Kansas tries to go natural along highways

Wichita EagleJune 4, 2012 

The movement toward more native and environmentally friendly landscaping has expanded to the state’s highways.

Once places for non-native grasses such as fescue, the rights of way along the state’s 10,000 miles of highways are now starting to sprout new wildflowers and are receiving less frequent mowing and more targeted use of herbicides, the Kansas Department of Transportation says.

“We’re trying to cut our costs, we’re trying to enhance beauty, and we’re trying to increase wildlife habitat,” said Tom Hein, public affairs manager for the department’s Wichita metro office.

The shift to go more natural began in 2008 when the department brought together wildlife and government agencies to come up with a plan “to make sure we’re all on the same page,” said Scott Shields, an environmental scientist with KDOT. When wildlife groups such as the Audubon Society recommended more wildflowers, the department agreed, he said.

The next year, seed mixes that include more wildflowers and grasses native to the tallgrass prairie started being planted, Shields said. Mowing also happens less often. While shoulders and medians have to be mowed two to three times a year for safety clearance, Shields said, areas farther out are now being mowed every four years rather than every three years. And they’re being mowed in October rather than during the summer to allow the plants to flower and disperse seed for the next year’s crop.

There’s been “a good bit of tension” over the years between wildlife biologists, noxious-weed programs and those in KDOT who spray the herbicide, said Spencer Tomb, professor of botany at Kansas State University. He lauds the new effort by the transportation department but said he saw sumac, which turns a pretty red in the fall, being sprayed earlier this year south of Junction City. He said he expected the change to be slow and to require vigilance across the state’s districts. But he also said he’d already seen more wildflowers blooming.

‘Wildflowers take time’

In rural areas where mowing has been reduced, “we’ve seen wildflowers coming back,” Hein said. One example is I-35 between Emporia and Olathe, where blooming flowers produce undulating waves of color.

But the results are not apparent everywhere yet. “Wildflowers take time,” Hein said. Plus some of them were planted before last summer’s heat wave, he noted. In urban areas, the department still uses fescue where highways cut through residential areas, Shields said. “We match seed mixes to the landscape.”

In the Wichita area, crews have been mowing less for the past couple of years, Hein said. “It’s a change in strategy plus the high price of diesel,” he said. But such changes are not always evident in the city, where mowing is done regularly if people live adjacent to the highway, he said.

Still, there are a couple of places in Wichita to keep an eye on for wildflowers as plants start to grow, he said.

A mix made up mostly of prairie wildflowers and grasses was planted at the intersection of I-135 and Kellogg in spring 2011. That area is not being regularly mowed, Hein said.

The department tried something different at the junction of the intersections of I-135 and I-235 and of K-254 and K-96 to showcase more concentrated masses of color, he said. In November 2010, three triangles were planted: one with blazing star, one with Plains coreopsis and prairie coneflower, and one with showy goldenrod, Maximillian sunflower and grayhead prairie coneflower.

In the northeast part of the state, one good example of the new policy is on Highway 59 south of Lawrence that was “just permanent-seeded last year, and we’ve got wildflowers popping up from that project,” Shields said. “That’s a really big project, a lot more than normal. That’s a really good one to look at.”

In rural areas, with less mowing, volunteer trees and other woody plants can move in, and mowing only every four years could mean they would get more of a foothold and be difficult to eliminate, Hein said. But the department’s mowers are big and can knock it back, he said. “It’s a constant give-and-take on this.”

Herbicide use also has decreased, he said. Where more generalized use of herbicides was the case at one time, the department now spot-sprays to keep invasive plants such as Canada thistle and musk thistle down, Hein said. But Tomb, seeing room for improvement, said that in another KDOT district he’s seen the spraying of a native thistle. “There are birds that use that thistledown, like our goldfinches.”

What’s being planted

For its new seed mixes, KDOT selected flowers, including black-eyed Susans, coneflowers and butterfly milkweed, to provide some bloom from early spring through fall, Shields said. Shorter grasses planted on medians and shoulders include prairie dropseed, side-oats grama, little bluestem, Canada wild rye and western wheatgrass. Tall grasses planted farther out include big bluestem, Indian grass and switch grass.

While it can be hard to try to identify plants while you’re whizzing by on the highway, the department points people to the Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses website, www.kswildflower.org, for pictures and names of plants.

“When it’s done right, this is going to make those roadsides a lot more enjoyable to drive by,” Tomb said.

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