A showdown over roadside mowing in rural Minnesota has unleashed a surprisingly passionate debate at the Legislature about the culture of farming, property rights and the desperate plight of bees and monarch butterflies.

It's put wildlife in a fierce — but so far losing — competition with Minnesota farmers for the right to the increasingly valuable grass, flowers and other vegetation that grow along 175,000 acres of state-owned roads across the state.

A bill headed for a vote on the House floor would prevent the Minnesota Department of Transportation from asking landowners to get a permit before they mow roadside ditches and grassy shoulders — something farmers say they've been doing for decades without government intrusion.

"I feel like we are losing our rights," said Pat Verly, who farms on land near Marshall, at a recent committee hearing.

But a lot has changed in Minnesota in recent years, raising the profile of land that once was viewed primarily as a useless place for grass and weeds to grow.

'Roadside renaissance'

"There is a roadside renaissance," said Kyle Kasten, a monarch researcher at the University of Minnesota. "It's a massive resource."

As corn, soybeans and other row crops have expanded across the state, Minnesota has lost large expanses of grass and other crops available for livestock forage.

Since 2007, the state has lost 700,000 acres of conservation land on farms plus many thousands more as high prices for corn and soybeans pushed out pastures and hedgerows.

Now, some farmers say roadside mowing is the only source of hay for their animals.

The shift also means there is far less wild growth for pheasants, managed honeybees, wild insects and, perhaps most critically of all, monarchs, which can only reproduce on milkweed that is rapidly disappearing.

The 'monarch highway'

Conservation groups from Pheasants Forever to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation now see publicly owned roadsides as a critical part of their protection strategies across the country. In fact, Interstate 35 has been dubbed "the monarch highway" because of its potential to help butterflies that follow the same annual migration route from Canada and the Upper Midwest to their overwintering sites in Mexico.

Minnesota state government has adopted a similar strategy.

Managing state-owned land along roadsides for pollinator and nesting habitat is a goal of both Gov. Mark Dayton's Committee on Pollinator Protection and the state's pheasant action plan.

'Chaos and confusion'

All the competing forces set the stage for a showdown at the Legislature this year.

It began in the fall, when MnDOT announced that it was revising its permit process for roadside mowing — in part at the request of a former legislator who recommended more consistency in mowing policies and in part to improve habitat for birds and bees. Nowadays, MnDOT often uses seed mixes with native flowers designed as forage for threatened insects.

In fact, a law on Minnesota's books since 1985 prohibits roadside mowing before Aug. 1 and after Aug. 31 — a long-ago effort to protect nesting pheasants.

But it's been widely ignored, transportation officials said; only about 40 permits a year have been issued for 12,000 miles of state-owned roadway. Officials said the agency has no power or penalties to enforce it.

But the notice caused "chaos and confusion in the countryside," said Thom Peterson of the Minnesota Farmers Union.

Hearings got testy

"This is one of the biggest issues I've heard about," Rep. Chris Swedzinski, a Republican and farmer from Ghent who authored the House bill, said at a recent hearing.

"People are concerned."

So was MnDOT. Scott Peterson, MnDOT's government affairs director, explained at two sometimes-testy committee hearings that agency staff were increasingly concerned about the safety of both drivers and mowers.

Sometimes people cut vegetation that has been sprayed with toxic weedkillers, he said. There was at least one fight in a ditch between two people who both thought they had rights to the grass. And some were turning a profit off state property by selling the hay, he said.

"My primary concern," he said, "is that this bill takes property rights that include the right to control vegetation for the benefit of the public."

It's no different, he said, from going into a state park to dig plants and then selling them to a local landscaping company.

The new permitting system, MnDOT's Peterson said, was designed to increase landowners' voluntary compliance with the mowing law and to help MnDOT get a better idea of what was going on along its ditches across the state.

Farmers and legislators didn't see it that way.

History of maintenance

Paul Lanoue, who raises cattle, corn and soybeans near Marshall, said he and his neighbors were caught off guard.

In rural Minnesota, landowners adjacent to the roads largely believe they own the land to the centerline and the government has rights to use it, he said. While that's largely true for county and township roads, it's not so for the state.

"We didn't know they were the state's ditches. We figured they were ours," Lanoue said.

Farmers and landowners believe they are doing a good job managing the ditches and roadsides, he said, and have always willingly assumed that responsibility.

They cut weeds, collect trash and improve safety by keeping vegetation down. And no one, he said, is getting rich off the hay.

As for habitat, he's planting 30 acres of prairie plants far from the road to help out pollinators, and he's putting in an alfalfa field, which will provide forage for honeybees. "We're doing our part," Lanoue said.

Crops eat up acres

Some lawmakers say that, thanks to funding from the 2008 Legacy Amendment, the state is acquiring plenty of land for wildlife.

But that's not true in Minnesota's farm country. Row crops take up nearly 20 million acres in the three-quarters of the state where agriculture is dominant, compared to about 1.7 million acres of undisturbed grasslands, according to a DNR estimate.

In fact, row crops make up 95 percent of the land in some counties, leaving roadsides as one of the few places left for insects and other wildlife.

"We continue to lose prairies and pastures and hayfields," said Greg Hoch, prairie habitat team supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources. "So anything out there is going to be beneficial."

Just as critically, in a fragmented landscape, roadsides provide badly needed connections for animals and insects to move from one place to another and for plants to pollinate, said wildlife experts.

It helps those that need to migrate, and it provides genetic diversity among species, said Tina Markeson, vegetation supervisor for MnDOT.

For now, however, legislation is well on its way in both the House and Senate, and it seems likely that the farmers will retain freedom to mow along state roads.

After all, as Peterson of the Farmers Union said, "this is their forage."

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394