West Otter Tail SWCD helps make highways more safe

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — The West Otter Tail Soil and Water Conservation District has been rewarded for its ambitious living snow fence project.

The district has received the Living Snow Fence Achievement Award from the Minnesota Association of SWCDs and the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

The West Otter Tail SWCD worked with landowners and state and federal agencies to make living snow fences a reality along several state highways and Interstate 94 in Otter Tail County. The project was completed in just a year-and-a-half, said district manager Brad Mergens.

Traveler safety was the issue, he said.

Mergens points to a few of the trouble spots. The Dalton area along Interstate 94 has problems with drifting snow. 


Further northwest on Interstate-94, near Rothsay, a combination of hills and curves coupled with northwest winds and snow have caused numerous accidents. Other spots are located on Highway 108 near Pelican Rapids and along Highway 34 and Highway 78 near Battle Lake.

The trouble spots were identified by the MnDPT road crews who used GPS to pinpoint exact locations.

SWCD technician Dan Johnson and farm bill biologist Aaron Larsen worked with MnDOT, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Farm Service Agency and farmers to enroll land and develop plantings for the project, Mergens said.

"That’s what we do as an SWCD," Mergens said. "We are the liaison between the state and federal agencies."

Landowners voluntarily enroll land in the Conservation Reserve Program for the living snow fence project. They water and weed the shrubs throughout the growing season, Mergens said. Landowners are compensated through the CRP and MnDOT.

Otter Tail County’s living snow fences total three miles of two- to three-rows of native shrubs including American plum, chokecherry and dogwood, Mergens said. The shrubs were about one to two feet tall when planted and have grown to three-plus fee, Mergens said. The branches will eventually spread out and give the trees an hedge-like appearance with the ability to hold back snow.

Workers covered the ground with a fabric matting to protect the trees from weeds and to conserve moisture.

The living snow fence can reach its effective fence height capturing blowing snow within three to five years of planting, said Dan Gullickson, MnDOT Living Snow Fence Program coordinator.


"We contacted landowners and gave them a brief summary of the program and gave them a detailed map of how the living snow fences would be put on their land," Johnson said.

They used a computer program to place the shrubs at just the right distance to catch snow and not affect the roadway.

Such projects can be a tough sell, Mergens said. Farmers have to go around an odd-shaped piece to work the land.

Landowners also recognize the problems travelers had with snow drifts and icy roads, Johnson said.

"The farmers have said to us that they know of other areas we might want to check where more living snow fences could be planted," Johnson said. "They say, ‘My neighbor could also use this.’"

"Like any conservation project, when you start seeing terracing, you get more landowners who want to do the same thing,'' Mergens said. "People see it take place, see it work and they feel it could help on their farm as well...Our next step is to take this type of project local. We want to see the same thing happen to county roads in Otter Tail County and then possibly on the township level."

"Overall this is a win-win for everyone," he said. "It’s a win for the public, for landowners, for wildlife and for all the partners involved," Larsen said.

What To Read Next
Get Local