Semi-trailers zoom by on I-71 near MAPFRE Stadium as Joel Hunt points to a patch of milkweed, adored by monarch butterflies. It's flanked by Oxeye Sunflowers and Ohio Spiderworts, which share the same purpose: bringing in pollinators.
Hunt administrates the Ohio Department of Transportation’s Pollinator Habitat Program, which launched in 2011 as a pilot and since expanded to cover about 800 acres of roadside in 45 counties.
The effort is three-pronged, Hunt says. It turns Ohio’s freeways into healthier environments for wildlife while also beautifying the state. It even saves money by cutting down on the amount of mowing required.
“Last year it saved $2.2 million, and this year we expect that number to go significantly higher because we really got this program going in the middle of last year and we’ve been planting steadily over the winter and all this spring,” Hunt says.
Hunt says there are even more benefits, including the flowers and native grasses slowing down blowing snow in the winter. The taller vegetation also does a better job of catching litter that would otherwise be carried on by the wind.
It may seem like common sense now, but Hunt says the program only caught on in popularity in 2014, when conservationists petitioned to protect the monarch butterfly as an endangered species.
Populations of monarchs have dropped precipitously over the last two decades. Cities around the country, from Chicago to Austin, have launched similar programs planting milkweed.
“Knowing (that designation) was going to directly impact the work we do on roadsides, we began establishing these pollinator habitats around the state,” Hunt says.
The site near MAPFRE Stadium is among ODOT’s 120 roadside prairies, but Hunt says it’s the first in an urban setting. He says they hope to add more, with a goal to add at least 125 acres every year.