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The Blade, Toledo, Ohio, Steve Pollick Column: Steep Prices for Fuel Lead to Good News for Wildlife

July 1, 2008

By Steve Pollick, The Blade, Toledo, Ohio

Jul. 1–If the storm cloud of high energy prices has any silver linings, one of them might be what I can see when I look down the county road from the gravel driveway at my rural Sandusky County homestead: Tall, unmowed grass on the roadside at the end of June.

Trust me, that has not been the case in the 34 Junes I have resided along Muskellunge Creek.

It seems that the skyrocketing cost of gasoline and diesel fuel finally has gotten to the county highway engineer in a way that years of wildlife conservation advocacy has not.

The idea all along has been to delay roadside mowing, with a few admittedly important exceptions, until at least mid-July and preferably until Aug. 1 to allow grasslands wildlife to nest and raise young.

Affected species include everything from rabbits and pheasants to such increasingly rare grasslands songbirds as the bobolink, meadowlark, dickcissel, and Henslow’s and grasshopper sparrows. They may seem like small potatoes to the uninformed, but every step away from conserving biodiversity is another step toward a world filled with little else but cockroaches and carp. And humans.

Well, then, back to the county roads. Limited county mowing has been done — one swath only right next to the pavement. That is a wise compromise anytime, high fuel costs or not, for it allows a motorist in trouble to pull off and actually see any roadside hazards while still giving wild creatures some living space no longer afforded by agricultural monoculture.

Another wise compromise is mowing to allow clear line-of-sight for traffic at intersections and stop signs. This is a rule that ought to be enforced for corn-planters, too. If you have ever tried to look around seven-foot-tall rows of corn at a crossroads, you understand.

Also, some growers have been out whacking down grasslands in federal Conservation Reserve Program or CRP set-asides, this despite federal rules that supposedly hold them to waiting until an Aug. 1 to Sept. 15 window. You can safely bet that farmers penalized with CRP payment-reductions for early “cosmetic or excessive mowing,” as it is called, are few and far between, if any. But that’s a whole ‘nother story, one as confounding as the Gordian knot.

Grasslands conservationists as well never have argued against spot mowing of so-called noxious weeds, such as Canada thistle and wild carrot. Noxious here, of course, only carries an agricultural connotation; these wild plants supposedly interfere with perfect one-crop blocks of corn, soybeans or wheat.

Seems my home township has lots of money to burn for its roadside bush-hogs, having already once skinned the townships lanes on both sides of the roadside ditches. No “untidy” one-swath mowing for the local trustees.

Same goes for too many medians and roadsides along state highways in these parts. Many stretches easily could have done with fuel and money-saving reductions or delays in mowing. But in too many places hereabouts, the state tractors and gang-choppers dragging behind them are out there, overdoing it too early in the wildlife-nesting/brooding season, this despite long-standing ODOT conservation lip-service to the contrary.

As for bureaucratic explanations, as to why too many Ohio roadsides — state, county, township — have to be scalped to death, uh, look around. Pay attention to what you see in other states. Funny what enlightened wildlife habitat approaches can be taken there, complete with extensive prairie wildflower and grass planting, but not here. Here we get lip service, not broad consistent policy.

In the end at least some public highway agencies at various levels have caught on to roadside wildlife conservation, even if merely for economic reasons.

We are living in days of perceived energy desperation. The rumblings of scorched-earth policies — drill and mine anywhere and everywhere and damn the long-term environmental costs — lie just over the horizon. Five or six or seven-dollar-a-gallon gasoline will get us there.

So for now we have to be thankful for small wildlife conservation mercies, whatever the source.

Steve Pollick is The Blade’s Outdoor Editor E-mail him at spollick@theblade.com Read more Steve Pollick columns at www.toledoblade.com/pollick

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