Governments are discovering that an environmentally friendly reduction in roadside mowing can spawn other benefits, including lower maintenance expenses and perhaps even improved driver safety.
Turns out the inherent beauty of black-eyed Susans and other wildflowers is only the beginning.
“There seems to be a mindset in the United States that because we have lawns, and we mow our lawns, that the roadbed should look like our lawns,” said Roger Boyd, director of natural areas for Baker University. “People think anything over six inches (high) is weedy. They need to get over it. …
“(Governments are) going to save tremendous amounts on fuel by not mowing, and it benefits lots of different wildlife — not to mention having the beauty of the flowers.”
Such sentiments are gaining traction with local and state governments.
When Douglas County trimmed its roadside mowing costs a year ago in response to budget concerns, officials encountered no opposition from adjacent property owners or anyone else driving on main roads outside Lawrence, Baldwin City, Eudora and Lecompton.
Last year’s bill: $49,161 for personnel, equipment and fuel, slightly less than the amount spent to mow county parks and along hiking and biking trails.
Keith Browning, county public works director, aims to leave wildflowers untouched for as long as possible, but concedes that roadsides must be mowed to prevent damage.
The county mows a 10-foot-wide swath along county roads once a year, he said. The width is extended to cover the entire right-of-way once every three years, to prevent “woody vegetation” from getting so large that it poses a threat to motorists.
“We try to strike a balance,” Browning said.
The Kansas Department of Transportation saves money by issuing permits for adjacent property owners to harvest hay that grows along highways.
Managing Kansas' Roadsides ( .PDF )
The department also has a policy for mowing only once a year in certain areas, to allow wildflowers to thrive where visibility isn’t an issue.
Boyd welcomes the moves, as he works to establish 64 varieties of wildflowers on a 142-acre patch of reestablished wetlands at the southern edge of Lawrence.
He’s seen research that roadside wildflowers actually help reduce the number of deer kills in rural areas. Think of the plants like pedestrian signals for four-legged fawns and bucks, giving them reason to stop and, perhaps, think.
“If it’s mowed 150 feet wide, they just kick up and go,” Boyd said. “With vegetation on the side, it may cause them to slow down before they go across.”