Driving the highways of Iowa and Illinois in the summer, my husband and I often remark on all the mowing that takes place in the roadsides of state-controlled rights-of-way. Big machines mow from the road's shoulder all the way down into the ditch and up to the other side.
Why? Why can't some of this tall vegetation just be left to grow? Creatures can nest in it and, in many cases, there are flowers for pollinators. Plus all this incessant mowing must cost money in time and fuel.
In a world where loss of habitat is causing a corresponding loss of life, the large amount of state- or government-controlled land along roadways, when taken together, represents a great opportunity to rebuild habitat.
Well, good news. That is exactly what is happening in Illinois.
In a presentation this past week at the third annual Quad-Cities Pollinator Conference in Davenport, Stephanie Dobbs, roadside maintenance manager of the Illinois Department of Transportation, explained that in May of this year, she issued a new mowing policy. It calls for mowing only a 15-foot strip next to the road for safety and vision clearance, and leaving the rest of the ditch alone. A 15-foot strip is one pass with a 15-foot mower. Previously, personnel would have taken multiple 15-foot swipes.
The state has oversight of 330,000 acres, and she estimates that about 80,000 might have been left unmowed this year.
This reduction in mowing doesn't necessarily mean a reduction in work. Among the plants not mowed there will be nasty invasives such as teasel and woody trees that will have to be spot-sprayed or somehow removed.
The new policy is a "baby step" in building habitat. In her talks, Dobbs focuses on habitat for the monarch butterfly because the monarch is an attractive creature that people are becoming increasingly educated about. The butterfly is Dobbs' way of making a connection that people understand. But the habitat would help other critters, too.
From past reporting, I know that the state of Iowa also encourages habitat along its roadways, as does Scott County. In fact, there's in a group of concerned citizens that have pushed for an "integrated roadside vegetative management plan," a statewide model, for the county's 564 miles of secondary roads.
Curtis Lundy, a group leader who attended the conference, too, said a public, community presentation may be upcoming in November. I'll be following up on this.
Encouraging habitat is an ongoing process, and Illinois' Dobbs has another idea that she hasn't launched yet. That would be to mow one-third of a road ditch every year — that is, one year along the fence, another year down the middle and the third year at the roadside — so that after three years the entire roadside would be mowed, helping to keep down invasives and woody plants.
She expects many people will have questions about this — "Why are you mowing only down the middle?" — and will wonder what the heck the state is thinking. But she's ready to take those questions.
She just asks for our help. Many people have no idea about the importance of habitat, biodiversity, monarch butterflies and so forth. They prefer the tidy look, like a golf course.
I agree that unmowed vegetation can look raggy. But if you understand its benefits, you might change your mind. It's a "beauty in the eye of the beholder" kind of thing. If you see beauty in biodiversity, then you will see beauty in unmowed vegetation.
She encouraged her audience to talk to friends and neighbors about this issue.
"It's difficult," she said. But "have the conversation."