Ditch mowing: Plan should allow permit process to proceed

Published 8:02 am Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Free Press

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Most people probably haven’t given a lot of thought to farmers mowing roadside ditches for hay. But the seemingly pedestrian topic has been at the center of hotly debated regulations.

Email newsletter signup

The issue is important for both farmers who rely on hay for their livestock and for all Minnesotans who believe it’s important to improve habitat for wildlife and pollinators.

Now state transportation officials have come up with revised rules they hope will satisfy legislative critics and farmers. The new recommendations developed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation strike the necessary compromise that should allow the plan to move forward.

MnDOT in 2016 sent notices to farmers that they would have to obtain a permit before mowing state highway ditches and limiting the dates when grass can be mowed to protect nesting pheasants and to help pollinators find the food they need.

The notices angered many farmers. They have long mowed the ditches that run alongside their property. Many thought they owned the ditches with the state only having a right of way, but in fact the ditches along state highways are owned by the state.

Last year the Legislature put a moratorium on the permitting process and ordered MnDOT to come up with revised plans by this month after meeting with farm groups, environmentalists and others.

The revised rules make some good changes that should help farmers. Permits will now be able to be submitted electronically, easing the process for farmers. And MnDOT dropped a requirement that farmers get liability insurance before mowing ditches. They also dropped some heavy-handed safety requirements and other language that was needlessly detailed and complicated.

The new recommendations also would drop specific dates when the ditches can and can’t be mowed, but they would also encourage farmers to take only a portion of the available hay along the right-of-way and leave a portion for habitat.

While most of the recommended changes are good, dropping the dates for when ditches can and can’t be mowed seems unwise. Wildlife and pollinators rely on long grass and wildflowers at particular times of the year, such as when pheasants are nesting.

But MnDOT also understands that the ditch-mowing rules have become a hot political issue for rural legislators and compromising was the best way to ensure the permit process moves forward.

There’s been a dramatic shift in perception of the value of roadside ditches, which are owned by the public. As butterflies, bees and other insects and wildlife dwindle because of a lack of habitat, leaving more wildflowers and other vegetation in ditches is seen as the last best hope for providing food for migrating pollinators.

Lawmakers should allow the permitting program to move forward and the state should increase education and seek cooperation from farmers to allow for collecting hay for livestock while also protecting necessary habitat.

Visit The Free Press (Mankato, Minn.) at www.mankatofreepress.com