Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 5, Issue 2 - December, 2012

Assessing Landowner and Agency Benefits, Values and Concerns of the Minnesota Department of Transportation Living Snow Fence Incentive Program

Wyatt, G.J., Extension Educator, University of Minnesota Extension
Current, D., Director, Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management (CINRAM)
Gullickson, D., Forester, Minnesota Department of Transportation
Schroeder, S., Research Assistant, University of Minnesota
Smith, D., Research Assistant, University of Minnesota
Zamora, D., Extension Educator, University of Minnesota Extension

ABSTRACT

The Minnesota Department of Transportation’s (MnDOT) living snow fence (LSF) program offers financial payments and contracts with landowners to maintain standing corn rows and/or to install LSF plantings in areas where blowing and drifting snow is a problem on a state roadway.  However, enrollment in the program is low. A study was conducted to identify the barriers of improving adoption rate of the LSF program by assessing its values, benefits and concerns using a focus group style discussion among landowners and an online survey among agency staff.  Among others, recommendations for improving the program include developing more flexible contracts, offering adjustable payments, providing alternatives for maintenance, creating a system of insurance against risk, and decreasing landowner liability.  Time, lack of funds, and the need for MnDOT staff to work with local farm and conservation agency officials in each district of the state are among the concerns of agency staff.  Results of the study are being used to modify the LSF program of MnDOT.

 


Introduction

Establishing standing corn rows and living snow fences (LSF) improves driver visibility, road surface conditions, and has the potential to lower costs of road maintenance as well as crashes attributed to blowing and drifting snow.  Living snow fences, a type of windbreak,are trees/shrubs planted strategically along roads to trap snow and keep it from blowing and drifting on roads (MnDOT, 2012).  Snow fences that affectively limit snow drift and blowing problems can decrease travel time and reduce the severity and number of snow related crashes.  An analysis of accidents in Minnesota found over 9,000 snow related accidents in snow problem areas including 64 fatal and 131 incapacitating accidents from 1995 to 2005 (URS Corporation 2008).  Snow fences along interstate 80 in Wyoming have reduced accidents during blowing snow conditions by 70 percent (Tabler 1982).  

Blowing snow causing large drifts can require extra trips by standard plows, reduced plow speeds, require additional equipment and increased usage of sand and salt.  Snow fence protection along 50 percent of a 100 kilometer section of interstate 80 in Wyoming provided a reduction in snow removal costs by more than 30 percent (Tabler 1982).  Blow ice (snow blowing and melting on highways and refreezing) is also a problem that can be reduced by living snow fence plantings. (Figure 1.)

Figure 1. Native grasses protect the highway (looking east, left is north) as a living snow fence.

In 2011, MnDOT paid a total of $50,974 for LSF (tree and shrub) contracts and $42,786 for standing corn row contracts.  The 2011 budget for snow and ice removal was $81,085,501.  MnDOT spent 0.12% of the budget for preventative LSFs’ to landowners.  MnDOT currently has contracts with 86 landowners on these sites representing 2.3% of the problematic sites. Approximately 3,800 sites have been identified in Minnesota to be problem snow sites. 

In the past, MnDOT has paid farmers to leave standing corn rows to protect identified snow problem roadways at $1.50 per bushel above market price which may not be sufficient incentive for leaving standing corn rows. (Figure 2.)   MnDOT also partners with local, state and federal agency’s to promote long term LSF contracts with incentives.  Currently there is low adoption rate (2%) of this LSF program with clear transportation and safety benefits.  Quantifying the social constraints and the economic benefits and costs will allow the development of a new LSF payment program with the goal of increasing adoption rates in snow problem areas with positive economic net benefits. Our study aimed to evaluate farmers’ willingness to establish living snow fences and identify the barriers and constraints to adoption, and to identify farm and conservation agency staff’s constraints to implementation of the current LSF program.

Figure 2. Standing corn rows are used as a living snow fence in Minnesota.  MnDOT pays landowners to protect identified snow problem roadways.

Methods

Five sites throughout Minnesota were selected to conduct the focus group interviews with landowners about the MnDOT living snow fence program.  The areas were chosen to represent the variety of diverse conditions throughout the state of Minnesota.  Several factors were used in selecting the sites. These factors include: 1) area contained counties with MnDOT living snow fence plantings, 2) area contained counties without MnDOT living snow fence plantings, 3) age of oldest MnDOT living snow fence planting,4) area contained interstate highway roadways, 5) crop cover in the areas, and 6) regional roadways contained critical areas or road closure areas.  A total of 45 Minnesota landowners participated in five focus group discussions between January and February, 2010.

An online survey was developed and sent to key agency staff to better understand the perspectives of these individuals and the role played by each agency and its staff.  These agencies include the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Farm Service Agency (FSA), the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), and MnDOT.  The link to the online survey and a template email was distributed to district administrators in MnDOT, the FSA, SWCD offices and the NRCS.  The administrators distributed the survey to staff in their respective agencies.  A total of 160 agency staff completed the survey between April 1 and April 16, 2010.

Results and Discussion

Focus-group discussions with Landowners

The landowner focus group participants revealed a variety of perceived costs and constraints, and also described the conditions that would likely increase landowner adoption of the program.  Specifically the life cycle costs of the LSF were most frequently mentioned including the costs associated with implementation, maintenance, rejuvenation, and removal costs. Other costs identified included the opportunity costs, costs related to changing land values, and some participants concluded the compensation was insufficient to cover all costs.  Specific constraints that emerged in the discussion included risk, hassle and time constraints, and concerns about the contract.  The biggest constraints to adoption of the practice were the risks associated with the maintenance of the LSF planting including replacing lost trees and the landowner’s liability to maintain the fence and the associated costs.  Other constraining factors included the difficulties presented by the LSF planting and additional time required to negotiate cropping practices while protecting the planting. Concerns about the rigidity and the length of the contract were final constraining factors discussed by participants. 

As with other case studies documented in the literature, no universal variables influencing adoption emerged during the focused discussions.  However, landowners in this study did identify several factors that positively influenced adoption of the LSF practice.  These factors identified are awareness of the program, a local personal contact to review the snow problem and possible landowner options/incentives, relative advantage or mutual benefits, perception the program promotes the landowner’s objectives, and incentives or compensation.

Several opportunities emerged to improve the program and increase landowner adoption of the practice, specifically several opportunities exist to address the costs and constraints the landowners encounter.  Among others, recommendations for improving the program include developing more flexible contracts, offering adjustable payments, adding more competitive incentives or increased payments, providing alternatives/options/incentives for maintenance, creating a system of insurance against risk, and decreasing landowner liability.  Compensation or a conservation reserve program (CRP) payment for the land between the right of way and the LSF was also identified as an opportunity to increase adoption of LSF along with considering bonus payments for locations with high potential benefits (super-elevated curve, high accident rates, etc.).  Results of our focus group discussion also showed that farmers prefer a single strip of standing corn rather than the recommended two strips. 

To address some of these landowner concerns, the project team created a LSF payment calculator which is based on yield, production costs, inconvenience factors, income or financial benefit received, and the price of corn plus MnDOT snow removal expenses to arrive at a realistic monetary incentive to pay landowners.  The LSF payment calculator now serves as a tool to calculate a realistic payment to landowners wishing to participate in the LSF program.  (Figure 3)

Figure 3. Living snow fence under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in Minnesota protecting the roadway to the south (left).

Online survey: MnDOT Staff

Forty two MnDOT staff completed the online survey; of the respondents, 90% are promoting the LSF program.  To promote the program, participants used a variety of multiple techniques including talking to landowners, soliciting landowners to participate in the program, using media outlets such as newspaper to advertise the program, identifying snow problem areas needing establishment of LSF, and proposing solutions to landowners’ concerns.

MnDOT staff reported a high level of confidence in the living snow fence practice; respondents indicated certainty that the fences are effective in reducing snow removal costs and also effective for improving hazardous road conditions; however the constraints and barriers to adopting the programs must be addressed. Notably these constraints were not training or technical knowledge; instead the constraints detailed including lack of time to work on the program, insufficient funding, and lack of landowner interest in the program.  

Online survey: FSA, NRCS and SWCD Staff

Results of the survey among agency staff showed that the most (90%) of them promote the living snow fence program and a majority (56%) rated the living snow fence program as a work priority.   Conservation agency staff (96% of respondents) raised concerns about the lack of interaction with the MnDOT District LSF Coordinator to prepare snow fence plans. Noteworthy, 99% of the respondents among agency staff have never been invited to participate in road safety audit to reduce crashes.  Nevertheless, agency staff indicated they have the technical knowledge and competency to promote and implement the LSF program; however, resources such as time and funding are more limited.

Overall to promote the LSF program at the agency level, there is a need for all agency staff to understand the value, importance and benefits of the LSF program.  Each MnDOT district should have a LSF coordinator that meets on a regular basis with FSA, SWCD and NRCS staff to help promote the program.  Each FSA, SWCD and NRCS office should also have a dedicated staff member to be the “LSF contact” or go to person.  All LSF contacts should be trained and others in these offices should know about the program and who in their office to contact.

Conclusions

Based on this study, MnDOT could see net economic returns of over $1.3 million dollars per year if 40% of the sites inventoried with blowing and drifting snow problems would be contracted to LSF practices.  A collaboration of staff from cooperating agencies are needed to work together and strategically identify and target snow problem areas and landowners to offer realistic LSF or standing corn row compensation using the LSF payment calculator.  This research report, executive summary, information about the LSF payment calculator and other links to Living Snow Fence resources are available at www.cinram.umn.edu and at www.extension.umn.edu/agroforestry

Literature Cited

URS Corporation, (2008). Snow Trap Inventory and Prioritization, prepared for: MnDOT Office of Environmental Services, March 7, 2008.

Tabler, R. D. and Tabler and Associates, Niwot, CO (2003). Controlling Blowing and Drifting Snow with Snow Fences and Road Designs, National Cooperative Highway Research Program Transportation Research Board of the National Academies, NCHRP Project 20-7(147)

Gullickson, Dan et al., 1999. Catching the Snow with Living Snow Fences. MN/DOT Office of Environmental Services and University of Minnesota Extension Service (MI-7311-S) 140 pp.

Tabler, R. D. and R. P. Furnish (1982). Benefits and costs of snow fences on Wyoming Interstate 80, Transportation Research Record 860: 13-20.