Listening session overall summary
Management Analysis and Development (MAD) conducted nine listening sessions through-out the state to gather input from agricultural and environmental groups on the trunk highway mowing and haying issue. Additionally, MAD and Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) also collected feedback online, which were also included in the analysis synthesized below. MAD summarized the information gathered from each session individually and highlighted the common themes and most salient points raised by the participants. Finally, MAD considered the most commonly voiced concerns and insights from all the listening sessions and the online feedback received in presenting the summary of key findings below.
Summary of findings
Use of right-of-way (RoW)
There are underlying tensions between those who are for and against mowing and haying the right-of-way (RoW). The discord is largely between those interested in habitat conservation in the RoW and those who wish to mow and hay in the RoW, often for purposes related to agriculture or aesthetics. A few individuals also presented concerns that are more generalized to taxpayers, which are noted below.
There are three primary perspectives regarding use of the RoW:
1. Individuals or businesses who wish to mow and hay
Individuals who wish to mow and hay the RoW include adjacent landowners, other private citizens, and in a few cases, businesses. Most individuals who mow and/or hay felt they were serving a public good by contributing to the upkeep and safety of the highways. Some individuals in this group expressed a strong pride in keeping the RoW tidily mowed, which included a component of perceived ownership or stewardship of the RoW. These stakeholders shared that they have been mowing the RoW for many years without a change in their process, leading them to ask “why now?” in regards to the permit process. Many cited the presence noxious weeds in the RoW as a primary reason for mowing. In some cases, hay from the RoW is used for livestock feed.
Several of those who attended the listening sessions expressed that the RoW was not an appropriate place for habitat as it reduces the chance of survival of pollinators and animals due to vehicle collisions. Several of these participants held the perception that the state had abundant public land that would be more appropriate for habitat and conservation efforts. Furthermore, several participants even stressed that currently as it is, they do not come across nesting birds such as pheasants in the RoW.
2. Habitat conservationists
Habitat conservationists view the RoW as public land, which should have limited-to-no use that benefits individual private citizens. Individuals from this perspective felt that because haying produces private and commercial gains, it cannot be viewed as a public service. This group cites the noticeable decline in the numbers of pollinators, nesting birds, and other animals combined with the decrease in habitat available in many parts of the state as reasons for preserving the RoW as habitat. Several individuals have emphasized the importance of using the RoW to provide habitat corridors, which is more beneficial to some species than isolated areas of habitat spread across a region. They also raised the issue of lack of an avenue to protect RoW habitat within current MnDOT processes, and provided suggestions for more effective management, such as controlled burning. Lastly, while they recognized that farmers and landowners felt strongly about stewardship over the land, they stressed that farming practices have changed in recent decades leaving less acreage untilled. This, combined with limited public lands for habitat in parts of the state, contributed to their desire to maintain roadside habitat.
3. Concerned taxpayers
While not as prevalent at the listening sessions, numerous online comments expressed that individual citizens or businesses should not profit off of public land. Some of these commenters leaned towards being pro-habitat, but others were more generally concerned that the state issues permits at no cost to permit recipients so they can potentially profit off of resources on public land. A few of these comments suggested that permit applicants should compensate taxpayers for the resources they are taking from public land.
Reasons for mowing
A great majority of participants noted key reasons for mowing. A significant driver for mowing specifically from the landowners, is their sense of ownership over the RoW and easement. A few participants underlined this point by stating that they paid taxes to the middle of the road. A few also expressed frustration over the requirement to obtain a permit, viewing the permit requirement as a land grab by MnDOT, similar to the buffer strip requirements. Several of the participants expressed that they had been mowing the roadside for years and that their knowledge of the land should be honored.
The most common reasons noted for mowing are outlined below:
The majority of proponents of mowing the RoW expressed their pride in having a neat RoW, especially adjacent to their land or property. They commonly cited beautification and property value as a reason to ensure that the RoW is mowed and kept neat. Those who mow also stated that they also clean up trash from the RoW in an effort to keep it neat and tidy. Note that individuals in favor of using the RoW as habitat felt that natural, unmowed vegetation provided greater beautification than mowing.
2. Noxious weeds
Several participants expressed concern about noxious weed species such as thistle, wild parsnips, and cattails. In particular, several participants cited that they felt MnDOT was not taking care of issue of noxious weeds and they mow the RoW in order to control weeds growing next to their property and prevent the spreading of noxious weeds into their agricultural fields. While several expressed preference for mowing over spraying herbicides to control noxious weeds for environmental reasons, notably, several landowners expressed that they also preferred to mow for commercial and private reasons, specifically to ensure pesticide and chemical free products from their land.
A significant proportion of participants expressed concern about safety issues that arise from leaving the RoW un-mowed. Several participants explained that the tall grass inhibits ability to see deer and other animals, which could lead to increased vehicle collision and accidents. Others also explained the need to mow to allow for snow fences and to prevent drifting snow in the winter. Alternatively, many also explained that the RoW is hazardous to pollinators and other animals as many will end up as roadkill or on the windshield if RoW is preserved as habitat for them.
A few participants explained that they mowed in order to ensure that the RoW ditches would provide proper drainage and prevent flooding of their fields.
A common theme that came across was with regard to the requirements for the permit. Several participants inquired about equipment requirements (helmet, high visibility vest) as well as monetary requirements to obtain permits. A great majority also expressed that the permit process is onerous, especially in the cases where equipment used by mowers do not meet safety requirements for the permit (such as lights on vehicles), and where performance bond is a barrier for some mowers. Several landowners expressed that the latter is a particularly burdensome for new businesses who have limited resources and rely on mowing and haying for income. Many individuals in favor of habitat or concerned taxpayers were in favor of a permitting process that enhanced safety and allowed MnDOT to manage the RoW in a cost effective manner in the best interest of all citizens, which typically focused on maintaining habitat.
Several other concerns regarding the permit process include:
1. Priority to adjacent landowners
A majority of landowners present who provided feedback expressed that it was very important that property owners adjacent to the RoW have priority to mow and hay. Additionally, they stated that it was important that they be notified if someone else obtains a permit to mow and hay the RoW adjacent to their property.
A common theme emerged through the listening sessions was confusion about the allowable dates for mowing and haying the RoW. The majority of those present cited that the feed quality of hay is poor in August, and therefore would prefer to mow earlier in July. Some articulated that they would prefer to mow when it is convenient for them without date restrictions. A few participants also suggested regionally graduated dates that take in to account the vegetation and climate of the different parts of the state. Some also raised concern about seeding of noxious weeds, stating that mowing in August exacerbates the weed issues by spreading seeds. Another point of concern was that a window of dry weather is necessary to mow the RoW and August tends to be wet. A few alternative solutions to date restriction were also presented, including rotational mowing. Individuals interested in preserving habitat expressed concern about changing the dates, and in some cases shared information about the potential impact of moving the dates earlier on pollinators and animals.
Enforcement of permit and the responsible agency was another common theme about the permit process that participants inquired about. Several also inquired about the ramifications of not getting a permit to mow.
Several commenters expressed concerns about the dangers of having tractors and bales in the right-of-way. These commenters were supportive of MnDOT including safety requirements in their permit processes such as tractor lights and reflective vests. A few commenters who mow and hay felt that safety requirements were a barrier, as most people use older equipment in the right-of-way which may not have safety features.
5. MnDOT practices
Several participants expressed confusion about MnDOT mowing and weed control practices such as the top cut and why MnDOT can mow before the permit date. Several also expressed a desire for more personalized contact between MnDOT and landowners. A few landowners expressed that the current informal system of mowing the RoW works well for the community and if MnDOT would like to find out who is taking care of the RoW, they can contact the adjacent landowner by phone. Furthermore, a few participants expressed that generally speaking they would prefer if MnDOT would proactively contact adjacent landowners by phone with broader concerns or questions.