More than meets the eye

May 16, 2003

Cruising down I-70 at 75 mph outside of Topeka, Kan., there is more to the interstate than meets the eye--actually it's the side of the road. Green and lush, roadside vegetation plays a vital role in the aesthetics of our nation's infrastructure. Based on personal experience and the projects I have researched for this and past articles on roadside vegetation, I have an appreciation for the work and effort that goes into maintaining the side of a road. Many Americans, though, do not share this appreciation.

Cruising down I-70 at 75 mph outside of Topeka, Kan., there is more to the interstate than meets the eye--actually it's the side of the road. Green and lush, roadside vegetation plays a vital role in the aesthetics of our nation's infrastructure. Based on personal experience and the projects I have researched for this and past articles on roadside vegetation, I have an appreciation for the work and effort that goes into maintaining the side of a road. Many Americans, though, do not share this appreciation.

Unfortunately, roadsides are constantly being littered with fast-food debris, empty soda bottles, cigarette butts and things that shouldn't grace the pages of Roads & Bridges.

In recent years, the tide toward beautifying the nation's infrastructure seems to be turning as more and more cities are incorporating roadside vegetation programs--some of which are sponsored by big-money corporations--with the sole purpose of keeping the roadsides clean and beautiful. But a roadside vegetation program goes far beyond keeping the trash out and the grass short, as critics say of these so-called corporate philanthropic programs.

Conversely, the efforts of those who make roadside maintenance their profession were acknowledged at the 2002 Annual Meeting of the National Roadside Vegetation Management Association (NRVMA) with the granting of the association's Roadside Excellence Awards. Recognizing roadside vegetation management programs since 1986, a NRVMA Roadside Excellence Award is a badge of honor to those who dedicate their careers to this niche of the industry.

Judged by current officers, executive board members and past presidents of NRVMA, each nominated program in four different categories (state, county, city and roadside support) undergo a wide variety of scrutiny before being selected as a Roadside Excellence Award winner. Even then, the criterion for winning goes beyond a certain set of rules, according to NRVMA.

"Each program and/or individual has to demonstrate a commitment to excellence in roadside vegetation," Paul Northcutt, executive director for NRVMA, told Roads & Bridges.

Inundated with nominations in three of the four categories--ironically, not a single nomination was placed in probably the most recognizable classification, the city category--the NRVMA Roadside Excellence Awards panel had a difficult time with their decisions.

"There was certainly difficulty in selecting our 2002 winners because we received several nominations for each of the three categories, and many of the nominees exhibited great programs," said Northcutt. "However, the judging committee felt these winners exhibited the best overall programs for 2002 and were those who exhibited the best all-around programs exhibiting strengths in numerous facets of the various roadside management disciplines."

A national leader

Recognized with the 2002 Roadside Excellence Award in the state DOT category was the South Carolina IRVM Program. Accepting the award at NRVMA's 2002 Annual Meeting on behalf of the South Carolina DOT (SCDOT) were Kelly Jo Swygert, IRVM program coordinator, SCDOT, and James B. Aitken, Ph.D., professor emeritus, Clemson University.

"The SCDOT was selected in the state DOT category based upon the top-level management commitment to a roadside vegetation management program," said Northcutt.

The SCDOT has emerged as a national leader in roadside vegetation management as the DOT maintains vegetation along 42,000 miles of roadways. Highlights of their 2002 winning program include the hiring of a full-time IRVM coordinator; developing an annual agency Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management (IRVM) plan; publishing a monthly vegetation management newsletter for SCDOT employees; developing an intranet website for vegetation management issues; planting and maintaining 1,100 acres of cultivated wildflowers on SCDOT roadsides; and partnering with business and community leaders.

"The South Carolina roadside vegetation management program is unique because it is an integrated program," Swygert told Roads & Bridges. "It is a diverse yet balanced approach to vegetation management that relies on a team of valuable members in order to be successful."

One member of that team is Clemson University, which assists the SCDOT with the development of educational materials for SCDOT employees who have vegetation management responsibilities. Clemson also assists the SCDOT with semiannual vegetation management training for its employees and provides guidance with the continuing development and improvement of the DOT's IRVM program.

"Additionally, Clemson University's vegetation management research efforts generate invaluable information that is essential to the ongoing improvement of the SCDOT's IRVM Program," added Swygert.

The SCDOT also is recognized for becoming more active in the local state vegetation management association for South Carolina; providing semiannual pesticide applicator training to employees; developing pesticide container recycling programs; coordinating with the South Carolina department of corrections in mowing the state's rights-of-way; and maintaining over 250 landscape sites throughout the SCDOT transportation system.

These cumulative efforts have led to a balanced roadside vegetation management program at the SCDOT, a program which its employees view with great pride.

"SCDOT is elated about receiving the NRVMA Roadside Excellence Award," said Swygert. "This award recognizes the SCDOT's determination in developing and maintaining a well-balanced roadside vegetation management program. The SCDOT is even more proud of its road maintenance employees whose dedicated and tireless efforts made this award possible."

A man and his land

Acknowledged in the county/parish government program was John Kabus and the Shawnee County Noxious Weed Department of Topeka, Kan.

Kabus and his staff are responsible for vegetation management of 800 miles of county right-of-way; 3,000-4,000 acres of drainage systems; and noxious weed control for all railroad systems within Shawnee county.

"John Kabus and the Shawnee County Noxious Weed Department was selected in the county category due to his success in working not only with the Kansas State Legislature, but also with local land owners and citizens in including their input onto the Shawnee County integrated roadside vegetation management plan," said NRVMA's Northcutt.

As mentioned above, Kabus is active in testifying before the Kansas State Legislature on noxious weed-related issues, and his public relations efforts have brought more attention to noxious weed-related issues.

Each year, Kabus coordinates land owner and intergovernmental meetings and hosts information meetings at his facility to discuss vegetation management issues. He also has been known to host a breakfast and informational meeting each year for legislators, civic and business and land owners.

One of Kabus' main goals is to ensure that his recently completed county facility surpasses all codes and EPA requirements.

Scholastic recognition

Awarded the 2002 NRVMA Roadside Excellence Award was Terri Rogers, instructor of the Natural Resources Management Program at Hawkeye Community College, Waterloo, Iowa.

A steadfast supporter of NRVMA, Rogers runs what quite possibly may be the only degree program in roadside vegetation management found in the U.S.

According to Rogers, the Natural Resources Management Program tries to get students involved in roadside management from the first week they arrive on campus. Students begin to incorporate the philosophy of the benefits of utilizing native plants, and by the end of their first year the students are proponents of the integrated roadside vegetation management.

"The Natural Resources Management Program at Hawkeye Community College provides students the opportunity to develop the necessary skills and certifications for entering careers as natural resources technicians," said Rogers. "Students learn both the physical aspects of managing the natural areas and the theory behind the procedures."

The Natural Resources Management Program was developed in 1997 and initially had emphasis on vegetation management. The first year the program had four students and when a wildlife management emphasis was added in 1999, enrollment swelled to its current level of 52 students.

In addition to running the vegetation management program, Rogers also has been a driving force in this program and actively supports her students to become involved in NRVMA.

"Students may find employment as roadside managers, natural resource technicians, park workers and workers in a wide variety of supporting industries," said Rogers. "A new growth industry is that of private contractors for right-of-ways."

Rogers also contributes to NRVMA in other ways--she has served as a key member of the team that developed and administers the association's National Certification Program for certified professional roadside managers and technicians. A key element Rogers contributed to developing NRVMA's Certification Program was coordinating the development of the question for the examinations given to prospective program candidates.

"NRVMA's Certification Program seeks to recognize professionalism and encourage professional development among all practitioners of the component skills of roadside vegetation management," said Rogers. "National certification is a voluntary, examination-based program which provides recognition of professional and technical competency."

"Terri Rogers was selected as developing one of the only degree programs on roadside vegetation management within the U.S. and for her work in encouraging and sponsoring students in becoming active in roadside vegetation management activities. Terri also has been a leader in helping to manage NRVMA's National Certification Program for roadside managers and roadside technicians," said Northcutt.

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