ROW Habitat Reclamation Update

ROW Habitat Reclamation Update

Industry

 By Lead CUF Russ Maxwell, System Arborist Christina Cunningham and CUF Anna Martz

According to the Nature Conservancy, there is only 1% of native grass species left in the American Southeast. This loss of habitat has caused many pollinator species to be threatened or have endangered statuses. Practicing integrated vegetation management (IVM) on rights-of-way (ROW) allow for the opportunity to reintroduce native grasses and fauna to the ecosystem, helping pollinators without compromising electrical facilities.

As native species are reintroduced to ROW it is important to suppress incompatible and undesirable vegetation below and near overhead electrical facilities. Doing so provides access to the ROW for vegetation management and emergency service crews and ensures the safety and reliability of power lines. This suppression cannot be managed solely through physical and mechanical mechanisms. It requires an integrated approach involving resources such as selective herbicide application and non-human interaction.

We began implementing IVM At North Georgia EMC earlier this year. Allowing the natural succession of native grasses and pollinator habitats to thrive will reduce environmental impacts from tractors and mechanical equipment and create a friendly environment for flora, native grasses and fauna. By using IVM techniques on ROW, we will not only see a decrease in budgetary monies but will turn an eye sore into a beautiful, managed ROW with flowers and native grasses where bees and butterflies can thrive.

Project Status Fall 2020

We are establishing the baseline data points and control areas for system species inventory of our current ROW flora and fauna. In September, our herbicide contractor, who was also involved in the control area application in 2019, applied herbicide selected from our research.

Photo of vegetation on right-of-way

We have been fortunate to collaborate with many researchers, professors, schools and companies who have been instrumental in developing and establishing methods of vegetation management that are more environmentally conscious. We partnered with Jacksonville State University to collaborate with graduate student interns for resources in the collection, analysis, manipulation and dissemination of data.

We also collaborated with Phil Chen, manager of research & development for CNUC and co-chair of the Utility Arborist Association (UAA) Environmental Stewardship Committee to use the UAA’s habitat scorecard to ensure our ROW will be attractive for monarch butterflies. We’ve also spoken with Dr. Mahan from Penn State University who has been instrumental in the State Game Lands 33 ROW project. She informed us of the many bee species her team has been able to find and identify, and we hope to be able to do the same.

IVM Methods and Phases

Our process, developed in consultation with Enable Midstream Partners, starts with our vegetation management contractor, W. A. Kendall, mowing the ROW. Mowing provides a more aesthetically pleasing initial step as opposed to selectively treating woody growth by a hack and squirt methodology according to Enable Midstream. This will level the playing field for native grasses and pollinator species within the ROW to better compete against the woody undesirable and incompatible species and is consistent with Connell and Slatyer’s models of succession: inhibition, tolerance, and facilitation (1997).

The second phase of the project involves selective herbicide treatment of incompatible and undesirable vegetation after the first growing season post mow, in our case performed by Southeastern Woodlands. Selective herbicide treatment after the first growing season serves two purposes. First, it allows vegetation regrowth, including the stems of woody vegetation, resulting in better identification and treatment of incompatible and undesirable species. The second purpose is consistent with the inhibition model of succession proposed by Connell and Slatyer that the disturbance in the plant community should provide a significant enough opening to allow for the proliferation of grass species.

IVM adoption must be more widespread to have lasting environmental change. Ideally, the NGEMC reclamation project will inspire others to transform their ROW, resulting in better habitats for pollinators across North America.

The third phase of the project occurs one year to date from the phase two treatment. This step consists of treating incompatible and undesirable vegetation with a lower herbicide concentration. At this phase the community structure of the ROW should shift to favor the establishment of native grasses. This is consistent with results seen by Shatford, where grass species restricted the ability of woody species to invade a given area (2003). Upon completion of phase three, the project enters its maintenance phase in which selective herbicide spraying occurs at regular one-year intervals to address any incompatible and undesirable vegetation still present within the ROW.

Photo of vegetation on right-of-way

If our results are consistent with those seen by Enable Midstream, by the third or fourth year selective herbicide treatment will only need to be performed every other year, as a result of the succession of the ROW. Control sites will be maintained via the current vegetation management process at ROW within the same substation and circuit as the treatment sites. These sites will be maintained by both mechanical and hand cutting methods on a five-year cycle with mid-cycle management if needed. Consistent with current practices at NGEMC, no herbicide will be used on any control sites.

Through our use of IVM methods, we will be able to successfully reclaim space for native grasses to thrive in the Southeast. However, IVM adoption must be more widespread to have lasting environmental change. Ideally, the NGEMC reclamation project will inspire others to transform their ROW, resulting in better habitats for pollinators across North America.

 

This article was originally published in the November/December issue of the Utility Arborist Newsline.

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