July 10, 2008
Ugly Weeds Show True Beauty, Folks
By PHIL POTTER
America's obsession with neatness has resulted in millions of misspent dollars and a landscape that looks like a crazed groundskeeper is working overtime.For some odd reason someone somewhere dictated that roadsides need to be mowed on a regular basis. And in addition to mowing, tons of herbicides and insecticides are regularly sprayed because someone decided any plant not listed as managed ground cover and all insects deemed ugly need exterminating.
In nature's scheme of things, the thread of life starts at the grassroots level and works its way up. Every living creature has some particular food source that best nurtures it and most have several that sustain them all year long. What are weeds and ugly bugs to some humans are really the homes and food to many animals, birds, amphibians, fish, insects and reptiles.
This fact didn't go unnoticed by Illinois biologists. When the first ripple of "clean farming" began clearing out wildlife and native plants in the early 1970's, they looked for a way to stem the tide of annihilation. What they came up with was simple and cheap - create natural habitat along state owned rights of ways and term it "Acres For Wildlife." These areas wouldn't be regularly mowed or hunted in order to give critters pushed out of their former habitat a place to exist.
The program's results were immediate with many species of wildlife rebuilding lost numbers. B But not everyone cheered the no- mow policy. Critics argued that wildlife living on the edge would eventually be lost as road kill and some landowners argued they'd have to fight weeds on their side of the fence.
Luckily the critics were wrong. Studies have shown that the overall road kill didn't skyrocket and weeds haven't been increasingly invasive. The AFW plan is practical because it offers habitat without having to buy extra land and offers critters on the edge a chance for survival. So why do some states still feel compelled to relentlessly mow medians and roadsides? Simple, some folks still believe neatness trumps ecology. But this year the neatness factor took a whack when skyrocketing gasoline prices effectively reduced current mowing budgets.
The result of decreased mowing means that it's possible to drive through much of the Tri-State and see blooming jeweled milkweed, blackeyed susans, sweet peas, cornflowers, chickory, crown vetch, red clover, foxglove and myriads more summer wildflowers mixed in with broom sage, ladino clover, orchard grass and other taller "weeds" instead of scalped land. Nationwide natural areas are dwindling as Conservation Reserve Plan acreage gets delisted in favor of cash crops. CRP has been the lifeblood in saving all forms of wildlife, so as it loses acreage the slack can be partially taken up with increased roadside habitat. Illinois proved that by restricting roadside mowing to no more than six feet from the roadway edgel.
To appease those who find no beauty in natural plants, states can increase planting wild flowers patches and prairie grass in medians or along roadsides to provide bursts of beauty. It will save gasoline and also help wildlife survive.
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