If you work in utility VM you may have noticed that people who have never heard of indole acetic acid will none the less believe they have a better grasp of proper pruning than you or anyone in your utility organization.

If you perform a reclamation mowing on an overgrown transmission right-of-way populated with 25-foot-high incompatible tree species, there are howls of outrage that the resulting eyesore has decreased property values; opened the area to erosion; destroyed essential wildlife habitat and quite possibly eliminated some plant or animal species that do not occur anywhere in the world but the area you chose to mow.

OK, the hyperbole is fun, and I’d be happy to continue it over a beverage some time if you are buying. Let’s just say utility vegetation management has critics for pretty well every method and practice employed. What do you do?

In my days as a utility forester with TransAlta Utilities, I grokked the statement “information is power." I realized the customers/landowners wanted to be informed about our work plans and methods and the more information we shared, the more likely these customers were to support our decisions. (See Measuring Levels of Customer Satisfaction)

We have an excellent example of sharing information in this July’s (2011) T&D World VM supplement in the article “From Antagonism to Synergism: Integrated Vegetation Management.” If you have access to the print copy, review it because the photographs accompanying the article provide a strong argument for what is needed to involve and educate stakeholders and to convert these stakeholders from objectors to program advocates. Clearly the first step is that you must provide stakeholders the opportunity to express their concerns and then to demonstrate that you have heard these concerns. After that, there are two important elements: research and demonstration. While these two elements go hand in hand they are distinctly different. I’ll reserve most of the discussion on research for next month.

I believe any electric utility that uses integrated VM should have both research and demonstration plots. It is incredibly powerful to be able to stand in a right of way that most observers would consider beautiful and to be able to show the broad diversity of species that exists on this area that was once a barren mowed landscape, having been transformed to the current condition through multiple subsequent herbicide applications.

I first gained this recognition during my TransAlta days when we took some managers out to see our research plots. We did so because senior management was more concerned about the use of herbicides than were our customers in general. They were totally amazed, for instead of scorched earth they found lush plots of beautiful wildflowers growing within the right of way. Of course, the wildflowers were only in the herbicide-treated plots, whereas the hand-cut and mowing plots were solid, impenetrable thickets of incompatible species. We in the Distribution Line Clearance group were so used to seeing the results of mowing followed by herbicides applied to the regrowth that to us, it was quite unremarkable. However, when we got the same reaction from pesticide regulatory folks, we realized we had a very powerful argument for our work – the results.

If you do not have your own experience that convinces you that demonstration plots are essential to communicating the value of integrated VM, then do a search on the name Rick Johnstone, one of the authors of the above-mentioned article "From Antagonism to Synergism: Integrated Vegetation Management." Rick has a long history of work similar to that discussed in the article. He has gained the support of community organizations, environmental groups, parks, conservation area, state and federal regulators for integrated vegetation management.

Perhaps you don’t currently have opposition to your VM program that would necessitate extensive consultation with stakeholders. As a utility using integrated VM, I think you will be well served by looking at BGE’s experience in the referenced article, as an indicator of what may be coming soon to a utility near you. When the questions arise, will you be ready with a handy location that is aesthetically pleasing and reflective of typical VM program results? Will you have the research data that shows the diversity of species and other environmental benefits? Or will you have a PR crisis on your hands?