A long period of brainstorming designed to settle the divisive issue of mowing and haying roadside ditches has failed to appease agricultural interests and could keep pheasant hunters, birders, environmentalists and farmers in limbo for another year.

A stakeholders' group convened by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) came up with a "take some, leave some" plan to be administered by MnDOT with site-specific permitting. The group's report was published March 1, and MnDOT is prepared to move forward.

But two Republican legislators, who last year successfully pushed for a moratorium against enforcement of MnDOT mowing and haying permits, aren't satisfied. The two lawmakers said this week that more work needs to be done. The current moratorium expires April 30.

"I'd like to see another moratorium," said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Gary Dahms of Redwood Falls. "I still think we have a lot of things to work out.''

Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, said he is disappointed MnDOT is moving forward with permitting changes that reflect a "Twin Cities agenda" instead of listening to greater Minnesota.

"Ag groups I'm talking with still feel like the state is not listening to them on this issue," Swedzinski said. "Why is the state catering to the opinions of people in Minneapolis and St. Paul, who are exempt from these regulations?"

He said he's working on legislation "this session" to address ditch mowing issues.

Saving pheasants

The importance of ditch mowing to pheasant hunters is described in Gov. Mark Dayton's 10-point Pheasant Summit Action Plan. Roadsides can be good brood rearing habitat while also providing escape corridors for the birds and other wildlife.

In some parts of southwestern Minnesota, in fact, ditches are the only habitat for ringnecks. It's especially damaging if the cover is mowed or hayed during the nesting season. The Pheasant Summit Action Plan, written in 2015, also states that state and federal highways offer the widest buffers "and should be prioritized." Minnesota state highways alone stretch for nearly 4,200 miles in the pheasant range, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has said.

Greg Hoch, prairie habitat team supervisor for the DNR, said the issue is complex because of the competing interests of hunters, farmers, birders, pollinator advocates, monarch butterfly enthusiasts and rural landowners who own property abutting a state highway.

"When I started I thought this would be a simple fix and here we are four to five years later still looking for an answer," Hoch said.

MnDOT, DNR and 16 other organizations were represented in the stakeholders' group formed as part of last year's moratorium. Agricultural interests were represented by Minnesota Farm Bureau, Minnesota Farmers Union, Minnesota Milk Producers Association, Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association.

The group also included representatives from Pheasants Forever, Izaak Walton League, Pollinate Minnesota and the Governor's Committee on Pollinator Protection. The stakeholders convened over six months ending in January. In addition, MnDOT held nine public "listening sessions."

Give and take

It's widely agreed that a 1980s state law limiting roadside ditch mowing and haying to the month of August has been ignored. The statute was designed to provide enhanced roadside habitat for nesting birds and other small wildlife.

According to MnDOT Assistant Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger, stakeholders largely agreed that a system with no dates would be most beneficial to all parties. August cutting doesn't meet the hay quality needs of farmers and are detrimental to monarchs and pollinators.

But with an undated system, the stakeholders group suggested that the right of way may be mowed only once a year by permit holders. As Daubenberger explained, the increased flexibility would be balanced by a "take some, leave some'' approach that would be site specific and adjusted from year to year. Terms would be spelled out in each permit.

"We have permit technicians to set the limits and deal with compliance," she said.

Eran Sandquist of Pheasants Forever said he voiced support for a "take half, leave half" solution. He said "take some, leave some" was a compromise reached after long discussions that included a multitude of different opinions.

"For every action there was an opposite reaction," Sandquist said. "Everyone was passionate about the things that mattered to them."

State Rep. Rick Hansen, D-South St. Paul, said "take some, leave some" sounds like "don't ask, don't tell." He is concerned that corporate farmers will take too much and that some are profiting by haying a resource that belongs to the public. He likened the practice to city dwellers cutting down boulevard trees for firewood.

Dahms, too, said he is troubled by the concept of "take some, leave some." But only because it doesn't promise enough hay for farmers and seems to imply "take half, leave half." After all, he said, MnDOT would incur huge expenses by mowing roadside ditches for safety purposes if it weren't for haying taking place in the same right-of-ways.

"Half and half is not reasonable or workable," Dahms said. "Let the farmers mow it and use it.''

Two-way tool

According to the MnDOT report entitled "Mowing and Haying in the State Trunk Highway Right of Way," a compromise between stakeholders specified that the "take some, leave some" approach should use the permit process as a two-way communication tool to determine the appropriate amount of mowing for each site based on the vegetation.

"Permit applicants can choose to partner with MnDOT by proposing a plan for how much of the right of way can be mowed and how much to leave for habitat," the report said. "This solution serves both the need for quality hay by allowing for flexible mowing dates, while preserving corridors of habitat in the right of way."

MnDOT's regional permit staff would educate permit applicants about the importance of leaving quality habitat and rotational mowing for wildlife and pollinators. The report said stakeholders agreed that areas of high-quality habitat may be protected from mowing at MnDOT's discretion, while areas of lower quality habitat may be appropriate for lots of mowing.

Some stakeholders questioned how permit parameters would be enforced. MnDOT's answer was that the agency can run audits and revoke permits for noncompliance.

Daubenberger said the agency is going to streamline its roadside mowing and haying permitting process regardless of the outcome at the Legislature. Going forward, for instance, it should be easier for landowners to gain permission to cut roadside grasses that border their property. In addition, multiyear permits could become a reality as soon as 2019, she said.

"MnDOT is going ahead with changes to make permitting easier," Daubenberger said.