After several years of negotiations, the electric power sector and federal land management agencies this week finalized an agreement to facilitate tree trimming and vegetation management near electric infrastructure on federal lands, while ensuring conservation of critical wildlife habitat in these areas.

The agreement between Edison Electric Institute (EEI) member companies and key federal agencies recognizes that utilities and land managers must work quickly and cooperatively to ensure effective management of vegetation near transmission corridors and other utility rights-of-way on federal lands.

“Contact between a single tree and a transmission line is enough to initiate a major power disruption,” said EEI President Tom Kuhn. “Electric utility crews must have timely access to rights-of-way on both public and private lands in order to address potential threats to electric reliability before they have a chance to become a problem.”

Kuhn spoke during a ceremony hosted by the U.S. Department of Interior, during which he and representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) establishing a framework for developing cooperative vegetation management practices between EEI member companies and federal land management agencies.

The MOU, the product of discussions between utilities and federal agencies that began in the late 1990s, is designed to address the often protracted and inconsistent processes under which utilities historically have sought permission to address vegetation encroachment issues near utility infrastructure. Transmission line rights-of-way on federal lands are subject to multiple layers of jurisdiction and decision-making, which hamper utilities’ ability to maintain vegetation that can grow into or fall through power lines, potentially resulting in electrical outages, sparking wildfires, and presenting dangers to people and wildlife.

Over the past decade, vegetation contact with power lines has been identified as the cause of three large-scale power grid failures in the United States, including the Aug. 14, 2003, blackout that affected many eastern states and portions of Canada. Since then, utility vegetation management practices have received greater attention from federal regulators and Congress, which last year enacted mandatory reliability standards long sought by electric companies as part of the Energy Policy Act. The law requires federal agencies to expedite approvals of utility vegetation management permit applications to help meet the new standards.

Specifically, the MOU promotes cooperative, “integrated vegetation management” (IVM), a strategy that takes into account the specific characteristics of the ecosystems in which utility infrastructure is located and applies the appropriate combination of biological, chemical (herbicidal or pesticidal), manual and mechanical methods to control vegetation.

To achieve this objective, the memorandum specifies several mutually accepted goals, including: streamlining federal approvals for utility IVM efforts; enhancing efforts to maintain electric reliability; improving power line safety for utility workers and the public; reducing the likelihood of wildfires and fire-induced interference with electrical facilities; promoting practices to prevent soil erosion and water quality impacts; and speeding identification and suppression of dangerous rights-of-way conditions.

“History has taught us that effective vegetation management is critical to maintaining reliable electric service and protecting the public,” Kuhn said. “This agreement will help to strengthen cooperative efforts between electric companies and federal land managers that are essential to achieving these goals.”