When it comes to the utility vegetation management industry, it's all about education. The Utility Arborist Association (UAA) visited Capitol Hill twice in 2010 to make key policymakers aware of regulations affecting the industry. In addition, the UAA created awareness about key issues such as inconsistencies with the North American Reliability Corporation (NERC) audits, communication between utility vegetation managers as field personnel of federal agencies, and following best practices on private and federal lands.

Policymakers must understand that the industry uses research-based practices that have been reviewed by top industry professionals in utility vegetation management as well as by industry experts in all aspects of tree and plant care.

Often, our greatest challenges are just getting people to understand what we do. Now that we have visited Capitol Hill and shared our best management practices in utility pruning and integrated vegetation management (IVM), we have strengthened our relationships at the federal level and improved communications with field professionals. In turn, this has led to improved cooperation for utilities to perform IVM and utility pruning best management practices.

Educating the Public

The UAA has forged relationships with the USDA Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and NERC.

When the UAA met with FERC, the two organizations discovered that they share a common problem. Now that the utilities must comply with FAC 003-1, FERC has received complaints from landowners and other public interest groups on utility practices. Fortunately, because of the UAA's continued education of FERC, they understand the association's best management practices. The challenge the UAA faces, however, is how to best educate the public. While the UAA may not be able to get the public to agree with all of its objectives, it hopes it can gain their understanding and permission to do what's necessary to maintain safe and reliable electric service.

The Future Role of UAA

The job moving forward for UAA is to provide the utilities with the tools needed to communicate and educate all stakeholders on what it needs to do and why. How does the UAA accomplish this? We must develop materials that utilities can use to educate the public that are non-biased and explain best management practices. For example, the UAA recently developed a brochure designed to explain to the landowner what good utility pruning should look like.

We also must train professionals in our industry. If you think about it, utility arborists and their contractors have more face-to-face contact with the utility customer than anyone else in the utility company. The UAA conducts eight to 10 regional meetings every year. These meetings are designed for field professionals to get the best training and education on industry best management practices. In addition, they attend multiple presentations on improving communication skills with customers. The UAA also has recently completed development on training DVDs and workbooks on best management practices for utility pruning and trenching and tunneling near trees.

Challenges Going Forward

We must not become our own worst enemies. Utilities must make sure that their management staffs and contractors are educated and trained professionals. Just like engineering, utility vegetation management has a language all to its own. To be able to educate and communicate intelligently with the public, landowners, regulators and agencies, we must have a thorough understanding of our practices.

Utilities can improve their public relations by employing and contracting International Society of Arboriculture certified arborists and utility specialists. These individuals have met the appropriate experience requirements, and passed valid and reliable examinations developed by top industry experts.

Utilities and the UAA must continue to be proactive and part of the process. Federal agencies and state regulatory bodies are being asked by the public to look at vegetation management practices. If we are not proactive in helping to develop these standards, the federal government will be developing these regulations for the industry. The UAA, through its strong volunteer network, will continue to work hard to educate those that influence how we do our jobs to manage vegetation and maintain a safe and reliable source of electricity.

Derek Vannice is the former executive director for the Utility Arborist Association and the director of certification for the International Society of Arboriculture. He also serves as the vice president of operations for CN Utility Consulting. Vannice held various management positions in the utility industry before joining ISA in 1992.