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


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.”

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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.

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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.

Tuesday, 1 Jul 2003


It’s time to send a letter out to the county roadside managers reminding them that the deadline for Living Roadway Trust Fund grant applications is coming up. When the Iowa legislature created the Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management (IRVM) program, they backed it up with something called the Living Roadway Trust Fund (LRTF). This has been the lifeblood of IRVM.

Steve Holland administers this fund for Iowa Department of Transportation. Steve’s judicious yet responsive style of managing the fund energizes the whole program. When innovative roadside managers come up with ideas that will benefit their IRVM program — a new piece of seeding or mulching equipment, GIS/GPS equipment, a research project, or outreach publications — they can apply to LRTF. Not every application can be funded, but the chance to obtain this support for your county and realize your own ideas encourages county participation and helps keep good people in the program.

LRTF receives on average about $600,000 per year. The money comes from road-use tax funds, the state’s Resource Enhancement and Protection fund, and utility right-of-way fees. This is not a lot of money considering it gets divided between state, city, and county projects and our office at the university as well. But it’s real and has been there pretty consistently over the years. Spent wisely by Steve and his advisory committee, it makes a huge difference.

This time of year, besides spraying Canada thistles, most county roadside managers are still doing some roadside native seeding projects. They are using a native grass drill or hydro-seeder funded largely or entirely by LRTF. They are putting down a mix of native forbs and grasses that might cost from $150 to $800 per acre, depending on the diversity and richness of the mix. The seed is purchased with either LRTF funds or, more recently, Transportation Enhancement funds leveraged by LRTF money. This seed might be stored in a mouse-proof, air-conditioned storage room funded by LRTF.

LRTF’s effect goes on and on. Roadside Managers over the years have received a library of books on native plant identification, propagation, and restoration paid for by LRTF. They have attended LRTF-funded conferences and workshops where they get to hear from experts in the field. And LRTF has funded restoration research. Thanks in part to LRTF, Iowa now has a small army of well-equipped, educated, and experienced prairie restorationists.

It may have come largely from their participation in IRVM, but the benefits to each county go well beyond roadsides. County roadside managers often serve as habitat chairs for local Pheasants Forever chapters. They give talks to local groups and classrooms. And they help plant many acres of erodible land to prairie for the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program.

Iowa Department of Transportation deserves a lot of credit for this very “green” effect they have had on the whole state.

Next: Where do you get all that native seed?

Wednesday, 2 Jul 2003


I hear the words hoein’ and mowin’ a lot these days. That’s in reference to student work assignments here at the Native Roadside Vegetation Center. Greg Houseal and Dave Williams run the center’s Iowa Ecotype Project, through which 90 acres are rapidly being converted to individual species production plots for native wildflowers (forbs) and grasses. Plot rows need hoeing, borders need mowing. What are you doing today? Hoein’ and mowin’.

A native plant production plot of Echinchea pallida (pale purple coneflower).

Over the last 20 years, prairie restoration has really taken off. Use of native species for all kinds of landscaping has increased. The Iowa Department of Transportation does a few thousand acres each year. The counties plant another thousand acres along county roads. Pheasants Forever and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service are responsible for several thousand acres on private land. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources and County Conservation Boards are busy planting new habitat in their areas. There’s a lot going on and it’s the best thing possible for our soil and water.

This much planting raises some issues. Until recent years, native seed was not available in any quantity in Iowa. Ecologists had concerns about bringing seed in from too far away, because the seeding mixes contained some species that were not a part of Iowa’s native prairie. Even if the species are appropriate, seed from too far away may have adapted to different conditions and not do as well in Iowa. Will a Texas Black-eyed Susan thrive in Iowa?

All the native grasses previously available from commercial growers were cultivated varieties developed for aggressive forage production and uniform germination. They are viewed by many as too big and robust to be well-behaved members of a diverse plant community. Some of those varieties lack a broad genetic base.

In some circles, a debate rages over the validity of these concerns and just how local our seed sources need to be. Whether or not DNA studies are able to justify these concerns, one could still ask: If you are starting a native seed industry in Iowa, why not base it on seed that comes from Iowa’s original prairie? Enter the Iowa Ecotype Project.

NRV Center Director Daryl Smith conceived the Iowa Ecotype Project with the goal of improving availability of native seed from Iowa. Since it began in 1990, this project has relied on $25,000 per year from Iowa DOT’s Living Roadway Trust Fund. Each year handfuls of seed of three species are collected from tiny prairie remnants across the state. That seed is increased for a few years and then released as foundation seed to private growers. The growers mass produce and market the seed.

There are now 40 species of native forbs and grasses included in the project. Native Iowa prairie seed certified by Iowa Crop Improvement Association as “Source-Identified” is now available in large quantities and at competitive prices. It’s a huge investment for private growers in land, cleaning and storage facilities, and equipment. You can’t expect such growers to mass produce your local seed unless there is sufficient demand. Despite ecological concerns about moving seed around too much, ultimately the size of the region for which any seed is produced will largely be determined by market forces.

For the Iowa Ecotype Project, Iowa is divided into three zones: northern, central, and southern. It’s apparent already that it would be impractical to ask the average grower to produce seed designated for use in a smaller market area.

Growers need some sort of guarantee; fortunately, we have received Transportation Enhancement funds the last six years to make one large seed purchase on behalf of 55 counties. The Iowa DOT allows us to state up front that we will pay a certain percentage more for certified Iowa seed. This single annual purchase has provided a very important incentive to growers to step up production of local seed. Using these funds to drive production has gotten availability to the level where DOT will keep the ball rolling — we hope — by asking for Iowa seed for more and more of their projects.

This project is a true partnership involving the Iowa Department of Transportation, University of Northern Iowa, Iowa Native Seed Producers, USDA Plant Materials Center, and Iowa Crop Improvement Association at Iowa State University.

Thursday, 3 Jul 2003


Caring about native plants and herbicide reduction can make you lonely. I got a call last week from a friend at Iowa Department of Natural Resources who works as a botanist with the ecological preserves bureau. He had received a voice mail from a Department of Transportation employee concerned about some roadside spraying to take place that day. The DOT voice hoped the DNR, in its regulatory capacity, could do something, possibly countermand the order to spray a roadside containing remnant prairie. I wanted to meet the guy who cared enough to risk being ostracized at his job.

It’s sad but true: Native prairie is so rare in Iowa we get excited about small patches in a ditch that somehow survived the catastrophic disturbance of road construction and the industrious nature of the average farmer. This quote by H. A. Mueller is from the 1903 Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Science, “At the present time, the homes of most of our native flowers are limited to the highways and timbered areas on account of the cultivation and pasturage of the land.” Iowa was opened to settlement in 1833 just as immigration was really getting going and John Deere was improving the plow. That’s how 28 million acres of prairie disappeared in just 70 years. And that’s just Iowa prairie. I get so tired of hearing about the rainforest when we destroyed the lungs of North America so long ago. (Act locally.)

The DNR had forwarded the call to me because I’m located near the stretch of road where the spraying is proposed and because of my work at the Native Roadside Vegetation Center. I wasn’t able to go in search of the spray truck until mid-morning. As a result, I just missed it. The DOT maintenance employee returned my call that afternoon, and we set up a meeting so he could show me the roadsides.

Part of my objective was to show him he was not alone, that others cared. There is not much else we can do besides continue to raise the awareness of the average maintenance worker. It’s one of those pursuits that causes you to savor the bright moments. No individual is that bad. But tradition and prevailing attitudes cause an absence of personal responsibility that manifests itself in ways ranging from peer pressure to mob behavior. As the DOT worker quoted later, “Man is kind, men are cruel”.

t expect, he’s a little different. He’s 56 years old, which meant he was in his early twenties in the late 1960s, fully conscious during an amazing time for anyone able to ride the crest of the wave. I’m making assumptions now. Whether or not he was affected by the times, he had certainly adopted many beliefs based on a lot of exposure to Native American spirituality.

A DOT maintenance worker who uses the word “friend” in reference to Canada thistle is asking for it. He knows and appreciates the rarity of prairie plants and talks the talk. When riding shotgun with the spray crew, he will point out special plants. He’ll even intentionally misidentify plants on occasion to exaggerate their rarity. He has proselytized to the point some co-workers are sensitive to the value of certain species, but he feels in most cases it’s only if he is present. “Five minutes back with the other guys, and eight hours of listening to me in the truck is undone.”

So why did you call the DNR? “One of the guys threatened to blanket spray (turn on the herbicide and leave it on instead of spraying only the patches of Canada thistles) the whole road.” Did he do it? “No, not with me along.” “I’ll probably have to pick up deer carcasses for two months after this.” “Those guys tune in Rush Limbaugh complaining about the ‘darned environmentalists’ to get revved up for more spraying more.” Would they really blanket spray? “I don’t know.”

He is fully aware he probably sets himself up for teasing by being different. He even acknowledges benefits of being the sole occupant of this philosophical niche within a DOT maintenance garage. I was convinced of his sincerity and impressed with his knowledge. Mostly I had to admire his lack of fear when it came to being different and making a target of himself. He certainly showed me some native plants. One prairie remnant was pretty special — quite small, of course, but special.

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