We spied Bob Moosmann’s name on the schedule for MOFGA day at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show earlier this month. What does the statewide vegetation manager for the state’s Department of Transportation (DOT) have to do with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, we wondered? We called Moosmann up to ask about his topic – cooperative agreements for pesticide use along roadways – and learned some new things about gypsy and browntailed moths as well as the backstory behind taking down all those trees on I-295.

ROLLING IN THE SWEET CLOVER: Moosmann said he’d contacted MOFGA about a year ago to sound a warning about a pernicious plant with a decidedly unpernicious name: sweet clover. It grows to be 6 to 7 feet tall, is a “prolific seeder” and has “throughly infested” a number of roads in the midcoast region from Augusta to Belfast. This makes it hard for humans to see around and too easy for wildlife to hide in (and suddenly emerge from; Moosmann remembers a woman who had an accident after a pair of geese popped out of sweet clover on the roadside). A legume, sweet clover was likely brought to the state in the 1930s, Moosmann said, by the United States Department of Agriculture as a forage crop for cows. “It’s nothing like the clover in your lawn.” The reason it presents a challenge along the highways is the same thing that made it great for forage: “It can be chewed right to the ground and then come back.”

MAKING A LIST: Moosmann planned to spray a 5-foot-wide swath of the sweet clover with herbicides, along about a 280-mile-long corridor. But not if it was going to interfere with anyone’s organic farm. “We wanted to be able to talk to every organic farmer along those roads.” The Department of Transportation gave MOFGA a list of the towns where they would be spraying and got back a list of farmers. “We contacted everybody,” Moosmann said. In the end, the state entered into agreements with about 15 farmers that the farmers would cut an 8-foot-wide swatch of all the vegetation adjacent the road, sending the signal to state workers not to spray. While “sweet clover is the poster child,” these cooperative agreements, and future ones like them, will stand for future road work as well, protecting organic farms throughout Maine from contamination. “We want to close the loop on it,” Moosmann said.

PAVEMENT AND POLLINATORS: Roadsides need to be kept tidy for safety reasons. Though many drivers are still mourning the loss of trees along I-295, they were cut back to let more sun on the road, reducing the need to use salt to keep the interstate safe. But they also present special opportunities. Take pollinators. Moosmann is well aware of the threat that colony collapse disorder presents to honey bees. Bumblebee bees are suffering, as well. Many roadsides throughout Maine are mowed only once a year. “They’re often not touched much.” This got Moosmann thinking about the opportunity to promote restorative projects to help bring back pollinators. “I began to wrap my head around, how can we be part of the solution and not the problem?” Sometimes spraying is necessary, he said, as with the sweet clover, but what about using the opportunity to establish native plants and flowers in the place of such undesirables? Moosman wanted to add plants that would prevent erosion and present invitations to pollinators.

FORWARD FORBS: He began collaborating with his counterparts at transportation agencies through New England. He applied for a grant to study ways to establish forbs. Come again? “Forbs are what people know as native wildflowers.” (More technically, USDA describes forbs as vascular plants “without significant woody tissue above or at the ground.”) The Maine Natural Areas Program, which inventories and tracks the state’s natural ecosystems and is part of Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, has been a big help. Two years ago, the program began surveying 40 roadside locations around the state, cataloging invasive species and the top 10 plant types in each location. From there, pollinator experts from the University of Maine took a closer look at 11 of these sites, visiting each three times to catalogue bees and butterflies to see which native plants were they attracted to. The mission was to figure out what plants would benefit the pollinators most.

INVASIVE VERSUS NATIVE: The final report will land any day now, and Moosman will develop a restoration plan based on it – and start implementing it in areas like the newly cleared roadsides along I-295. In the meantime, we had to ask, what if an invasive plant, say, the roadside lupine, attracts a lot of pollinators? Would the department want to get rid of them? “That is a question that we have been asking ourselves. It is true that a lot of those non natives are providing pollen to the pollinators, and the real goal here is helping the pollinators.” Moreover, it is unrealistic to consider removing all of them, he said. “It is not about returning us to pre-Colonial days. That is out of the question really.” Instead, he’ll work with the Wild Seed Project on collecting, storing and propagating native seeds. After that, the Department of Transportation will establish contracts with nurseries to grow them out. “I am putting all the pieces in place so we can move to the next step, which is planting.”


SAVE THE PLANET: How did Moosmann develop his interest in protecting organics and fighting invasives? He was born in New Jersey, grew up in Connecticut and came to Maine to study forestry at the University of Maine Orono. He ended up with a degree in natural resource management in plant and soil sciences. While Moosmann enjoyed the forest as much as anyone, he didn’t have much interest in being a forester. “I didn’t want to get into the woods and look at individual trees. It was the 1960s. We all wanted to save the planet.”

NASTY NESTS: In the years after college he became a licensed arborist and spent some time working with the USDA, including on efforts to beat back the invasive gypsy and browntail moths in Maine. USDA had managed to push the destructive, defoliating, rash-producing moths (OK, just the Browntails give humans an itchy, persistent rash) to seven islands off the coast in the 1960s, he said. “It was isolated for close to 20 years.” Moosmann and others would get in a boat, travel to the Casco Bay islands and clip the web-like nests of the moths. A lot of nests. “A hundred thousand to 110,000 webs every fall, and then in the spring we would go back and we would get between 120,000 and 150,000 webs.”

WINGS OF MIGRATION: Then Ronald Reagan got elected. “There were rumblings that when he got into office he was going to cut the USDA budget,” Moosmann remembered. One item that was cut was the moth suppression program on the islands. “It was a $12,000 a year budget item,” Moosmann said. Fifteen years later, the Browntail showed up in Harpswell. “We knew it was only a matter of time before the winds would carry them there.” And now? “It’s all the way north to Newport, south to Kittery and west to Waterboro. There is no doubt in my mind that this insect will spread all across Maine.” (Prepare to scratch.) This was a critical lesson for Moosmann in being diligent about keeping bad situations, involving both plants and insects, from spiraling out of control. “These things are constantly changing. They are dynamic situations.”

CONNECTING THE DOT: After working in the private sector as an arborist and in landscaping, both in Maine and New Hampshire, Moosmann found his way to the job at the Department of Transportation 18 years ago. He spotted the advertisement for a landscape architect. “They hired me. The rest is history.” Well not quite. He’ll probably be retiring in about six years, he said, and there’s still work to be done. “Part of the reason I took this job was because I wanted to make a difference, and I knew I could.”

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