Thursday, August 21, 2008

A motorist died after her vehicle was hit head-on by a trailer

There were reasons to leave trees in median

By R. Webster Heidelberg • August 16, 2008

Many South Mississippians have noted with growing concern MDOT's clear-cutting of what were once our well-designed, safe and beautiful parkway-like highways. First, there was the clearing of 19 miles of Interstate 59 between Purvis and Picayune about five years ago. U.S. 49 is constantly under attack in many places, and now we face the same treatment of 14 miles of Interstate 59 between Ellisville and Monroe Road.This is not routine trimming, dead-wooding and maintenance (which is both needed and welcomed), but total clear-cutting of the entire right-of-way, from fence line to fence line, including the entire median and both sides of the highway - everything.

Some who may not have considered it might ask why this is a problem. Well, it is a problem - a big one - for a number of reasons. Here's why:


The trees on our highways were planted or left undisturbed in the 1960s with federal funds for a number of specific purposes, including safety, particularly, the following:

  • Lane separation. One of the primary purposes of foliage in the median of highways is to separate the two lanes of travel, so that if a vehicle leaves the highway, it is not able to drive across the median and strike traffic coming the opposite way. Thus, clear-cutting the trees from the median removes this safety barrier and actually makes the highway less safe, not more safe. Recently, in Jackson County a motorist died after her vehicle was hit head-on by a trailer that had come loose from a truck and crossed the Interstate 10 median, which was unobstructed by trees at that point.

    In another recent accident on U.S. 49, a motorist was saved by striking a tree when her vehicle left U.S. 49 and was crossing the median, but was stopped by a tree before she could run head-on into traffic coming in the opposite direction. And there are many more examples that can be cited. This effective method of lane separation has been used all over the country for many years.

    The Hattiesburg American's editorial of July 19 made the interesting observation that of those people that are actually killed by striking a tree each year, only 5 percent of those were even on a four-lane highway. The vast majority were on two-lane roads, and nearly half of those were on curved roads. Thus, the tremendous destruction now occurring on Interstate 59, allegedly for "safety", is not even on the type road where such accidents tend to occur.

    Furthermore, the figure you never see is the number of people saved by trees preventing them from crossing a divided highway and running head-on (the most dangerous type collision) into the traffic traveling in the opposite direction (like the recent accident on U.S. 49, mentioned above). Since almost all such tree-related deaths don't even occur on interstate highways, it is logical to assume that more people are saved by trees on interstates than are killed by leaving the road and striking them.

  • Light shielding. At night the bright lights of oncoming traffic had for the last 40 years been shielded from a motorist's eyes. But when all of the median trees are removed, that shield no longer exists and harsh glare must be endured for long stretches, which is both unsafe and uncomfortable.
  • Noise buffering. As traffic increases, our highways are much louder that they used to be, and another beneficial effect of trees is the buffering of that noise, both between lanes and from adjacent homes and communities. Without the trees, the roadways are markedly louder still. That has certainly been the experience in South Mississippi since Katrina, and even more so since the recent clear-cutting (which is removing much more than the storm did - everything).
  • Screening distractions/unsightly areas. The screening effect of trees on highway rights-of-way prevent motorists from being unnecessarily distracted from their driving, a major cause of accidents, and also hides unattractive roadside eyesores such as junk yards, auto grave yards, garbage dumps, etc. (obviously an economic development and environmental benefit as well).


  • Mowing. It is obvious that when trees exist on the right-of-way, that area does not have to be mowed or otherwise maintained. When the trees are cleared, that area then has to be mowed regularly. Southern District Highway Commissioner Wayne Brown's expansion from the federal clear zone guideline of 30 feet to 70 feet, obviously increases the area to be mowed by over 130 percent, and at a time when Mr. Brown is pointing out that gasoline and diesel costs are rising dramatically. Thus, clear-cutting the rights-of-way simply does not make economic sense. Furthermore, no one seems to know where Mr. Brown got the 70-foot distance he is using. It is certainly not a federal standard or a state standard or a standard of the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials. It appears to simply be Mr. Brown's personal agenda.
  • Erosion. Erosion also becomes a major problem once all of the trees are stripped from the land, which will have to be dealt with at great expense. Clear-cutting basically sets us back over 40 years, to the conditions of the rights-of-way just after original construction, with erosion, glare, noise and less safe conditions. And the taxpayers are actually paying to take this giant step backwards. MDOT has revealed that the current destruction on Interstate 59 is costing $1.37 million, although it is unclear exactly what part of the job that covers. It is clear that a Louisiana contractor is doing the work and gets to keep all of the timber removed.


    The urban forest previously located in our highway rights-of-way had environmental benefits which we have lost and will continue to lose if additional clearing is carried out. Storm-water runoff will obviously increase dramatically without vegetation, followed by erosion which must then be dealt with and controlled (at increased expense).

    Also, increased air pollution will occur, since trees are well known "air scrubbers" which produce oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from the air. This is especially valuable in and around a highway, where such pollutants are being produced and are concentrated. Thus, as traffic and air pollution increases, trees are more important to highways now than ever before. But instead, Mr. Brown is bulldozing them down - all of them.

    Of course, the clearing of the trees also eliminates the buffers for sight and sound control, mentioned above, which are additional important reasons they were planted in the first place.

    Also, our highways will be much hotter without the shade and cooling effect of trees, which reduce glare and make driving more comfortable and safe.

    In short, the interstate system was built as a system of "greenbelts" or "parkways" which enhanced the natural environment of both our cities and our country side. Actually, the more affluent northern states have had beautiful parkways for many years before we got them down South through the interstate program. Now, sadly, we are destroying our parkway-like highways, and hereafter only our more enlightened neighbors will have them.

    Economic development

    Both former director of the Mississippi Development Authority, Leland Speed, and his successor, Gray Swoope, have long been advocates of the "curb appeal" of our cities, towns and country side. They see it as a very effective tool in economic development, which they have used whenever possible in the work of the authority. They are very much in favor of maintaining the greenbelt, parkway appearance of our interstate and other highways, and understand the connection between them and the economic development that our state works so hard to achieve.

    All of our neighboring states, for example Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia, are working hard to preserve their beautiful interstate and other highways, and are also planting hundreds of thousands of new trees on their rights-of-way. Needless to say, clear-cutting our once beautiful parkways is going in the exact opposite direction, and will produce a stark and negative contrast to our neighboring states (with whom we compete economically and otherwise). We'll be competing with one hand tied behind our back.

    Beauty/aesthetics/quality of life

    There is no question that the well landscaped parkways the interstate system was designed to be, and has been for over 40 years, are simply more beautiful, aesthetically pleasing and enjoyable to use than a hot, glary, barren, treeless plain (which causes monotony, another safety problem).

    Many visitors have for many years commented on the gorgeous tree-lined highways of Mississippi which, as noted above, have always played a prominent role in the state's tourist and economic development efforts. But of course the most important benefits are quality of life enhancements for Mississippi taxpayers right here at home.

    You will notice that the quality of life issues have been listed last. Many would rank them higher in importance, but this is to demonstrate that these are not merely tree-hugging, garden club-type issues, but serious safety, economic, environmental and economic development issues, in addition to ones of the great natural beauty and fine quality of life we formerly enjoyed here in the Pineless Belt.

    The Hattiesburg American put it well in its Editorial of July 19, 2008, when it said: "Commissioner Brown, it's time to step back from these practices and engage the communities you represent into coming up with guidelines that meet safety concerns and help beautify Mississippi.

    "Aesthetics and the environment are not to be dismissed. They play a significant part in Mississippi's quality of life and hence its economy."

    R. Webster Heidelberg is an attorney with the Heidelbert Law Firm in Hattiesburg. Contact him at wheidelberg@heidelber

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