Kan. roadsides getting back to nature

Drive Kansas highways these days, and chances are the roadsides might not look the same as last year.

Grasses might be taller.

Birds more plentiful.

Snow less drifted over in places.

Think back to last fall.

Remember the glorious wildflowers? The sunflowers, goldenrod, blue pitcher's sage, gayfeathers, Indian grasses and big bluestem grasses?

Chances are, you'll see more in the coming years.

The Kansas Department of Transportation is mowing roadways less — both to save money in tight budget times and to increase habitat for wildlife.

In years past, Kansas highways were mowed from fence to fence. Now, the department mows the shoulder — enough space for vehicles to pull over and off the highway — and intersection rights-of-way. It may mow other areas very occasionally.

"Kansas is a beautiful state," said Deb Miller, Kansas secretary of transportation. "We want people as they come into the state and drive through to see the beauty.

"Texas may have their bluebells. But we also have such beautiful native flowers and plants. I think our state will show better by allowing the roadsides to become more natural."

In 2008, the price of fuel rose to nearly $4 a gallon. That's when state officials began looking at why they mowed.

Did a prairie state really need the grass along its major highways to look like a golf course?

"It's been an evolution," said Roger Wolfe, regional wildlife supervisor for Kansas Wildlife and Parks.

Some states mow from fence to fence.

North Carolina plants day lilies and cannas along its roadways.

Iowa and Nebraska use prairie vegetation.

And now, so will Kansas.

The new policy is just for state highways and interstates, Wolfe said.

"My hope is that if this works, it will carry over to county roadways," Wolfe said.

Already, the policy change is winning recognition from nature advocacy groups.

"As I view it, vegetated roadside rights-of-way can either be a maintenance liability — an area with little or no aesthetic or ecological value — or they can be a public-land resource that helps to project pride in our state's rich natural prairie heritage," said Ron Klataske executive director of Audubon of Kansas.

The group plans to give Miller an award for public land stewardship and roadside beautification.

This year, the new policy was tested through all four seasons, said Clay Adams, district engineer for the Kansas Department of Transportation.

Abundant rainfall in some areas of the state encouraged wildflowers to bloom into summer and fall. The wildflowers are expected to nurture more butterflies, insects and birds.

Late-term mowing in October and November allowed most of the native plants to mature and seed.

"This will require patience from all of us," Miller said. "Wildflowers don't just spring up overnight. Some years will be more beautiful than others, depending on rainfall."

But the beauty of the wildflowers and tallgrass may not be the only benefit.

Some wildlife studies indicate the taller grasses may help reduce the number of deer-vehicle collisions, Miller said.

"Deer are more attracted to the brome and fescue that we previously planted," she said. "Those grasses are more likely to attract deer to grazing."

Taller grasses, Adams said, allow the deer to feel more hidden and protected.

And, in some northern areas of the state last year, Klataske noted, the roadside vegetation left unmown through the winter acted as a living snow fence, causing less snow to blow and drift over roads.

Time will tell how effective the new mowing and seeding policy will be.

KDOT officials are hopeful less snow on the road may mean increased safety, better visibility, lowered maintenance costs and less salt needed to distribute on roads.

Reactions from the public have been mixed.

Some have complained in urban areas where adjoining landowners want the ditches cut short. But the overwhelming majority of people support the natural look, Adams said.

"Urban areas tend to mow more frequently," he said. "Over time, I think we will be able to make the transition."