by CHRIS ROGERS
Supporters of roadside prairies won a victory last month, when the Winona County Board approved a new policy that allows landowners to request that county mowing crews pass over a portion of the road ditch next to their property.
Over a year ago, the Winona County Parks and Environment Committee and the local chapter of the Prairie Enthusiasts championed the idea of a county version of Iowa’s Living Roadway program or the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Roadsides for Wildlife program. Both programs encourage landowners to grow native prairie plants in the road right-of-way that produce habitat for wildlife such as pheasants and support butterflies, bees, and other pollinators who depend on native flowers. Much of Minnesota’s prairies disappeared long ago, but roadside prairie supporters look at road ditches and see many acres of potential habitat restoration.
Winona County already had a no-spray program, which allowed landowners to ask highway maintenance crews to skip their property when spraying herbicides to control weeds in the right-of-way, and in places, county crews and landowners appeared to have informal understandings about mowing.
Under the new Winona County policy, landowners who sign up pay $60 for a pair of “Do Not Mow or Spray” signs to stick in the road ditch next to their land. Highway crews will still mow a swath near the shoulder, but beyond that, native plants up to three feet in height — relatively low for prairie plants — would be allowed. Just like the no-spray program, if landowners do not keep down weeds or stay within the height limit, county crews will spray and mow the right-of-way regardless.
County Board members Steve Jacob and Marcia Ward had concerns about the proposal initially. In particular, they were both worried about tall prairie plants obscuring drivers’ view of deer. Jacob was also concerned that the no-mow program might run into a similar problem that he observed in the no-spray program: lots of people signing up and then neglecting to weed their ditches. However, Winona County Engineer Dave Kramer supported the idea, saying that it would save county crews time and money on road ditch maintenance and that there were ways of working around the safety concerns. Safety and transportation are the top priority, Kramer stated, “But that said, if people want to invest their time, their money and beautify the county, provide some environmental benefits and not pose any significant problems for the use of the road, I don’t know why it can’t be accommodated.”
The County Board voted unanimously to approve the new policy on July 11.
Landowners who are interested in signing up for the program can find more information, including the necessary forms, at www.co.winona.mn.us/page/3504 or by contacting the Winona County Highway Department at 507-457-8840. This program only applies to county-owned roads.