MnDOT says new snow fencing is paying dividends this winter

Snow fence in western Minnesota
Interstate 94 (far left) near Moorhead, Minn., is clear while a structural snow fence at right is nearly buried by snow drifts after a winter storm in December 2018.
Photo courtesy of MnDOT

As another shot of snow and cold is set to affect the Midwest this week, authorities say new snow fencing in place along state highways in western Minnesota is paying dividends this winter.

During the first storms of the season, from December into early January, the Minnesota Department of Transportation said there was a noticeable decrease in crashes in areas where the new fencing is located — including along stretches of Interstate 94 near Moorhead and Rothsay. Officials described the difference in road conditions compared to previous years as "night and day."

The effort includes 10-foot-high structural fencing in some areas, along with vegetative fencing — hay bales or rows of corn intentionally left standing to block drifting snow. MnDOT also uses specially planted trees, shrubs and grasslands — living snow fences — to control drifting in problem areas.

Statewide this winter, MnDOT has 70 miles of living snow fences along state and federal highways, 30 miles of corn rows or hay bales, and 10 miles of structural fence.

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Snow fence in western Minnesota
Rows of corn left standing as a vegetative snow fence are nearly buried by drifts along a highway near Moorhead, Minn., after a December 2018 winter storm. MnDOT says the fencing has noticeably improved road conditions this winter.
Photo courtesy of MnDOT

Kohl Skalin, maintenance superintendent in MnDOT's District 4 in west-central Minnesota, said the benefits of the fencing extend beyond keeping roads safer.

"From a MnDOT standpoint, we can reduce our salt usage (and) we can reduce the carbon emissions (from) having to do multiple trips or go out to a certain problem spot — which ultimately in turn can save time, effort, money and equipment usage," he said.

If plow operators don't have to keep revisiting a few problem spots, Skalin said, they can spend more time keeping roads clear on their entire route. And the living and vegetative fencing provides wildlife habitat and can help control erosion.

The various types of fencing require MnDOT to partner with landowners and come up with a plan. For vegetative fencing — corn rows or hay bales — Skalin says the agency works "with the farmer either at pre-planting, or after the fact, like when they're getting ready to harvest, and come up with an idea of how you'd lay out some corn rows and if they'd be willing. It's a simple form, and MnDOT pays anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 an acre."

Skalin said MnDOT is giving more attention to year-round planning to address problem areas for blowing and drifting snow.

"The agency as a whole is really focusing on these," Skalin said. "Blowing and drifting snow coordination with landowners, other government entities, MnDOT — it's really growing around the state."

Find more information from MnDOT about living and vegetative snow fences here.