NOTES FROM SFA Gardens
Planting Texas Highways I SUSPECT MANY OF YOU remember the downturn in 2008. If you were in horticulture at the time, you saw one-third of the landscape workforce leave the scene, and nurseries large and small either failed or barely managed to get by. The construction starts, new homes and businesses weren’t in robust enough supply to support the volume of trees and shrubs hitting the market. In some cases, big container trees were tossed. I remember a giant bonfire at one Central Texas nursery. It was depressing. As the recession settled in, the words “stimulus” and “bailout” were on the news. A $787 billion stimulus package passed in early 2009 to stop the bleeding. About one-third of that was touted for “shovel-ready” projects. Well, I had this idea, as did others, that all we needed for the Texas nursery industry was about $1 billion to take that excess tree product and lay it out on our interstates and highways. The
TNLA Green January/February 2020
idea was to use the freshly printed stimulus money to buy the trees (saving the nursery industry) and then turn the landscapers and contract mowing force into a planting and maintenance crew of epic proportions. People stay employed, trees are planted, the nursery industry is saved, our carbon footprint is better, highways are beautified, mowing costs and road noise are ultimately reduced, air pollution is lessened in nearby properties, and those enthusiastic about ecological services are happy. I thought it was a brilliant idea. Fast forward to 2020. Having a shovel-ready proposal might be prudent if the economy goes south. TNLA and Texas A&M University take the lead, of course, and the industry is poised to act. All this got me thinking. Roughly how many trees are we talking about? In 2017, the U.S. had 4.16 million miles of public roads. Texas is No. 1 with 314,319 miles. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) maintains 80,444 centerline miles (miles traveled in a one-way direction regardless of the number of lanes in a roadway). Break it down a little more, that number is composed of 3,459 miles of interstate highways, 11,851 miles of U.S. highways, 16,391 miles of state highways, 40,849 miles of farm or ranch
By David Creech, Ph.D.
to market roads, 7,546 miles of frontage roads, and 349 miles of park roads. If we look at just the interstates, we can assume a wide median and a reasonably wide swath on each side, often maintained by TxDOT or contract mowers. If we imagine a 40-foot-wide swath of trees on each side and a 20-foot-wide swath in the medians, that works out to about 12 acres planted per mile. If we pick a 20-foot-by-20-foot spacing, we would need 1,308 trees for every mile of interstate planted. If we planted the entire 3,459 miles of interstate, we’d need 4.5 million trees. Add in the U.S. highway system, with 11,851 miles, drop the median out of the picture, and that same roadside treatment would require 12.4 million trees. Add in the 16,391 miles of state highway, and you’ve got a little over 17 million trees. Add it all up, and the interstates, U.S. highways, and state highways have a grand total of over 33 million trees needing a spot. Of course, that number can go up and down. There are stretches not planted for various reasons (near on and off ramps, bridges, utilities, vistas and views to keep, etc.). Still, even if we cut it all in half, we’re talking 17 million trees. The current strategy to mow is an issue. The argument is, mowing keeps grass and vegetation from interfering with drivers’ sight distance. Drivers get a feel for the road layout, can see fixed objects near and far, and thus feel safer. Not everyone buys this. Many years ago, I picked up our first entourage of Nanjing Forestry University colleagues from the airport. If you’ve been to China, you know every highway, road, city street, canal, or railroad track is or will soon be planted with trees. There’s a huge nursery industry to feed it. The sides of the road are forested, and the medians are landscaped with