The massive power outage in the Northeastern United States and Ontario, Canada, in August 2003 was precipitated when heavily loaded electric transmission lines in Ohio successively sagged into three trees. As a result, utilities across the United States were put on notice that they must submit plans to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to further regulate the national utility transmission grid to help preclude future blackouts. Included in this action was tighter control over utility vegetation management practices (FAC-003-01); failure to meet the federal requirements could result in substantial fines.
Prior to the August 2003 blackout, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. (BGE) undertook an effort to provide more uniform and systematic management of its electric transmission rights-of-way (ROW). BGE had a long history of good ROW management, but like many electric utilities, the management of various lines suffered from vegetation ingrowth from the ROW edges. In various locations, incompatible trees and shrubs had gained a foothold within the ROW.
Recognizing this trend, BGE began an effort in 2000 to remove the unsuitable vegetation to return the ROW closer to what the conditions had been when the lines were constructed. After the 2003 blackout, BGE focused more intensely on this effort to achieve the desired reliability enhancements associated with properly maintained ROW and to avoid federal compliance complications.
In January 2008, in a Washington, D.C., bedroom community bordering a popular lake in Columbia, Maryland, a group of mowing machines removed tall-growing vegetation from ravines, wetlands, hillsides and meadows. Residents had become accustomed to seeing these areas undisturbed, so they were angered and perplexed to see large stretches of bare land where trees and shrubs once stood.
The Columbia Association, the homeowners association that functions as Columbia's government, owned land abutting the ROW. Working through the Columbia Association, the Committee for Lake Elkhorn's Environmental Restoration (CLEER) — an e-mail community with about 175 members that seeks to promote environmentally sound management of the lake — contacted BGE's government affairs office about the residents' concerns regarding the mowing operation.
A meeting was arranged with BGE, Columbia Association staff and members of the local environmental community and county government to view and discuss one of the mowed sites. At a subsequent meeting, the outline of a task force was created to address the concerns of the community while enabling BGE to manage the ROW effectively.
The composition of the task force was diverse and is worth noting because it contributed to the ultimate success of the endeavor:
Co-chairs: Elaine Pardoe, CLEER founder, and a member of the County Environmental Sustainability Board
BGE's forestry management director
BGE's senior government relations representative
The county council member from the district containing Lake Elkhorn
The Columbia Association's project manager for the Columbia Watershed Management Plan
The project manager with the consulting firm that developed the Columbia Watershed Management Plan
Chief of Stormwater Management Division, County Department of Public Works
ExOfficio: Director, County Office of Environmental Sustainability
Chair of County Environmental Sustainability Board.
The charge of the task force was to oversee the development of a plan for a demonstration plot along 0.9miles (1.45 km) of ROW at the original site of contention. The plan needed to follow integrated vegetation management (IVM) principles while maintaining electric reliability. The task force drafted a list of desired outcomes for the transmission vegetation management plan, taking into consideration information from the utility representatives about ROW facts and the requirements with which the utility must comply. The desired outcomes were as follows:
Foster low-growing native vegetation that would replace turf and discourage invasive plants, and thus enhance the habitat for pollinators and other desirable wildlife while protecting the watershed
Keep the plan cost-effective
Educate the community on the advantages of alternative transmission vegetation management practices (and involve members in projects where possible)
Map the different types of environments in the ROW
Add ecologically important areas to BGE's current list of sensitive areas, where appropriate.
The result of the informational exchange within the task force was to recommend the implementation of the IVM management regime. This management tool would be a change from existing maintenance practices employed on the ROW; therefore, outreach to the larger community was going to be crucial in gaining acceptance to the change in work practices by BGE.
In addition to eliminating the twice-annual mowing of accessible upland areas, the task force also believed the use of herbicides could be an issue with the community in that it was the topic of much concern and discussion among task force members.
BGE enlisted IVM Partners Inc. to help develop the vegetation management demonstration plan. As a member of the task force, IVM Partners outlined what could be accomplished by a program that used the full arsenal of IVM techniques.
Task force members visited the demonstration site and were informed by BGE of additional, and possibly controversial, tree-removal work on the ROW, as well as tree pruning and removal off of the ROW (including removing some vegetation homeowners had planted on BGE property) that needed to be done before the IVM pilot began.
They also discussed the boundaries for the pilot project, and IVM Partners outlined the various IVM techniques relative to the specific locations of the site. Botanist Michael R. Haggie of Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage was enlisted to document plant community changes. Task force members walked along the site with the botanist to observe projected study plots that would allow vegetation progression to be followed once IVM began.
The study plots would track changes in three distinct ecosystems:
A grassland prairie area, routinely mowed twice annually, had permanent transects established to compare an area receiving a broadcast herbicide Radiarc treatment with an adjoining control area that had been left untouched after mowing.
A ravine area dominated by Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) had permanent transects established to document the plant community changes before and after a hydraulic herbicide treatment was performed.
A wetland next to Lake Elkhorn had permanent transects established to track the changes as compatible vegetation was encouraged with a selective backpack herbicide treatment.
The task force's network of contacts notified key elected officials and community/neighbor representatives of the proposed work. An IVM presentation and discussion was held at the board meeting of the village where Lake Elkhorn is located, and all provided advice about how best to convey the IVM message to the community.
CLEER members in communities bordering the lake informed their neighbors about the plan via their community association newsletters. Concerns from the county council representative (on behalf of the community) and county health department about the safety of the proposed herbicides were addressed.
Support was enlisted from county agencies such as the Department of Public Works and the Department of Recreation and Parks. Advocates for birds, pollinators and native plants were involved. Regular updates were sent via e-mail to CLEER's members, who provided feedback. Individuals walking the lake path were engaged in conversation about the plan by the CLEER task force member, with uniformly positive response.
The task force accepted the plan approximately 18 months after the vegetation-removal event. Task force members from BGE, CLEER and the Columbia Association developed signage describing the plan to be posted along the walking path at the lake.
The final step before implementation was a public meeting to present the plan. The task force developed an agenda, enlisted members of the environmental community to answer questions and publicized the meeting throughout the community. BGE provided display boards with maps, and members prepared copies of the plan, information on IVM and a list of frequently asked questions for attendees.
The meeting opened with remarks from the Constellation Energy corporate affairs representative from the task force and the CLEER representative. IVM Partners then described IVM practices and presented the work plan, explaining the different application techniques and various herbicides that would be used to control the incompatible trees and non-native invasive plants, and to address the sensitivity concerns of the different ecosystems. An official from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Pesticide Programs spoke briefly about how IVM and proper herbicide use fits into the EPA's Pesticide Environmental Stewardship program. A question-and-answer session was moderated by the BGE and CLEER representatives.
Fewer than 25 community members attended the meeting, and most of the concerns expressed were neighborhood issues that had little to do with the plan.
Nine days later, the herbicide applications commenced, consisting of Radiarc broadcast and hydraulic and backpack treatments; the entire project was completed in two-and-a-half days. There was no negative community reaction.
Reasons for Success
The flexible nature of IVM, and thus the plan, was helpful in gaining support. The task force was able to present to the community a program involving a one-time broadcast of herbicides that were carefully selected to be low in toxicity and to promote native prairie vegetation, in place of twice-yearly mowing that is considered a less-sustainable environmental practice, at a time when the carbon footprint of maintenance needs to be reduced.
The herbicide treatments were done during normal vegetation leaf-color change in the fall, when the results were unobtrusive. The newest techniques and minimum amounts of herbicide needed to be effective were used. The treatment was to be followed by targeted point-and-shoot backpack applications the following year and every few years after that to control non-desirable plants that emerged.
In the final analysis, the task force had a good product to sell: moving from a mowing regime that maintained the status quo environmentally to a practice that enables management of the ROW using natural systems aided by herbicides to provide long-term site sustainability with more diversity to benefit a wider spectrum of plants and animals.
In effect, the ROW could now be viewed as providing an environmental enhancement for the community, as various native plants, pollinators and wildlife can be viewed and enjoyed by residents as they walk along the nature trails crossing the corridor.
The task force met on-site in early spring 2010 at BGE's request to get a status update and strategize about the next steps to maintain community and BGE support, and to maximize the possibility of replicating IVM on other parts of BGE's ROW.
Additional trees and invasive shrubs were identified and planned for removal from a stream and road crossing buffer prior to leaf-out, and scheduled for a fall selective backpack treatment to restore their ecosystems. Methods and personnel for baseline assessments of native bees and other pollinators were identified so additional benefits of IVM could be assessed, and updated botanical documentation was scheduled to compare the treatment results against the baseline data of the previous year.
The habitat changes and botanical documentation results were so dramatic that an IVM and ecosystem management workshop was scheduled and conducted on Oct. 19, 2010, with 120 attendees from federal, state, county and local government, industry, conservation and the media, including a chartered bus from Washington, D.C., with 50 EPA employees.
Those in attendance learned the details of the partnership process, witnessed demonstrations of the various herbicide application techniques, and were able to walk through the various botanical plots and ask questions of the experts. During the field tour of “a similar IVM managed” rural ROW, a pollinator expert from the U.S. Geological Survey told the audience that most people think there is a shortage of forest habitat in the United States, when in reality there is a shortage of prairie meadows “and shrub habitats” that benefit birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife — and that this ROW is perhaps the best example of that type of habitat in the Mid-Atlantic.
That same expert was influential in convincing the Patuxent National Wildlife Research Refuge to allow similar IVM interventions on the BGE corridors crossing the refuge on 200 acres. That IVM plan and partnership is being coordinated by IVM Partners with multi-year botanical and pollinator documentation and is now in progress.
BGE is now systematically incorporating this vegetation management strategy into other parts of its transmission system and is applying for certification of these practices with the Wildlife Habitat Council. IVM Partners is presenting case study findings at conferences across the United States and on its website (www.ivmpartners.org) to help the task force reach its goal of seeing IVM extended to as many utility lines around the country as is feasible, not only to the millions of acres of electric transmission ROW, but also to natural gas utility ROW.
The following is required for full-scale IVM adoption:
The full commitment of the utility management
Community education and engagement
Employing IVM best practice methods according to utility and ecosystem needs
Intensive training of utility managers, foresters and contractors
Pursuit of long-term management and cost savings, versus short-term low-bid work
Exploration of partnership opportunities with community, public agency and environmental organizations (both local and national)
Removal of artificial barriers to adoption of IVM methods that include the use of herbicides.
Publicity and educational activities continue as signs are placed along Columbia nature trails to explain IVM environmental benefits with “before” pictures for comparison with the restored habitat.
CLEER will continue to provide regular updates and engage community members whenever possible. BGE and IVM Partners will be available to monitor progress, answer questions and respond to community concerns as needed; botanical and photo documentation will be updated this year to prepare for another IVM and ecosystem management workshop this fall.
Rick Johnstone (email@example.com) is president of Integrated Vegetation Management Partners Inc. and owner of Vegetation Management with Environmental Stewardship, LLC consulting. Johnstone, who has 33 years of experience as a system forester for the electric industry, is an advisor to the Department of Interior National Training Center, past president of the Utility Arborist Association, a former advisor to the United States-Canadian Blackout Report and coauthor of the EEI Environmental Stewardship Strategy for Electric Rights-of-Way.
Elaine Pardoe (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives beside Lake Elkhorn, within walking distance of the transmission project. She is the founder of the Committee for Lake Elkhorn's Environmental Restoration (CLEER).