Weed Whacker

March 1, 2006

When not repairing pavements and bridges, maintenance crews across the country also manage vegetation on 12 million acres of rights-of-way. With the explosion of many invasive plants through highway corridors, roadside managers are being asked to prevent and control invasive plants, as well as plant native species.

When not repairing pavements and bridges, maintenance crews across the country also manage vegetation on 12 million acres of rights-of-way. With the explosion of many invasive plants through highway corridors, roadside managers are being asked to prevent and control invasive plants, as well as plant native species.

Does this mean more maintenance trucks and mowers on roadsides? Not exactly. It means taking plant inventories and making management plans with the support of the latest transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU. SAFETEA-LU adds a new eligibility for federal-aid dollar use. This eligibility will benefit vegetation management operations. The law singles out such eligible activities as:

  • 1. Rights-of-way vegetation surveys;
  • 2. Native plantings for erosion control and esthetics when practical;
  • 3. Control of terrestrial and aquatic noxious weeds;
  • 4. Replacement of weeds with native grasses for wildfire breaks; and
  • 5. Integrated vegetation management training.
Section 6006 of SAFETEA adds a new paragraph (329) to the Code of Federal Regulations 23—Highways. Until now, no maintenance activities, including the repair of pavements and bridges, were eligible for federal dollars. Only state dollars were used. Now, a state department of transportation (DOT) can allocate federal-aid dollars (federal gas taxes) back to maintenance for vegetation management purposes. This exception addresses the safety, legal and conservation concerns of vegetation managers.

The economic cost of invasive plants, those that are accidentally or purposefully introduced and then do not behave, has grown to over $25 billion annually. This cost includes loss of crops, loss of grazing lands, loss of hunting land and fisheries, and loss of property values. The costs of eradication tools like herbicides and mowing to stop the spread of invasive plants are also exorbitant. The incalculable ecological costs to public lands, watersheds and forests to wildlife, recreation and ecological services are just beginning to be assessed.

One by one, these invasive plants are being added to state noxious weed laws across the country. Each state has its own weed law and its own concerns about which plants are harmful to agriculture, human health and the environment. As a consequence, each state DOT is responsible for controlling these weeds so they do not spread to adjacent lands. Many studies report highway corridors to be vectors for the movement of these invasive plants. Historically, maintenance departments could not use federal-aid dollars for this work. SAFETEA-LU changes everything.

Case making For some vegetation managers who have been proactive, very little will change except their need to build the case for a larger share of the budget with the safety, ecological, esthetic and practical costs. The following are factors that need to be considered.

  • Eradication of new invasions of terrestrial and aquatic weeds;
  • GIS mapping or inventorying of all state ROWs will not be cheap;
  • Control of established state noxious weeds will further build the case;
  • Research studies should examine effectiveness, costs, savings, etc., of methods;
  • Defining appropriate best management practices will cost time;
  • Identifying new invasive threats on the move should be included;
  • Increased planting of native grasses and forbs for recovery areas;
  • Increasing the esthetic experience for the motorist’s safety and pleasure; and
  • Increased crew and contractor training is crucial to budget requests.
Other vegetation managers will need to do strategic planning to fund the increasing workload that the spread of noxious terrestrial and aquatic weeds brings. They will not only need to build the case for a larger share of the budget, but actually educate decision-makers who do not see this issue as a highway priority.

Picking out of a crowd Training is one of the eligible activities in SAFETEA-LU. IRVM training is recommended. What is IRVM? Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management originated in Iowa in the 1980s. It simply means assessing each road segment and using the best tools for the job. Whether training state forces crews or contracted crews, expanded training will be needed. One of the skills that will be enhanced is that of plant identification. Knowing which plants to control and which to protect will greatly affect how crews do their work. Spotting a new plant that does not belong in everyday work might result in the first sighting of a new weed that can be stopped then and there. Where GPS mapping is used for inventories, these skills will be taught as well.

Learning to identify plants while driving down the district roads is an even finer skill. Seasoned workers will be able to see and report when something has changed in plant populations.

Part of IRVM is the planting of native grasses and forbs, another eligible activity of SAFETEA-LU. These plantings use a bit of agricultural and a bit of ecological knowledge to succeed. Each region of the nation uses different methods, mixes, rates and timing. The art and science of this work will be part of the integrated training because undisturbed native species resistance to invasions will have value in roadsides. Mowing and spraying continues as part of IRVM for appropriate sites. Integrated vegetation management will add understanding and tools to on-the-ground vegetation problems.

Know no boundaries As known weeds continue to spread and new weeds appear, we recognize that plants do not respect political boundaries. That means the weeds on highway corridors move across the fence to both private and public lands, along right-of-way and across state lines, and up and down corridors across international boundaries with Canada and Mexico. DOT vegetation managers are not the only people responsible for this issue.

SAFETEA-LU will support the control of noxious weeds within corridors. But what happens across the fence will require special partnerships to share resources. Here are some examples:

In the West, many Cooperative Weed Management Area (CWMA) coalitions have formed to combine local, state and federal resources and fight the war on weeds. The Idaho CWMA has been key in this partnership idea. The 11 million-acre Yellowstone National Park has joined with all federal, state and county agencies to manage and protect one of our national treasures. Three state DOTs are members of the Greater Yellowstone Committee.

In the East, New York State created a similar partnership to protect the Adirondack Park. There a Memorandum of Understanding lays out the responsibilities and commitments of each agency. The NYSDOT is a major player in this partnership.

International boundaries have become lines of cooperation between the Washington DOT and British Columbia, as well as Arizona DOT and Sonora, Mexico. Legally we can work together on both sides of the border to stop the movement of invasive plants. These partnerships will save dollars and time far into the future. In these unique working relationships we can learn from one another’s experiences.

Vegetation management is not just about mowing and spraying operations anymore. Vegetation management requires increased equipment skills, ecological knowledge, communication skills, policy understanding and sharing resources in new partnerships.

It is not easy working daily in “plain view.” Now vegetation managers will do that work with the support of SAFETEA-LU.

About The Author: Harper-Lore manages the FHWA Vegetation Management Program and serves as a technical resource for state DOT roadsides.

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