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Living Snow Fencing Applications for Departments of Transportation Right of Way Areas


Living snow fence utilization is one of the most sustainable engineering and maintenance actions departments of transportation (DOTs) can implement along highway corridors. Living snow fences are designed plantings of trees and/or shrubs and native grasses along highways, roads and ditches that create a vegetative buffer that traps and controls blowing and drifting snow. These strategically placed fences have been shown to be cost effective in reducing highway maintenance associated with blowing and drifting snow conditions. There is an increased awareness and concern about the application of anti-icing and de-icing chemicals and abrasives (traction sand) onto the roadway surfaces as part of winter time operations. The addition of salt and abrasive materials are known to create water quality impacts and are expensive to purchase and apply. Some DOTs have used living snow fences in lieu of traditional snow fencing and chemical application to address these environmental impacts. It has been shown that use of natural living snow fencing reduces maintenance costs associated with drift development, plowing, traditional slat fencing maintenance and chemical application. In addition, improved roadway aesthetics, community acceptance and carbon sequestration can be achieved. The challenges to living snow fences are that they require more space than the wooden slat fencing, plantings need to be protected from livestock and wildlife and it takes 5-7 years to provide effective snow control and up to 20 years for trees to reach full maturity. There may be site conditions such as shallow soils, arid climate and soil pH issues that may challenge plant establishment.


The main research objective is to provide DOT maintenance, design engineers and environmental representatives a compendium of best practices for the design, installation, propagation and maintenance of living snow fence systems. This research will provide DOTs the guidance information necessary to reduce maintenance costs associated with snow plowing, anti-icing/de-icing agent application and conventional snow fencing repair. It is expected that improved water quality will result by reducing the amount of chemical agent and abrasives that are applied and runoff from the roadway surface.


The living snow fence concept incorporates all the components associated with sustainable actions such as environmental condition improvements, consideration of financial resources and cooperation with the local landowners/community. The following summarizes the main advantages of living snow fencing and why DOTs should consider increasing their use along highway right of way areas:

  • The service life of living snow fences is 50-75 years in comparison to the 20-25 year life of a conventional slat fence.
  • Living mature trees can capture up to 12 times more snow than slat fences.
  • Living snow fences can be installed to address tree mitigation from highway construction projects.
  • Trees and shrubs sequester carbon that can reduce a DOTs overall carbon footprint.
  • Wildlife habitat is enhanced by vegetation that provides food and cover.
  • Maintenance plowing activities and the potential of road closures are reduced.
  • Reduced soil erosion along the right of way from established vegetation.
  • Reduced amount of snow plowing thus minimizing fuel consumption and costs, and greenhouse gas emissions.* Increased vegetation provides enhanced aesthetic features along the highway corridor.
  • Maintenance is free when trees are established.
  • Reduced salt chemicals and abrasives introduced into the environment. Provides a mechanism for carbon sequestration in a DOT climate change or carbon management program.

Overall, living snow fences is a win/win for both the DOT, the public and the adjacent landowner by increasing the number of planted trees to sequester carbon while improving soil stability, aesthetics, and wildlife habitat. Living snow fences have been shown to be cost effective in the long term by reduced maintenance actions and chemical addition to the roadway surface. Living snow fencing is one of several approaches that can be used by state DOTs to reduce salt and abrasives onto roadway surfaces thus reducing pollutant discharges into surface water systems and reducing environmental risk and liability.

Related Research:

Numerous DOTs such as Minnesota, New York and Colorado have achieved excellent results in designing and installing sustainable living snow fences. Overall the main objective is to reduce the amount of salt introduced into surface water systems and to reduce long term maintenance costs. Many DOTs use wooden slat fencing in areas with large open areas and fetches that are expensive to purchase, install and maintain. The maintenance of snow fences was estimated to be $3 per mile per year, compared to $185 per mile per year for a conventional 4 foot slat fence (USDA, 1994). In Minnesota, benefit/cost ratios range from 9:1 to 46:1 in favor of living snow fences (University of Minnesota, 2002).

The Minnesota Department of Transportation initiated a Living Snow Fence Partnership Program with the US Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the Natural Resource Conservation Service. The intent of the Program is to efficiently manage blowing and drifting snow on Minnesota roadways to reduce accidents and save lives. The Living Snow Fence Partnership Program is very proactive in establishing work groups, raising public awareness, cost-sharing among stakeholders and defining specific program roles and responsibilities for all stakeholders. The Minnesota model is one of several snow fence models in the United States that will be showcased in this study.


The research would require at a minimum the review and assessment of the following information that would be valuable to develop a guidance document to create living snow fences in right of way areas:

  • understand the basic elements of snow science and deposition to strategically place living snow fencing
  • compile public outreach and education approaches to place living snow fences on private property
  • identify the design criteria in terms of selecting landscape plants that are fast growing and sustainable
  • obtain maintenance cost information and assess life cycle cost effectiveness* provide case studies on successful and unsuccessful living snow fence projects
  • evaluate the amount of chemicals or abrasives reduced or eliminated

Climate change can have a large impact upon the type of vegetation species that can be selected for snow fencing. In light of high extreme storm events and potential droughts, plant species must be selected that require low maintenance, achieve height and width in a reasonable amount of time and achieve optimum root growth and depth for stability. Carbon sequestration from living snow fencing will be important to quantify for climate change management.

Long term life cycle costs for snow fencing are lacking in many state DOTs. This type of cost analysis is expected to be important in evaluating maintenance cost reductions and less chemicals added to the roadway surface.

Sponsoring Committee:AMS20, Resource Conservation and Recovery
Research Period:6 - 12 months
Research Priority:High
RNS Developer:Andrew Graettinger and Art Hirsch
Source Info:Art Hirsch
TerraLogic, LLC
5766 Flagstaff Road
Boulder,Colorado,United States 80302
303-7869111 (PHONE)
Date Posted:12/20/2016
Date Modified:01/04/2017
Index Terms:Snow fences, State departments of transportation, Cost effectiveness, Highway maintenance, Anti-icing, Environmental impacts, Wildlife, Abrasives, Water quality,
Cosponsoring Committees: 
Maintenance and Preservation

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