116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Home / News / Environmental News
Winneshiek County eyes cutting native plantings along roadsides
Native planting advocates say program saves money overall
Buried under a blanket of snow across Iowa, native grasses and prairie flowers planted in roadside ditches control weeds, reduce erosion and save money on mowing, state and local officials say.
But the majority of the Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors voted earlier this month to freeze funding for the roadside vegetation management program, started in 2016, because they say that money would be better spent updating snow plows and other county road equipment.
“We’re trying to make heads or tails of what’s going on and put the funds where they need to be,” said Dan Langreck, chair of the five-person board, told The Gazette. “If you’ve got a hole in your roof, between the choice of fixing that or relandscaping your yard, obviously you’re doing to pick the hole in your roof.”
The board voted 3-2 Feb. 6 to end the program, but had to rescind that action after county residents complained to the Iowa Public Information Board that the vote had not been included on the meeting agenda. On Monday, the board voted to freeze funding until members can hear a report March 13 from the county engineer about the costs of the program.
Winneshiek Co. Complaint Record Request by Gazetteonline on Scribd
High gas prices led Iowa to establish one of the nation’s first integrated roadside vegetation management programs in 1988.
“Up to this point, roadsides in Iowa were mostly extensively mowed and blanket spraying with herbicides; were often too costly to implement on a regular basis, sprayings were frequently ineffective and contributed to an increased potential for surface water contamination,” the Iowa Department of Transportation reported. “The goal of IRVM program was to provide an alternative to typical roadside management practices.”
More than half of Iowa’s 99 counties now participate and there are more than 300,000 county roadside acres in the state managed this way. The way you can tell — during the warm-weather months — is by the presence of native grasses, like Bluestem, as well as coneflowers and milkweed, as opposed to short-mown turf grass.
“Safety is always first,” said Kristine Nemec, roadside program manager with the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa. “You mow the grass closest to the road.”
But away from the road, native grasses and plants have advantages over turf grasses, she said. Native plants have deeper roots, which protect the soil from erosion during flooding and filter runoff from roadways.
Milkweed and coneflowers provide food for pollinators, which help nearby crops reproduce. Plant residue left in the fall and winter blocks blowing snow from entering the roadway.
The Kentucky Transportation Center published a study in June 2021 finding the state could save between $9 million and $24 million over five years by mowing less and planting pollinator-friendly plants on roadsides. The center proposed a new education campaign.
“Dubbed ‘Kentucky’s Buzzing!’, the goal is to provide the public with readily understood explanations of why pollinators matter and how the (Kentucky Transportation) Cabinet can improve their fortunes through conservation mowing,” the study states.
In Iowa, Jones County Engineer Derek Snead said in a 2021 video promoted by the Tallgrass Prairie Center the county’s roadside vegetation management program allowed the county to go from spending $60,000 on broad application of roadside herbicide in the mid-2000s to $20,000 per year to manage the native plant program.
The state’s Living Roadway Trust Fund provides grants to cities, counties and other applicants to buy native plant seed or equipment or to pay for research on roadside vegetation.
Winneshiek County spends between $200,000 and $250,000 on the roadside vegetation management program, which includes salaries for two employees. But those employees do other tasks besides only planting and maintaining the ditches.
Shirley Vermace, a Winneshiek County supervisor who voted against freezing funding to the program, said she hasn’t seen evidence that returning to widespread mowing would save money.
“That cycle costs more in the long- run for a county and creates more environmental damage and land damage and erosion and affects water quality,” she said.
Comments: (319) 339-3157; firstname.lastname@example.org