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Iowa's roadsides: beauty and environmental benefits run deep


BlackEyedSusanBergamontIntegrated roadside vegetation management – it’s just a fancy term for putting things back the way they were when buffalos roamed Iowa prairies. In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s when most Iowa roadways were originally built, roadside plantings were not a main focus before, during, or after highway construction. Planting non-native species along the road was inexpensive and seemed to work just fine to cover the area.

By the 1980s, roadside erosion and water quality started becoming a problem. The Iowa Department of Transportation’s roadside development group began researching the underlying issues causing these problems. This lead them to advocate for a transformation of roadsides back to deep-rooted native prairie plantings to stabilize the soil and provide filtration for water runoff.

Now, nearly 40 years later, Iowa is a national leader in the use of natives in roadside planting. Iowa DOT-managed roadsides are blooming with cone flower, penstemon, blazing star and dozens of other species of trees, grasses, shrubs and wildflowers. Hardy and beautiful, native roadsides offer aesthetic, economic, environmental, and educational benefits and opportunities.

Root Systems of Prairie Plants

Establishing prairie plants in roadside rights of way:

  • Provides low-maintenance weed and erosion control.
  • Slows surface runoff and improves storm water infiltration.
  • Reduces blowing and drifting snow and winter glare.
  • Improves sustainability by increasing species diversity.
  • Enhances wildlife habitat.
  • Beautifies the landscape by providing ever changing color and texture throughout the year.
  • Preserves our natural heritage.
  • Provides filtering and capture of nutrients, pesticides, and sediment.

Native plants
The term "native plant" can be defined in many ways. A simple definition is this: Plants originally from the area. More thorough definitions include:

  • Plants that occur naturally in an area and are thus better suited for survival under natural conditions.
  • Plant species that occur naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, and/or habitat without direct or indirect human actions.

BenefitsIn Iowa, native plants are generally considered to be those species existing in the state prior to European settlement. It wasn't until the mid-1800s that large-scale habitat alteration and the introduction of non-native plants began to significantly change Iowa's natural landscape. Prior to this time, more than 85 percent of the state was covered in prairie grasses and wildflowers. Wetlands, savannas, and woodlands also contain native plant species of the state that are selectively used in Iowa’s roadsides. 

Since 1990, the Iowa DOT has planted or enhanced 54,097 acres or roadsides with native grasses and wildflowers.

Research for Iowa’s native roadside plantings include an active partnership with the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa. Mark Masteller, the Iowa DOT’s chief landscape architect said, “The seed program at the Tallgrass Prairie center takes seeds harvested from prairie remnants, grows them to increase seed quantities, and releases the seed from their plants to commercial growers. This provides locally-grown native seed that allows not only Iowa DOT-managed roadsides to benefit from native species, but has provided a cost-effective source for cities and counties to return their roadsides to native plants.”

Funding for local native roadside plantings available

ButterflyLiatrisIn 1988, the Iowa Legislature established the Living Roadway Trust Fund (LRTF) within Iowa Code 314.21. The Iowa DOT administers this fund, including an annual, competitive grant program that provides funding for integrated roadside vegetation management activities to eligible cities, counties, and applicants with statewide impact. In doing so, the Iowa DOT and its partners promote and educate the public about the need for an integrated approach to managing the vegetation along Iowa's roadsides. This approach ensures that roadside vegetation is preserved, planted, and maintained to be safe; visually interesting; ecologically integrated; and useful for many purposes. 

Since 1990, the LRTF has funded more than $17 million for research and demonstration projects, vegetation inventories, education and training programs, gateway landscaping, snow and erosion control, and roadside enhancement and maintenance. 

Beautiful Land, Iowa. Thanks for the restoration efforts...they are appreciated by me..

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Iowa highway in the evening