Improving Enviromental Management

ENV04: Increase Environmentally and Economically Beneficial Landscaping


The federal government makes landscaping and planting decisions for a wide variety of federal facilities, including military bases, park facilities, highway projects, and veterans' cemeteries.[1] These decisions significantly affect the health of the natural systems on which we depend.

Environmentally beneficial landscaping considers the make-up of the native ecosystem where the landscaping is done and strives to protect it. It is designed to minimize the effects that the landscaping will have on the surrounding environment by giving preference to regionally native plant species. It also emphasizes the use of water-conserving techniques such as efficient irrigation systems and drought-resistant plants and the reduced use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.

At every level of government environmentally beneficial landscaping policies and activities are being implemented. For example, the 1987 Wildflower Act requires that 25 cents out of every $100 of landscape funding be used to plant wildflowers in federally financed highway projects.[2] This law, however, does not require the use of wildflower species native to the project area. The Department of Veterans Affairs stresses the use of native plants in its National Cemetery System to reduce mowing and water costs.[3]

The federal government also has programs that combine educational and conservation opportunities. For example, the Department of Agriculture's Soil Conservation Service helps schools and communities develop outdoor learning centers.[4] These centers provide opportunities to teach core subjects, such as science, math or English, using environmental and conservation examples. The local centers can satisfy traditional educational requirements while meeting specific conservation objectives. For example, children help design, plant, and maintain a row of trees near their school to reduce energy costs. Throughout the project, they learn the math and physics, for example, of energy conservation. At the same time, they learn how to choose environmentally appropriate tree species and how to care for them.

Several states and cities are also beginning to recognize the value of planting native species, and it is reflected in their laws and ordinances. For example, Minnesota recently passed a law to study the feasibility of requiring only native plants on public lands.

In California, state law mandates cities to institute local ordinances that require citizens to use water conservation practices in their landscaping activities.[5] The city of Austin, Texas, has several ordinances that require city planners and developers to consider the environmental impacts of their actions.[6] These ordinances include requiring the use of native species in plantings, the protection of trees on development sites, and the use of integrated pest management practices. They also require the use of water conservation techniques in plans, and the preservation of fragile ecosystems at development projects.


The federal government should serve as an example of how landscaping can incorporate environmentally beneficial practices and be both beautiful and economical.

Preserve Native Ecosystems.

Native plants add value to the complex ecosystems of which they are a part. The right selection of plants provides appropriate habitat for wildlife, creating resources for food, shelter, and nesting areas. The use of native plants can also reduce landscaping costs and pollution. In many parts of the country, however, they are not used in landscaping: sometimes because exotic species have edged them out, sometimes because they are simply not commercially available, and sometimes because they are not deemed attractive.

The introduction of exotic plants can have costly environmental and economic consequences. Throughout the country, there are approximately 14 million acres of federal lands that are infested with exotic weed species (such as English ivy).[7] For example, in California's Redwood National Forest biologists have identified 150 plant species as hazardous to the natural ecosystem. Their budget, however, provides only enough funding to do basic research on management strategies for 10 of these exotic species.[8]

Many native landscaping plants are not commercially available. Few nurseries maintain sufficient stocks of native trees, shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers in the size and quantity to meet the federal government's landscaping needs. Government specifications that require the use of native species do not always allow enough time for nurseries to develop stock. As a result, nurseries that are interested in developing a more diverse inventory of native plant species do not do so because they cannot grow them fast enough to satisfy the specifications. Therefore, few nurseries bid on the published proposals. In addition, nurseries are hesitant to enter the market because of uncertain demand, again reducing the selection of native species available to federal landscape architects.

Improve Conservation Education.

Current federal environmental and conservation educational programs do not fully exploit the opportunity for public- private partnerships in education and conservation. There are many opportunities the federal government can take to set an example and provide outreach activities to the public. The federal government is in the position to be a model for the preservation of our biological cultural heritage. Government grounds can be excellent examples of the diversity of native plant species in an area.

Reduce Landscaping Costs.

Maintenance costs can be reduced because native grasses and wildflowers do not require frequent mowing, irrigation, or fertilization. Reduced mowing lowers costs of labor, tractor repair, and fuel. It also reduces pollution.

Chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides and irrigated water expenditures can be reduced because native plants are better suited to the climate and the local insect and animal population. Therefore, they require reduced quantities of irrigated water and chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to thrive.The use of integrated pest management (IPM) can further reduce agency expenditures for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. IPM is a method of pest control that uses biological methods to control damaging pests. For example, sterile insects can be introduced in an area to mate with the existing insects, thereby reducing their ability to reproduce and eventually their population size. This method of pest control also includes surveying infested areas and planning pesticide applications to coincide with the most vulnerable stage of the target insect population's development. This avoids blanket preventive spraying.

Implementation of effective IPM programs can reduce chemical usage and costs significantly. The National Arboretum, for example, reduced its expenditures for chemical pesticides by an estimated 75 percent when it switched to IPM.[9] Purchasing chemicals only on an as-needed basis can achieve cost savings not only by requiring fewer purchases, but also by avoiding disposal costs for unused chemicals. The use of chemicals to maintain grounds contributes to environmental, health, and safety problems. Reduced use of chemicals lowers the possibility of contaminated run-off into rivers and ground water. Chemical reductions can assist agencies in achieving compliance with the pollution prevention Executive Order, which calls for a 50 percent reduction in toxic substance use by federal agencies.[10]

Conserve Water.

Water used to irrigate lawns and landscapes can account for significant proportions of total water use during peak watering season. The selection of native plants that are adapted to the particular climate can reduce water demand by requiring less irrigated water. Grasses and trees should be selected in part based on how much water they consume. Species that are particularly thirsty should not be used in arid areas where normal rainfall does not meet most of the plant's water needs. Reduced water use conserves the fresh water supply for both the natural environmental systems and the human population.

Accordingly, federal parks, golf courses, and cemeteries should select grass varieties carefully, install efficient irrigation technologies, and schedule irrigation times according to turf needs and weather conditions. All landscapes, especially large grassy areas, should have their water needs audited to ensure that plants are receiving the appropriate level of water. Overwatering results in additional water costs, as well as unnecessary use of energy.[11]


Issue a directive to require the use of environmentally beneficial landscaping at federal facilities and federally funded projects, where appropriate. (2)

The President should issue a directive by May 1994 to:

require agencies to use environmentally beneficial landscaping wherever appropriate, cost-effective, and practical;

stress the links between landscaping decisions, protection and enhancement of the environment, and cost-saving opportunities; and

announce that the federal government will lead by example through the implementation of environmentally beneficial landscaping principles at the White House and the Vice President's residence at the Naval Observatory.

Increase the use of native plant species in all federal landscaping activities.

The directive should also:

encourage the use of native trees, shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers in landscaping;

encourage agencies to develop specifications with enough flexibility to encourage nurseries to develop sufficient stocks of native plant species; and

direct the Department of Agriculture, through its Agricultural Research Service and/or the Soil Conservation Service, to conduct research on the production and use of native species as landscape and conservation plants.

Reduce the quantity of chemicals applied to federal landscapes.

The directive should encourage agencies to:

reduce their use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; and

use an IPM approach to pest control.

Use water-efficient technologies in federal landscaping projects.

The directive should also:

encourage agencies to use water-efficient technologies to the maximum extent practicable;

encourage the use of water audits, where appropriate, to establish exact needs and assist in planning irrigation systems and scheduling; and

encourage agencies to participate in water utility conservation and rebate programs.[12]

Provide educational and conservation opportunities to the public.

The directive should encourage agencies to:

sponsor and participate in activities that provide educational and conservation opportunities to the public, and

prepare interpretive exhibits and signs explaining the plantings and the special techniques used in landscaping to enhance the environment.

Establish a governmentwide environmentally sound landscape program.

The White House Office on Environmental Policy (OEP) should establish an interagency working group by July 1994 to develop recommendations for an Environmentally Sound Landscape Program that would:

provide incentives to federal facility and landscape managers to consider the environmental implications of their landscaping plans;

recognize the contributions and efforts of individual managers; and

create an annual award to agencies that made significant strides in implementing the directive.

The actions should be reported to the Office on Environmental Policy by December 1994 and should include guidelines to federal facility managers on how to increase the use of native species, reduce the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and implement water conservation techniques. These guidelines should allow for climatic and geographic differences, but should provide a framework for agencies to consider as they plan their landscape requirements. The working group should also establish criteria for agency recognition.


1. To provide an idea of the extent of federal landscaping efforts, note that the Federal Highway Administration spent over $77.8 million on landscaping projects in 1992, the Department of Veterans Affairs maintains 114 cemeteries throughout the country encompassing 10,000 acres, and the Department of Defense manages 25 million acres of land, some of which must be landscaped and maintained.

2. See The Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act of 1987.

3. Telephone interview with Marty Rize, National Cemetery System, Veterans Administration, July 14, 1993.

4. Interview with Tom Leverman, Head, Educational Relations, Soil Conservation Service, USDA, July 19, 1993.

5. Telephone interview with Marsha Prillwitz, Landscape Program Manager, Water Conservation Office, California Department of Water Resources, July 6, 1993.

6. Telephone interview with Susan Scallon, City of Austin, Texas, July 27, 1993.

7. The 1993 Federal Interdepartmental Weed Committee Report, estimated the extent of exotic species/weed infestations on federal lands as follows: Bureau of Land Management, 6 million acres; Forest Service, 4.9 million acres; Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1 million acres; Bureau of Reclamation, 1 million acres; National Park Service, 0.5 million acres; Fish and Wildlife Service, 0.5 million acres.

8. Telephone interview with Steve Harris, Vegetation Ecologist, Redwood National Forest, July 15, 1993.

9. Telephone interview with Dr. Garvey, National Arboretum, July 13, 1993.

10. Executive Order 12856, "Federal Compliance with Right-to-Know Laws and Pollution Prevention Requirements," August 3, 1993.

11. See discussion of the relationship between water and energy use in ENV03: Increase Energy and Water Efficiency.

12. See discussion of water conservation opportunities in federal facilities in ENV03: Increase Energy and Water Efficiency.

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