Kirk Henderson is program manager for the Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management Program, a project of the Native Roadside Vegetation Center at the University of Northern Iowa.

Monday, 30 Jun 2003

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa

In 1989, Iowa passed a bill creating a new state program — Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management (IRVM). Groundwater protection was the objective. Iowa used to blanket-spray herbicides over most of our 600,000 acres of state and county roadsides every year. Now we have IRVM, a compromise in which we still spray some to keep the farmers happy, but not nearly as much. The law that created IRVM calls for “the vegetation of Iowa’s roadsides to be preserved, planted, and maintained to be safe, visually interesting, ecologically integrated, and useful for many purposes.”

The fun part of IRVM is that native prairie restoration has come to be the cornerstone of the program. Iowa is an intensely agricultural state. Corn and beans dominate to the virtual extinction of our original tallgrass prairie landscape. Roadsides have become important as one of the few places available for native plant restoration.

The 1989 legislation also created an office at the University of Northern Iowa (generally called the Roadside Office) to work with our 99 counties, helping them implement IRVM and providing ongoing support. As far as I know, the office is unique. Over the years we have sent information to a lot of states. I’ve never heard of a similar formal support program.

Just about half of the counties have a “fully” implemented program. That is, they’ve hired a roadside manager, stopped blanket-spraying, and started planting native prairie species in their ditches. These counties have all inventoried their roadsides and located where they have remnant populations of native plants. These areas are protected and managed with fire.

The 48 county roadside managers are a great bunch — independent, hardworking, and still excited because they are a part of something new. Many came into the program with degrees in wildlife biology or ecology. Imagine having biologists managing your roadsides. All are in it because of a strong conservation ethic.

As part of the ongoing effort to recruit more counties, today I’m continuing work on a new IRVM brochure — the IRVM brochure to end all IRVM brochures. I’ve got to sell our program to the county engineers and each county’s elected board of supervisors. This brochure has to be sharp and professional. You can’t sell these policy makers just on the virtues of native-plant restoration and wildlife habitat. It’s got to be practical, bottom-line kind of stuff. County budgets are bad these days (when aren’t they?), and I’m asking them to create a new position. Initially a lot of counties got on board with the IRVM program. New counties have been scarce recently. Got to get some momentum going.

When roadside managers are hired, they are located in either the secondary road department under the county engineer or in county conservation under the conservation board director. We used to think conservation was by far the best location due to the support and appreciation for native plants and the emphasis on public education. But the engineers have to be involved. There is no escaping that roadsides are part of their domain. It gets pretty turfy out there and communication between roadside manager and engineer needs to be ongoing.

In a minute I’m heading to University Print Services. They have finished printing 2,000 copies of an announcement for the Roadside Conference, our annual main event. My office works with a different host county each year to put on a two-day event for 200 participants. We bring in speakers from all over and talk about roadside vegetation. It’s a good time. We get some money from the Iowa Department of Transportation and put on a nice event. Tomorrow I’ll talk about the money.