Vegetation Management on Federal Lands

Vegetation Management on Federal Lands

by Stephen Cieslewicz, President and Chief Consultant

CN Utility Consulting (CNUC) President and Chief Consultant Stephen Cieslewicz wrote a featured article in the July/August issue of the Electric Light & Power magazine titled Vegetation Management on Federal Lands.The article provides details on the bi-partisan bill, HR 2358. Cieslewicz had the opportunity to interview U.S. Reps. Ryan Zinke and Kurt Schrader, co-sponsors of HR 2358. The goal of the legislation is to provide “consistency and timeliness from federal agencies when it comes to dealing with vegetation management.”

FERC sent an official utility vegetation management (UVM) report to Congress on September 7, 2004. This report presented several specific recommendations to ensure that trees on or adjacent to transmissions rights of way (ROWs) did not contribute to further North American blackouts like the one that occurred on August 14, 2003. Congress responded quickly to the report by taking actions to provide more regulatory oversight of the bulk electric power system, and by creating new enforceable and effective standards such as NERC’s vegetation-related FAC-003.

Most of the original FERC recommendations were acted upon with one lingering and important exception. Based on credible evidence at that time, a serious problem existed with federal land agencies creating obstacles for utility companies that were trying to perform timely required UVM work on federal lands. In the decade since that revelation, various agencies and utilities have made noble attempts to resolve the issues through Congressional hearings, memorandums of understanding or other efforts, but the problem still remains today. U.S. Reps. Ryan Zinke (R – Montana) and Kurt Schrader (D – Oregon) recently co-sponsored a bi-partisan bill, HR 2358, to address this issue for both transmission and distribution lines.

In July, I interviewed Congressmen Zinke and Schrader to find out more about this important legislation.

Can you both provide a quick overview of what you are trying to accomplish with this bill?

Congressman Zinke: What we are trying to do with HR 2358 is offer common sense legislation to address an important issue that utility companies across the country are dealing with trying to deliver reliable power to American homes. Removing hazardous trees shouldn’t even need to be legislated, it makes that much sense, but it is. We need to offer our electricity providers a consistent process to better manage their rights-of-way and prevent them from being liable for government inaction.

Congressman Schrader: Basically, what we’re looking to achieve here is consistency and timeliness from federal agencies when it comes to dealing with vegetation management. With high turnover from the agencies of jurisdiction, it’s taken far too long for utility providers to receive guidance on how to deal with hazardous vegetation and time is really of the essence in these cases, as wildfires or other damage to these transmission lines could occur at a moment’s notice.

Why is this important to people in the U.S. and the people in your own respective constituencies?

Congressman Schrader: My constituents in Oregon need to know that their access to the grid is going to be maintained and my utility companies need the flexibility to deal with dangerous forest growth to protect their investments and to continue serving their customers. Urban centers are just as dependent on these lines not shorting out as our rural communities are. My district in particular has a lot of forestland through which these lines run.

Congressman Zinke: In my mind, this bill addresses one of the key issues facing Montana forest safety. As it stands, if a tree presents an imminent danger of falling on a power line that is on federal land, utility crews have to go through a rather lengthy bureaucratic process just to remove a single tree. Just one tree hitting a power line is all it takes to financially devastate thousands of acres of forestland and jeopardize our entire electric grid. That doesn’t apply to Montana, this can happen anywhere in the U.S. Considering the fire season we have coming up and our tinderbox forest lands, this bill couldn’t be more important than it is now.

Can you tell us a bit about who testified in congressional hearings and what they said?

Congressman Schrader: There have been several Natural Resource Committee hearings on this particular issue. From my state, Dave Markham, the CEO of Central Electric Cooperatives, has testified that federal employee turnover creates a challenge in vegetation management permitting because existing agency rules and regulations are being interpreted different ways depending on who happens to be in charge during a particular time. It causes headaches for our utility providers because they’re trying to play by the rules, but they’re not being given consistent guidance about how to manage encroaching vegetation on these federal lands. We also heard from Randy Miller and Mike Neal, two industry respected system foresters who both offered up some very valuable testimony.

Congressman Zinke: I was lucky enough to have Mark Hayden, head of the Missoula Electric Cooperative in Missoula, Montana, testify on behalf of co ops in my state. We also had Doug Benevento, Director of Public Policy Development for Xcel Energy, in addition to U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) staff. It was great having Mark, Dave and Doug there to personally speak about issues they’ve experienced on the ground. The lack of consistency between the USFS and BLM creates real problems, which is why this bill is so important.

The issue of liability for fires occurring from hazard trees on federal lands was raised as an issue in your bill. Can you explain what the issue is and how this bill addresses it?

Congressman Zinke: As I mentioned, there is quite a bit of inconsistency between the USFS And BLM regionally and even from forest to forest. There are some utilities that are allowed to go in and address a hazard tree without scrutiny. However, there are some folks out there who demand further oversight when a co op or utility company needs to go in and remove a single tree. For those electric providers that are forced to go through excessive bureaucracy or have to wait an exorbitant amount of time to act, it’s a matter of human and forest safety if they can’t act. All of a sudden a tree falls and ignites a fire and they’re held liable for the damages, not the government. I don’t believe that’s fair, so this bill addresses that by ensuring the federal government is held liable in very specific circumstances like the ones I mentioned.

Above and beyond the improvement to reliability, public safety and fire mitigation, it has been suggested that the net effect of having utilities manage rights of way consistent with integrated vegetation management (IVM) best management practices on federal land would be a positive thing for the environment. Can you talk about that?

Congressman Zike: You know, it’s interesting, because rights of way area very good thing for the environment. Not only do they provide suitable habitat for turkeys, they also allow for additional habitat for bees, butterflies and other pollinator species. As a hunter and huge supporter of sportsmen, ROWs offer excellent hunting opportunities for recreational users. It’s amazing that something that’s a standard utility practice offers more than one way to promote the environment in a way that’s very cost effective and environmentally sound.

Congressman Schrader: I would add that by clearing out hazardous fuels and reducing the risk of fire igniting from these electrical lines, we will also be able to prevent the potential heavy carbon pollution that could result from a wildfire.

Do either of you see this bill having any impact on FERC/NERC’s FAC 003 standards?

Congressman Zinke: Our electric grid is subject to many dangerous threats, both foreign and domestic, but physical impacts on our transmission lines are a tremendous concern. We’ve seen how a single tree can lead to a blackout that leaves 50 million electricity customers in the dark. FERC and NERC recognize this is an area of concern. Vegetation must be managed and maintained to protect our power lines. HR 2358 supports federal standards and aligns well with moving their work forward.

It’s my understanding that there were at least two other bills considered by your committee that might be of interest to utility companies. Can you tell me what these bills intended to do?

Congressman Zinke: HR 2295, the “National Energy Security Corridors Act,” would allow for the creation of national energy security corridors for the construction of natural gas pipelines on federal lands. The Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015, HR 2647, another bill I helped work on, includes important forest reforms to encourage local collaboration on timber projects, curb frivolous lawsuits and prevent catastrophic wildfires. Frivolous lawsuits against forest projects are a debilitation problem. We have more lawyers in our forests than scientists. This last bill is of a real importance to me and Montanans. Considering how dry the West is, I worry about the impacts catastrophic wildfires will have on our forests and local communities. HR 2647 meaningfully addresses these issues head on.

What is the next step for your bill before it can become law, and when do you expect to see it acted upon?

Congressman Schrader: The bill was considered and marked up in the Natural Resources Committee and was voted out of that committee on a 22-15 vote. The next step will be for the bill to be considered on the House floor, whether that is a standalone bill or part of a larger legislative package remains to be seen right now. If it makes it out of the House, it’ll go to the Senate and then hopefully to the President’s desk.

Congressman Zinke: Yes, the bill has been passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee, which is a positive next step. We’ve been working on gathering more support from our House colleagues, and anticipate floor time hopefully once we’re back from the August recess. From there , we wait for our Senate colleagues to act. I look forward to wokring to get this bill across the finish line.

To view the published article, click here.

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