Have UVM programs missed the point of IVM?

Have UVM programs missed the point of IVM?


By Manager of Research & Development Philip Chen

The blackout in 2003 and the subsequent changes to utility vegetation management (UVM) have been considered by many as a backslide. We’ve seen increased compliance vigilance and more aggressive vegetation management practices, particularly transmission rights-of-ways (ROW). We’ve been told that progress has been made and that our UVM programs have recovered.

As Chris Nowak stated in his 2014 proceeding of the 10th International Symposium on Environmental Concerns in ROW Management, “for the period 2000 through the present, management of vegetation on power line corridor rights-of-way was all about safety, reliability, environment, socioeconomics, integration, management systems, but was expanded to fully include considerations for sustainability and accountability … and we are doing it!” But are we doing it?

We simultaneously have seven utilities recognized by the Right-of-way Stewardship Council as ROW Steward Utilities, some completing their second audit under the program, while lawsuits continue to pop up around the country against utilities for what is considered by citizens as overzealous tree-cutting policies.

I consider myself an optimist, and there seems to be good reason for optimism. Every conference abounds with talks on Integrated Vegetation Management (IVM), the UAA has adopted environmental stewardship as a core value and the industry largely favors the use of low-volume, selective herbicides over the non-selective, edge-to-edge applications of our past.

And yet, as I review the results of the recent CNUC University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point UVM Survey, it appears that much of the basis for our optimism may be grounded in misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

Adoption of IVM is on the rise. In our survey, 77% of the respondents (n=69) reported the ANSI A300- Part 7 Integrated Vegetation Management standard and its associated Best Management Practice (BMP) as important or very important to their UVM program. But are we practicing IVM?

The reason for IVM, as stated in the standard, is “to create, promote, and conserve sustainable plant communities that are compatible with the intended use of the site, and manage incompatible plants that may conflict with the intended use of the site.” It goes on to say that in the evaluation of IVM methods:

Biological methods should be preferred as a long-term control. Chemical methods should be used to transition the plant community to sustainable, compatible species by facilitating biological controls. Cultural methods should be encouraged where appropriate. Manual methods should be implemented when other methods are impractical or as a supplementary practice. Mechanical methods should be considered when non-selective maintenance cutting is required.

How this standard is interpreted and put into practice seems to differ significantly from the intent. In our survey, we asked the participating utilities how important the various control methods are to their IVM program. The result was only 28% claiming biological control was important or very important, while 100% cited physical control (manual and mechanical) as important or very important (Figure 1).

IVM Control Methods graph
Figure 1

How can it be that 77% of the survey respondents claim that IVM is important to their program, a standard which emphasizes biological control, and yet 72% of them do not cite biological control methods as important to their IVM programs? Have we not read the standard which we all espouse? Are we hypocrites? Or is this a matter of misinterpretation?

First, you may say, let’s not lose sight of the big picture. We know that in large part, the management techniques being leveraged are delivering on our objectives to provide safe, reliable power and to meet compliance obligations. I grant that that is true, but my question to the industry is, at what expense? Should we, as land stewards, not also have objectives of environmental stewardship, considering existing biological, ecological and cultural resources?

As UVM managers, we also act as business stewards. Should we not implement management that leads to sustainable, low-cost solutions? Did we forget that the primary focus of IVM is to create, promote and conserve sustainable plant communities, not the management of incompatible plants that conflict with the site’s use? Of course, we must manage incompatible plants in our pursuit of the cultivation of sustainable compatible plant communities.

The question is, are we more focused on managing against what we don’t want than on managing for what we do want?

The IVM standard does state that manual methods should be implemented when other methods are impractical. Does the strong emphasis on physical methods by our survey respondents imply that in practice, biological, cultural and selective chemical control methods are impractical? We know from John Goodfellow’s work in least-cost analysis that an IVM program that emphasizes chemically facilitated biological control is consistently and convincingly less costly than programs using only manual or mechanical controls. We’ve seen and heard success stories, like New York Power Authority under the management of Lew Payne, where stable compatible plant communities are promoted, providing habitat and biological control. This evidence does not suggest that these methods are impractical.

No doubt, a focus on biological control is challenging and the road is long and winding. Our industry will need to continually gain knowledge and skills in practices outside of our comfortable repertoire. We will make mistakes and be forced to adapt our strategies as we progress. As Joel Salatin stated so plainly, “if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly first.” Now is the time for us to come together, to challenge each other to do better.

Collectively, we can make the next decade of UVM a revolution from our previous pitfalls. Let’s start by recognizing our role as land stewards. We have each been entrusted with the care of the lands which our utility system cross. Let’s be careful and responsible in that management. Let’s internalize the UAA core value of Environmental Stewardship. There is a business case, and it’s the right thing to do. We have an opportunity to make the world a better place, one utility corridor at a time.


ANSI (American National Standards Institute). (2018). ANSI A300 (Part 7)-2018 IVM, American National Standard for Tree Care Operations – Tree, Shrub, and Other Woody Plant Maintenance – Standard Practices Integrated Vegetation Management. Londonderry, NH.: Tree Care Industry Association, Inc.

Goodfellow, J. (2019). The Cost Efficiency of IVM: A Comparison of Vegetation Management Strategies for Utility.

Miller. R.H. (2014). Best Management Practices: Integrated Vegetation Management for Utility Rights-of-Way, Second Edition. Champaign, Il: International Society of Arboriculture.

Nowak, C.A. (2014). What is this Integrated Vegetation Management, this IVM – Now, Today, and into the future? Proceedings 10th International Symposium Environmental Concerns in Rights-of-Way Management. Des Moines, IA: International Society of Arboriculture.

Nowak, C.A., and B.D. Ballard. (2005). A Framework for Applying Integrated Vegetation Management on Rights-of-Way. Journal of Arboriculture, 31(1): 29-38.

This article was originally published in January/February issue of the Utility Arborist Newsline.

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