By Leslie Drahos
Landowners in rural Scotts Bluff County in the Nebraska Panhandle can be sure of three things in their lives: death, taxes, and weeds.
Jeff Schledewitz, superintendent of the county's Weed Control Authority , can't fight the first two, but weeds are another issue.
As a county employee, Schledewitz's No. 1 responsibility is weed control. His job was mandated in 1966 under Nebraska's Noxious Weed Control Act, which requires that each county appoint an entity with the authority to control noxious — harmful and destructive — weeds.
Unlike most counties across the nation, where vegetation maintenance on public land is handled by a roads department and funded by tax dollars, Schledewitz's jurisdiction covers all county land, public and private. Most of his operation's income comes from charging landowners for spraying.
“We do have some county funding, about $80,000,” he says. “Everything else is brought in through commercial application on private land, probably in excess of $200,000.”
The authority charges a flat rate of $65/hour. “The full bill is the landowner's responsibility,” says Schledewitz. “Costs depend on the price of the chemicals we use and how much time we spend on the job.”
Spraying private land is nothing new for the county. “My two predecessors also did commercial chemical application,” says Schledewitz. “So I just took over where they left off. In our area there are no private contractors doing that type of work, so it's a good fit for us.”
In counties where there are private commercial sprayers, Schledewitz says local government should step back and let those companies do the job. But spraying by a public agency becomes a matter of necessity when private companies aren't available. Private landowners have neither the time nor the equipment to take care of the problem.
“Our specialized vehicles can get into hard-to-reach areas,” says Schledewitz. “We have a half-dozen pickup trucks with 300-gallon spray tanks; two small utility machines; a six-wheel John Deere Gator with a 100-gallon tank that gets into bogs and wet areas; and a compact Kubota with a 75-gallon tank that gets into real tight areas. In the summer we hire up to five seasonal employees to do chemical application.”
Roadside weeds come under Schledewitz's jurisdiction, too. “We control noxious weeds on county roadsides, properties, and cemeteries,” he explains. “We do the spraying [while] the roads and bridges department builds, maintains, mows, and removes snow.”
Together, the two departments manage 810 miles of gravel and 160 miles of paved roads.
Inspection and enforcement
Every year the Weed Control Authority inspects all land in its jurisdiction to determine the presence of noxious weeds, and advises landowners on control. In addition, the department informs the public that weed seed and propagative parts may spread through the movement of machinery and equipment, trucks, grain and seed, hay, straw, nursery stock, fencing materials, sod, manure, and soil. Farmers who want their hay certified as free of noxious material can call the authority before cutting the crop.
“If your hay passes inspection, we will certify it as weed-free,” he says.
Born and raised on a farm in the Scotts Bluff area, Schledewitz has cultivated a good working relationship with farmers and landowners.
Pretty they may be, but noxious weeds decimate crop yields and can poison people, livestock, and wildlife. Losses from infestations can be staggering, costing farmers and other landowners millions of dollars and eroding the tax base for all residents.
“I know most of the people in the area,” he says. “A lot of times people don't even know about an infestation; we have a lot of out-of-state landowners here. Most often, if you call or write a letter, the problem will be resolved.”
For the rare individual who ignores legal notice of noxious weeds on their lands — maybe 10 people at most in as many years — the law requires Schledewitz to give the landowner 15 days to control the infestation, after which non-compliance may result in a $100/day fine up to a maximum of $1,500.
“We can force-spray and attach the cost to their property taxes,” he says. “I have the authority to muscle my way in, but I don't believe in that. If I call somebody and visit with them, that goes a lot further than trying to knock the door down. We aim to get along with everybody.”
To read more on how to manage vegetation, click here.