Saturday, July 2, 2016

Fast Lane: Making Highways Safe for Bees, Butterflies and other Pollinators

The U.S. interstate highway system helps society. Highways help people get to and from work and get goods to market – thereby supporting the world’s most powerful economy.  Thanks to a partnership signed last month by the FHWA with six states, the highway system is also helping to strengthen the pollinator community, which includes bees and Monarch butterflies, along I-35 from Texas to Minnesota.  
Every third bite of food on our plates is there thanks to the work of pollinators, making the health of our bee and butterfly population an issue that affects everyone. And now, the transportation community is playing an important role in keeping them healthy and thriving by helping to turn our roadways into pollinator-friendly habitats.

Photo of bumblebees pollinating Asclepias incarnata taken by Bruce Rodan
When it became law late last year, the “Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act” committed the USDOT to urge states to develop roadside habitat for honey bees, monarch butterflies and other pollinators so they would have way-stations for their annual migration. This requirement built on the foundation set by a Presidential Memorandum from early last year which directed USDOT and FHWA to work with states to increase pollinator habitats along our roadways.
And today, the Administration is releasing the Pollinator Partnership Action Plan (PPAP), building on Federal actions to improve pollinator health by facilitating additional state and private-sector engagement.  The PPAP furthers President Obama’s June, 2014, memorandum that focused the attention of Federal agencies on the plight of the pollinators—honey bee colony mortality rates that impact the viability of commercial beekeepers and agricultural pollination services; monarch butterfly declines that threaten its iconic continental-scale migration; and other pollinator species quietly slipping toward extinction. 
Here at USDOT we have worked with the U.S. Forest Service and other partners to make re-vegetation a key part of project development – from project planning to management and maintenance. FHWA supports the efforts of the states along I-35 that choose to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding that commits them to creating a “Monarch Highway.”
All across the country, a number of states have stepped up to find and implement better ways to improve pollinator habitats in their rights-of-way. We’re grateful for their efforts and for their willingness to share what they’ve learned.  As we go forward, it will be important that we keep communicating and sharing information. Like America’s many roads, communication is a two-way street – so we’re asking states to let us know what they’re doing, what’s working, what’s not, and what they need so they can continue supporting pollinator habitats.
As an added bonus, these pollinator-friendly efforts don’t have to be difficult or expensive. In fact, because there’s less mowing or maintenance involved, pollinator habitat can actually be a cost-saver compared to grass. Some states only have to make minor changes to their operations – at little or no cost – and get great results.
The FHWA has taken this effort to heart, including setting up an apiary at its Turner Fairbank Highway Research Center outside Washington, D.C., and they have also replaced grass on several of sections of land at the facility with native Virginia plants to reduce water runoff and, we hope, to make a more compelling way-station for butterflies as they make their way along the East Coast. Even butterflies need a rest area.
I’m excited about this issue – partly because it’s unique – and also because it isn’t something people normally consider when they think about transportation. But supporting a healthy ecosystem with our infrastructure is not only possible, it’s the right thing to do, and it’s gratifying to use roadsides as habitats and help put food on America’s tables.
With our highway system, we want everyone to get home safely – even the bees, butterflies and other pollinators upon whom we all depend.


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