Thursday, August 6, 2020
A row of spruce trees planted in the mid-1970s is creating controversy along Interstate 35 at Highway 30 by Ellendale. Snow drifts of 5 to 14 feet high piled up in the area, forcing officials to close the freeway for more than 36 hours during the Feb. 23 blizzard. Motorists are concerned about the safety hazard the trees create.


Motorists claim row of trees pose safety hazard along I-35 by Ellendale

A line of spruce trees along Interstate 35 at Highway 30 by Ellendale is drawing new criticism of being a safety hazard during blizzards for motorists.

The recent Feb. 23 blizzard caused substantial drifting along the I-35 corridor outside of Ellendale that led to drifts from 5 to 14 feet high. The significant build-up of snow forced an “all hands-on-deck effort” by crews from the Minnesota Department of Transportation to clear the area. In addition to all available equipment in southeast Minnesota, snowplows, snow blowers and operators from the Twin Cities were deployed by MnDot to give their colleagues a helping hand to open the freeway, which was closed to traffic for more than 36 hours over two days. 

One of the worst stretches along the 40-mile closure from Owatonna to the Iowa border was the Ellendale area. 

Jim Lageson, who lives in the area and travels on that stretch regularly, feels the trees are a significant safety risk and should be removed to avoid future problems. “I can’t understand why the trees are still up. I think they are ugly, and they are causing problems,” Lageson said. “I just don’t see any benefit to having them. It’s how it drifts and drifts right over the freeway.”

Over the years, Lageson has learned to avoid that area when the weather conditions are bad and use alternate routes. He said I-35 has been closed many times in that area because of poor road conditions. He remains frustrated that nothing ever seems to get done about the problem.

Lageson will be the first to admit that he’s no expert when it comes to transportation issues like this, but it doesn’t seem to be complicated at all to him. “It looks like an easy fix to me,” he says. “Flatten it out and it wouldn’t be a problem like it’s now.”

He has taken his concerns to MnDOT by making transportation officials aware of the problem. Lageson was encouraged last week when he received a response back from a MnDOT engineer regarding the issue. 

MnDOT officials admit the extended row of spruce trees on the west side of I-35 by the exit ramp is a concern that warrants a closer review and possible action. 

“We are aware of this issue and have been wrestling with how to counter it in a way that effectively addresses the corridor and how to find sufficient funding, so we can program a solution,” Mark Schoenfelder, engineer with MnDOT, wrote in a letter to Lageson last week. He agrees that there needs to be a better system in place along that corridor. 

The spruce trees were planted in the mid-1970s at a 6-foot by 6-foot spacing, according to Schoenfelder. “This is a very tight spacing for trees that develop 25-foot wide branch canopies and when the inner branches lack sunlight the branches die out,” he said, adding those particular trees are highly susceptible to canker disease and needle cast, which contributes to needle loss and branch dieback. 

The needle loss in the lower canopy, Schoenfelder said, is providing ideal conditions for creating downwind snow drifts, especially when the trees are not set back far enough from the road to account for the blowing snow transport of more than 14 tons of snow per lineal foot of roadway. 

“These spruce tree living snow fences were planted along back slopes in cut sections of roadway,” Schoenfelder said. “These plantings should have been set back further from the road and been longer in length to transition into the fill sections. By not transitioning, the snow fence between the cut and fill sections creates the potential for white out or blow ice condition off the edge of the snow fence.”

Michael Dougherty, spokesperson for MnDOT, acknowledged that the record-setting blizzard highlighted what weather challenges can be seen in the stretch from Ellendale to Clarks Grove. “The terrain creates some of the challenges when we see strong, sustained winds follow a significant snowfall,” Dougherty said. “Among the challenges is the area with the aging spruce trees,” he added. 

“Even with some benefits, there needs to be a better system there, and that’s why we are having discussion on how to address it most effectively and how much that might cost and work with our overall construction program,” Dougherty said. 

As MnDOT moves ahead to develop ideas on how to best address the problem in that area, Dougherty encourages people to reach out with their observations. “We’ll need to hear from many people: the folks who live along that corridor, who witness the challenges, the people who travel it regularly and others who might have an interest in what’s planted or built and what’s removed,” he said. 

An eventual plan, Dougherty said, is likely to include some or all aspects of removal of the spruce trees and installation of new snow fencing (living or structural) and some grading and earthwork to minimize the amount of new right of way needed. 

Dougherty said MnDOT plans to keep people updated as it moves ahead with a possible solution. “This past blizzard delivered a unique mix of snow volume, lengthy sustained high winds and then subzero temperatures,” he said. “We don’t know when we might face that trio of factors again, but we’d like to be in a much better position to counter it the next time we get something that challenges our efforts.”

He is confident that MnDOT is moving closer to some type of solution that is comprehensive enough to ensure that its actions have long-term benefits. 

For motorists like Lageson, relief in that area can’t come soon enough. “I’ve been so confused as to why they don’t do something,” he said. “It looks like an easy fix to me if they could just clear out those trees.”

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