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Roadside Use of Native Plants

Reassessing Beautification — More than an Aesthetic Goal

Bonnie L. Harper-Lore, Federal Highway Administration

"For once the battle is lost, once our natural splendor is destroyed, it can never be recaptured. And once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature, his spirit will wither, and his sustenance be wasted."
– President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965
"To me, in sum, beautification means our total concern for the physical and human quality we pass on to our children and the future."
– Mrs. Lyndon Johnson, 1993.

The 1965 Beautification Act was never just about beautification. Lyndon B. Johnson as President wanted to further the cause of conservation. Unfortunately for conservation, the aesthetics of natural beauty became more important than the ecological value. Ecology was not yet a household word. The beautification/landscape requirement became one quickly. Mrs. Johnson's friend, Senator Lloyd Bentson later championed the native wildflower requirement in the 1987 STURAA. To this day, Mrs. Johnson speaks of the value of native plants and that each region should value its natural beauty. She knows full well, the many benefits of the use of native plants. She admits that wildflowers was not the right word for the restoration of native vegetation — our natural heritage, but the word became a rallying word overnight. That word conjured up an expectation that many roadside managers could not possibly create in the poor soiled, droughty, wind- blown environment of the typical right-of-way.

Initially many State roadside programs tried by planting Texas wildflower species even when their conditions were very different. Failures followed. But in a culture, where failures are not discussed, those learning experiences were not shared with other States. So each was left to plant, fail, and learn the same hard lesson. Mrs. Johnson once said that "Wherever I go in America, I like it when the land speaks its own language in its own regional accent." In other words, she thought the natural beauty of Texas should look like Texas, and that of Vermont like Vermont.

Beyond natural beauty, the benefits of using natives include:

  1. Erosion control — Because many of the grasses and forbs have deep and/or fibrous root systems, they add to the strength of the slope and prevent unwanted erosion. The associated problem with their use for erosion control has been their long establishment time, so many species being perennial. However, it has been learned that some cool season, quick-to-establish native grasses do exist and act much like the annual ryes used previously.
  2. Vegetation management — Often a reduction in mowing and spraying are possible with the use and preservation of existing native plants. The Texas Department of Transportation and many others save millions of dollars annually in reduced maintenance.
  3. Biodiversity — A diversity of grasses, forbs, shrubs and vines can be maintained in contrast to the conventional mowed grass monocultures. This diversity is ultimately important to global ecology. Locally the biodiversity presents a dynamic landscape through the seasons for the traveling public.
  4. Wildlife habitat — That biodiversity of planted or preserved native vegetation provides food and shelter for small mammals and song birds, whose habitat is diminishing elsewhere. No study shows an increase in accidents resulting from our increasing roadside inhabitants.
  5. Wetland mitigation — Using native plants in wetland creation or restoration is more likely to be successful. Our mitigation record needs strengthening. The use of regionally adapted plantings will enhance our chances of success — for functioning, diverse, wetland habitats.
  6. Endangered species — By protecting native plant remnants, we often inadvertently protect undiscovered endangered species. By planting native plants instead of aggressive introductions, we can protect endangered species from being displaced by exotics. We have a responsibility to do so.
  7. Water quality — Studies do show that the run-off from sod or common turfs is far greater than from deep rooted native grasses. The native grasses capture much of precipitation before it hits the ground. The deep roots absorb the run off better. Therefore, normal rainfall has less opportunity to pick up fertilizers, agricultural run-off, etc. and end up in your State's waters.
  8. Hardy vegetation — By taking advantage of your region's native vegetation, you consequently are working with plants that are adapted to your area's climate, soils, etc. Replacements in landscape plantings should be rare. When plants are matched carefully, survival should be assured, eliminating future costs.

And in the end, if the result happens to look pretty, the goal of beautification has also been achieved. I submit this is a new aesthetic, a different kind of "pretty" than the front yard look of the 1930's. But it is a look that reflects your State's natural heritage, regional differences, and natural beauty that highway users travel to see and all take pride in. The use of native plants and this new aesthetic reflect careful decision-making that considers the future of the environment first.

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Questions and feedback should be directed to Deirdre Remley (deirdre.remley@dot.gov, 202-366-0524).

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