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County’s roadside policy wins award, protects native species

JOHNSON COUNTY- Johnson County Roadside Vegetation Manager Chris Henze couldn’t wait to get outside on a hot July day to work on Johnson County’s roadsides.
“It’s the growing season,” he said, time to implement the carefully-orchestrated process that starts with a battle and ends in a blaze of colorful beauty.
On a daily basis, Henze tackles teasel, Canada thistle and oriental bittersweet using prescribed burning, limited areas of “spot” spraying for difficult weeds, mechanical control (mowing) and competitive planting; the weapons at the disposal of the county’s Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management (IRVM) team, led by Henze.
How does he decide what to burn, when to spray, what to cut and where to plant? He relies on the award-winning Native Plant Community Policy as his guide.
Driving Johnson County’s secondary roads, currently blooming with Queen Anne’s Lace and Black-eyed Susans, it’s easy to see; to the victor go the spoils.
In this case, the spoils are twofold. Not only are the county’s ditches beautiful, but Johnson County’s IRVM policy was awarded the 2011 Achievement Award for their Native Plant Community Policy for Roadside Vegetation Management on Sunday, July 17, in Portland, Ore. The award was presented at the annual conference of the National Association of Counties, a national organization representing county government with a membership of about 75 percent of US counties..
The recognition is a testament to the uniqueness of the policy and of the decades of writing it to protect native stands of prairie remnants along the county’s 900 miles of secondary roads. The plan primarily protects the most sensitive areas, and the major side benefit is saving money by decreased herbicide use and mowing of roadsides and shoulders. Developing the roadside policy began in 1987, when the Board of Supervisors, with the County Engineer and County Conservation Board, took a bold step and pointed the roadsides in a new direction. An inventory of the county was gathered and three types of high-quality specific sites were identified to be protected: prairie, wetland and woodland.
The plan prevents new construction from damaging sensitive areas and improves the areas through native plantings and by protecting water quality.While most counties still mow and/or spray to keep byways safe and visually appealing, Johnson County’s roadside plan adds major emphasis on preservation of native prairie remnants and plantings of new natives.
The innovative and unique plan was a response to some county residents’ calls for a spraying ban.
Mary Sue Bowers, an IRVM committee member who worked on the plan, said the policy is the “first of its kind in the country,” making it a challenge to create because no similar plan existed to use as a template, “We had to create it from scratch,” she said.
The county policy also received “The Management Innovation Award” from the American Public Works Association in September 2007. The plan can be found on the IRVM website, under the Secondary Roads Department at www.johnson-county.com, by clicking on the Native Plant Policy.
Johnson County Supervisor Janelle Rettig noted that the award-winning policy has many plus-side benefits, ”The natural plantings not only cut down on county maintenance expenditures, but also are beautiful, help with storm water runoff, and water pollution.” She added, “It is an honor for Johnson County Roadside Vegetation to receive this national award.”
Rettig also had praise for Weed Commissioner Henze, “We are lucky to have Chris Henze leading Johnson County to beautiful roadsides that also save us tax dollars.”