Thursday, April 6, 2017

FDOT includes pollinators in Wildflower Policy update

By Dixie Tate

It may be just five words, but they could mean a world of difference to wildflowers and, perhaps more importantly, to the critters depending upon them. Those words, “for the benefit of pollinators,” were recently added to the Florida Department of Transportation’s Wildflower Program.
Brickellia cordifolia on U.S. 98 in Wakulla County. Photo/Jeff Norcini

In part, the program’s purpose statement now reads, “To develop and implement integrated vegetation management practices on roadsides and other transportation right of way, including reduced mowing, for the benefit of pollinators, while developing and maintaining safe, cost effective and efficient transportation corridors and systems.”

And what’s good for the bees, butterflies and birds that draw life from roadsides bursting with color is good for the humans traveling those roads. It’s not only because they are visually appealing, but also because the blossoms provide a feast for bees that are ultimately responsible for every third bite of food on our tables.
Wildflower resolution map
Three cities and 33 counties have adopted wildflower resolutions.

As State Transportation Landscape Architect Jeff Caster explains it, when Congress passed a transportation bill a little over a year ago expanding federal dollars for the nation’s transportation system, embedded within was the Highways BEE Act. Though the amendment to the bill, sponsored by Florida Congressman Alcee Hastings, didn’t require it, it did encourage states to up their wildflower game, specifically calling out Monarchs and milkweed.

“And you can use federal dollars to do this,” Caster says, “which is a really big deal. Apparently, both sides of the aisle are beginning to see the urgency of the matter.”

Thus began the effort to add some teeth to what had been something of a “paper tiger that held nobody accountable for anything.” That’s how a program with the rather broad aim of “increasing visibility and enjoyment of wildflowers” has begun to morph into a program that packs a more powerful punch.

Adding the pollinator piece to the state’s Wildflower Program is “very, very significant because, before, it was for enjoyment,” Caster says. “Now it has a more serious purpose, more useful, and is perceived as more valuable.”

For Caster, this new dimension also means he will no longer be the sole person at FDOT “who has anything to do with the Wildflower Program as part of their job responsibilities.” Effective July 1, Caster says, “We’ll make it important to all eight district secretaries.” Added to their performance evaluations will be five goals relating to the maintenance and preservation of naturally occurring wildflower areas. Roadside management guidance also will be incorporated into manuals.

“Nature’s doing it,” Caster says about wildflowers that occur naturally on roadsides. “We just need to keep the mowers off of them.” That is another significant change reflected in FDOT’s management strategy. In the past, Caster explains, “We’d buy as much wildflower seed as we could buy. The seed would come up; we’d mow it down; and the next year, we’d start all over again.”

Thanks in large part to the success of the Florida Wildflower Foundation’s effort to persuade counties to adopt wildflower resolutions, Caster says that the move has been away from “simply buying wildflower seed to conserving natural areas where wildflowers grow naturally.”

It was something of an “aha!” moment: “Wow, this can really save us some money, because really all you have to do is mow less often.” When there’s “not a penny budgeted for wildflowers at FDOT,” Caster says, that’s an important realization.

The only thing that’s needed to conserve and preserve roadside wildflowers “is the willpower to do it,” Caster says. It will, however, require due diligence on the part of all those involved — from the mowers whose job it is to maintain safe roadsides to wildflower experts and enthusiasts.

The importance of “biological corridors” is stressed in a February 2015 report to FDOT, “Evaluating the Importance of Roadside Habitat for Native Insect Pollinators.” In it, lead investigator Dr. Jaret Daniels noted, “Roadsides offer many potential resources for pollinators. They can support a wide variety of flower-rich forage habitat for access to pollen and nectar; and unlike agricultural landscapes, remain unplowed, therefore providing potential nesting sites for ground nesting bees. 

These same areas can offer food and cover for other beneficial insect predators and parasitoids, colorful butterflies and moths, and other wildlife, including songbirds.”

At the end of the day, Caster says, “Our roads are the most visible and most visited landscape in Florida,” so a heightened sense of awareness will work to the benefit of all.

For your FDOT district wildflower coordinator’s contact information, visit www.flawildflowers.org/resolution.php.

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