Leland Searles wasn't expecting much when he was hired by Scott County to identify the plants growing in the ditches along its 564 miles of secondary roads.
What he found turned out to be "a bit of a surprise."
Searles' survey revealed 259 native plant species and 90 "exotic," non-native species.
While those 90 exotics accounted for the majority of plants — about 95 percent of road ditches are covered in non-natives — Searles was heartened by the number of natives, and their rarity.
"I thought this was going to be a pretty boring job, to be honest," he said. "I gained an appreciation for what's still out there."
Searles' survey was one of the first steps in establishing a countywide roadside vegetation management plan, adopted by the county board in April 2016. The goal is to preserve, plant and maintain native plants along county roads, which are all the gravel and paved roads that are not maintained by the state or a city.
The county is responsible for mowing/spraying/removing trees in these rights-of-way. But under the program, if native plants are identified, a farmer/landowner could fill out a form requesting that the county not mow (or spray). A "no mow, no spray" sign would be installed, and the landowner would assume responsibility for maintenance, Jon Burgstrum, director of the secondary roads department, explained.
The reason for promoting native plants is for their environmental benefits. Because of their deep roots, they enhance rainfall infiltration, slow runoff, trap sediment, reduce erosion and create habitat for pollinators (whose numbers have been declining), nesting and other wildlife.
Another goal of the county plan is to reduce the numbers of non-native species and stem the spread of the worst invasives, including the giant reed known as phragmites australis, thistles and reed canary grass.
This will be accomplished through careful use of herbicides, spot mowing, prescribed burning and mechanical tree and brush removal, Burgstrum said.
The county has hired a new employee, Brian Burkholder, to spearhead the plan. Among his duties will be to conduct educational programs, plant native seed in disturbed areas, apply for grants to help support the program and work with the county's conservation department to help manage prairie areas in the parks.
"Natives help everything," Burkholder said. "My goal is to leave the world a better place." His dream would be to have all road ditches growing half native plants and half everything else. "That's a huge goal, but you've got to set your sights high."
The county will not begin digging up existing vegetation to plant natives, but will take advantage of opportunities where ground is disturbed in the normal course of replacing culverts or bridges, he said.
About six areas have been seeded already, he said.
While his salary is paid by the county (the position pays in the $49,000 to $66,000 range), seven private individuals donated a total of $33,200 over three years to get the program started.
Tony and Joyce Singh, of rural LeClaire, both deeply concerned about the environment and pollinators in particular, rounded up a group of like-minded people and arranged for a meeting in August of 2015 at the Davenport Public Works department to get the ball rolling. Included were representatives from the secondary roads department, Nahant Marsh, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Tallgrass Prairie Center operated by the University of Northern Iowa and the Iowa Roadway Living Trust Fund.
The donors' money paid for initial work and provided leverage to land two grants, $2,370 for GPS equipment and $5,000 to help pay for the Searles' survey, Burgstrum said.
Searles surveyed all the paved roads last summer (May to September) and all the gravel roads this summer.
His work was made very much easier by the development of a software program by the county's IT department, he said. The software allowed him to call up his location by quarter-mile increments and input the plants he found in that area.
Burkholder hopes that by January, the survey results will be online so that landowners can call up their address and see what Searles found in their ditches.
Of the exotics Searles found in his survey, 18 stand out as most numerous, including smooth brome, reed canary grass, wild parsnip, Canada thistle, musk thistle, Queen Anne's lace (wild carrot), plume grass (miscanthus) and giant reed (phrgamites australis).
Phragmites australis grows so thick that animals won't even try to venture into a stand, so it provides no benefit at all, Burkholder said.