Way back in 1984, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources unveiled a program called “Roadsides for Wildlife.”
At a time when undisturbed nesting grasses for wildlife were at a premium — it would be two years before the popular Conservation Reserve Program became part of the rural landscape — the program’s intent was to make people aware of the value of road ditches as wildlife habitat and ultimately, to discourage mowing them until after Aug. 1, when most nesting activities had concluded.
Nearly three decades later, a drive into the country might prompt this question: Did anyone out there get the message?
Kurt Haroldson, DNR assistance regional wildlife manager in New Ulm concedes that many have not.
“I think I’m seeing more roadside mowing every year,” he said.
Indeed, a drive through the Minnesota countryside will reveal road ditches that by late May and into the early summer — the critical nesting period for wildlife — already resembled lawns or golf course fairways.
While the availability of large tracts of CRP land over the last 25 years may have taken the emphasis off of the value of roadsides, Haroldson said they remain valuable.
“It’s true that pheasants are way more successful nesting in large tracts, but the birds still use roadsides for nesting, too,” he said. “So it’s not like they have zero value.”
Recognizing the value of roadsides as wildlife habitat, the state legislature even passed a law in 1985 that restricts the mowing of roadsides before Aug. 1.
But before anyone assumes all those folks cutting hay in June are breaking the law, Carmelita Nelson, the DNR prairie grassland coordinator and who also administers what remains of the Roadsides for Wildlife Program, points out that the law only restricts “road authorities” from mowing before Aug. 1.
Road authorities like townships, counties and MnDot are allowed to mow ditches prior to that date only for weed control, safety issues regarding visibility and the first eight feet of the ditch immediately adjacent to a road.
Otherwise, the rest of the road ditch is off limits until August.
Alan Forsberg, Blue Earth County engineer, said that any ditch mowing done by county workers before August 1 complies with those restrictions.
Further, he said that even after Aug. 1, county policy is to limit mowing of entire road ditches to only once every three years, mainly for brush control.
While government entities are limited to where and when they can mow ditches, landowners can mow pretty much whatever and whenever they choose, Nelson said.
“Private landowners can harvest the hay, mow the entire road ditch look like a golf course if they want to,” she said, adding that dry conditions and the resulting high price of hay may have resulted in increased harvest of hay from roadsides this year.
“We’ve got drought creeping in from the southwest, southeast and northwest,” she said, adding that the poor hay conditions in those areas are the key reason CRP acres have been opened to emergency grazing and haying. “Some farmers are looking to the roadsides for their hay.”
Nevertheless, beyond their own property, anyone mowing road ditches are required to have permission from landowners. “If a guy is cutting hay in ditches 10 miles from home, he might have permission,” she said.
“Then again, if it’s some hay jockey just cutting hay without permission and taking it, a landowner might consider calling the sheriff,” she said. “That is considered theft.”
Nowadays, Nelson devotes only about a quarter her time to the Roadsides for Wildlife Program, down from the full-time position it once was.
So while the program is not entirely dead, it certainly is on life support.
That it still has a pulse, however weak, may be a very good thing.
Haroldson said that while about 100,000 acres were enrolled in CRP during a general sign-up period earlier this year, those gains will be more than offset by the loss of 300,000 acres of CRP when contracts expire in late September.
While it is generally believed that the Conservation Reserve Program will survive in some form as Congress writes a new farm bill, given the political climate and depending on election results in November, nothing is certain.
And even if CRP remains a component of a new farm bill, $8 corn and $16 beans likely will hold sway for some farmers over the limited payments that the Federal land conservation program likely will offer.
In either case, the value of roadsides managed as wildlife habitat once again will grow.
John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.