Block of snow

May 4, 2015

New tool helps establish a more effective snow fence

Snow and blowing snow conditions are major road transportation issues for many northern states and Canada. Keeping roadways safe and passable is a high priority and an unpredictable budget item of roadway-maintenance departments. In an effort to reduce costs while maintaining safe roadways, alternative snow preventive practices are being considered. 

A living snow fence (LSF) is a type of windbreak designed to keep blowing and drifting snow off roadways. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) administers a program working with landowners to maintain standing corn rows and/or planting LSFs in areas where blowing and drifting snow is an identified problem.  

An effective farm system

Establishing standing corn rows and LSFs improves driver visibility and road surface conditions and has the potential to lower costs of road maintenance as well as crashes attributed to blowing and drifting snow. Snow fences that effectively limit snow drift and blowing problems can decrease travel time and reduce the severity and number of snow-related crashes. Snow fences along I-80 in Wyoming have reduced accidents during blowing snow conditions by 70%. An analysis of accidents in Minnesota found more than 9,000 snow-related accidents in snow problem areas including 64 fatal and 131 incapacitating accidents from 1995 to 2005.

Drifts that are large and heavy enough to be unmovable by standard plows require specialized equipment to keep roadways safe and passable. Blowing snow can require extra trips by standard plows, reduced plow speeds and increased usage of sand and salt. Snow-fence protection along 50% of a 100-km section of I-80 in Wyoming provided a reduction in snow-removal costs by more than 30%. 

In 2011, Mn/DOT paid a total of $51,000 for LSF (tree and shrub) contracts and $43,000 for standing corn-row contracts. The total 2011 budget for snow and ice removal was $81 million. Mn/DOT currently has contracts with 86 landowners on these sites representing 2% of the 3,800 problematic sites. Mn/DOT has paid farmers to leave standing corn rows to protect identified snow problem roadways at $1.50 per bushel above market price.

Based on this study, Mn/DOT could see net economic returns of more than $1.3 million per year if 40% of the sites inventoried with blowing and drifting snow problems (1,520 sites) would be contracted to LSF practices. The opportunity comes from the low adoption rate (2%) of a program with clear transportation and safety benefits. Quantifying the social constraints and the economic benefits and costs will allow the development of a new LSF payment program with the goal of increasing adoption rates in snow problem areas with positive economic net benefits.

Landowners can receive cost share and annual payments from government conservation programs. Mn/DOT has created a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to plant LSFs through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Under the Continuous CRP enrollment, landowners would receive the soil rental rate for land taken out of production for a 10- to 15-year contract along with an installation cost share. EQIP offers funds to assist with the cost of purchasing and planting trees, shrubs and grass/forbs for the enrolled area. Mn/DOT offers landowners incentives to participate in the program, covering remaining noncost share expenses and maintenance in the LSF area.  

Getting a better feel

Researchers began by conducting focus groups to get input from landowners about their costs for establishing and maintaining snow fences and the constraints that limit landowner participation in the LSF program. Researchers also conducted an online survey of key staff at Mn/DOT and other agencies to get their perception of the value of LSFs, their familiarity with the LSF program and whether they had sufficient resources and time to implement LSFs.

Researchers then conducted a detailed financial analysis to improve estimates of LSF costs and benefits by examining agency records, conducting interviews with agency representatives and conducting on-farm interviews with current LSF participants. 

Using all of the data collected in this study on costs and benefits of LSFs, researchers developed the Living Snow Fence Cost Benefit Tool, which allows users to calculate the costs to landowners and the benefits of mobility and safety and the transportation agency maintenance cost reductions.

An online survey was distributed to key local, state and federal agency staff to better understand the perspectives of these individuals and the role played by each agency and its staff. A total of 160 agency staff completed the survey, representing the following agencies: Mn/DOT, Farm Service Agency (FSA), Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) and Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Results across the various agencies surveyed indicate that there is great interest in the LSF program and high confidence that the program is effective.

Mn/DOT staff results: 

  • 87% are promoting the LSF program at least one or more times per year;  
  • 95% are confident that LSFs are effective at reducing snow- and ice-removal costs;  
  • 90% are confident that LSFs are effective at reducing crashes due to blowing and drifting snow;
  • 78% agreed that they have the technical knowledge, skills and abilities of how LSFs function to promote within Mn/DOT and agency partners;
  • 47% responded that their Mn/DOT district has equipment, labor and expertise to plant LSFs;
  • 23% responded that their Mn/DOT district has equipment, labor and expertise to maintain an LSF; and
  • 55% use the GIS snow trap inventory to identify blowing and drifting snow problem areas.

The greatest constraints in Mn/DOT staff to LSF adoption were technical knowledge, insufficient funding, time to work on the program and landowner acceptance.  

Agency (FSA, SWCD and NRCS)
staff results: 

  • 60% agree that they have the technical knowledge of the LSF program;
  • 36% said that the agency is equipped to plant LSFs;
  • 56% rated LSF programs as a priority;
  • 77% were not familiar with the “Toward Zero Deaths” mission;
  • 67% saw their agency not having a role to play in reducing vehicle crashes;
  • 96% of agency staff have not met their Mn/DOT district LSF coordinator; and
  • 99% of agency staff have never been invited to a road-safety audit to reduce crashes.

The agency staff has the technical training and competency needed to promote and implement the program; however resources such as time and funding are more limited.  

Mn/DOT and agency recommendations were as follows:

  • All agency staff must understand the value, importance and benefits of the LSF program; 
  • Each Mn/DOT district should have an LSF coordinator that meets on a regular basis with SWCD, FSA and NRCS staff and helps promote
  • the program;
  • Each SWCD, FSA and NRCS office also should have a dedicated staff member to be the LSF contact or go-to person; and
  • All LSF contacts should be trained and others in these offices should know the program and whom in their office to contact.

Building a better fence program

Landowners participating in the Mn/DOT LSF program were interviewed about the program in five locations around the state. The areas selected were chosen to represent the variety of diverse conditions throughout the state of Minnesota. A total of 45 Minnesota landowners participated in five focus group discussions between January and February 2010.  

Focus group participants revealed a variety of perceived costs and constraints and also described the conditions that would likely increase landowner adoption of the program. Specifically, the lifecycle costs of the LSF were most frequently mentioned, including the costs associated with implementation, maintenance, rejuvenation and removal. Other costs identified included the opportunity costs, costs related to changing land values, and some participants concluded the compensation was insufficient to cover all costs.  

Specific constraints that emerged in the discussion included risk, hassle and time constraints, and concerns about the contract. The biggest constraints to adoption of the practice were the risks associated with the maintenance of the LSF planting, including replacing lost trees and the landowner’s liability to maintain the fence and the associated costs. Other constraining factors included the hassles presented by the LSF planting and additional time required to negotiate the hassles. Concerns about the rigidity and the length of the contract were final constraining factors discussed by participants.  

Several opportunities emerged to improve the program and increase landowner adoption of the practice. Recommendations for improving the program include, but are not limited to: developing more flexible contracts; offering adjustable payments; adding more competitive incentives; providing alternatives for maintenance; creating a system of insurance against risk; and decreasing landowner liability.  

Below is a list of other findings that should benefit the LSF program:

  • Mn/DOT should ensure that all potential maintenance activities required over the life of a contract are covered;
  • Mn/DOT and other agencies promoting LSF should be sure to include mention of community benefits from LSF as this may motivate some landowners to participate;
  • A more coordinated effort is needed to target landowners and groups of landowners in areas that have already been identified by Mn/DOT as having blowing and drifting snow problems;
  • Mn/DOT should consider working with LSF owners, Mn/DOT plow drivers and maintenance personnel familiar with the landowners and the blowing and drifting snow problems to work directly with landowners to promote LSF;
  • Mn/DOT could consider adding a provision to the contract that would cover the cost of tree removal at the end of the contract; 
  • If utilizing landowners with LSFs, Mn/DOT should consider some kind of an incentive payment and other support to those individuals;
  • A worksheet should be prepared explaining the area required, expected payments and obligations of the landowner before visiting a landowner;
  • Payments need to be adjusted for inflation in land values over time. New payments should be based on a public land or rental price index;
  • Paying for the entire area between the LSF and the edge of the right-of-way will reduce the hassle of farming around the LSF. (In earlier CRP contracts it was not possible but it is being offered now in Minnesota);
  • Farmers have provided a number of suggestions related to technical improvement of the standing corn rows as well as the mechanism for payment to the farmers;
  • Farmers would prefer a single strip of standing corn rows (six to eight rows of corn equal one strip) rather than the recommended two strips; and 
  • The research team recommends that the agency promote LSF planted with trees and/or shrubs over standing corn rows because of the lack of benefits during the soybean year in a corn/soybean rotation.

Using a calculator

The Living Snow Fence Costs Benefit Tool is an Excel-based tool that allows the user to enter inputs regarding a snow problem area or site, plus characteristics about the site. This tool has custom features specific to Mn/DOT. However, the tool is usable by any transportation agency but will require more user input and/or construction of databases. One custom feature is district-wide snow problem area prioritization maps. These allow for state and district-wide prioritization based on the benefit-cost ratio. The calculator can then be used for a more detailed analysis of individual snow fences. The calculator analyzes landowner costs and possible payments for LSF plantings and standing corn rows.

The output section of the tool provides a review of opportunity costs, transportation-agency benefits, social benefits and minimum payment options. This tool will help transportation officials partner with local, state and federal agency staff to work with landowners to arrive at a realistic, economical and cost-effective payment for land practices (LSF or standing corn rows) protecting state and local highways. This tool is being field tested and should be available by December 2012.

Based on this study, Mn/DOT could see net economic returns of more than $1.3 million per year if 40% of the sites inventoried with blowing and drifting snow problems would be contracted to LSF practices. A collaboration of staff from cooperating agencies is needed to work together and strategically identify and target snow problem areas and landowners to offer realistic LSF or standing-corn-row compensation using the LSF payment calculator. This report, an executive summary, information about the LSF payment calculator and other links to LSF resources are available at WM

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