On roadsides

Keywords: on roadsides
Description: (Above) Native plants support insects and other forms of life. Here, a butterfly is perched on the flower of a prairie blazing star ( Liatris pycnostachya Michx ). Motorists demand that road

(Above) Native plants support insects and other forms of life. Here, a butterfly is perched on the flower of a prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya Michx ).

Motorists demand that road modifications not only improve safety and mobility but also preserve, protect, and, where possible, promote healthy natural environments. In recent years the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has taken a leadership role in moving beyond regulation-driven mitigation approaches to proactive environmental stewardship that promotes healthy ecosystems.

Native plants are one of the foundations of ecological health and function. Revegetating roadsides with native plants is key to managing environmental impacts and improving conditions for healthy ecosystems.

According to George Fekaris, project manager for FHWA's Western Federal Lands Highway Division (WFLHD), "Our clients, the Federal land management agencies, need and want [roadside revegetation with native plants], and it's the right thing to do, both economically and environmentally."

Past approaches to post- construction roadside revegetation often failed, despite policy initiatives, customer desires, good intentions, and widespread recognition of the many economic, aesthetic, and ecological benefits of native plants. The lack of a consistent interdisciplinary, interagency team approach with early (3-years minimum) project participation, and inadequate communication and stated objectives among all involved parties at Federal, State, county, and private levels, often leads to revegetation failure. With dedicated interdisciplinary, interagency commitment, teamwork, and revegetation guidelines, roadside revegetation projects will succeed while fulfilling broad-ranging agency objectives.

Fekaris continues, "Our ability to successfully establish native plant communities on roadsides is the linchpin that will determine whether the 12 million-plus acres that make up the transportation corridors of this country will be a hospitable environment to plants, mammals, birds, and other forms of life — or a wasteland."

Native plants along roadsides offer ecological, economic, safety, and aesthetic advantages. Ecologically, healthy native plant communities often are the best long-term defense against invasive and noxious weeds. Economically, maintenance costs for managing problematic vegetation are reduced, as are concerns that herbicides might cause pollution or that weeds from roadsides might invade neighboring lands.

In addition, well-planned, desirable vegetation supports transportation goals for safety and efficiency by stabilizing slopes, reinforcing infrastructure, and improving the road user's experience by creating natural beauty and diversity along the roadside.

The ineffectiveness of past roadside revegetation efforts resulted in problems such as erosion and sediment loading, thereby affecting soil and water quality. Visually, when road disturbance is not healed properly, the aesthetic experience of the road user is diminished.

According to Paul T. Anderson, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Forest Service (USFS) environmental streamlining liaison to FHWA, an integrated and collaborative approach is needed. "When protection or reestablishment of native vegetation was considered, it was too often an afterthought," he explains.

In some cases the goal was too shortsighted. Revegetation was considered important to improve the appearance of the roadside disturbance, but efforts emphasized seeding of exotic species because these were perceived as cheap, readily available, and quick to establish on disturbed sites. These exotics either spread to become problematic weeds or failed to persist because they were not locally appropriate.

"A collaborative process with an eye on long-term results, not just quick cover, is needed," says Anderson.

FHWA's Fekaris adds, "You often see failures from lack of coordination. Specialists tend to work in isolation from each other. The engineers decide the slope grade, the soils person comes along and tries to stabilize or add soil, and then the revegetation person is invited to throw some seeds on top of that. In a year or two, it starts to fall down — you have an ugly, bare, or weedy disturbance, and folks wonder why."

WFLHD recognized that overcoming the obstacles to successful establishment of native plants would require more than just technical information. A systematic, comprehensive approach is needed. With environmental stewardship as one of FHWA's "vital few" goals for road projects, revegetation has to be considered at every phase of design and construction. Engineering and natural resource sciences need to be brought together in a collaborative way.

The overriding goal of any road construction or modification project is safety, and rightly so. The establishment of locally adapted native plant communities supports transportation safety goals in a number of ways, but one of the most important is by improving the function of roadside engineering. Appropriate vegetation can enhance visibility and support design features to help drivers recover if their vehicles leave the pavement.

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