ST. PAUL-A controversial permit system that limits when Minnesota landowners can mow roadside ditches allows noxious weeds to grow, a Minnesota state representative says.

So Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, is behind a bill to force governments at all levels to exterminate weeds on their property.

"Many road ditches are teeming" with weeds, Drazkowski told the House Agriculture Policy Committee Tuesday, March 20.

Drazkowski's bill would fine a governmental entity that does not eradicate weeds on its property. It also allows landowners outside cities to mow ditches any time of the year.

That is a problem for environmentalists who want to keep ditches mostly unmowed for most of the year as habitat for pollinators such as bees and butterflies and animals that nest or otherwise live in ditches part of the year.

Current law limits ditch mowing along state highways to August, except for safety purposes.

A law enacted last year required the Minnesota Department of Transportation to not enforce existing law that requires permits to mow in August. Bills, unrelated to Drazkowski's, being considered this year would extend that moratorium because backers say MnDOT has not made enough changes to its rules to satisfy many landowners.

The ditch mowing issue is among the most-discussed rural matters this legislative session. Farmers want to do like they have for years: mow and bale ditches for hay.

They say that at the same time they get hay, they provide a service to the state by keeping ditches weed free. They say their work saves the state millions of dollars.

Environmentalists, however, say ditches are among the few areas where wildlife can survive, especially pollinators.

Chris Cowen of the Pesticide Action Network told the ag committee that while he does not have all the answers, insects such as the rusty patch bumblebee have all but disappeared as habitat disappears.

While parts of the state retain wild prairie, ditches are among the few places for pollinators in the heavily cropped areas of western and southern Minnesota.

Birds also use ditches, environmentalists say. However, Rep.Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, said that is not the case everywhere.

"All we got is weeds and a little jack pine," he said, adding that MnDOT should not restrict mowing in his area and farther north.

Assistant Transportation Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger, however, said during public ditch mowing hearings during the summer some people testified that birds do use northern Minnesota ditches.

If the Legislature does not act this year, MnDOT will issue permits for August mowing this year. Daubenberger said that MnDOT officials will first talk to anyone who violates the rules, such as mowing sometime other than August, but will go to law enforcement officers if those breaking the rules do not change.

One of authors of bills written to extend the permit enforcement moratorium, Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, said more studying is needed before rules change. "Farmers across the state have been maintaining these ditches for decades upon decades."

When asked about the ditch mowing situation, Gov. Mark Dayton said: "It is just one of those things where there is just not going to be a satisfactory resolution."

He made a couple of other short comments, then paused and shook his head, adding about his lame duck status, "I don't have to take a position like that any more."

Bills the agriculture committee discussed were held over for future consideration.