NERC has made it clear with fines, mitigations and statements that utilities have the responsibility to meet the requirements of reliability standard FAC-003. Utilities can forget trying the “beg for forgiveness rather than ask for permission” approach. We also have to face communities and agencies who push back on the removal of trees from rights-of-way.
Utilities are not getting a break from the regulations because of poor easement rights, past agreements for agricultural use or special-use permits with the agencies. Some want NERC to take the lead and force everyone to let utilities do what they want to do, but I don't see NERC, Congress or any other agency taking a leadership role in protecting utilities' rights. Therefore, we need to examine our past practices and see how we as professionals can address these issues by fostering a partnership concept.
In the early days, we could count on our land rights agents and lawyers to push our rights. Remember condemnation for rights? While some of our problems have resulted from upper-management decisions on deferred maintenance, most were shortsighted decisions made by managers outside of the vegetation management departments to “make everyone happy,” and we gave up rights that were clearly in our easements. Some of the decisions were made by managers who cared only about the local communities and didn't want to hear about reliability or safety concerns. Other decisions were made by utility government relations managers who cared only about how the state or federal representatives reacted to the vegetation management work and had no interest in the reasons for the work. Now we have our own environmental managers who may care only about how the local agencies and activists are responding to our work. It is hard enough to work through external stakeholder problems, but problems with the internal stakeholders only adds to the difficulty.
There are success stories of utilities that are recognizing internal and external stakeholders and developing a partnership approach. First, it's important to recognize that your utility is not just about vegetation management. Many departments have to maintain external relationships for their success. Internally, we need to reach out to those who may be affected by our vegetation management operations. We need to educate them about vegetation management, let them educate us about their needs and be prepared to compromise.
We need to look for ways to build internal partnerships by building strong external partnerships. One way is to reach out to our government relations, media and major account representatives and offer to sponsor a city for the Arbor Day Foundation's Tree City USA or help with a Tree Growth Award. These annual projects help internal stakeholders while you develop trust and maintain relationships with cities.
Developing external relationships with state and federal agencies also can make the difference in gaining the understanding required for successful vegetation management operations. Take, for example, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). Annual O&M meetings with local district rangers, special-use agents and specialists create an opportunity to share with them why you do your work and for them to voice their concerns. You might also invite them to attend a UAA regional field meeting with a stop on USFS lands. Look for a site where the utility may have worked in cooperation with USFS, or where your biologist or noxious weed specialists can lead a discussion on partnership opportunities. USFS land requires that we obtain special-use permits and that we follow the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) guidelines. Environmental services departments expect full compliance with NEPA and other environmental regulations. Don't bother trying to bypass NEPA; instead, build trust with the agencies to navigate through the process successfully.
Now is the time for UAA and transmission and distribution professionals to reach out and build partnerships internally and externally. Our qualifications, knowledge and experience will help utilities successfully implement their vegetation management programs while meeting NERC requirements.
Nelsen Money (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of the Utility Arborist Association.