Roadside Improvements


(This 1162nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 30, 2013.)


For years we had driven up a narrow lane through the forest to Sawbill, Minnesota, where we outfitted for our annual canoe trip. That drive was an important aspect of what made our week in the Boundary Waters a refreshing experience. It made us feel that we were part of that woods with wildlife up close. We saw grouse dusting, wildflowers everywhere and an occasional bear, moose, coyote or fox.


But then that part of our trip changed: highway crews clear-cut all vegetation for a hundred feet on each side of that dirt road. To what purpose? Surely not safety: we could only drive at about 30 miles per hour along that bumpy, stone-filled passage. It was a clear case, I believe, of make-work by a highway department out of control.


Thank goodness, times have changed for the better and especially here in New York State. Our state Department of Transportation has instituted regulations that recognize environmental concerns. What is especially attractive about their changes is that some also save tax dollars.


Obviously their first concern is highway safety. With fast-moving cars, sightlines must be maintained, obstructions (like animals) and beams from oncoming headlights minimized, guardrails cleared of vegetation so that they can be seen.


But we don't need another million square miles of mowed lawn to accomplish this.


A little background here. Our grasslands and the birds associated with them like meadowlark; bobolink; sedge wren; and field, savannah, grasshopper, vesper and Henslow's sparrows are in sharp decline. Worst is that Henslow's sparrow: once observed regularly in Lancaster and Clarence fields, none have been reported breeding in all of western New York for seven years. What has happened is that, when grasslands are left untended, succession takes place and they turn into brushy fields, then woodlands and the habitat is lost.


In 2009 NYSDOT instituted a Conservation Alternative Mowing Plans (CAMP) program that "encourages changes in mowing practices that may conserve funds for staff hours and fuel usage, improve air quality through reduced fuel emissions, reduce required equipment maintenance, and reduce habitat fragmentation without impacting the safety or functionality of the roadside."


A major outcome of that cost-saving CAMP program has been reduced mowing. Today roadsides are only partially mowed: the national guideline is "one mower width". Beyond that the area is cut or brush-hogged only two or three times each year with care taken to avoid cutting during bird nesting periods.


I witnessed results of this kind of mowing on recent trips through our Southern Tier. In some areas the grass had not yet been mowed and it reached a height of about fifteen inches; in others a narrow strip along the right-of-way was cut to about six inches.


It was also apparent that parts of the median were left entirely unmown. As a result brush and trees had grown to a height that blocked the beams of oncoming cars.


Your reaction may be, "What self-respecting bird would nest so close to a highway?" In response I offer my experience years ago driving between Binghamton and Albany many times. One of the commonest roadside birds on those drives was the grasshopper sparrow. So birds do nest in those noisy areas.


Our highway department is addressing problems of other wildlife as well. Local representative Susan Surdej told me about some of their initiatives. They have set up cameras to record animal movement and help address collision problems; they have changed fencing practices, even adding fencing to steer turtles and salamanders to culverts under roadways; and they have provided educational materials at access points and parking areas for wildlife watching. They have taken measures to address problems with invasive species with knotweed, phragmites, purple loosestrife and giant hogweed special targets. Although they have found that planting wildflowers has generally proved labor intensive, expensive and unproductive, they supported the Lamar Advertising Company's planting of two million daffodil bulbs along the Kensington Expressway and the I-290 to lighten our springtimes.


I asked Surdej specifically about common vetch, an attractive plant used to prevent soil erosion on steep slopes. Because it turned out to be an aggressive alien and even flammable in drought conditions it is no longer seeded.


I salute NYSDOT for their attention to ecological concerns.-- Gerry Rising