Evaluate Level of Interest in Starting a Program

Initial considerations 

Interest in starting a program that safely and strategically manages roadside vegetation using the principles of integrated roadside vegetation management may first arise from residents or county or city government employees.

People are most often interested in developing a roadside program because they want:

  • More organized and proactive roadside management.
  • More responsible and sustainable roadside vegetation management.
  • More cost-effective roadside management.
  • To manage roadsides for multiple purposes.
  • To take advantage of the Living Roadway Trust Fund to offset equipment and roadside inventory costs.

The full-time roadside manager

The best way to achieve common roadside program goals is to hire a full-time roadside manager. As the one overseeing all vegetation management activities, this person is focused and motivated to:

  • Perform weed and brush control activities in a timely, effective manner.
  • Save money by conducting more in-house operations.
  • Stay current with the latest products and technologies.
  • Establish and maintain healthy stands of native vegetation.
  • Install and maintain erosion control measures. 
  • Submit LRTF applications to bring in additional resources that address county needs.

As the county’s vegetation specialist, a roadside manager takes ownership of the county’s roadsides with pride and accountability. When one person coordinates every aspect of the program, the result is better roadsides. Although cities may not have the resources to hire a full-time roadside manager, in their IRVM plans they need to designate who will take leadership for how the roadsides are managed using the principles of IRVM.

A less expensive way to get started

A few counties have managed to plant a lot of roadsides to native vegetation without hiring a roadside manager.  These counties don’t get the same level of vegetation management but they do access the Living Roadway Trust Fund. The following are examples of how this has been accomplished:

  • The county looks for a vegetation-savvy individual already on staff in secondary roads — or elsewhere — and makes it part of the individual’s job to send in LRTF applications and do the planting.
  • The county engineer and conservation board director work together. The engineer applies for the seed — for ditch cleanouts and road projects — and conservation does the planting. 
  • The county finds a current employee (e.g., the engineer or somebody working under the engineer) who personally wants to see the county get active in IRVM. In addition to regular duties, this person applies to UNI for seed and works with road maintenance personnel to get it planted. 

Hopefully these efforts lead to the establishment of a full-time roadside manager position in a county. Planting native vegetation and maintaining healthy roadsides takes a sustained, focused effort. Even the board of supervisors cannot make this happen without having someone in a key position who wants the program to succeed.

Proposing a program to county or city decision makers

Those wanting to start a program, whether it is county or city employees or a citizen group, will need support from the decision makers who handle the local budget — the county board of supervisors, city council, or city manager — and from the head of the department that will supervise the roadside manager — the engineer, county conservation board director, board of supervisors, or city administrator. The decision makers will need to approve the IRVM plan and funding to hire a roadside manager. Program supporters will typically schedule a presentation about the need for a program at a public meeting of the supervisors or council.

When residents have worked to change their county or city’s roadside management practices, they organize prior to scheduling this presentation. Historically a citizens group has involved concerned residents who want less roadside spraying and more native vegetation. The effort can start with one person or a small group who recruits like-minded friends and associates. They meet informally, someone presides, someone takes minutes, and they lay out their goals over the course of a few meetings. 

The group can contact the TPC roadside program manager at any time during this process for questions or to acquire hard-copy resources for informing people about roadside programs. For example, the paper “Roadside Weeds, Brush, and Erosion: How Your County or City Can Manage Them to Create Safe, Healthy Roadsides and Roads” addresses a variety of benefits from having a program. Brochures to inform people about roadside programs and roadside vegetation topics are also available.

When the citizen group is ready, it should arrange a meeting with the board to present the outlined goals. Unless the supervisors are able to clear most of the agenda for one of their regular meetings, a special meeting will facilitate better discussion. Most of the citizen group members need to be present. The desired outcome at this time is for the board of supervisors to appoint a formal IRVM committee to look closely at the county’s current roadside management program and determine what’s best for the county. Recommended IRVM committee membership can include: a member of the board of supervisors, the county engineer, the road superintendent/foreman, the weed commissioner, a member of the conservation board, and key members of the original committee.

The best person or people for delivering the presentation about a proposed program depends on the local situation and who the decision makers trust. In some cases, it might be the county or city employee who would be responsible for developing the program and supervising the roadside manager. In other situations, decision makers might want to also hear from the roadside manager, engineer, or conservation board director from a nearby roadside program; Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) employee; Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) commissioner; chair of the citizen group; someone representing farming interests; a weed control professional; LRTF coordinator; or the TPC roadside program manager. Some combination of the above may be effective. The point is to fortify the effort with respected individuals who can address the board of supervisors with candor and knowledge.

No matter who presents, having a high turnout of residents (ideally, including some with political influence) who support the program is important for showing broad local support. Residents can also write op-ed letters to the local newspaper and email or call their local officials to relay their support for a program.

Collect information on the current need for the program

County vegetation management survey

Supporters need to gather information demonstrating the need for the program. How much money and time are currently spent on managing roadside vegetation? Are county officials and residents satisfied with the level of erosion control, appearance of the roadsides, presence of noxious weeds, and safety issues such as the amount of brush near roads? If there is room for improvement, how might having an IRVM plan and a roadside manager provide the resources needed to more proactively and effectively manage the local roadside vegetation?

The County Vegetation Management Survey can serve as a basis for evaluating a county’s roadside vegetation management program. Obtaining meaningful responses may require interviews with members of the road maintenance crew or others directly involved. Consider county herbicide-use records, noting herbicide products, quantities, and costs. Consider spray records to determine who does the spraying, when it occurs, the technology used, and the miles covered each year.

Though responses to the survey questions can be subjective, they will help identify and prioritize personnel and equipment needs. The process will involve compromise. In the end, weed and brush control objectives are balanced against environmental concerns and limited county resources. With that in mind, determine an appropriate allocation of county resources. Also determine how much might be solved with better organization and efficiency.

A successful outcome to this process would be to have the board of supervisors dedicate a full-time position and budget for roadside vegetation management. The next step is to hire a resourceful person motivated to get the most done within that budget.

After a roadside manager is hired, the IRVM committee can become the IRVM steering committee, meeting with the new roadside manager on a regular basis; one suggestion is meeting monthly for the first year and quarterly thereafter. This committee sees that things are done as needed, supports the roadside manager’s efforts, and provides political support in times of need.

Where’s the savings?

Long-term savings are anticipated through the establishment of native plant species as better-adapted, more competitive vegetation. Immediate savings are realized by:

  • Having county personnel with LRTF-purchased equipment spray roadside weeds instead of hiring a contractor.
  • Having county personnel with equipment partially paid by the LRTF conduct tree and brush removal operations. 
  • Having county personnel install and maintain erosion control measures instead of hiring it done.

A professional vegetation specialist on staff can provide additional savings by:

  • Conducting stormwater inspections required under NPDES (National Pollution Discharge Elimination System).
  • Doing wetland delineations.
  • Preparing wetland monitoring reports for mitigations.
  • Developing a PROactive program of managing vegetation that dovetails with current road maintenance activities instead of a REactive one that is based on fixing problems after they have formed (The “savings” might be simply doing a much better job with the same amount of dollars).

Roadside manager insights

When considering the establishment of a new IRVM program, consider: money spent in weed control, money spent in contract seeding, money spent on erosion stone vs. best management practices. There’s lots of money to be saved with an IRVM program. Make it about money!

Depending on the size of a county’s projects and how much spraying, contract seeding, and maintenance is done, an IRVM program can save enough money to pay a roadside manager’s salary each year. On top of that, the county does not have to deal with contracts and has more control over how things are done.

-Wes Gibbs, Jones County, 2024

Potential objections to starting a program

Communicating the benefits to starting a program is important, but it’s also critical to be prepared to address the greatest challenges to starting and implementing a program. According to a 2016 survey of board of supervisors members and county conservation board directors, lack of support from elected officials or staff support, lack of staff capacity, other concerns in the county being a higher priority, the cost of starting a program, and lack of community support are among the greatest barriers to implementing IRVM practices (Stephenson et al. 2017). 

Survey respondents said challenges to using native species in particular include cost, adjacent landowners mowing the plantings, and acceptance internally or among contractors (Stephenson et al. 2017). A survey of engineers and roadside managers found similar barriers (Stephenson and Losch 2016). Both reports provide useful background information and generalized observations about how county officials make decisions regarding roadside management. Of course, being familiar with local decision makers’ values and perceptions of roadsides will allow citizen groups to be the most prepared for proposing a new initiative such as a roadside program.

A chart showing survey responses from conservation board members and county board of supervisors detailing the greatest barriers to implementing IRVM practices.A chart continuing to show survey responses from conservation board members and county board of supervisors detailing the greatest barriers to implementing IRVM practices.