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Roadside Use of Native Plants

Preserving Roadside Habitats: An Opportunity For Managers — A Challenge

Peggy Olwell, National Park Service

Lately, a common refrain we hear is how every place we go in this country looks just the same. I was beginning to believe that when I came back to the eastern United States, after being gone for more than 15 years, to see the native vegetation along the Washington, DC beltway covered by kudzu, porcelain berry and tree of heaven. I am saddened to see the monotonous carpet of vines because I know the beauty of the native wildflowers, trees and shrubs in this part of the US.

I have driven in other states across America as well and seen the beauty of each of those state's in the wildflowers along the roadsides, the bluebonnets, winecups, and indian paintbrushes of Texas, the prairie wildflowers of Iowa and Illinois, the poppies of California, and who can forget the majestic saguaro cactus of Arizona. The diversity is endless and the view is spectacular! How can we conserve and protect the diversity along the roadways, while at the same time allowing the safe passage of the millions of travelers along the four million miles of roadways that cross America?

We need to preserve the native vegetation along our roadsides for many reasons and endangered species are just one of those reasons. As chairperson of the Federal Native Plant Committee and Endangered Species Coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management I see the opportunities for endangered species protection and conservation along the roadways of America. Instead of destroying habitat for endangered species, highway managers can play an important role in the recovery effort of endangered species.

With more and more of our native landscape being displaced by invasive non- native plants or lost to shopping malls, office buildings, suburbs and other developments, it is vital that we save whatever parcels or fragments of native vegetation we have. And the fragments of native vegetation within the 12 million acres of highway corridors in this country are valuable parcels of habitat for many rare, native plants and animals. However, we need to know what the native vegetation is along the roadsides. Our highway corridors need to be surveyed. Endangered species could be lost within these areas if the maintenance and mowing crews are not aware of the presence of endangered species.

Roadside corridors play an important role in the continued existence of many endangered species, in particular a southeastern sunflower, Helianthus schweinitzii. This almost ten foot tall sunflower is known from only 35 populations in North Carolina and South Carolina, and most of the known locations are on road rights- of- way. Road crews need to know where these populations are as herbiciding or mowing at the wrong time of the year could destroy even more populations of the endangered sunflower.

Another endangered species, the smooth coneflower, Echinacea laevigata, once occurred in over 65 populations in eight states across the southeast. It has been reduced to 24 populations in only 4 states with several of them occurring along roadsides. Again here is an opportunity for the highway maintenance crews to play a much needed role in the recovery of endangered species.

Road rights- of- way can also play a role in the recovery of endangered animals if native vegetation is allowed to grow in these areas. The right- of- way provides a limited amount of habitat depending on the size of the right- of- way, but probably, more importantly, it provides a corridor or conduit between large areas of habitat. This is especially important for the larger mammals that need larger habitat areas within which to roam and obtain food.

These few examples show the need for road managers to know and understand the native vegetation that can be present along highways, as well as the role the vegetation plays in the continued existence of many endangered species — both plants and animals. I would like to acknowledge the program the Oregon Department of Transportation established in 1994, to work with several partners throughout their state to locate the endangered species and to identify and mark those localities that occurred along roadsides so crews could avoid them when mowing or applying herbicides. A training program was also developed using slides, videos, and other educational information in sessions conducted in five districts throughout the state of Oregon.

I challenge all of you maintenance managers to work cooperatively with your State Heritage Program in your home state to develop a program similar to Oregon's. In addition to conserving endangered species, these types of programs are a good investment for your state. Just think of the positive public relations that would come from protecting endangered species along your state's highways, as well as the cost- savings in materials, maintenance, and labor.

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

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