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Inside the Outdoors: What to do about ditches?

There apparently has long been a state law on the books requiring farmers to obtain a permit before cutting forage in ditches along state-controlled highways. A permit is generally not needed for mowing ditches along many county and township roads. Along state highways where the ditches are privately owned, but the state has an easement to manage, farmers also do not need permits. PineandLakes.com Illustration

On a recent drive over the network of county roads that leads to the family cabin, my wife and I watched a pair of tractors pulling large mowers, hugging the sloping ditch that borders the asphalt. In their wake was a fresh-cut carpet lying flat to the ditch contour, ahead of them standing greenery that reached almost to the hubs of the tractors' rear wheels.

It was one of those moments when two people think the same thing at exactly the same time. "Why are those guys mowing the ditch?" my wife asked. "Just what I was thinking," I answered. Of course I've long been aware that road ditches are routinely mowed, but I still found myself asking the rhetorical question "why?" I answered her by saying that the practice has been going on for generations, that it provides a paying job for county or state employees, and that mowing might improve visibility for motorists in some situations.

I also told her that farmers in some places mow the ditches to provide hay for their cattle, though there are no cattle farms near where we happened to be driving. Then there is the point that road ditches can harbor noxious or invasive weeds that have to be controlled. But with the selective and broad-spectrum weed control chemicals in use on farms and lawns these days, you don't hear much of that argument.

Simply put, my wife and I were struck by the fact that ditch mowing here seemed to have no pressing purpose. Perhaps mowing a narrow strip at the very top of the shoulder might improve visibility on sharp curves; especially if one were driving a vehicle that positions the driver close to the pavement, like in a grand prix race car! But certainly it seemed that the expanse of grassy slope from the road to the forest edge of oaks and pines posed no driving or other hazard.

"Wouldn't it be better for wildlife if it was left uncut?" she asked. The answer to that is usually "yes," though the varieties of wildlife that benefit depends on where you happen to be. That, and also when the cutting is done. Cutting late in the year, after most nesting is done, is better than cutting early. Ground nesting songbirds, like meadowlarks, hermit thrushes, juncos and some sparrows, benefit from uncut ditches. Pheasants, and even some ground-nesting ducks — teal, for instance — will make use of grassy road ditches, especially where fenceline-to-fenceline "clean" farming leaves little in the way of other cover.

Though few of us think about them, the most universal beneficiaries of uncut ditches are pollinators, which — in addition to the flowering plants found in ditches — also pollinate fruit, vegetable and forage crops, like the alfalfa that farmers and ranchers feed to cattle. Most often thought of — and probably the most efficient pollinators — are members of the bee family. But a certain amount of pollination is done by butterflies and moths, flies, wasps and ants; even crawling insects, like beetles.

The state's farmers also have an interest in ditches. In many areas farmers cut the grasses that grow in the road ditches as feed for their cattle. This practice can be especially widespread in years when there are shortages of farm-grown forage; drought conditions come first to mind.

There apparently has long been a state law on the books requiring farmers to obtain a permit before cutting forage in ditches along state-controlled highways. A permit is generally not needed for mowing ditches along many county and township roads. Along state highways where the ditches are privately owned, but the state has an easement to manage, farmers also do not need permits.

Only within the last year or so has the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT), the permitting agency, moved to enforce this law. A MNDOT spokesperson recently interviewed said the reason the agency has begun enforcing the law is chiefly to control the timing of ditch mowing to protect wildlife when they're most vulnerable. Wildlife and those pollinator species, too, the spokesperson added.

Though there are few farmers in the Minnesota Legislature, the current majority — some say more sensitive to limiting regulatory burdens than to environmental priorities — has blocked MNDOT's ability to require these free-of-charge permits. Blocked for now, until May of 2018. Over the next month there will be a series of meetings in seven different locations in Minnesota to discuss the permit issue, and what should be proper procedures for farmers to exercise the right — or perhaps more accurately, the privilege — to cut forage along state-regulated roads.

One of those few farmers in the Minnesota Legislature, one instrumental in the Legislature temporarily blocking MNDOT's authority, was quoted as describing the agency's plan to begin requiring the permits as an example of "out-of-touch bureaucrats." Perhaps MNDOT's being out-of-touch has more to do with not enforcing the law for many years, rather than the agency's decision to start enforcing it now. MNDOT can rightfully be blamed for being an enabler, and by its inaction encouraging the cutting of ditches without following the permit process the agency was responsible for enforcing.

One can certainly sympathize with farmers. For most, it's not a get-rich-quick profession. Or a get-rich-ever profession, for that matter. But a reasonable amount of regulation that takes into account not only their needs, but the needs and preferences of others — including wildlife — may not be too much to ask.

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