What's the Right Way to Manage Right-of-Ways?

Written by Kat Prince on Wednesday, October 14, 2015 at 2:01 PM


In a country where it sometimes feels like every acre is settled, one needn’t travel to the wilderness of Alaska to find uninhabited land. In fact, there is an abundance of unused land within easy reach just about everywhere- getting there is as easy as getting in a car. The land on the edges and in the medians of roads has long been ignored, but the fact that these regions aren’t used doesn’t mean that they aren’t useful. 

There are more than 100,000 miles of public roads within the state of Wisconsin. The land bordering highways may seem an unlikely area for wildlife to survive (as evidenced by the dead deer and raccoons that often litter the roadsides), but these areas are actually a great place for certain animals to live. Roadsides provide important habitat for ground nesting birds. Bees and butterflies can spend entire life cycles among the flowers there. Native plant species that were once found in the ancient prairies, savannas, and forests where the state’s highways now stand can sometimes still be seen growing in the right-of-ways, often in areas that are too steep or rocky for mowers to reach. 

The primary motivation behind roadside mowing, of course, is to improve motorists’ safety by preventing obstructions and increasing visibility. Mowing can also help to control invasive or noxious plant species like wild parsnip, spotted knapweed, and Canada thistle if its timing coincides with critical stages in the plants’ life cycles. In Wisconsin, we often begin seeing roadside mowing crews in early July. Each county is responsible for contracting with a mowing company to maintain its roadsides, and each county also has its own regulations that govern how much vegetation should be removed. 

The when and why of mowing begins to get complicated, however, when one considers that many of the flowers being mowed (even the invasive ones) are attractive to foraging pollinators and birds. If mowing occurs too early, pollinators lose these flowers. Caterpillars are cut down right along with their host plants. Baby birds meet a gruesome fate if their nest lies in the path of a mower’s blades. Further complicating the logistics of roadside mowing are the many interpretations of the ideal roadside aesthetic. People who prefer flat, weed-free swaths of grass are at odds with those who would rather eliminate mowing altogether. Somewhere in the middle of this debate are conservationists, many of whom have been suggesting that the careful management of roadside areas can bolster vulnerable populations of plants and wildlife. 

The Federal Government is paying attention to these voices. In May of 2015, the White House unveiled a national strategy to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators. The plan aims to add or improve 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next five years.  If every highway’s right-of-ways were managed to include un-mowed patches of native flowers, this goal could be surpassed by more than double by creating an impressive 17 million acres of pollinator habitat across the country. Less mowing would also allow counties to allocate less of their road management budget towards fuel. 

2015 also saw the introduction of the Highway BEE Act, a bill that aims to make the possibility of roadside management for wildlife a reality. The BEE Act - also known as the Bettering the Economy and Environment Pollinator Protection Act- has already amassed about 1,000 signatures of support from businesses and individuals. Most of the Wisconsin signatures on the petition are, unsurprisingly, from bee keepers. 

As conservation plans move through the federal government, some agencies have taken matters into their own hands. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, for example, has established guidelines to maximize the conservation value of roadside land. Right-of-way mowing is delayed to give fledgling birds time to mature and leave nests. Living snow fences –strips of dense, diverse native trees- protect motorists from gusting wind and drifting snow in winter while also providing habitat for many wildlife species. Complete roadside mowing is replaced by the selective mowing of particularly dense patches of noxious weeds. 

Integrated vegetation restoration could be a great thing for Wisconsin’s roadways, but the decision of where and how to mow a roadside is complex. Both the Department of Transportation and individual municipalities have experienced declining roadside management budgets over several years, leading some counties to only mow once per year. Other counties mow more than once and only cut two mower-lengths from the road. 

The state of Iowa has found an effective way to fund its counties’ roadside conservation budgetary needs. Since 1990, the state has funded roadside vegetation management with a Living Roadway Trust Fund. Administered by the Department of Transportation, the fund has awarded millions of dollars in grants to cities, counties, and other entities looking to administer roadside conservation and restoration projects within the state. 

At present, Wisconsin’s ever-shrinking transportation budget simply can’t support a state-wide roadside conservation initiative. Change may come, but in the meantime take a second look at what was once thought of as wasted space the next time you drive our state’s highways and byways- you might even catch the buzz of a bee or the colorful chaos of a monarch in flight.

Kathryn Prince is a Master's student studying agroecology and entomology at UW Madison. She studies bee populations in agricultural areas of central Wisconsin.

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