Since 1989, Joe Kooiker has planted around 1,200 acres of roadside in Story County.

The county’s ditches may not seem that important to many of us. But for Kooiker, the county’s roadside biologist in charge of roadside vegetation, the county’s ditches and all that grows in them is very important. He knows the ditches of Story County like the back of his hand.

When riding around the county with Kooiker — which this reporter asked to do recently — you have to be prepared to slow down at times as he looks closely at and points out a ditch that’s just been sprayed or that needs to be worked on.

The purpose of the recent ride-along was to talk to Kooiker about his work with native vegetation. If you pay any attention at all when traveling through the county during the warm weather months, you’ve seen just how beautiful most of the county’s ditches look, with the prairie seeds that have been planted in most of them for a number of years now.

As summer turns to fall, some of the things people will see blooming in the ditches include native grasses, like big bluestem, little bluestem and indian grass; native sunflowers; New England aster; large-flowered beard tongue; and great blue lobelia.

Looking back

Kooiker was first hired in 1989 as a seasonal worker for the county, and he recalled the early days of roadside vegetation management.

“In February 1987, the Board of Supervisors voted to hire a full-time person to manage roadside vegetation. Bob Pinneke was the director of Story County Conservation then, and we were the second county in the state to hire a full-time position for roadside vegetation,” Kooiker said.

IRVM — Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management — is explained in literature Kooiker provided from the state, as using “sound, ecological principals to control roadside weeds. The cornerstone is weed prevention through the establishment of a strong plant community.”

Kooiker moved into working with roadside vegetation management at the time it was established in the county. He eventually became the deputy biologist, and in the mid-1990s, he was put in charge of the program as the vegetation management biologist.

With a degree in animal ecology, a lot of on-the-job learning and a lot of time from 1984-1990 “taking classes in a lot of ‘ologies’,” he said, as his way of wording that he has a lot of science classes under his belt, Kooiker became more and more aware of what the county needed when it came to roadside vegetation. Over the years, he knows what has gone well, and he also can drive you right to the place in the county where something didn’t go quite as well.

Along Airport Road near Vern Rullestad’s house, he pulls off the road for a moment and points to the tall Maximilian sunflowers that are thick along the west side of the road. “They’ve been here since 1990 and have taken over,” he said. “It’s one of the mistakes I made in the early days — my larval stage. I used the wrong kind of seed genetics.”

The sunflowers are still there and will likely stick around awhile because they aren’t creating any hazard or economic loss. “So they’re OK; we’ve got bigger fish to fry,” he said. And by leaving them, they can serve as a reminder and lesson to others of something that didn’t go quite the way they now want things to go.

The Maximilian sunflowers were a cultivar from western states, he explained. And one thing Kooiker now focuses heavily on is seed mixtures that work.

“Story County stands true to use seed that is native to Story County or created around Story County,” he said of today’s practices. “We’re not going to buy seed from Texas. We need native plants to be used because they are plants that are so smart about growing here. They are plants that are used to the heat and cold and flooding…that we have here.”

Another thing that is important in the seed that is planted today, he said, is diversity. “Our seed mixes are ones that we design. They’re a mixture of grasses, sedges and forbs. They’re all related…and they just work together.” Much of the seed used in ditches is planted and harvested right here in the county on land the county manages. Kooiker said the county’s average mix of seed will have 50 different species in it. He added, “I’ve gone as high as 80 species (in a mix).”

Kooiker points out a stretch of land south of Nevada along S-14 — the Jennett Heritage Area, 171 acres of land given by the Jennett family and 127 of it planted with native prairie seed that is maintained by the county. “You can see the Indian grass,” he said as he drives by. “All of that seed (on the Jennett property) we did by harvesting in-house. It’s local ecotype seed from prairie areas in and close to Story County.”

Why Iowa needs native plants

Kooiker loves talking about why the ditches and other land need to have natural prairie seeds planted.

“Back in 1987, there was a lot of public input on the use of herbicides,” he said. “People wanted to put native plants back into the landscape and reduce herbicide use.”

It was important, Kooiker said. “We’re the tall grass prairie state, and everything, big and small, used to live in the prairie… These native plants are important for a lot of reasons.” Most importantly, “they tend to hold the soil better with an extensive root system. They definitely hold the soil through heavy rains and they don’t get as weedy. They’re a lot more maintenance-free (for the ditches), from when everything used to be mowed.”

Not that mowing is all bad or never needed. Kooiker explained that there’s a place for mowing, especially when it comes to safety concerns for site distance at rural intersections. “But, we don’t mow just to mow,” he said.

As he’s driving along the rural roads south and east of Nevada, he points out a ditch with some rock and lots of bare soil in it. “The county engineer has done work to improve the road (in this location), and now there is bare soil waiting for us,” he said.

By “us,” Kooiker refers to himself and his full-time assistant, Tyler Kelley, vegetation management specialist. “We will come in here with all the different tools we have. We can hydro-seed it or we can seed with a drill or we could broadcast seed it; it just depends on the type of ground,” he said. On the steep ground, which is present in some of this heavily timbered area, they’ll use a hydro-seeder that sprays on the seed with water and an environmental dye. “There’s seed and recycled newspapers and recycled wood in the mix,” he said. “You load it into a machine that sprays it out and basically glues it onto the slopes.”

Driving a little further down the road, Kooiker notices dead brush and honeysuckle. Both of these are also part of his job, he noted; Kooiker also serves as the county’s brush control and weed commissioner. “I am in charge of controlling brush that gets into the right of way.”

He doesn’t like honeysuckle. Honeysuckle comes from Asia, he said, again a reminder that things not native to Story County generally aren’t good for Story County. Honeysuckle, he said, is not good. “It’s really hard to control,” and it just pushes other plants out of its way. The county continually has made efforts to take out honeysuckle, like a project that conservation was working on last year at Hickory Grove Lake where honeysuckle was taking over huge areas around the lake.

Kooiker works to uphold Iowa’s noxious weed law, and pay attention to plants that aren’t good for Story County. Honeysuckle is just one of a number of plants that “we are in charge of trying to control,” he said.

A good bang for the county’s buck

Kooiker said there are over 40 counties in Iowa that now have a dedicated roadside vegetation manager. “They’re all getting how cool it is to have someone on staff designing seed mixes, doing programs and so on,” he said. And when you think about all there is to do to keep up with the many roadsides the county has, Kooiker said he and his assistant are “a pretty good bang for the buck. We’re right there,” he said. If the county was contracting this work out to someone, they’d have to wait for them to show up, rather than have two guys who are available at any time.

When it comes to the department he runs, Kooiker, who operates out of the County Engineer’s department, believes he’s been given a great opportunity by the Story County Board of Supervisors. “Not all roadside managers are created equal,” he said, and he’s thankful that he’s been allowed to grow the county’s program “in the direction I want it to go.”

He loves that he can help the county’s farmers when they have questions about how to do things on their own property. The roadside vegetation management department has a number of pieces of equipment that landowners can rent to do various projects. “We are also trained to burn,” he said, and notes that burning goes hand-in-hand with native prairies, as an important way to revive the soil.

Story County has “good, very fertile” soil, Kooiker said, and he starts to talk about glaciers and how Story County was in the middle of one and that’s why our soil is so good…but that’s a whole other story.

The biggest lesson of this reporter’s ride-along was learning about roadside vegetation management’s commitment to keeping native plants growing in the county’s ditches and on other public lands. And for Kooiker, he said it’s important to him that people know he’s always available to help them and to answer their questions.