If you see a pretty roadside ditch in your Linn County travels, whisper a benediction to the late Rob Roman, the county’s roadside vegetation manager for the past 29 years.
Before Roman, many, if not most, Iowans regarded roadside ditches as unsightly, weed-choked conduits of storm water and receptacles for excess snow. Roman, who died Oct. 21 following complications of surgery, led the way in transforming ditches into attractive and colorful strips of beneficial wildlife habitat.
“He transformed ditches, and he transformed people’s perception of their value,” said Kristine Nemec, roadside program manager at the University of Northern Iowa’s Tallgrass Prairie Center.
Besides being passionate about the value of native plants, Roman was generous with his time and excelled at networking and creating partnerships, she said.
Daryl Smith, the retired founder of the Tallgrass Prairie Center, said Roman’s enthusiasm for native plants rubbed off on many other people.
“He organized a lot of workshops and seminars. He planted a lot of prairie,” Smith said. “He always knew what he was talking about.”
“Rob was a visionary leader in understanding how native habitat in roadsides benefits wildlife and pollinator insects, how it prevents erosion and improves water quality and how it beautifies the landscape,” said friend and colleague Troy Siefert, coordinator of the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Living Roadway Trust Fund.
Linn County Conservation Director Dennis Goemaat described his longtime friend and colleague as a “24/7 conservationist” and an “evangelist for the benefits of native plants.”
“Conservation was much more than a job for Rob. He lived it every day of his life,” said Goemaat, who had known of Roman since 1980, when they were both rookies at the Linn Conservation Department.
While Goemaat stayed and worked his way up to the department’s top spot, Roman transferred to the county’s Secondary Roads Department, where he established a program to upgrade the environmental benefits of vegetation in the county’s 2,200 miles of secondary road ditches. Both have been instrumental in elevating Linn County residents’ environmental consciousness.
Under Roman’s leadership, deep-rooted native forbs and grasses replaced non-native grasses such as brome and bluegrass on thousands of acres of Linn County ditches.
“He lived it and breathed it,” said Brad Mormann, director of the Jones County Conservation Department, on whose board Roman had served since 1997. “He was a mentor to staff and other board members. He was always working to educate people on the value of native plants.”
Clark McLeod, president of the Monarch Research Project in Marion, said Roman freely shared his expertise in cultivating native plants and was a valuable resource in a recent partnership to establish mini-prairies in Linn ditches to provide food and shelter for endangered bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
Roman’s environmental stewardship evolved from a deep appreciation of the recreational benefits of nature, according to Goemaat, who fished with him in Canada, and Siefert, who hunted with him in Wyoming.
“He was the kind of guy you wanted to go on a trip with. His enjoyment was contagious,” Goemaat said.
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Siefert, who accompanied Roman on his last hunting trip in September, seconded that sentiment. His appreciation of the wildlife and habitat was obvious, and his ethical and principled interaction with nature was inspirational, he said.