post this week, here repurposed in its entirety in support of the organization and to laud this year’s honorees.

The National Audubon Society’s 13th Annual Rachel Carson Award, the preeminent award for American women in Conservation will be given on May 17th at the Plaza in New York City. This year, three of the nation’s most prominent champions in the fight against climate change will accept this prestigious award recognizing the leadership of American women in the environment.

Dominique Browning, Co-Founder and Senior Director, Moms Clean Air Force

Dominique Browning Co-Founder and Senior Director of Moms Clean Air Force

Dominique Browning
Co-Founder and Senior Director of Moms Clean Air Force

How can only 3% of the 800,000 toxins found in our air be tracked and regulated by our government? Dominique Browning wanted to know and in asking that question publicly and with tenacity, Dominique turned a small community of concerned citizens and mothers into Moms Clean Air Force, an army of more than 700,000 members which demands answers from lawmakers and businesses regarding climate change and the toxins in our air.

Co-piloted with the Environmental Defense Fund, Moms Clean Air Force provides a vehicle by which mothers and parents from across the nation are demanding reform of the nation’s outdated Toxic Substances Control Act (1976) while strengthening the historic Clean Air Act (1963).

Employing hundreds of thousands of names on petitions, a “Stroller March” on Washington, town hall meetings, visits with Representatives and Senators, Governors and County Officials, Moms Clean Air Force exercises the strength of its political voice to persuade those in power about health risks caused by environmental degradation, specifically toxins found in air, and to the larger issue of climate change.

Dominique is an author of several books, her latest “Every Breath We Take” is written for young children about the air we breathe.

Rebecca Moore, Director, Google Earth, Earth Engine, Google Earth Outreach

 Rebecca Moore Director of Google Earth, Earth Engine and Earth Outreach

Rebecca Moore
Director of Google Earth, Earth Engine and Earth Outreach

Just as the sailors of ancient Arabia drew some of the earliest maps of seas and land, today Google Earth mapping has ignited society’s full imagination, making the world a smaller, more familiar place while at the same time celebrating the grandness of the planet, the known and the remotely observable.

Rebecca Moore is Director of Google Earth, Earth Engine and Earth Outreach. She initiated and leads the development of Google Earth Engine, an effort that enables scientists to conduct global-scale monitoring and measurement of Earth’s changing environment by providing them with access to an unprecedented amount of satellite imagery. Rebecca also founded and leads Google Earth Outreach which assists non-profits, educators and indigenous communities to employ Google’s mapping tools to tell their stories through visually depicting deforestation, illegal mining practices, glacial melt, and air pollution for the rest of the world to see.

This “global community watch program” demands truth-telling, monitors progress or destruction- visualizes value. This information becomes often indisputable in its ability to convince, confirm, and alarm. For the first time, communities everywhere can explain – down to the square foot – the enormity of their situation to lawyers, businesses, lawmakers and the media.

Google Outreach has organized “the world’s information” and sent it out to battle.

Kathryn Sullivan, Administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere

Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator

Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan
Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator

Hundreds of millions of people worldwide wake up each day to wonder “What’s the weather?” and there is no person on earth better suited to answer such a question than Dr. Kathryn Sullivan. As one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, Dr. Sullivan is the Administrator of NOAA, a world-class federal agency responsible for weather analysis and forecasting as well as research on the Earth, oceans and climate.

Dr. Sullivan’s road to NOAA has been an extraordinary one, where she has made adventure and exploration of the unseen worlds of ocean and space. She has explored the deepest ocean floor as an oceanographer with the US Naval Reserve and has soared 140 miles above the earth with NASA’s 1990 Space Shuttle “Discovery”, where she became the first American woman to walk in space.

But as NOAA’s Administrator, it is possible that she has taken on the most profound professional challenge of her distinguished career by tackling the greatest challenge of our age: climate change and the resiliency of ecosystems, communities, and economies in the face of it.

Today, Kathryn and the work of her agency have never been so valuable. She has led NOAA during some of the most crucial debates with government on climate change. She has allowed her team’s science to speak for itself and has not let the facts be obscured by the noise of opposition. Like Audubon’s award namesake, Rachel Carson, a scientist who endured much scrutiny and opposition, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan has continually stood up to defend the truth while others wished to question and condemn it.

A focus on conservation and community efforts in the Bahamas

Shark tagging in the Bahamas. Photo: Andy Mann

Shark tagging in the Bahamas. Photo: Andy Mann

This month, as the temperatures dips, we turn our focus to conservation and hurricane recovery in the Caribbean. From safeguarding marine areas from illegal fishing and development, advancing sustainable conch fisheries, protecting the Nassau grouper, preserving the Clifton Bay area, and rebuilding in the wake of Joaquin, The Moore Charitable Foundation and its Bahamas affiliate, The Moore Bahamas Foundation support community, environmental and education programs and the fragile marine environment of The Bahamas.

Some of the key areas we look forward to exploring in January are:

  • Marine research, Protection and Education. We will be showcasing organizations that advance local marine conservation efforts around The Bahamas, and education initiatives that provide hands-on opportunities to learn about the Bahamian marine environment.
  • Preserving the land of Clifton Bay. Focusing on protecting Clifton Bay and surrounding marine environments through proactive policy change, advocacy and education, The Foundation will highlight initiatives that encourage effective land use and habitat restoration efforts to benefit the land, coast, water and local communities.
  • Sustainable Fisheries. We will report on initiatives that protect key species in Bahamian waters, including the Queen conch and the Nassau grouper, and assist fishery managers with best practice management of sustainable fisheries.
  • Shark Sanctuaries. To provide sharks maximum protection from overfishing, The Moore Bahamas Foundation partners with groups mapping juvenile shark habitats and nursery sites in the Bahamas area; advocating for important shark protection laws, and raising awareness through education channels and public service campaigns. We will bring these stories to our readers.
  • Hurricane Recovery. A new focus since the devastation of Hurricane Joaquin, we will shine light on the restoration efforts in Southeastern Bahamas Islands, building core community structures with an eye to an environmentally responsible future; and rebuilding strong homes while simultaneously creating jobs.

Partners in the Bahamas whom we hope to make familiar include Bahamas National Trust, Research Foundation for State University of New York Stony Brook, Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation and The Bahamas Hurricane Restoration Foundation. Tune into our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter channels to get the most out of our stories. Happy New Year!

A look back at 2015: a tremendous year with tremendous conservation and community partners

It’s nearing the end of a tremendous year, made so for The Moore Charitable Foundation and the land, water and wildlife causes we champion, thanks to the accomplishments and ongoing efforts of all of our tremendous partners. holidayFrom globally recognized power houses like the Sierra Club and Waterkeeper Alliance, to small but mighty organizations such as Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, the groups with whom we work are making the world a better place for all of us.

Our diverse partners around the world are unified by their commitment to conservation and the empowerment of the communities they represent. On a local and planet-wide scale, these groups are making an incredible impact on our future through research, collaboration, education, advocacy, policy change and outreach. Here are just a few highlights of the year.

Wishing you and yours a fantastic new year – see you in 2016!