By editorial board • 

Success on the side of the road

For a time, most of Yamhill County’s roadsides were barren wastelands, a linear battlesite where weeds grew, people sprayed, weeds regrew, people resprayed, and so on.

Today, the county’s roughly 1,500 lane miles of public land have become examples of heritage, cooperation and creativity. 

Seven years ago, residents challenged the Public Works Department’s longstanding practice of mass spraying roadside vegetation to keep down weeds and make lines of sight clear and safe. The county wasn’t doing anything intrinsically wrong, but it could do much better, a diverse group of landowners, professionals and native plant enthusiasts told county leaders. To their credit, these leaders listened. 

In the latest version of best roadside vegetation practices, the county is completing a comprehensive inventory. It is identifying harmful patches of invasive weeds, thriving patches of native plants and bare patches subject to erosion, with the goal of treating them accordingly.

We wonder if lifelong wildflower aficionado Dave Hanson could have imagined — back in 2013, when he and others convinced the county to temporary halt roadside spraying — how much would be achieved in the ensuing years.

“These green corridors are our natural heritage, a remnant of the native prairie species that evolved here,” Hanson wrote that year in a News-Register guest commentary. “It is valuable wildlife habitat that should be conserved, enhanced and promoted as the linear nature park it has the potential to be.”

The county has since agreed with the environmental and economical advantages of fostering native roadside vegetation. Its Roadside Improvement Advisory Committee has collaborated with professionals and agencies to develop a new set of best practices.

Volunteers have put their boots on the ground and hands in the dirt to restore native prairie along county roads, reducing maintenance needs while simultaneously attracting native pollinators and improving roadside aesthetics. In the project’s latest phase, GIS mapping technology is being used to direct workers where to mow and when to hold off, allowing native plants to handle the maintenance for them.

“In the long run, native plants are the most economical vegetative cover for roadsides, because they are well-adapted and low-maintenance,” said retired OSU extension agent Susan Aldrich-Markham, who is among many champions of the effort. “Research has shown that native plants are the ones that are going to stay on that road, once you get ‘em there,” she said.

The county’s new roadside maintenance program represents a glittering example how creative thinking isn’t just for art class. Thinking outside the box, and displaying a willingness to compromise and cooperate, has fostered a significant success.

We must consider how that recipe could be applied elsewhere in the realm of local government.

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