While the Pioneer Press slapped the rather clueless headline, Who knew roadside ditch-mowing was so controversial in outstate MN?, on a recent Don Davis article, there's been plenty of reporting on this issue in the past few years.
At the Prairie and Lakes Echo Journal, for instance, Mike Rahn writes in his column, Inside the Outdoors: What to do about ditches?:
. . . Simply put, my wife and I were struck by the fact that ditch mowing here seemed to have no pressing purpose. Perhaps mowing a narrow strip at the very top of the shoulder might improve visibility on sharp curves; especially if one were driving a vehicle that positions the driver close to the pavement, like in a grand prix race car! But certainly it seemed that the expanse of grassy slope from the road to the forest edge of oaks and pines posed no driving or other hazard.
"Wouldn't it be better for wildlife if it was left uncut?" she asked. The answer to that is usually "yes," though the varieties of wildlife that benefit depends on where you happen to be. That, and also when the cutting is done. Cutting late in the year, after most nesting is done, is better than cutting early. Ground nesting songbirds, like meadowlarks, hermit thrushes, juncos and some sparrows, benefit from uncut ditches. Pheasants, and even some ground-nesting ducks — teal, for instance — will make use of grassy road ditches, especially where fenceline-to-fenceline "clean" farming leaves little in the way of other cover.
Though few of us think about them, the most universal beneficiaries of uncut ditches are pollinators, which — in addition to the flowering plants found in ditches — also pollinate fruit, vegetable and forage crops, like the alfalfa that farmers and ranchers feed to cattle. Most often thought of — and probably the most efficient pollinators — are members of the bee family. But a certain amount of pollination is done by butterflies and moths, flies, wasps and ants; even crawling insects, like beetles.
The state's farmers also have an interest in ditches. In many areas farmers cut the grasses that grow in the road ditches as feed for their cattle. This practice can be especially widespread in years when there are shortages of farm-grown forage; drought conditions come first to mind.
There apparently has long been a state law on the books requiring farmers to obtain a permit before cutting forage in ditches along state-controlled highways. A permit is generally not needed for mowing ditches along many county and township roads. Along state highways where the ditches are privately owned, but the state has an easement to manage, farmers also do not need permits.
Only within the last year or so has the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT), the permitting agency, moved to enforce this law. A MNDOT spokesperson recently interviewed said the reason the agency has begun enforcing the law is chiefly to control the timing of ditch mowing to protect wildlife when they're most vulnerable. Wildlife and those pollinator species, too, the spokesperson added.
Though there are few farmers in the Minnesota Legislature, the current majority — some say more sensitive to limiting regulatory burdens than to environmental priorities — has blocked MNDOT's ability to require these free-of-charge permits. Blocked for now, until May of 2018. Over the next month there will be a series of meetings in seven different locations in Minnesota to discuss the permit issue, and what should be proper procedures for farmers to exercise the right — or perhaps more accurately, the privilege — to cut forage along state-regulated roads.
One of those few farmers in the Minnesota Legislature, one instrumental in the Legislature temporarily blocking MNDOT's authority, was quoted as describing the agency's plan to begin requiring the permits as an example of "out-of-touch bureaucrats." Perhaps MNDOT's being out-of-touch has more to do with not enforcing the law for many years, rather than the agency's decision to start enforcing it now. MNDOT can rightfully be blamed for being an enabler, and by its inaction encouraging the cutting of ditches without following the permit process the agency was responsible for enforcing.
One can certainly sympathize with farmers. For most, it's not a get-rich-quick profession. Or a get-rich-ever profession, for that matter. But a reasonable amount of regulation that takes into account not only their needs, but the needs and preferences of others — including wildlife — may not be too much to ask.
Bluestem looked at this issue in earlier posts including All your hays are belong to us: farmer complaints about MnDOT's right-of-way mowing permits and Farmers mowing more than ditch weed: $1M spent annually on plantings & native seedings.
Photo: Like the leader of CATS in Zero Wing who spawned the popular meme, some farmers would have us believe the ditches along public trunk highways (and the vegetation growing in them) belong to them, not MnDOT, which owns the right-of-way.
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