The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is implementing a Pollinator Habitat Program along the state’s highway system that provides much-needed waystations for monarch butterflies and other dwindling pollinator species. Moreover, according to agency officials, the program is entirely consistent with the department’s transportation priorities.
“Our savings on mowing costs alone will be significant,” said Diane Beyer, State Vegetation Management Planner for VDOT’s Maintenance Division. “Currently, each roadside mowing cycle costs approximately $12 million. Under the program, our goal is to reduce mowing frequency from three times a year to once a year.”
|Volunteers plant natives at I-95 meadow restoration. Photo: VDOT|
Under the program, Beyer explained, stretches along the state’s highways and at rest areas are being planted with native vegetation that provides food and habitat for pollinators. The multi-colored vegetation includes species such as milkweed for monarch butterflies, asters for bees, and goldenrod for birds, bees, and butterflies.
Beyer said the program will bring multiple transportation and environmental benefits. First, the program supports VDOT’s vision of safety while providing increased habitat areas. For example, attractive roadsides have been shown to reduce driver fatigue and improve mood; and wildflower perennials and grasses are not favored by deer, a potential driver hazard. In addition, mowing only the shoulder (and allowing wildflowers to continue to bloom) still maintains line of sight and space for motorists to pull off, and it prevents encroachment of shrubs and trees.
In addition, roadside maintenance time and costs are reduced through planting of self-sustaining, native vegetation. The vegetation stabilizes slopes and reduces erosion; increases storm water and nutrients retention due to deep roots; and reduces other vegetation maintenance costs such as invasive species control and herbicide applications. It also provides a smooth transition to adjacent properties.
The program also contributes to the agency’s broader Integrated Vegetation/Pest Management system through reduced use of herbicides; increased erosion, sediment and stormwater runoff control; and reduction in the presence of invasive species. An additional benefit is the increase in visual aesthetics.
Besides supporting VDOT’s transportation goals, Beyer said, VDOT’s Pollinator Habitat Program also supports the Department’s MS4 program, a critical element of Virginia’s stormwater management program. On a national level, it supports FHWA’s Every Day Counts initiative though what Beyer calls its “low-tech, back to basics” approach to innovation and its focus on safety. In addition, the program aligns well with the Presidential Memorandum issued in 2014 on creating a federal strategy to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators.
Genesis and Development
“As it happened, the inception of our program preceded the Presidential Memorandum by several months,” said Beyer. “The timing was very helpful to us in terms building internal support for what was viewed as a very new approach to maintenance.”
The pilot program began in the fall of 2014. Four plots were planted with plant plugs in northern Virginia, each 900 square feet and containing 13 different species. These initial plantings provided Beyer and her team with a useful means of learning what works and what doesn’t. The plantings also provided a foundation for beginning to educate agency staff and the public about the program and the reasons behind it.
In September 2015, a 15,000 square foot meadow area was planted at a rest area on Interstate 95 (a migratory flyway), also in northern Virginia. Three smaller plantings simultaneously were installed near the rest area building. The latter plantings serve as educational stations with interpretive signage for visitors. A total of 8,000 nectar and pollinator plants from 23 species were planted.
Also during the fall, three areas in southwestern Virginia were planted with seeds (not plants); one of the goals was to analyze which seed mixtures and types of seed planting methods work best. In this case, the areas were medians and roadsides. And at the end of 2015, the program moved into the western part of the state for the first time.
Plans call for the program to be implemented statewide. In 2016, while results from the seed-planting location are gathered, the focus will be to continue to create naturalized gardens and meadows with mature plants at state rest areas. In the meantime, interpretive signage continues to be developed and installed at existing areas. Beyer said the team will integrate solutions to challenges they faced in the early months, such as ensuring continued maintenance of the plots until the vegetation is well established.
Funding and Partners
Currently, the program primarily is funded through the purchase of the “wildflower” license plate, which will continue to be offered to drivers and is supported by the Virginia Garden Clubs. Beyer said, the newly minted “pollinator” license plate currently does not financially support the program, but a bill is being introduced in the 2016 Legislative session to remedy that and direct funds to VDOT in support of the Pollinator Habitat program.
Partners have been essential to the program’s growth, she continued. They include Virginia Dominion Power/Dominion Trust; Valley Land; White House Office of Science & Technology; Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy; Virginia Native Plant Society; and PBS Films. These groups continue to provide needed funding, labor and materials.
Advice for Other DOTs
Beyer said other state DOTs either are planning or beginning to carry out similar programs. Examples included a corridor restoration project from Texas to Minnesota, as well as programs in Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio, and Vermont. Part of the challenge for interstate initiatives, she pointed out, is that DOTs have varying organizational structures, which can make obtaining a multiple-state green light, as well as ongoing cross-state coordination, challenging.
Her advice to other state DOTs contemplating a similar initiative centered on two themes: education and partnering. Educating the public is important, Beyer said, but perhaps even more critical is internal agency education, especially for two groups: upper management and the maintenance team tasked with actually carrying out the work. As partnering goes, securing early collaboration from groups such as native plants societies, Extension Services, garden clubs and wildlife organizations is key to success. They will all help with the outreach and education of the program as well.
Finally, she urged agencies not to overlook the corporate sector: it definitely needs to be included on agencies’ teams to bring key expertise, networks, and financial support to the table. Partnerships also give others a sense of stewardship in promoting and furthering the program.
“Our organizational structure is such that safety rest areas are managed centrally, making it easier to create a consistent program face. Consistency is important in that it brands the program and makes it more comprehensible and recognizable to the public and staff. Rest areas are also an excellent way for us to educate the public about the new program and the new mowing practices and gardens,” she said.
“Education, both internally and externally is a paramount necessity in a program such as this. You want to make sure everyone comprehends the ‘whys’ so that support comes forth from a place of knowledge and understanding,” said Beyer.
She suggested that education and outreach be an integral part of a similar program, as new techniques and ideas are not always well received when staff and the public are not included in the “whys” and allowed to ask questions.