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Stockbridge Bowl in the summer of 2018. Photo courtesy Stockbridge Bowl Association

CONNECTIONS: Stockbridge Bowl vs. milfoil

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By Tuesday, Aug 7, 2018 Life In the Berkshires 6

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

It was a lovely summer day, July 28, 2018, when the annual meeting of the Stockbridge Bowl Association was called to order. The crowd was large and cheerful. If there was any tension, it was not in evidence — yet.

There were the usual elements of an annual meeting: the treasurer’s report and election of officers. The heart of the discussion, however, was milfoil (an aquatic weed) and herbicides (a chemical weed killer).

Image courtesy Stockbridge Bowl Association

The Stockbridge Bowl Association (SBA) has a long and distinguished history. It began in 1946 with a letter to the editor from Dr. Anson Phelps Stokes about “protecting Stockbridge Bowl.” Stokes “took the liberty” of suggesting 14 necessary steps “as one whose family held property on Stockbridge Bowl for about 60 years.”

(The Stokes family built Shadowbrook on a rise above the lake in 1893. Their property extended to the lake shore and continued for several acres around the Bowl.)

In his letter, suggestion number 11 was “the possible advisability of establishing a Stockbridge Bowl Association to protect the interests of residents and the general public concerned about preserving the charm of the Bowl.”

In October of the same year, the SBA was voted into being. Stokes presided and asserted that “the Bowl is nearly sterile.” The first vote of the fledgling organization was unanimous: “to insure its purity.”

Seventy-two years later, SBA was in favor of using herbicides in the lake. Listening attentively, the audience learned that milfoil should be controlled, or it could grow and grow and “shrink” the lake. Using a PowerPoint and an expert, SBA presented an argument that using herbicides was the only viable choice given the many variables. Many supported herbicides; some did not.

In the book, “White Wash,” Carey Gillam opposes herbicides as dangerous to people and the environment. SBA’s expert assured those gathered that the herbicide proposed for Stockbridge Bowl was safe and would only kill the weeds. However, Gillam writes that the impact of any herbicide is tested alone while the problems arise when the herbicide is combined with other chemicals present in the lake.

A longtime Stockbridge resident asserted that poisons were used in the Bowl since the 1970s, and therefore a “slurry” of poisons rests at the bottom of the lake. He suggested we should know the impact of the interaction between the recommended herbicide and whatever is on the lake bottom: “The combination is potentially dangerous.”

Whether or not that is true, it is evident there is more than one way to control milfoil  In years gone by, Stockbridge has dredged. In 2014, $600,000 was granted by the state for dredging and removal of sediment. Stockbridge has also had multiple “drawdowns” wherein the water level of the lake is reduced in the winter by 5 feet to expose the milfoil and let the frost kill the weeds. In New York and Florida, the state uses plant-eating carp. The lake is seeded with the carp and the carp eat the milfoil.

Some alternate solutions are still available; others are not. For example, apparently, the state recently reversed its position on draw downs. Times change, but what Stokes said all those years ago still holds true. Residents and the general public have an interest in protecting the lake and preserving its charm. Everyone could agree on that, right? A general discussion, a coordinated and cooperative search for the best solution would serve everyone. Everyone could agree on that, yes?

A picture of the Stockbridge Bowl island from the Stockbridge Bowl Association’s 2018 annual meeting handout. Image courtesy Stockbridge Bowl Association

Apparently not. It was a nice meeting, rather mundane in its particulars with an unusual agenda item about “naming the island.” Stokes, as president of SBA, purchased the island from Walter Wilson in 1948 for $1,400. Stokes said SBA bought it to “insure that the property will be maintained in its present natural state … and always be open to the public and youth organizations with appropriate conditions.”

The way the name was selected was a charming aside. SBA contacted the Stockbridge Indians (the Munsee tribe in Wisconsin) to ask for a suggestion. There was a moment of humor and attractive humility when it was realized that no one could pronounce the name and few could spell it. The name is Kwuniikwat Island.

The lightness began to fade as one member of SBA asked why minutes of board meetings were not available. “I don’t know what the board is doing,” the member said.

The lightness evaporated as it was explained that SBA was certain in its conviction to use herbicides and prepared for a pitched battle with Stockbridge and particularly the Stockbridge Conservation Commission.

President Richard Seltzer assured the attendees that, at the same time SBA prepares its Notice of Intent (to use herbicides) and submits it to the Conservation Commission, SBA will be preparing an adversarial document to submit to the Commonwealth to override the Conservation Commission if SBA does not like its decision.

“And,” Seltzer added, “SBA will win.”

My goodness — a declaration of war? In advance of the Conservation Commission receiving the notice, in advance of the commission deciding anything (least of all deciding against SBA), the president is suiting up for battle. Why wouldn’t SBA do the more sensible thing? Align itself with the town in approaching the state for the most advantageous decision on their regulations. Massachusetts owns the lake and sets the regulations. Perhaps with a joint approach, we can dredge again or draw down to the most effective level. Perhaps the snail the Commonwealth is protecting has moved to Florida for the weather or only lives in one part of the lake. Perhaps more people working together can find the most advantageous solution and convince the Commonwealth.

I know very little about milfoil and less about herbicides, but I know this: We have to stop declaring war on one another. We have to find common ground, respect one another’s expertise, acknowledge that we have joint assets, and a common interest in protecting them. All the war mongers, please take two steps back; all cooperative souls seeking solutions, please step forward and let the open discussion begin.


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6 Comments   Add Comment

  1. LDW says:

    Having lived in Stockbridge for most of my life, there have been times in the recent past where there seems to be more animosity between the residents of our beautiful town. One thing we can all agree upon is we love our surroundings, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. And we want to do everything we can do to keep it that way. But it appears we’re looking for a quick fix and it may be to the detriment of our towns lake and our health. If the SBA were to forge their way forward and use chemicals to treat the Stockbridge Bowl, I would choose not to swim there and I know many more who feel the same way. Historically, Americans have become complacent to companies that want to sell us something as a quick fix rather than trying natural alternatives. Many of us used saccharin to stay slim and Round up to kill weeds in our yards until they were found to cause cancer. So, why wouldn’t we try a natural defense like the milfoil eating carp before taking such a big risk? Have there been objective long term studies of the chemical they are proposing? I emplore our residents to continue this discussion after doing more personal research on the alternatives. We all want to be able to enjoy our beautiful lake but not at the expense of our collective health and the future health of the Bowl. Please be careful, make thoughtful and well informed decisions before you take the embattled route it sounds as if the SBA has planned to do.

  2. nancy F says:

    Don’t most of the homes on the lake rely on well water? Would YOU drink that water?

  3. C. D. Baumann says:

    Wonderfully done Carole. In my opinion The Bowl is one of Stockbridge’s finest treasures. I can’t help but to reflect on photo’s of my Great, Great Grandparents on Stockbridge Bowl. In your exceptional book Berkshires: Coach Inns to Cottages the photo of Grandma Sackett being driven down to the shore of The Bowl in Grandpa’s ‘perambulator’. I ponder if the weeds would have been in discussion when Grandpa rowed the boat for Andrew Carnegie to fish for trout? May cool heads and informed decision making win out in the preservation of this great natural local asset.

  4. JH says:

    Carole,
    As always well a well written account of that meeting. My take being a lifelong resident?: there are those who have come to our town because they ‘Love’ some aspect of living here. Well, God damn it! Leave what you “Love” alone. Work with those who can help remedy what challenges we have. Becoming the adversaries of those of us who have long histories here only supports the “locals” (aka know as “woodchucks” among our new comers) that YOU want to turn here into where you came from.
    And yes, in Stockbridge, you will be fought on every front available.

  5. John Hart says:

    Carole,
    As always well a well written account of that meeting. My take being a lifelong resident?: there are those who have come to our town because they ‘Love’ some aspect of living here. Well, God damn it! Leave what you “Love” alone. Work with those who can help remedy what challenges we have. Becoming the adversaries of those of us who have long histories here only supports the “locals” (aka know as “woodchucks” among our new comers) that YOU want to turn here into where you came from.
    And yes, in Stockbridge, you will be fought on every front available.

  6. Mary says:

    Sterile Carp : A business associate and friend who has a pond at her home in the Rhinebeck, NY area placed the weed eating carp into her pond in 2012. They have done what they do. She has no weeds! And she has no chemicals in her pond endangering her well or those of her neighbors.

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