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Sustainably Saving Money and Keeping Roads Clear

October 29, 2009 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
 
An estimated 1,000 miles of Minnesota state highways are prime candidates for an environmentally friendly snow-control program that's been shown to return at least $17 in benefits for every taxpayer dollar invested. Trouble is, only about 20 miles have gotten this highly cost-effective treatment.

It's not because the program is new and untested. The Minnesota Department of Transportation, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has been paying landowners to grow "living snow fences" of trees, shrubs and native grasses along strategic stretches of highway since 1998. Beginning in 2001, MnDOT also has paid farmers a premium above crop prices to leave rows of corn standing over the winter where they will stop snow from drifting onto state roads.

These natural barriers not only keep highways clear in winter, reducing accidents and delays, they can improve crop yields, provide wildlife habitat, control soil erosion, reduce flooding and even sequester carbon to counter climate change.

So why the tepid response from farmers and landowners?

"We've had a problem getting the word out," said Dan Gullickson, the MnDOT forester who runs the living snow fence initiative. Plus, he added, where farm operators rent the land they till, it's been a challenge to align the interests of owners, renters and MnDOT.

Officials hope a new study cosponsored by the University of Minnesota Extension Service will remove some of the roadblocks. Focus groups of landowners and farmers will be assembled to probe what draws some to the program and what keeps others away. "We need targeted marketing," Gullickson said.

Meanwhile, participation in the standing cornstalks program plummeted from a peak of 35 sites to fewer than 10 last winter, Gullickson said. He speculated that last year's sky-high corn prices may have prompted some farmers to keep every inch of cropland in production. MnDOT, however, pays $1.50 a bushel more than the market price for corn left in the field as a snow fence, no matter how high the going rate, although checks aren't sent out until the following April to ensure compliance.

Standing corn in the right locations is a proven boon to wintertime motorists and MnDOT's $41 million annual snow-removal budget. Sixteen rows about 40 feet wide and a quarter-mile long - a little more than an acre -- can capture 12,000 tons of white stuff where it bothers no one. Farmers may even handpick the corn for sale, as long as the stalks remain in good condition. There's one built-in limitation, though: Crop rotation makes cornstalks only a part-time solution to drifting snow on highways.

Living snow fences of red cedar, dogwood, American plum, honeysuckle and other plants are more permanent. About 70 Minnesota parcels averaging a quarter-mile in length are now in the program, typically under contracts covering 10 or 15 years, Gullickson said. MnDOT and USDA's Conservation Reserve Program team up to pay the full cost of the plantings plus signing incentives, while CRP makes annual payments in lieu of cropland rent and MnDOT pays 20 cents a lineal foot for weeding and watering, plus 50 percent of farm rent rates on snow catchment areas.

"We're paying for snow storage," Gullickson said.

The program could be even more economically attractive for landowners if it were hitched to a cap-and-trade system that would pay for carbon sequestered in plant roots, he added. Another plus is that living snow fences double as windbreaks during the growing season, reducing evaporation from the fields with a gain of 10 percent or more in crop yields. In northwestern Minnesota, natural windbreaks also prevent uprooting of sugar beets.

MnDOT rates only about 8 percent of its 12,000 miles of state highways as suitable for living snow fences. But the program could grow exponentially for a long time before reaching that goal. Prime locations are generally about 200 feet north or west of highway right-of-way. 

To contact a MnDOT living snow fence coordinator in your area, visit their website.

Information is also available at local Farm Service Agencies.



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