Early pioneers crossing the American frontier came upon a vast expanse of grassland called the great prarie. Today, the 22 million acres (8.9 million hectares) of native meadow in the state of Illinois have disappeared as a result of plowing by farmers and digging by developers.

Restoring part of that natural heritage has become a mission for many in the state, including its largest utility, Commonwealth Edison (ComEd; Chicago, Illinois, U.S.). ComEd owns 2100 acres (850 hectares) of rights of way (ROW) in Illinois, making it one of the Prairie State's largest landowners. Those holdings expand every year, as new homes and businesses connect to the electrical grid.

ComEd crews once controlled weeds in ROW and managed vegetation through mowing at an annual cost of US$500,000. The public utility, however, searched for a more cost-effective and efficient way to manage ROW. The solution came in a rare partnership between ComEd and Pheasants Forever, a non-profit group that strives to create more places for pheasant and other wildlife to thrive. Together, they are converting the ROW into prairie, restoring the natural habitat and cutting vegetation-maintenance costs. ComEd's 3.8 million customers in northern Illinois also are able to enjoy the aesthetic benefit of this landscaping.

IMPLEMENTING THE PLAN

The idea for this partnership resulted from conversations between Tim Zidek, ComEd's senior project leader for vegetation management, and members of ComEd's vegetation management and real estate departments. Zidek ultimately connected with Shannon Hansel, a habitat specialist with Pheasants Forever, and together they developed a strategy to restore the prairie. Zidek explained the utility's problems to Pheasants Forever, which returned with several scenarios to transform the ROW with native forbs and grasses. Their plan called for the use of herbicides to prepare sites for seeding. They also volunteered to plant short species of native prairie grasses and other plants that would improve the look of the ROW, reduce long-term maintenance costs and establish valuable wildlife habitat.

The plan pinpointed 200 ROW acres where eight native species were planted: purple coneflower, Illinois bundle flower, partridge pea, Canada wild rye, side oats, Black-Eyed Susans, and little and big blue stem. This diverse plant mix is beneficial because the different species can handle different soil conditions, which reduces the number of unwanted weeds while the new species take root.

The conversion process consisted of pre- and post-emergent herbicide application in the late spring to prepare the site for seeding. Pheasants Forever's licensed applicators applied 10.7 oz (0.3 l) per acre of Journey herbicide from BASF Professional Vegetation Management (ProVM) and a 1.5 qt (1.4 l) of Razor Pro at 10 gal (32 l) per acre, using a 30-ft (9-m) boom sprayer mounted on the back of a tractor. The tank carried 200 gal (757 l), which covered 20 acres (8 hectares).

Pheasants Forever selected Journey because it quickly reduced the need for mowing and controlled pre-emergent undesirable weeds such as teasel and giant ragweed without affecting desirable vegetation. Using a herbicide with little or no effect on native vegetation was important because the seed mixture was drilled into the soil just a few weeks after the herbicide application.

“Typically after seed planting, a utility crew would have to mow three or four times to control the weeds until the grasses are established and start growing. But using Journey helps keep the weeds down, which speeds up the process of re-establishing the prairie,” says Hansel, who reported no problems with figuring out the application rate, coming up with the tank mix or applying the herbicide.

ComEd's Zidek is a firm believer in the use of herbicides as a vegetation-management tool. He views this method of ROW maintenance as a safer alternative, over machines and mowers, for his crews and less of a nuisance.

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES

ComEd and Pheasants Forever have encountered many challenges since this program was initiated in 2005. Originally, the plan was to establish a three-year stand of new vegetation in one year, but Mother Nature had her way with Illinois during the first year of the program. The ground was so dry that it split open, and the seeds fell through the cracks. The team was forced to replant in the spring of 2006 and hope for rain.

Hansel and his boss, Matt O'Connor, realized that establishing a prairie is a long-term process, and they anticipated setbacks and challenges.

“A healthy prairie and thriving ecosystem is well worth the work, but plan on buying a new pair of jeans because you'll wear them out crawling around on the ground scrutinizing your new seedlings,” says O'Connor, the habitat team coordinator for Pheasants Forever.

By the end of 2006, ComEd and Pheasants Forever team worked on more than 210 acres (85 hectares). Despite a few weather-related setbacks, the desired prairie plants took root and the prairie vegetation started growing. This year, ComEd plans to treat more acreage.

After the first year, ComEd is saving about $100 on routine maintenance on each acre converted to prairie. That's a clear advantage for ComEd, because its ROW expands anywhere from 20 to 100 acres (8 to 40 hectares) each year as more houses and businesses sprout up in rural areas.

ComEd is looking to increase the size of the acreage being converted to prairie. By pacing its progress, the utility will be able to keep its budget in check, absorb some of the urban sprawl and continue to provide current and new customers with quality service.

ComEd customers often share positive feedback with ComEd team members about having their backyards full of flowers. Locals also see posted signs reading, “ComEd Native Prairie Restoration.”

This initiative also has also enabled Pheasants Forever to broaden its reach beyond rural areas and to explain its goals to people who are not in its mainstream audience. The partnership between ComEd and Pheasants Forever is a prime example of how a team can establish a common goal and share each other's resources to make a positive impact on the environment.


Edward L. Cunningham is the transmission project lead for Commonwealth Edison (ComEd). Fifteen of his 30 years of experience in vegetation management has been working with ComEd. Currently, he's responsible for transmission vegetation management and played a role in executing the vegetation management program alongside Tim Zidek and Pheasants Forever. Cunningham is a member of the Utility Arborist Association, Illinois Arborist Association and the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). He earned his bachelor's degree in forestry from West Virginia University and an ISA-certified arborist.
edward.cunningham@exeloncorp.com

COMPARING COSTS OF MOWING VERSUS PRAIRIE RESTORATION

Traditional mowing costs require an initial expense of $133 per acre to establish short, cool season 2-ft (0.6-m) tall grass. This includes site preparation (herbicide), seed costs, planting and mowing. After year one, mowing five times per year costs $140 to $190 an acre.

Results obtained at ComEd show that going back to a prairie state will save money. A one-time cost of $165 per acre is required to establish the native species through site preparation, seed costs, planting and mowing. Long-term maintenance of the prairie sites requires an investment of $50 per year for one mowing and one herbicide application per acre.

EDITOR'S NOTE:

This initiative earned the 2005 Chairman's Environmental Award by parent company, Exelon Energy. This program also earned the 2006 Quality Vegetation Management (QVM) Project Habitat Award from BASF ProVM. The following websites will provide additional information touched upon in this article.