A state plan to recruit road builders for the war against foreign plant species will not stop the invasion, particularly if enlistment remains voluntary.
The buckthorn, leafy spurge and spotted knapweed already have spread too far on roads and utility corridors to be stopped. But the state still is collecting comments on guidelines under which road builders and earthmovers could stem the tide and perhaps thwart new invaders.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to stop the spread, even if everybody does what they can,” said Kate Howe, coordinator of the Midwest Invasive Plant Network. “There are going to be species that slip through the cracks.”
The effect of any guidelines for road builders depends on how much money people are willing to spend. The proposed guidelines are voluntary and need not be followed when it is impractical because of cost or other reasons.
The voluntary nature of the proposal means contractors are unlikely to pay much attention, said Jim Mertes, environmental manager for Construction Resources Management Inc., Waukesha.
“Probably not a lot, except for maybe some of the bigger companies that have some experts on staff,” said Mertes, who represented the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association on a state advisory panel that drafted the guidelines.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources agents put together the recommendations for controlling invasive species to offer guidance in following a new administrative rule. The rule focuses on stopping invasive species from spreading on boats, but also requires “reasonable precaution” to stop invaders from spreading in other ways.
The draft guidelines recommend that on road and utility work, planners search project areas for invasive plants and, if such plants are discovered, the planners take precautions to stop the plants and their seeds from spreading during construction. Options include keeping dirt on site, covering mounds to stop seeds and dirt from blowing, and hosing off heavy equipment after work.
People have until Oct. 26 to send online comments to the DNR.
The initial industry concern was that the Wisconsin Department of Transportation would write the guidelines into its bid specifications, Mertes said. The state will have to go through a new rule-making process if it wants to require contractors to follow the best practices, he said.
“It’s something that may evolve into some costs down the road — or savings,” Mertes said. “Who knows?”
Some of the guidelines will add costs, said Al Geurts, Outagamie County Highway Commissioner. For instance, the guidelines recommend months when certain invasive species can be mowed because the plants are least fertile. But limited state money for mowing conflicts with the need to send crews to mow stretches of highway multiple times to avoid certain plants, he said.
“There certainly are some conflicting data,” said Geurts, who also was on the state advisory team, “and we’re certainly doing our best.”
The state isn’t alone in the push to stop invading plants. The Federal Highway Administration is considering controlling invasive plants on projects, and the U.S. Forest Service has recommended practices on road projects, Howe said. But the conflict between cost and plant control is always there, including in Indiana, where Howe works.
“I think that they get included when they can be,” she said. “But I think cost and safety remain their primary concerns. That’s what we always hear, ‘If it’s free, we’ll do it.’”