Road Management & Engineering Journal
Road Management & Engineering Journal
November, 2000
TranSafety, Inc.
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Integrating Ecology with Practical Roadside Maintenance by Kathryn Jensen

(This article is reproduced, with permission, from the Spring 1999 issue of the KUTC Newsletter, a publication of the Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP) of the University of Kansas Transportation Center in cooperation with the Kansas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.)

When most drivers travel down a highway, placidly observing the grasses, flowers, and other vegetation that flank the roadway, they probably don't think that the scenery is all part of a plan, with intended effects on the environment. They are likely just enjoying the view, happy that plants line the road instead of concrete, and that grasses are springing up instead of strip malls or billboards.

In some states, however, the planting of vegetation along roadsides is as deliberate as the blueprints for a building. This is called Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management, or IRVM. Although its effect on the aesthetics of the roadside is its most noticeable benefit, IRVM also provides excellent low-maintenance weed and erosion control, enhances wildlife habitat, and restores the ecosystem native to the region.

IRVM on a National Level

Although roadside management differs on a state-by-state basis, there is a National Roadside Vegetation Management Association, or NRVMA. Its mission statement says:

IRVM is a decision-making and quality management process for maintaining roadside vegetation that (includes) the following:
  • needs of local communities and highway users;
  • knowledge of plant ecology (and natural processes);
  • design, construction, and maintenance considerations;
  • government statutes and regulations;
  • technology

[These are integrated] with cultural, biological, mechanical, and chemical pest control methods to economically manage roadsides for safety plus environmental and visual quality.

NRVMA is a network of federal, state, county, city, and university personnel. It is headed by a president, an executive director, and a slate of officers. Members can join for $25 a year. If a roadside manager simply wants to find out about roadside vegetation management in other states, he or she can log onto the NRVMA Net, a message board for NRVMA members and anyone interested in IRVM topics. The NRVMA Net can be found at http://www.nrvma.org.

Although each state follows the mission statement, vegetation management decisions must be tailored to fit the climate, both environmentally and politically. In Bonnie Harper-Lore's speech entitled "Highway Corridor Responsibility," she asks the question: "What if we no longer used a blanket approach, or one size fits all, but used the right tool for the right problem, site specifically? With that background in common, each state's vegetation policy continues to be unique because of other factors that influence decisions."

IRVM at the State Level: Iowa

IRVM has been thriving in Iowa with the help of the Iowa Department of Transportation and county participation. Currently, 31 out of Iowa's 98 counties have a fully implemented IRVM program, and 35 have a partially implemented program or are considering an IRVM program.

As of 1998, transportation enhancement funds from the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) have been used for purchasing native seed for roadside seeding projects via grants from the University of Northern Iowa. This year, each county received around $7,800, which seeds about 15 acres of countryside.

Other funding comes from the Living Roadway Trust Fund. This Program promotes implementation of IRVM programs on city, county, or state right-of-ways or areas adjacent to traveled roadways in Iowa. The program funds such projects as roadside inventories, gateway landscaping, planting and maintenance materials, education, research, and equipment. In order to meet the criteria to receive funds, the city or county must have a five-year IRVM project plan, and detailed inventory of all plants in the project area, plans for informational meetings, and direct involvement of local educational institutions.

Roadside Managers, especially those in smaller counties, are grateful for the funding they have received. Larry Sorenson, Audubon County manager, said "If it wasn't for the grant programs, there would be a lot less grass." Since Sorenson became Roadside Manager in 1994, projects have mainly revolved around seeding where culverts and bridges have been torn out. About five years ago, two bridges were torn down and a new one was built. The county planted seeds in the ditch that remained. The area is now an aesthetically pleasing prairie.

When asked if IRVM has improved erosion control and beautification in the county, Sorenson said "Definitely yes."

Franklin County is another small county that benefits from ISTEA and Living Roadway Trust funding. It began its IRVM program eight years ago when a group of interested people got together, according to Dennis Carlson, wheat commissioner and director of the County Conservation Board. At present, the budget allows for getting warm season grasses and forbs in new projects. Although the program is expanding slowly, Carlson says that some changes the county has made have already reduced the amount of complaints. "When they [the county] had blanket spraying, there were lots more complaints. The positive side is that roadsides with existing grasses are growing more because they aren't getting sprayed every year," said Carlson.

Cerro Gordo County has one of the larger IRVM programs in Iowa. Chuck Darling, Roadside Manager, reported that maintenance projects included spot treatment of noxious weeds, brush control, woody vegetation management, and seeding ditch re-grades and areas around bridge reconstruction.

Unlike other programs that emphasize the prairie restoration aspect of IRVM, Darling says that his main focus is maintenance. "I don't see what we do as a prairie restoration, although we do whenever possible. I think one of our primary responsibilities is to establish and maintain vegetation and control erosion. I don't view anything we do as anything other than maintenance. I'm not one to do these feel-good prairie plantings."

In the past, the county has received funding from the Living Roads Trust Fund and is currently using the ISTEA funds for seeds. "We're fortunate to be financed very well [by the CCB]--they just want to see vegetation on roadsides. That's how the farmers see it, and that's how the county supervisors want to see it."

The county pans to purchase a hydroseeder for future projects.

IRVM in Kansas?

Currently, Kansas does not have an official IRVM program. Bill Leek of the Kansas Department of Transportation said "we try to take care of roadside vegetation, and we do use mostly native grass seed and control noxious weeds."

With the success of IRVM in Iowa, as well as in other states such as Minnesota and Louisiana, a program in Kansas may not be too far in the future. Currently, however, the planting of native grasses along Kansas roadsides is not under the auspices of any acronym or accompanying funding.

Sources

http://www.uni.edu/~irvm - web site of the University of Northern Iowa that explains the IRVM and Living Roadway Trust Fund program.

http://www.nrvma.org - NRVMA homepage

"Highway Corridor Responsibility" a speech by Bonnie Harper-Lore, Roadside Vegetation Specialist/National IRVM task force member.

Roader's Digest, UNI Center for Energy and Environmental Education newsletter.



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