Federal Highways, Invasive Species and Your Backyard



March 21, 2005  


By Jane Hogan jnhogan@moonstar.com
From Property Rights Research


How can the Senate highway bill, SAFETEA of 2005 (Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act), bulldoze your backyard? The mandate, currently contained within SAFETEA to "minimize invasive species," provides the answer.

Currently in the Environment and Public Works Committee, this bill requires states, counties and municipalities receiving highway trust funds to minimize invasive species during road construction. Invasive species are defined as species, nonnative to an ecosystem, that harm -- or are likely to harm -- the environment. What is "harm" -- and who decides?

Natives-only advocates in the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), acting with no legislative authority, are already using federal funds as a club, threatening to withhold money from states that use proven combinations of tall fescue, crownvetch, or trefoil instead of native grasses for erosion control.Such pressure defies science and experience. Extensive agronomic research in both Virginia and Pennsylvania has shown that native plants are often inferior under harsh roadside conditions.


Generally, native grasses do not form solid turf for erosion control because they are "bunch grasses", leaving space between the clumps for invasion by noxious weeds like Canada thistle. The high cost of native seed and perpetual maintenance requires environmentally damaging herbicide use and hazardous burning along roadways every 3-5 years.

In Minnesota, the push for native species led to unintended consequences. Exorbitant costs associated with native plants drove members of the State legislature to introduce bills in both Houses to prohibit the purchase of any native seeds by those using State highway funds. Both bills failed, but the signal was loud and clear.


In 1999, a FHWA spokesman declared some states to be at fault for not recognizing that nonnative "invasive" species like birdsfoot trefoil should be declared noxious weeds. In other words, the federal government knew best.

Birdsfoot trefoil is a perfect example of the potential harm of codifying such policy in the highway bill. Trefoil arrived with German settlers in the 1700s and is a valued forage crop in upstate New York. Few other grasses will grow on the rocky hillsides west of the Hudson River where dairy herds thrive on it and it is used for roadside erosion control.

If invasive species sections are not struck from the Senate highway bill, subjective FHWA decisions could transform this useful crop into an "invader". Then how long would it take to prohibit a farmer from planting birdsfoot trefoil in his own pasture near a federal highway?

The spread of seeds by birds, animals, wind and human intervention has occurred for thousands of years. To ignore this natural dispersion in an effort to "restore native ecosystems" along highways is to ignore nature. Birds and wind can and do carry any seed from one state to another, there to be viewed as nonnative and potentially harmful in a new ecosystem.

The Senate highway bill subordinates the issue of cost effective erosion control to the theory that native species are “good” and nonnatives are “bad.” It allows for the creation of blacklists, subjectively determined without true peer review, to be imposed on states regardless of proven experience.

In contrast, the House has seen fit to pass the Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (TEA-LU) with no reference to invasive species. It recognized that the States are well able to reject noxious weeds like Canada thistle and choose for highways those plants most effective for their erosion control needs.

The message to the Senate should be clear: “Planting decisions are the province of the States,” or “Micromanagement of highway planting may come back to haunt you.”


GRASSP (GrassRoots Alliance for Sensible Species Policy) is a volunteer organization composed of representatives from such fields as research, highway construction, ranching, farming, agronomy, international trade, forestry, floriculture, seed production, wildlife management and property rights. For information, please contact Fred Grau
fred@grasslyninc.com or Jane Hogan jnhogan@moonstar.com

For much more information about this topic, click here.



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