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What is a living snow fence?

November 22, 2021 09:00 AM
By: Jan Huzvar, Tara Callahan-Henry

At one time, PennDOT had a robust snow fence program throughout the Commonwealth. Snow fence was a common sight across the landscape. This process was costly and labor intensive and the state began to phase out the process. Today, you can still travel some areas and see snow fence dotting the landscape in areas of high winds and drifting snow, but its use has been drastically reduced. 

Among PennDOT's 11 districts two of them, Districts 3 and 9 are teaming up with mother nature to help mitigate issues caused by blowing snow by using Living Snow Fence.

What is Living Snow Fence? Living Snow Fence can be made from many species of trees or shrubs. However, some species are more well suited to be used to trap snow.  A species of shrub willows, which grow quickly and perform well in both poor growing conditions and harsh environments, works well alongside the roadside environment in areas subject to drifting snow. 

These willows can be purchased as live stakes and are easy to plant, inexpensive and maintenance free! Planting them is as simple as pushing the 20-inch rebar-sized stakes into the ground in early spring. There is no root ball, therefore there is no hole to dig! Two rows of plants spaced two feet apart soon provide a fence capable of trapping snow. 

"The great thing about Living Snow Fence is that despite the world slowing down due to the pandemic, the willow shrubs just keep getting bigger and increasing their snow catching ability. We plant them and let nature take care of the rest.  The sites we have are looking good and doing well" said Thomas R. Yocum, Environmental Manager, PennDOT District 9. 

According to Yocum, Salix purpurea is the genus and species of willow that we most often use in our Living Snow Fence program.  We have used different cultivars however the most commonly used is Salix Purpurea L. 'Streamco' or more commonly known as Streamco Willow This cultivar was developed and released by New York Natural Resources Conservation Service and is available many places.  Some of the plant material used was purchased from nurseries in New York, where specific cultivars were selected based on the plant's characteristics, as well as availability.

Streamco willow is a "male" plant and does not produce seed, so it stays put which is a desirable trait when planting off right-of-way. The Streamco Willow is adaptable to a variety of soil conditions which makes it great for the poor soils or drainage conditions often found in our right-of-way. 

Living Snow Fence may last twice as long as standard snow fence and the installation cost of Living Snow Fence is 4 to 7 times less than standard snow fence. 

Currently, District 9 only has Living Snow Fence installed in Cambria and Somerset counties, but they are continually evaluating areas in other counties as well. 

In District 3, the Living Snow Fence planting area is located at an interchange along Interstate I-180 in Lycoming County.  This interchange area is a main artery for traffic heading to and from the Lycoming Mall.  

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