Friday, August 24, 2012

Reflections On A Roadside Irony

The engineer-founder of Iowa-based Ecolotree, the headquarters of which I passed on the return leg of my recent cross-country trip, is quoted as saying that “engineers are botanically challenged” which in my experience is true of far too many at the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

But that certainly isn’t true of the engineers in the NCDOT Roadside Environmental Unit.   Over the last five decades, beginning in the 1960s, this relatively small Unit has proactively planted nearly 5 million trees along the state’s roadsides, always staying beyond the safety zone which has been scientifically defined to avoid collisions and facilitate recovery from roadway departures.

Colorful trees such as Dogwoods and Redbuds have been planted for decades along the edge of the roadside tree canopy to augment the Unit’s acclaimed wildflower and scenic byways programs and help deliver on North Carolina’s brand promise to tourists, one of the state’s most important economic sectors. A pine tree seedling was planted in memory of each of the nearly 58,000 soldiers who died in the Vietnam War.

However, most of the trees are planted in league with forestry and ecology experts to either mitigate the impact of the roadways on the environment or for phytoremediation, the same reason roadside forests are carefully protected and retained during road construction.DSC01342

So residents across the state were puzzled, if not incensed, this past winter to see maintenance crews suddenly clear-cutting entire stretches of roadside trees, further curtailing the 14% national highway system right-of-ways in this state that are lined by trees.

The cutting immediately caught the attention of North Carolinians because it went so far beyond the long-standing federal and state guidelines of 30 feet behind guardrails and otherwise 40 feet, undulating for exceptions around assets such as bridges to no more than 50 feet.

Friends of mine who work in maintenance explained to me that along I 40 in Durham NC, where I live, crews cut the tree line back another 10-20 feet beyond the long-standing policy, in part, hoping to extend the number of years before they would need to do maintenance.

However, some people wonder if the increased cutting may have violated the 1978 impact agreement by the State to “maintain plantings native to the area…alleviating the possible harm to the existing environment” created by construction of that Durham stretch of I 40 a decade later.

Fortunately, NCDOT’s plan is to come back this fall and once again plant Dogwoods and Redbuds but in a transitional area between what large canopy trees remain and the clear zone.

But one must wonder if any projected maintenance savings were weighed against the hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions of dollars, the slain roadside trees across the State represented in public ecosystem services alone.

To put the expanded cutting into perspective the entire roadside from pavement’s edge is only about 87 feet along each side of the Durham stretch, which was established as a best practice overlay prior to construction with community-wide support including the Durham Chamber of Commerce under its then-board president Travis Porter.

The overlay was created in cooperation with roadside landowners to establish very “effective screens including trees, setbacks, landscape standards, sign standards and other elements to also preserve and protect environmentally sensitive and historical assets.”

The effort was chaired by Barbara V. Smith, a former Duke official and later a chair of the Tourism Development Authority, the governing board of the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau, the community’s official marketing agency, authorized by state legislation passed at that same time.

The suddenly and dramatically expanded cutting last winter wiped out fully a fifth to a third of the tree cover left as part of that overlay, leaving less than 30 feet in places.  I have been told by one engineer that Durham got off easy.  Engineers in other parts of the state were shell-shocked to witness the tree line pushed 100 feet up some hillsides, laying waste to huge trees that had existed before the roadways were built.

I truly respect and try to understand the maintenance challenge and from my friends working there, I know how much and how deeply many of them care.  However, my records show that every few years from the time I arrived in North Carolina nearly 25 years ago until I retired nearly three years ago, those original guidelines had been reiterated as policy in regular communications from various chief engineers down to division engineers across the state, stressing strict adherence.

From my reading, the original cut zones are also still clearly defined for roadway design and maintenance by AASHTO, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and adopted by the Federal Highway Administration.  But something in NCDOT has changed.

It just seems so ironic, that just as new science at the national level has even further documented the crucial role that roadside forests play in areas such as carbon sequestration, in North Carolina we would do something so seemingly contradictory as if we do not understand that trees serve as our most cost effective means of climate eco-technology.

NCDOT has a huge responsibility and is often subjected to incredible external pressure including that from special interests such as those seeking to reap parasitic value at no cost or contribution to the cost of the publicly-owned roadway.

Similar to major corporations, the department is also faced with the daunting challenge of making sure there is always cross agency, as well as inter-agency, communication and willingness to leverage knowledge and expertise from those who are not botanically-challenged.

Hopefully, there is also now even more awareness of how important roadside forests are to North Carolinians and how vigilant we are to promote, protect and preserve this signature asset to our state’s scenic character.

However well meaning or logically-conceived the expanded cutting was, it may have only reinforced for those who witnessed it why by 2 to 1 now, Americans don’t believe their government is protecting the environment.

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