The Power of Pollinators – Reclaiming ROW Habitats

The Power of Pollinators – Reclaiming ROW Habitats

Innovation

By Consulting Utility Foresters Kevin Baggett, Christina Cunningham, & Russ Maxwell, on behalf of North Georgia Electric Membership Corporation

 

While the safety and reliability of electric and gas facilities are of great importance for our society, vegetation managers and utility arborists also focus strongly on environmental stewardship. Suppressing incompatible and undesirable vegetation around electric and gas lines provides optimal accessibility for vegetation management crews. Emergency service crews must also have quick and efficient access to their rights-of-way (ROW). These rights-of-way are not appropriate homes for tall or fast-growing vegetation that threaten service reliability. However, they are very useful swaths of land. The environment surrounding these facilities are prime habitat for a large variety of species such as birds, reptiles, mammals, amphibians, and most importantly pollinators. Utilities, from the smallest cooperative to the largest transmission system, are uniquely poised with the opportunity to participate in environmental stewardship through habitat reclamation.

North Georgia E.M.C (NGEMC) is situated in the northwest corner of Georgia spanning across six counties and possessing just under 6,500 miles of overhead distribution lines. This territory contains low lying swampy areas, flat farmlands and high mountain passes. A significant extent of its membership is in mountainous, rural terrain, which provides difficult and poor access to utility ROW. An expansive system, diverse topography and the discontinuation of herbicide application over the past decade, make ROW maintenance for NGEMC even more costly and challenging.

The incompatible and undesirable vegetation that has grown freely since the stop of herbicide treatments has increased maintenance costs as cycle busters and high priced hot-spot trimming are required to prevent outages. This process of ROW management, which involves the mowing and hand cutting of woody growth, creates a disturbance in the environment that inadvertently promotes the proliferation of the same incompatible and undesirable species that NGEMC routinely seeks to remove from their ROW.

With integrated methods of vegetation management, we will be able to maintain the safety and reliability of electrical facilities and promote environmental stewardship.

To maintain its five-year prescribed vegetation management cycle, NGEMC is making changes and improvements to some of its processes. With the increase in growing season length and frequency, a series of integrated methods will be used to help keep pruning teams on pace and reduce the need for maintenance in the future. NGEMC also asked if they could do even more while still accomplishing their reliability requirements.

As vegetation management professionals, we are familiar with dire situations pollinator species are facing. Additionally, grassland loss has become one of the largest conservation issues in the southeastern region of the United States. An estimated 90 percent of historical ranges have been lost since the colonization of North America according to Southeastern Grasslands Initiative. This loss in habitat, has caused many pollinator species to be threatened or have endangered statuses. The loss of these pollinator species will not only impact the loss of local rare vegetative species but also have a significant impact on the commercial agriculture industry.

Utilities like NGEMC can reclaim ROW spaces for pollinator species by promoting the growth of grasses, wildflowers and other compatible native vegetation. Low-growing plants that provide healthy wildlife habitats can outcompete aggressive, incompatible vegetation. With integrated methods of vegetation management, we will be able to maintain the safety and reliability of electrical facilities and promote environmental stewardship.

Facilitating the health of grasses and native species through secondary succession has been used for many years in transmission ROW and gas pipeline, yet we have seen little research on the success of these methods on overhead distribution ROW. NGEMC’s staff strongly believes that the responsibility of environmental stewardship warrants the establishment of test sites on their system, especially in terrain that is hard to maintain. Through these test sites, NGEMC hopes to establish new research regarding the use of secondary succession on distribution ROW.

By using integrated methods to remove incompatible and undesirable plant species, NGEMC may significantly enhance its ROW resiliency while reducing the number of tree-caused outages. Compatible and desirable plant species will be established and will eventually thrive, reducing the frequency of needed routine maintenance. NGEMC members who reside on ROW reclaimed by native grasses and wildflowers should expect to have fewer outages while enjoying new and increased habitat for pollinators such as bees, butterflies and songbirds.

Facilitating the health of grasses and native species through secondary succession has been used for many years in transmission ROW and gas pipeline, yet we have seen little research on the success of these methods on overhead distribution ROW.

An equally important aspect of environmental stewardship is the opportunity for collaboration in establishing a plan or project. Whether your organization is seeking to save a declining species, develop new methods to clean a waterway or raise support for sustainable practices, you can include others as partners in your work. No matter their role, every partner in your stewardship initiative expands awareness and outreach.

For NGEMC, this means partnering with local and state agencies, civic organizations, and area schools and colleges for learning and engagement opportunities. Including the community and the co-op membership in stewardship efforts is critical. Assisting others to achieve shared goals for a shared environment is vital. NGEMC hopes that the research resulting from their test sites will allow other utilities and organizations the opportunity for outreach should they choose to start a similar project in the future.

The charge of making a positive impact on the environment today is a daunting task. Everyday new challenges arise, and when viewed as a whole, they seem insurmountable. However, if we narrow our focus and look to our neighbors for help, we can create meaningful change. Environmental stewardship provides us the opportunity to collaborate locally and globally with those facing similar challenges and allows us the prospect of finding real, attainable solutions that we can all share.

 

This article was originally published in the November/December 2019 issue of the Utility Arborist Newsline.

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