The Highway Prairie: An Email to a State Representative

July 29, 2009 at 7:00 AM | Posted in Environmentally Friendly Living, General, Psychological Wellness | 1 Comment

I’ve had this idea rolling around in my head for quite some time. I’ve been attempting to perfect it. I think about it over and over and consider the costs, benefits and challenges of the plan. I try to pick out potential sticking points, and I pretend to be an opponent and anticipate arguments or issues taken with it. This is the process by which any intelligent idea is refined into something presentable to a listener. One should not simply waste a listener’s time with something to which proper consideration and forethought has not been given. This is the principle by which I write blog articles, with every intention of providing my readers with valuable information that is worth their time and effort.

Recently, I acted on my own principles, and made an effort to speak out against the silence. I firmly advocate that people should be involved in local government and be willing to speak up when they perceive a problem or have a solution. I also think that arrogance is a major problem in our society, and people are unwilling to do the world some good on the basis that they may not be recognized for it. So, I have given up exclusive ownership of this idea that I have been concocting, that we all might benefit from it.

This is the product of my labors. It is an email that I sent to a manager at the Nebraska Department of Roads (NDOR). Of course, this may not be the correct person to send this kind of thing to, but at least he will have some idea of where it OUGHT to be sent to. In any case, the transcript follows for your viewing pleasure.

My name is Frank Marescalco. I am a student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, actually studying civil engineering and physics as a double undergraduate major. Please do not be daunted by the length of this email, I assure you it is complete and worth your time.

Within civil engineering, I actually am focusing on water resources and environmental engineering. But I am in a few research groups where highway and environmental engineering are combined. Specifically, we are collecting stormwater samples that run off the interstate at the junction between 80 and 680. Of course, the findings indicate a large number of pollutants that shouldn’t be returned to the streams are being sent directly there.

I’ve always been very interested in Nebraska’s native plants and history. I’ve been considering this idea for a long time, but I was never sure who I should talk to. Instead of talking to the city of Omaha and being redirected here, I thought to come here first.

So, I propose this: return all of the unused land along the interstate to prairie. The part of Nebraska that Omaha is built on was lowland prairie, which of course contained tall grass and wetland areas. Before you balk at the initial cost (which isn’t actually that high) or throw this idea out, here are the benefits to this plan.

* Reduced maintenance spending for highways. With prairie in place, there would be no need to mow the sides of the interstate regularly. Of course, in some places, where you want visibility between on- and off-ramps, this may not be the case. However, instead of mowing these areas, even short prairie grasses could be used (ones that don’t exceed the height of mown grass). With less money going to maintaining the surrounding land, more funding could go directly to road repair.
* The prairie restoration would support more wildlife and act as a carbon sink, which is especially important near major highways. The kind of wildlife supported would be generally small and not present a problem to traffic (think rodents, birds and possibly some larger woodland creatures, though I suspect they would not attempt to cross the roads).
* Improved stormwater and runoff control. Rain gardens are a popular new “green” installation where hardy, native perennials are placed into a natural or man-made depression in the ground. When it rains, the water collects in this basin, where the plants and the ground filter the water. With some regrading along the highway (and I suspect it isn’t much due to the way it is graded now), the highway prairie could act as a HUGE rain garden. Not only does this filter all of the runoff naturally, without costing infrastructure a dime, but it also returns this water to the environment via more natural means: baseflow. In case you aren’t familiar, in nature, streams and rivers receive most of their water from the groundwater table. With development (concrete, mostly), the water runs off and is collected into some sort of sewer or drainage system, where it returns to the streams much more quickly than it would in nature, causing HUGE rises in peak outflow during storms and extreme lows during drought (which does more than harm wildlife). Obviously, a highway prairie acting as a rain garden solves all of these problems at an incredibly cheap cost.
* During heavy rains or periods where rainfall is frequent, the lowest parts of the highway prairie would be effectively transformed into a small kind of “seasonal wetland.” While not a true wetland in the sense that it would not threaten the roads’ structural integrity or cover much area, it may provide a small measure of natural seasonal cycling that the wildlife in our part of the country could benefit from. My guess is that the lowest parts of the adjacent highway land could easily be situated far from the roadside and would only be inundated for a matter of days, if that, which means it could provide wildlife benefits without harming the infrastructure – the best of both worlds (of course, if the drainage of the soil is fast enough, this may or may not be a moot point).
* Let’s face it. The side of the highway isn’t exactly anything easy on the eyes right now. You might not believe it, but the sight of a tallgrass prairie, which consists of a diverse biological plant community of grass, wildflowers, shrubs and a very few trees is just as beautiful as the eastern woodlands in their prime. Planting a highway prairie would not only be economical and ecologically friendly, but it would really give residents something to be proud of

These are, of course, the positive points of such a project. Here are the costs that I anticipate as an engineer and someone with direct experience on the jobsite.

* The initial cost of converting the side of the highway to prairie is where most of the money would go. I think that the conversion would best be done in sections, of course. Most of the cost would go out to a native plants nursery. There are nurseries specializing in native plants throughout the country, and many of them are located in the Midwest, so these are locally grown. They ship native grass seed, bareroot stock in the spring and wildflowers in various forms. I imagine that some sort of bulk order discount could be negotiated with most nurseries given a year or two of notice and a contract to buy. The cost is not prohibitively high. I think you would be surprised to find out that the city of Omaha spends more on planting new trees from local nurseries every year than you would pay for plants on a section of highway.
* Some grubbing and regrading with heavy equipment may or may not be necessary. I suggest a removal and “flipping” of the topsoil to expose bare ground for seeding. This is easily done on any construction site today and is standard procedure for site preparation, and as such is a fairly inexpensive procedure. Regrading the site may be necessary in order to ensure that runoff is managed in a sound way, so as to not damage the roads themselves. I think at most sites this would be unecessary because runoff from the roads is already directed to the proper basins.
* Spreading the seeds and planting bareroot stock would cost some money because tractors or other farming equipment may be necessary at first. In the case of planting bareroot stock, at least some of the cost could be absorbed by enlisting volunteers to do the work. The city of Omaha has several large volunteer groups waiting for such a project as this, and I know that many Nebraskans are ready to help the environment out and appreciate projects like this that are smart and make sense. I think a LOT of people would be exalted to hear about something like this going on and be more than willing to offer a helping hand on a weekend afternoon or something similar.

It is worth noting that the proper establishment of a prairie is a multi-year process. While all of the initial work can be done easily within a month (that being grubbing, grading and planting), it takes time for the plants to mature. While a true prairie is not fully mature for some years (potentially a decade), the benefits I have listed above will begin taking place as soon as plants are present. Prairies are self-regenerating if left to their own designs and act as a valuable environmental “filter.” The wildlflowers reseed themselves every year, and the grass is perrenial and forms sod (helping with erosion and water control) and can withstand Nebraska summer heat and bitter winter cold. The grass spreads, of course, but it forms clumps ultimately. Wildflowers and native shrubs fill in the blank spots.

Because the shrubs take some time to mature and begin producing fruit (think wild plums) and the grass takes more than one growing season to reach maturity, the whole project would begin coming together in the second or third year. By the fifth year, grass and wildflower tracts would be fully established and supporting endangered bumble bee populations and shrubs would be reaching their mature size. By the seventh year, I would imagine the vast majority of the prairie would be fully mature and the diversity of species would be equalizing to accomodate whatever the “natural equilibrium” is for that particular piece of the environment (it would change due to things like slopes, sun exposure and wind). By the ninth or tenth year, the prairie would be in a state of “dynamic equilibrium,” whereby species are in the proper relative abundances, all species are reproducing by whatever their natural means is and wildlife populations are fully supported.

It is also important that I mention something else: highway renewable energy. You may or may not have seen the news hype about states building solar power generators along major highways. This would work in tandem with the prairies very easily. If you were to establish prairies now and decide later down the road that wind or solar energy would be a profitable project, the prairie would not interfere with the establishment of such infrastructure. As most prairies require full sun to grow anyway, solar panels could easily be propped up above the grass and used effectively. This would be particularly useful in Omaha, where I-80 runs east-west for several miles. Establishing a prairie now would not be a source of future problems in the construction of other infrastructure along the highways.

While I consider myself a reliable source of information and well-researched in my areas of interest, I am not a qualified, experienced professional in the establishment of a prairie. While I can assure you that it does not take a rocket scientist to establish a prairie, there are certainly more experienced individuals than I available for consultation. There are several small conservationist groups in Nebraska and other Midwest states that specialize in the restoration of prairies. They could probably offer you a more professional opinion on your specific questions.

Please do take the time to consider this project. I assume that because you are the NDOR manager of highway environmental projects, you would be the person to speak to. I have, however, saved a copy of this email and I am prepared to forward it to the correct individual should you not be someone in a position to seriously consider this idea. If I have sent this to you in error, please tell me who I should send it to instead. You are free to forward this to anyone you like. I know that in sending this email I will receive little to no credit for the idea, but in the greater interest of the environment and our state’s prominence, I forego such a self-centered approach and present it for anyone to look at. If you do not respond to this email, I will forward it to others until I do get a response.

Even in the event that you decide something like this is simply not feasible, I would appreciate feedback. I would also ask for, in due time, a list of reasons or an explanation of why something like this is not considered a worthy project. I firmly believe that there is no significant challenge posed by such a project, and I would like the opportunity to improve the plan if it is not already acceptable.

Thank you very much for your time, consideration and interest, and thank you for responding to a native Nebraska resident regarding state matters. Such things, while not common in our society today, do not go entirely unappreciated.

Frank Marescalco

As you can see, I definitely wrote this in the early morning. It’s not up to par with my usual writing, but I think it will pass. Although I originally wanted the credit for this idea, I would rather see it implemented through the hands of everyone who wants to help, so that everyone might have an appreciation for it. Things like this should be community property and provide everyone with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

I would like to hear your feedback as well. Since, up until this point, all of this has been of my own doing, I would appreciate hearing the review a fresh set of eyes has to offer. For my Facebook readers, you can respond to me either by email or on Facebook. For those of you whose lives are still untainted by it, please respond via email. I would very much appreciate it.

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