InTrans / Aug 29, 2014

Who put those pretty flowers in the roadway?

Go! Magazine

Flowers on roadsideposted on August 29, 2014

Wildflowers, prairie grasses, and wildlife habitat. You might not think of these when you think of highways, right?

Well, the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) has been introducing different plant species into Iowa’s rural roadway ditches and other right-of-way areas, and as a result, has created a wildlife habitat along several roadsides. This effort coincides with a national emphasis on improving roadside vegetation management.

The history of roadside management in Iowa

A century ago, Iowa was covered in prairie grasses. With the advent of tile drainage and mechanized agriculture, much of the land has been converted to crops. With that, the state has lost a lot of the native prairie grasses that once covered the landscape. Since its beginning in 1989, the Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management program at UNI has been expanded to 60 counties in Iowa, and has converted over 20,000-30,000 acres of Iowa roadsides into prairie. Beginning in 1986-1987, there was an initial study to support right-of-way management effectively. Thanks to a researcher at UNI and the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management (IRVM) was created.

A conversation with Program Manager for IRVM, Rebecca Kauten

So, how did this program start?

Once IRVM was proposed as an effective solution to roadside management, UNI started thinking of ways the concept could be adopted statewide. We wanted to plant native plants, but there were not a lot of producers since the demand was low. One challenge we had to overcome: how do help make native prairie seeds viable in the marketplace to get more producers. And thanks to a grant through the Federal Highway Administration, UNI was able to secure funding and buy 1,000 acres worth of seeds!

Why don’t all counties in Iowa do this?

The legislation for roadside management is known as enabling legislation. In other words, IRVM is what is recommended, not required.

What are the typical cost savings of IVRM compared to regular causeway maintenance?

A lot of the math depends on what existing management is currently. If a county is using a lot of herbicide spray and intensive mowing, the costs savings could be more than one-third. Mowing creates a need for a lot of staff time; if those people could be re-purposed to do other things, those skilled people could do more technical work and benefit the county even further.

There are still elements of management with native prairie grasses. Very few counties are able to do prescribed burn, which is the preferred management technique for prairie grasses. Often times, counties will employ more spot spraying and mowing to help maintain the prairie to its’ fullest potential.

One of the beneficial features of roadside prairie grasses is to serve as a habitat for pollinators. As pollinator levels continue to decrease, do you believe that IRVM can serve as part of a diversified system to enhance pollinator species?

Absolutely. When you have a landscape like ours [in Iowa] that hosts species that are not native, such as corn and soybeans, pollinators are forced to look elsewhere; the IRVM program implements native prairie grasses that act as a habitat for these pollinators to the land.

By Jackie Nester, Go! Staff Writer

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