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Nature Watch: DOT’s mowing conservation program benefits wildlife, environment, taxpayers

For years, we had driven up a narrow lane through the forest to Sawbill, Minn., 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 100 feet on each side of that dirt road. To what purpose? Surely not safety: we could drive at only 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.

Thank goodness, times have changed for the better. Our New York State Department of Transportation has instituted regulations that recognize environmental concerns. What is especially attractive about the changes is that some also save tax dollars. Obviously the first concern is highway safety. With fast-moving cars, sight lines must be maintained, obstructions and beams from oncoming headlights minimized and guardrails cleared of vegetation. 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, has not been reported breeding in all of Western New York for seven years. When grasslands are left uncared for, succession takes place and they turn into brushy fields, then woodlands and the habitat is lost.

In 2009, the DOT instituted a Conservation Alternative Mowing Plans 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 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 15 inches; in others a narrow strip along the right of way was cut to about 6 inches. 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.

You may ask: “What bird would nest so close to a noisy 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.

Our highway department is addressing problems of other wildlife, as well. Local representative Susan Surdej told me about some of the DOT’s initiatives. It has set up cameras to record animal movement and help address collision problems; changed fencing practices, even adding fencing to steer turtles and salamanders to culverts under roadways; and provided educational materials at access points and parking areas for wildlife watching. It has taken measures to address problems with invasive species with knotweed, phragmites, purple loosestrife and giant hogweed special targets. Although planting wildflowers has generally proved labor intensive and expensive, the DOT supported Lamar Advertising Co.’s planting of 2 million daffodil bulbs along the Kensington Expressway and Youngmann Highway to lighten our springtimes.