BIRD ISLAND, Minn. Minnesota spends close to $100 million every year to clear snow and ice from state roads.
From giant plows and maintenance, to deicing material and labor, it all adds up. But there’s a way to cut down on costs, crashes and the impact on the environment.
WCCO took a drive 90 minutes west of the Twin Cities to learn that all it takes is some collaboration from Minnesota landowners across the state.
Pass along Highway 212 in Bird Island, and you’ll see Vern Prokosch’s place. His “smiling barn” is a hard-to-miss roadside attraction that’s popular with parents and their little ones in the back seat.
“We have some people that come from Wisconsin that drive by here a couple times a year, and they said we just wait for the kids, just wait for the smiling barn,” Prokosch said.
But what those travelers may not know is there’s something else in his yard keeping them safer on the roads.
“This particular highway experiences about 4,300 cars a day,” said MnDOT Supervisor Dan Gullickson. “At this particular site here at Vern’s site, there used to be two big snow drifts that formed on either side of his building site here.”
There is a living snow fence – a wall of trees, bushes, grasses and wildflowers – that blocks blowing snow from the highway.
Prokosch, at some point, was growing corn there. But here’s how it works: The state came in and paid for the land, and then a combination of state and federal dollars paid for all the trees, shrubs and flowers that are here now. The state, of course, now also maintains the land.
“What the intent is to manage the wind,” Gullickson said. “The amount of snow that gets carried by the wind could be 100-times greater than the amount that just falls from the sky.”
Snow fences can be formed by natural elements, rows of unharvested corn and even plastic barriers. It all depends on the site. And MnDOT says they work. Snow fencing also cuts down on crashes.
“We find that if we’re on a curve, the snow fencing can reduce the crash severity by about 40%,” Gullickson said.
Of course, MnDOT saves money and resources by plowing less. But all of this is also positive for the environment. Living fences sequester carbon and provide great nesting habitat for wildlife. They also cut down on the chemical treatments we use on our roads.
“We’re trying to reduce our chloride use, and chlorides are types of salt,” he said. “The snow fences help keep the road warmer so that salt is more effective, so you can use less salt that way.”
Some snow fencing is on state property, but a lot of it is on private property, a network of nearly 350 landowners across the state.
Gullickson says some landowners have reservations about the program because it does require space on their property. But he wants to stress landowners are compensated, and they try to be creative to come up with solutions together.
“We have found that the public safety and mobility is what really drives landowners to do this, more so than the financial part of it,” he said. “They want their roads clear.”
Prokosch says it’s made a difference.
“We used to get a lot of company from people that got stalled in here, and now we don’t have as much company as we used to have,” Prokosch said.
His neighbors also appreciate it.
“Our neighbor here thinks it’s a great project because he doesn’t hardly get any snow in his yard anymore,” he said.
Maybe it helped you out on a trip along Highway 212, and you didn’t even realize it.
“Well, it’s doing what we want it to do,” he said.
If you have a problem area near your home, MnDOT says it never hurts to reach out. They’re looking to collaborate with more landowners, so they’ll be able to work with you to see if a snow fence would be helpful in your area.