What are living snow fences and how do they benefit motorists?

By Kevin Byrne, AccuWeather staff writer

Winter driving can be treacherous even when roads are not covered in snow and ice.

Many times large banks of snow that accumulate after a storm can still pose problems to motorists when gusty winds whip through the snowdrifts and blow the snow back across roadways and into traffic.

Many states have set up standard snow fences alongside long stretches of motorways to help limit the amount of drifting snow that can impair a driver’s visibility. However, in some cases these snow fences are made out of living vegetation.

Living snow fences are naturally occurring or designed plantings of trees and shrubs and native grasses along highways, roads and ditches, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. These natural barriers have been used in Wisconsin since the 1930s.

snow fence

(Photo/Minnesota Department of Transportation)

Many states have implemented living snow fences including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and New York.

Living snow fences were first installed in New York state in 2006, according to the New York Thruway Authority. They consist primarily of willow trees and evergreens strategically placed in areas prone to heavy snow.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) says living snow fences can control soil erosion and reduce spring flooding by keeping soil sediment out of ditches to maintain proper drainage.

There are environmental benefits to incorporating these fences besides improving driving safety. Planting these trees and shrubs offer reduced maintenance costs from standard fences and lower greenhouse gas emissions since there is less of a need to plow in these areas, the Thruway Authority states.

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It also means less road salt, which can be hazardous to cars, is distributed on the roadways.

The United States Department of Agriculture states that the ideal species to plant for these fences are conifers, because of their height and year-round foliage.

In certain states like Minnesota and Iowa, some farmers are compensated for leaving standing corn rows and hay bales to help protect select state highways.

Farmers are compensated on a per acre basis for leaving standing corn rows and a per lineal foot basis for strategically stacked bales or silage bags, according to a MnDOT press release.

“Standing corn rows provide a unique opportunity to use a resource that is currently being grown adjacent to our highways to provide blowing snow control,” Dan Gullickson, MnDOT’s snow control program coordinator said in a statement last spring. “Farmers play a key role in helping MnDOT quickly deliver preventative snow control treatments while reducing MnDOT’s snow and ice removal costs.”

MnDOT recently said it is looking to expand a pilot program statewide that would aim to increase the amount of private landowners who use snow fences.

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