Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Mourning for Roadside Losses

The mowers came yesterday.

As I walk in the morning or drive at any time of day, I enjoy looking at the ever-changing array of plants in the ditches: Illinois bundleflower, big bluestem, silver bluestem, eastern gamagrass, sunflowers, catsclaw sensitive briar, prairie petunia, and many, many more. It's a small tapestry of prairie plants, complete with food and cover for pheasant, quail and many other types of wildlife.

The mowers came yesterday.

Now all I have to look at up close is stubble. Boring, ugly stubble.

At least they waited until nesting season was done.

I worry about the wildlife anyway. At this point in the agricultural cycle, the farmers are all discing their fields, so all of those thousands of acres are being converted back to bare dirt. And now, to add insult to injury, the sanctuary of the roadsides, those narrow bands of habitat that stretch for miles and miles, has been reduced to 4" tall monotony. It's hard to hide from a hawk in 4" of cover.

I know the standard rationale:

"It looks neater this way." (Stubble with exposed trash? Thank you, but no thank you. That may be your idea of better looking, but it sure isn't mine.)

"It's a safety issue. This way cars can get off the road if they break down." (Grass doesn't keep a car from pulling off the road if necessary. And a steep ditch slope will keep someone on the road, whether the grass has been mowed or not. Last but not least, on most of the county roads around here, you can see for miles and there's little traffic, so pulling to the side of the road is all that's needed for safety's sake.)

"If we don't mow, the woody vegetation will grow up and become a problem." (Only one side of the road could be mowed each year, leaving 50% of the habitat available, and reducing mowing costs by 50%. Or, mowing could be delayed until early spring as things start to green up, before nesting occurs. That would leave cover and food for wildlife over the winter, but still set back the woody vegetation.)

"The roadsides are a source of weeds for the farm fields." (If the roadsides are left less disturbed, it allows perennials to dominate there. Most weeds are actually annuals that thrive in disturbed soil and produce massive quantities of seeds, ready to move in and colonize open soil. Annuals can't compete against established perennials, though. And perennials produce many fewer seeds, usually taking years to become well established. So, ironically, disturbing the soil and setting back perennial growth actually increases the weedy plants available to colonize the crop fields.)

I know I'm a lone voice railing against established precedent on this issue, but I'm tired of the tyranny of the "neatnik" crowd. "Neat" isn't always better or healthier, sometimes it's just boring and wasteful. To my mind, this is one of those times.

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