Monday, March 06, 2017

Battle brewing in rural Minnesota between farmers and conservationists over roadside mowing

Star Tribune photo by David Joles
A battle is being waged in Minnesota between farmers and conservation groups over roadside mowing that concerns "the culture of farming, property rights and the desperate plight of bees and monarch butterflies," Josephine Marcotty reports for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "It’s put wildlife in a fierce—but so far losing—competition with Minnesota farmers for the right to the increasingly valuable grass, flowers and other vegetation that grow along 175,000 acres of state-owned roads across the state."

Minnesota Department of Transportation officials say a Minnesota law that prohibits roadside mowing before Aug. 1 and after Aug. 31 is widely ignored, Marcotty writes. DOT only issues about 40 permits per year for 12,000 miles of state-owned roadway. One problem is that DOT has no power to enforce the rule or issue penalties. Landowners say they have been mowing roadside ditches and grassy shoulders for decades without government intrusion.

With corn, soybeans and other crops constantly expanding, "Minnesota has lost large expanses of grass and other crops available for livestock forage," Marcotty writes. "Since 2007, the state has lost 700,000 acres of conservation land on farms plus many thousands more as high prices for corn and soybeans pushed out pastures and hedgerows." Some farmers say that has led to roadside mowing being "the only source of hay for their animals. The shift also means there is far less wild growth for pheasants, managed honeybees, wild insects and, perhaps most critically of all, monarchs, which can only reproduce on milkweed that is rapidly disappearing."

The state House this week will consider a bill that would prevent the state DOT from requiring a permit to mow roadside ditches and grassy shoulders, Marcotty writes. Some fear if it passes it will lead to conflicts. Scott Peterson, government affairs director for the state DOT, said "sometimes people cut vegetation that has been sprayed with toxic weedkillers." He also said he has heard of at least one fight in a ditch "between two people who both thought they had rights to the grass." He said some people also are turning a profit off state property by selling the hay.

Another problem is that many landowners are not aware of the laws, Marcotty writes. Paul Lanoue, who raises cattle, corn and soybeans, said "in rural Minnesota, landowners adjacent to the roads largely believe they own the land to the centerline and the government has rights to use it.  While that’s largely true for county and township roads, it’s not so for the state." He told Marcotty, “We didn’t know they were the state’s ditches. We figured they were ours.” 

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