Nation's top vegetation management programs honored

Dec. 28, 2000
The vegetation that grows alongside highways can provide beauty to the asphalt and concrete ribbons that cut across the landscape. Wildflowers, shrubs and trees can improve a road's aesthetics and enhance the driving experience. However, vegetation that is not meticulously groomed and maintained can result in an eyesore or a possible safety hazard. The government agencies responsible for maintaining this vegetation often get no recognition for a job well done, but two organizations--the Monsanto Co.
The vegetation that grows alongside highways can provide beauty to the asphalt and concrete ribbons that cut across the landscape. Wildflowers, shrubs and trees can improve a road's aesthetics and enhance the driving experience. However, vegetation that is not meticulously groomed and maintained can result in an eyesore or a possible safety hazard. The government agencies responsible for maintaining this vegetation often get no recognition for a job well done, but two organizations--the Monsanto Co. and the National Roadside Vegetation Management Association (NRVMA--annually honor a job well done with their Awards for Excellence in Roadside Vegetation Management.

The awards honor the best state, county and municipal vegetation-control programs, and an individual who has contributed to such programs. Winners are decided based on the merits of safety, economics, aesthetics, environmental compatibility and innovative techniques of each program.

The winners this year are Minnesota, best state; Sedgwick County, Kan., best county; Toronto, best municipality; and Jim Thrash best individual contribution.


The Minnesota DOT (MnDOT) is responsible for maintaining 260,000 acres of right of way, which is covered with a wide variety of vegetation ranging from prairies to forests. This diversity of plant life poses a challenge to the roadside manager, which is met with a number of proactive roadside programs involving training, education and research to address the needs of local communities and highway travelers.

Paul Walvatne, Forestry Unit supervisor, explains how MnDOT approaches this challenge. "Working with nature to use more native plants along roads. We do what we have to, to keep the roads safe."

After several years of preaching integrated roadside vegetation management (IRVM), MnDOT set up three pilot programs on the local level. These IRVM programs are based on proactive work, timeliness, an ecological approach, using plants to solve maintenance problems, monitoring and evaluating treatments and widening the circle of participants.

Another program involves working with community volunteers. Walvatne explains, "Communities can request technical and finance assistance while the planting is done by volunteers." The community partners also can count on help with technical assistance in the areas of planting and follow-up maintenance. Walvatne states that this program of partnering MnDOT dollars and technical know-how with community "sweat equity" has been extremely successful.

This program also allows MnDOT to expand the amount of work possible with limited funding. Since the program's beginning in 1991, over 130 partnership projects have been initiated throughout the state.

The chief goal of the prairies-to-forest program is to solve maintenance problems, such as snow drift control and noxious weed control, through the planting of native trees, shrubs, prairie grasses and wildflowers. Currently, approximately 500 acres are seeded annually with native grasses and wildflowers.

With state highways passing through 855 communities, MnDOT is actively providing leadership in urban forestry through tree inventories, planting empty boulevard spaces, plant health care, hazard tree removal, and tree protection and transplanting during construction.

The Central Office Forestry Unit provides training for maintenance personnel in the identification and removal of hazardous trees. Each district is required to set up a program based on conditions and needs. It is expected that these programs will be incorporated into IRVM plans.

Research is an important part of DOT efforts. MnDOT maintains links with the University of Minnesota, which provides innovation and leadership in this area, while staff from MnDOT act as technical liaison between the DOT and the university faculty and students conducting the research. Some of the areas covered by research include, establishment of sedges in created wetlands, salt tolerance of various native and introduced grasses and woody plants, seed mixes and seeding methods, and use of compost and recycled biosolids for turf establishment in lieu of fertilizer and as topsoil amendments.

The direction of their overall program is moving toward a more hands-off approach. This would involve reduced mowing, use of native plants to reduce the use of herbicide, low maintenance landscaping, vegetation height and noxious weed control. Plans for the future include written IRVM plans for each district, more public involvement, increased urban forestry and more use of native plants.

Sedgwick County

The Sedgwick County Noxious Weed Department is mandated by the state of Kansas to control and eradicate noxious weeds on all property--645,000 acres--within the county. The county consists of a large farming community. It is important that the weeds do not compete with and encroach upon the farm crops such as wheat. Therefore, noxious weed control is important. Other objectives of the department include improving roadside safety by assuring adequate sight-distance and clear-shoulder areas for emergency traffic, is (especially important around the county's 650 bridges); reducing roadbed maintenance costs by eliminating vegetation-caused drainage problems; and providing a pleasing roadside appearance.

Several different roadside programs are used both in-house and contractual. The department contracts with the Kansas DOT to spot treat the noxious weeds growing on its 400 lane miles of right of way. Johnson Grass and Field Bindweed is common in ditch areas along the roads. In the urban areas, the Field Bindweed grows near high traffic roads and residential areas. Each area requires a custom program to fit the situation. Herbicides used to treat the Field Bindweed are Tordon 22K; Banvel, 2, 4-D; Krenite-S; and Arsenal. The Johnson Grass is treated with Oust, M.S.M.A., and Roundup.

The department also contracts to maintain the roadways through townships. This year the township areas were sprayed using a private-sector applicator because the department lost two experienced applicators through retirement. The spraying involves simple spot treatment of the noxious weeds to complete vegetation control programs.

An IRVM program is used on Sedgwick County property and right of ways. Chemical mowing is used on noxious weeds, common weeds and trees along the 1,300 lane miles, 3,000 acres, in the county. By the maintaining weeds in this way the roadside can go four to eight weeks between mowing.

The majority of the non-noxious vegetation control is done during the winter months and the noxious weed control is done during the warmer months. Annually 8,600 acres of vegetation is treated, spread over 3,500 lane miles of roadside right of ways. The staff consists of four pesticide applicators, one secretary and the department head. The fleet is made up of three 4-wheel drive spray trucks equipped with 300-gal tanks and one roadside unit with a 725-gal tank. The small trucks are equipped with boomless nozzles, a handgun and a spray monitor.

The department also encourages the community to help control weeds. Joe Brunk, Sedgwick County weed director, explains how this is done. "We sell herbicide at below our costs, to the citizens to get them to control their weeds. We had 700 sales last year."

The department handles a number of special projects for the county. One of these involves treating the roads in Old Cowtown, a living museum of historic Wichita. Old Cowtown illustrates what life was like in 1870s Wichita. A high percentage of the buildings and artifacts are from that era. Joe Brunk, explains how he became involved. "We got to thinking that if the buildings and all the artifacts are correct why shouldn't the vegetation be."

Initial treatments were made to control the non-native sand burr in the grass areas. It eventually expanded to the street areas. Brunk comments, "My crew that goes out and does the treatments enjoys it. It breaks up the monotony of spraying ditches all day long."

Another special project began two years ago in the open areas of a county park. The department treats 100-120 acres for sand burr. They also do the mowing, spraying and trimming along a bike path that runs parallel to a county road. "Another one of those projects that is different and fun. It keeps the guys thinking," said Brunk.

Future goals include expansion of existing projects. As the bike path expands maintenance of it will increase. They also plan to continue the wildflower program, which began in the late 1980s. Under this program two to three acres are seeded for wildflowers each year.


Jody Rosenblatt-Naderi, Streetscape manager for the Transportation Department of the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, works to beautify the roadside of a multicultural city, with a unique view on what a road can provide. She comments, "A road has a greater function than transportation. It can lead a city's growth." While her efforts serve to beautify the city they also brings communities together making the citizens part of the streetscape process.

During the designing and planning of a specific streetscape, her department considers all the various uses going into that quarter of the city. These road projects should enhance the quality of life for the users of the road and the people living in that quarter. Every effort is made to integrate the roadway into the neighborhood.

Artists are selected through competition. Models are made and presented to a jury. The jury consists of two members from the visual arts, two members from the community and a member from the transportation department. By working with the artist and the Department the community is drawn into the project. Rosenblatt-Naderi explains, "The artist and the people mutually adopt each other." This personalizes the project, allowing the community to take pride in the work. Involving an artist in the project is one inventive way of accomplishing this. The artist works with the engineers during the design stage, pointing out opportunities that may normally be missed. Working together, the artist and engineers act as catalysts for one another's imaginations, sparking the creative process. The objective is to integrate the artist's designs and ideas into the project, resulting in roadway beautified with artwork.

The public also has input into the project through community meetings with the design team. The design team works closely with the people, listening to what the community has to say about the space and what is important to them.

Integrating this nontraditional form of road management with more traditional methods is not easy. Rosenblatt-Naderi explains what is needed to make it work. "A creative leader is needed. A strong chief who has a vision that goes beyond roads." This visionary for Toronto is Doug Floyd, commissioner of transportation.

Another challenge is working without a budget. The Streetscape program has not had a budget for the five years it has been in existence. Rosenblatt-Naderi gets her projects done by working closely with the staff from engineering planning and parks departments. By coordinating her efforts with these departments, and private-sector interests, she is able to incorporate her projects with theirs. In this manner, Streetscape projects become part of the budgets of other road projects. By working with other project's budgets Streetscape has been able to make $1 million worth of improvements a year.

Individual Contribution

Individual excellence in the Roadside Support category went to Jim Thrash of Lewisville, Texas, a sales representative for E.I. Dupont de Nemous and Co. The award is based on such merits as professional enhancement of the industry.

Thrash's philosophy indicates why he was chosen to win this award. "It has always been a theory of mine that to be a success as a salesman you must have more to offer than just a product to sell. You have to have a product that will fit your customers' needs and will perform to their expectations. You have to have credibility in the industry and have your customers confidence in your recommendations. There are times that you don't have all the tools needed and when that situation arises, you recommend someone's product that will satisfy the customers' needs." Thrash also places emphasis on training his customers on application techniques, personal safety and calibration of their equipment. "I spend a lot of time in this area, because my product is only as good as the person that is making the application."

He believes that a good salesman must be a good technician. An understanding of the equipment used to apply the products is important.

Being informed about the needs of the customer also is a critical aspect of Trash's job. "You must find out what his needs are and the site to be treated and what the environment is like around the site."

In order to be successful, a salesman must be concerned about self education. "A sales job is a never ending educational process. You must keep up with markets and industries that you work."

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