Week of 01/07/2007

Dear EarthTalk: Most environmental organizations appear to be run by men. But who are the women leaders in this field? I"d love to know about them.

—Leeona Klippstein, Carthage, NC

The ranks of environmental advocacy are teeming with female "movers and shakers," both at the community level and in some of the highest posts, though one would not know it from watching mainstream TV networks that tend to let men do most of the talking.

For starters, it was a woman, Rachel Carson, who ignited the modern environmental movement with her 1962 book, Silent Spring, which brought widespread attention to problems with pesticides. The book led to a U.S. ban of the pesticide DDT, spurred the founding of several influential environmental groups and helped blaze the trail for passage of the nation"s bedrock environmental laws in the early 1970s.

And it was Lois Gibbs who in 1978 pressured New York authorities to evacuate and clean up Love Canal, a chemical-dump-turned-housing-development suffering from high incidences of birth defects and cancer. Gibbs also lobbied Congress to pass "Superfund" laws mandating cleanup of similar sites. Today she runs the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ), which helps communities with similar problems.

Wangari Maathai has led thousands of women in Kenya in restoring denuded lands through tree planting, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her efforts. Another green heroine was Dorothy Stang, who was murdered in 2005 by land speculators angry at her efforts to preserve Amazon rainforest.

Not all of environmentalism"s leading female lights have such a high profile, but their work is key nonetheless. Deb Callahan turned the League of Conservation Voters into a strong political force during her decade-long stint as Executive Director. Frances Beinecke became the first woman president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in 2006. And Betsy Taylor founded the Center for a New American Dream (CNAD), which provides resources for people who want to "green up" their lifestyles.

Mary Evelyn Tucker co-directs the Forum on Religion & Ecology and has organized major environmental conferences bringing together religious leaders of all faiths. A woman, Mary Pearl, heads wildlife Trust, an international network of scientists engaged in work to save endangered species. And Rebecca Wodder has been president of American Rivers, the nation"s leading river conservation group, since 1995.

Theo Colburn, senior scientist at the World Wildlife Fund, co-authored the 1996 book, Our Stolen Future, which brought worldwide attention to the fact that common contaminants can interfere with human fetal development. And Laurie David, wife of TV icon Larry David, produced Al Gore"s Inconvenient Truth and founded Stop Global Warming, an effort to engage everyday people in addressing climate change.

Thousands of other women—in boardrooms, in offices and "in the trenches" all over the globe—work tirelessly on environmental issues, which affect us all equally regardless of sex, race or natural origin.

CONTACTS: CHEJ; NRDC; New American Dream; American Rivers; Forum on Religion & Ecology; Our Stolen Future; Stop Global Warming

Dear EarthTalk: I"m sick of having to maintain my lawn, and I"m sure that all the chemicals I"m using are no good for the environment. What alternatives can I explore that will save time and money while keeping the property looking nice?

—Sarah, Bethesda, MD

Grass lawns first appeared in Europe in medieval times, status symbols for the rich that had to be kept trimmed by fairly labor-intensive methods, often by grazing livestock and certainly not by polluting lawn mowers and poisonous weed killers. Lawns actually did not become popular in North America until the middle of the 20th century, but are now as common as the middle class suburban homes they surround.

Besides hogging public water supplies—over 50 percent of U.S. residential water usage goes to irrigating lawns—a 2002 Harris Survey found that American households spend $1,200 per year on residential lawn care. Indeed, the booming lawn care industry is more than eager to convince us that our grass can be greener—and then sell us all the synthetic fertilizers, toxic pesticides and leaky lawnmowers to make it so.

According to Eartheasy.com, which offers online insights on a host of environmental issues alongside books and green products for sale, there are many alternatives to a carpet of monochromatic grass for one"s property. They recommend groundcover plants and clover, which spread out and grow horizontally and require no cutting. Some varieties of groundcover are Alyssum, Bishops Weed and Juniper. Common clovers include Yellow Blossom, Red Clover and Dutch White, the best suited of the three for lawn use. Groundcover plants and clovers naturally fight weeds, act as mulch and add beneficial nitrogen to the soil.

Eartheasy also recommends flower and shrub beds, which can be "strategically located to add color and interest while expanding the low maintenance areas of your yard," and planting ornamental grasses. Ornamental grasses, many which flower, have numerous benefits over conventional grasses, including low maintenance, little need for fertilizer, minimal pest and disease problems and resistance to drought.

According to David Beaulieu, About.com"s Guide to Landscaping, moss plants should also be considered, especially if your yard is shady: "Because they are low-growing and can form dense mats, moss plants can be considered an alternative ground cover for landscaping and planted as "shade gardens" in lieu of traditional lawns." Moss plants do not possess true roots, he points out, instead deriving their nutrients and moisture from the air. As such they like wet surroundings and also soil with a pH that is acidic.

In all fairness, lawns do have a few plusses. They make great recreational spaces, prevent soil erosion, filter contaminants from rainwater and absorb many kinds of airborne pollutants. So you might still keep a short section of lawn, one that can be mowed with a few easy strokes. If you do, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends avoiding traditional synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. A number of all-natural alternatives are now widely available at nurseries. Natural lawn care advocates also advise mowing high and often so that grass can out-compete any nascent weeds. Also, leaving clippings where they land—so they can serve as natural mulch—also helps prevent weeds from getting a foothold.

CONTACTS: Eartheasy.com; EPA"s Healthy Lawn

, Healthy Environment