Greg Larson figures he could golf along Hwy. 7 across Minnesota from the western Twin Cities to the South Dakota border, so shorn are the roadside ditches.

An Excelsior resident who owns 80 acres of the family farm in Meeker County where he grew up, Larson said he's frustrated with all the mowing, baling and pesticide use in ditches in farm country. So are conservation groups, who say the mowing destroys critical foraging space at a time when birds, pollinators and insects desperately need more native habitat to survive.

"The drive to our Meeker County farm has become a trip through a biological desert," Larson lamented.

Minnesota's new "Highways for Habitat" program takes aim at that, trying to return prairie plants to the roadsides. It will be a challenge given the cultural attachment to short, manicured grass and lure of using the ditch grass and hay for animal feed.

Modeled on a similar prairie program in Iowa, the new Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) program will try to re-wild the ditches with crews planting more native vegetation for birds, butterflies such as imperiled monarchs, bees and other pollinators. It was established with $1 million in kick-start money in the transportation package Gov. Tim Walz signed into law Wednesday.

Highways for Habitat applies to the more than 300 state and interstate highways across Minnesota, including Hwy. 7. MnDOT mostly owns and operates these highways, the agency said, along with the shoulders and ditches where it is responsible for about 175,000 acres of roadside vegetation.

The program does not apply to county highways or other roads, where land ownership can be varied. But it walks into the state's long-running ditch-mowing tensions, even though the program's legislative language doesn't address mowing and haying. State law requires people to get permits from MnDOT for ditch mowing and haying along state highways, which can only be done in August. But the mowing appears to be going on all summer in some cases.

Tina Markeson, supervisor for roadside vegetation management in MnDOT's Office of Environmental Stewardship, said the agency will have to identify the right tracts for the native plantings and work with adjacent landowners so they aren't mowed.

Groups including the Izaak Walton League, Pheasants Forever, Pollinator Friendly Alliance and Minnesota Environmental Partnership have pushed for the program for years. Larson, too, advocated with lawmakers and called Highways for Habitat a great first step to make use of an overlooked resource, even if it's not Grade A wildlife habitat. They point to the success in Iowa where about 75,000 acres of native prairie plants were planted along state and county highways over 30 years.

Iowa's roadsides burst with eye-level color when they're in bloom — and even from a car the view can spark a change in attitude toward conservation, said Laura Jackson, director of the Tallgrass Prairie Center in Cedar Falls. Jackson said the plantings are permanently financed by Iowa's Living Roadway Trust Fund that receives money from sources such as lottery proceeds, road-use taxes and utility-access fees.

"It helps us to be aware of our prairie heritage and to be aware of nature," Jackson said. "There's color, there's some blurry yellow and purple color going down the road."

Minnesota's program is starting with $1 million in one-time cash. It will need long-term funding to rival Iowa's, MnDOT's Markeson told lawmakers at a hearing in January.

The new law requires MnDOT to create standards and best practices for integrated roadside vegetation management for the program, avoiding insecticides that kill pollinators and protecting nesting bids and other wildlife, except where noxious weeds need controlling such as wild parsnip and Canada thistle.

They also have to determine high-priority state highway roadsides, such as those where remnants of native vegetation still exist, or where there's new road construction.

"We only have two years to spend this money so it's going to have to happen pretty quickly," Markeson said in an interview.

Republican lawmakers have criticized the effort for potentially limiting farmers' ability to bale ditches to feed animals. Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, raised safety concerns during a discussion on the House floor last Sunday.

"Do you really want our road ditches to be wildlife habitat? It's not safe," Anderson told lawmakers. "You could have deer nesting in tall grass, or raccoon or skunks or pheasants, whatever."

Laurie Schneider, executive director of the Pollinator Friendly Alliance, said the plantings attract songbirds and pollinators, not large animals. Deer prefer wooded areas and the tender shoots in freshly mowed vegetation, she said.

"The deer and other animals will not go to that habitat to look for goldenrod, liatris or purple coneflowers," Schneider said.

Loss of habitat is a key factor in the decline of pollinators, on par with pesticide use, Schneider said. It has a major impact on the bird population, since nearly all land-based birds feed insects to their babies, according to Audubon Minnesota.

"If we can create a significant amount of forage and habitat corridors, that is going to make a huge impact, not just for pollinators but also for birds," Schneider said.

There are other benefits, too. Native plantings help control snowdrifts, control erosion and filter water better.

The new program takes up where the Roadsides for Wildlife program left off. That one was run by the Department of Natural Resources and fizzled. The agency is focusing its wildlife efforts more on the state's public lands, said the agency's prairie habitat supervisor, Greg Hoch. He called the legislative description of Highways for Habitat "very positive."

Markeson said MnDOT already uses many of the progressive roadside management practices spelled out in the new law. The new program will allow it to do more. The agency has a set goal to plant 75% of its major construction project acres with native seed mixes. Currently it's about 61%, with about 2,800 acres of native seed since 2017.