Thursday, June 5, 2014

How Congress can help the birds and the bees (butterflies, too) -- June 5, 2014 column


Lady Bird Johnson was right. We need more wildflowers along our highways.  

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 to fulfill Lady Bird’s vision, although early results were disappointing. Some states enthusiastically planted Texas wildflowers on their roadsides despite soil and weather conditions far different from the Lone Star State’s – only to watch them die.

 “In a culture where failures are not discussed, those learning experiences were not shared with other states. So each was left to plant, fail, and learn the same hard lesson,” Bonnie L. Harper-Lore writes in “Roadside Use of Native Plants,” first published by the Federal Highway Administration. 

Lady Bird, though, knew the importance of choosing native plants. She once said, “Wherever I go in America, I like it when the land speaks its own language in its own regional accent.”

We’re a lot savvier today about sharing our gardening failures and about the value of natives -- not just for their beauty but, increasingly, for birds, honeybees, monarch butterflies and other pollinators.

Congress has another chance to encourage states to plant natives on roadsides and enhance more than the scenery. The proposed Highways Bettering the Economy and Environment Act, known as the Highways BEE Act, would encourage states to mow and spray chemicals less and plant more native herbaceous plants and grasses.

Using what’s called integrated vegetation management practices would create a healthier habitat for the insects and animals we rely upon to move the pollen that fertilizes many fruit, nut and vegetable plants.

The BEE bill has zero additional cost and imposes no requirements from Washington. It simply directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to use existing authority and funds to encourage willing state transportation departments and rights-of-way managers to use practices that support pollinators, ground nesting birds, monarch butterflies and other creatures.

The bill is a bipartisan no-brainer, and it could save states money. Texas, for example, saved about 25 percent annually in roadside maintenance in areas where it planted wildflowers and stopped mowing.

States manage about 17 million acres of highway rights-of-way. This amounts to “17 million acres of opportunity,” says the Pollinator Partnership, a nonprofit group that strongly supports the Highways BEE Act.

Sensible though it is, Highways BEE is no sure thing. This is Congress we’re talking about.

An identical bill, also supported by the pollinators group and others, failed in 2012 when backers were unable to attach it to a transportation bill. The plan is to try again with an amendment to the Highway Trust Fund reauthorization bill. Congress is moving to approve highway funding soon; the trust fund is expected to run out of money at the end of August. 

“Under this bill, all states will be able to make the choices that are in the best interest of pollinators when managing their lands,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., a sponsor with Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla.

“Seventy-five percent of all flowering plant species rely on creatures like birds, bats, bees and butterflies for fertilization,” said Hastings. “This kind of roadside vegetation management provides much-needed habitat for pollinators and other small nesting animals.”

Denham and Hastings are co-chairs of the Congressional Pollinator Protection Caucus. Both men represent agricultural districts, and Denham owns an almond orchard.

Bees are responsible for pollinating more than 90 crops and contribute $15 billion in added crop value annually. Almonds are one of the biggest crops that rely on bees. More than half the nation’s commercial bees are needed to pollinate almonds. 

But bees have been in decline. In the 1980s, beekeepers managed about 3 million colonies and suffering winter bee losses of 10 to 15 percent. Today, beekeepers have a tough time maintaining 2.5 million colonies and their winter losses average more than 30 percent. The precise cause of the decline is still a mystery.

The Obama White House is taking an interest. First lady Michelle Obama planted a pollinator garden for the first time this year, and President Barack Obama agreed with the leaders of Mexico and Canada in February to create a joint task force to help restore the monarch butterfly.

Congress should pass the Highways BEE Act. Soon, native plants blooming along our highways will speak to us, as Lady Bird Johnson said, in their regional accents. More importantly, they’ll help bees and butterflies go about their invaluable work.

© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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