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Moving From Compliance to ROW Stewardship

May 16, 2023
Environmental protection isn’t just good for compliance—it’s good for business, too.

As one of the most highly regulated industries, utilities have a track record of upping their utility vegetation management (UVM) game and proving their willingness to become good environmental stewards. A growing list of endangered and threatened species coupled with encouragement from various wildlife programs is providing the impetus for utilities to move toward even greater participation in conservation efforts.

Utility corridors are shown to provide suitable habitat for insects, birds, plants, mammals and species of conservation concern. As such, utilities have a unique opportunity to help preserve the natural ecosystem by promoting the health of pollinators and wildlife habitats.

Cultivating biodiverse habitats is not only beneficial for the environment, but it’s also in the best interest of utilities. In fact, this is a chance for utilities to push their environmental protection efforts beyond just a “feel-good” effort or a compliance initiative. By integrating ROW habitat conservation best practices and new protocols into their management plans, utilities can make a real impact in helping thwart the decline of rare and endangered species, including several pollinator species.
Pollinator species need habitats to help sustain their population — and people need pollinators. That’s because, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 90 percent of fruits and vegetables depend on pollinators. Protecting pollinators means protecting the ecosystem and ensuring a global food supply.

“It’s no secret that pollinator populations have declined dramatically in the past 25 years, and their continued decline could impact the function of native ecosystems and pollination of our food production systems,” says Adam Baker, Ph.D., technical advisor and pollinator ecologist at The Davey Tree Expert Company’s Davey Institute. “All land use sectors — including utilities — are desperately needed to play a role in helping restore food and habitat resources for butterflies, bees and other pollinators.”

For some utilities, putting a stop to a decline in pollinators might require re-thinking traditional ways of managing vegetation in the ROW. Instead, utilities might want to consider implementing scientifically defensible, long-term vegetation management strategies supporting biodiversity and encouraging healthy pollinator habitats.

Butterflies and Biodiversity

With an estimated 10 million acres of utility corridors, utility vegetation managers are well positioned to cultivate ROW habitats that support biodiversity, as well as provide flyways for migratory birds, monarch butterflies and other imperiled species.

Not only will cultivating biodiverse ROW habitats support botanical and pollinator communities, but it is also likely to benefit utilities, too. This is especially important with respect to potentially qualifying for participation in certain wildlife programs.

Programs like the Monarch Conservation Candidate Agreement with Assurances (CCAA), Wildlife Habitat Council and Million Pollinator Garden Challenge among others, encourage utilities and others to participate in conservation and monitoring of managed lands in support of the health and proliferation
of adult and larval insects, including the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).

As an example, utility lands qualified and enrolled in the Monarch CCAA program are exempt from certain limitations and regulatory restrictions surrounding the monarch’s population status — now and in the foreseeable future. That’s good news, of course, for utilities. Equally good, says Baker, is that utilities that opt to diversify ROW vegetation can improve habitat quality and build upon their sustainability initiatives.
“Not only is there the benefit of possibly becoming certified by various wildlife organizations like Monarch CCAA,” explains Baker, “but when utilities create a diverse landscape next to public areas, they can enhance the proverbial bang for their conservation buck by creating tangible evidence of goodwill for and within the community. The public can appreciate when a utility has cultivated a place where monarch butterflies, warblers and other wildlife are thriving. They may also enjoy other amenities, such as bike paths and walking trails that meander through ROW habitats.”

But that’s not all. Here are two other ways that are proven to support successful operation:

  • Long-term reduction in maintenance costs: Over time, establishing and maintaining a stable community of appropriate plants requires less maintenance than traditional cyclical approaches.
  • Increased employee engagement: When employees understand and appreciate that a habitat program benefits their community, the environment, and their company’s bottom line, they have a greater sense of pride that, in turn, causes them to become very engaged with both the process and the outcome.

Preserving the Natural Ecosystem

Utilities can facilitate this level of participation in conservation and monitoring of their managed lands by taking a multifaceted approach using both UVM and integrated vegetation management (IVM).

Traditional approaches to UVM typically involve reliability-focused controls and cost-effective vegetation removals to meet short-term compliance needs. IVM is a specialized component of UVM focused on using site-specific approaches to achieve multiple objectives — like diversifying vegetation to preserve the natural ecosystem while also achieving reliability, compliance and cost control requirements.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines IVM as “… the practice of promoting desirable, stable, low-growing plant communities — that will resist invasion by tall-growing tree species — through the use of appropriate, environmentally sound and cost-effective control methods. These methods can include a combination of chemical, biological, cultural, mechanical and/or manual treatments.”

Benefits of IVM

If a utility’s only goal is compliance, it would manage its lands differently than a utility that’s committed to both environmental stewardship and playing an active role within the communities they serve, Baker says.

“By taking a more holistic approach that combines UVM with IVM, our customers are creating more diverse habitat landscapes that naturally support imperiled species while also combating invasive species to improve reliability and sustainability,” he says.

IVM is proving to have significant and far-reaching benefits. Not only does an IVM program on a ROW promote safe, reliable and cost-effective electric power, according to the EPA, it also helps “reduce wildlife habitat fragmentation and allow species to be geographically diverse, remaining in areas they might otherwise be excluded.”

The Science of ROW Conservation

Author Stephen Covey said to “begin with the end in mind,” and that concept can apply to improving ROW stewardship. “Practicing environmental stewardship by transforming ROWs into conservation areas is simple, not easy — but it is worth it,” says Scott Eikenbary, project manager for the Davey Resource Group (DRG), a subsidiary of The Davey Tree Expert Company. “You can’t simply eradicate non-desirable plants and put in a bunch of host plants. It takes a lot of commitment, monitoring and patience to understand what exists in the ROW before transforming it, to assess the biodiversity and to track changes over time. It also takes an upfront investment to develop long-lasting strategies that support the goal of creating environmental and ecological sustainability. We recommend a cost-benefit analysis that shows how costs are reduced over time. But keep in mind that IVM is not just a monetary investment; it’s also an investment and commitment to society and the environment.”

“Practicing environmental stewardship by transforming ROWs into conservation areas is simple, not easy — but it is worth it.”

When it comes to stewardship, the more diverse the plant community, the better. That’s why assessing biodiversity and tracking it over time in relation to IVM practices is so important.

Pollinators and host plants are often used as indicator species to assess environmental health, Baker added.

“At Davey, we employ scientifically defensible methodologies to monitor, track and assess the health of the ecosystem and its response to IVM practices,” he says. “We also developed technology-based solutions that enable reliable and consistent collection of key data points.”

Methods for baseline data and continuous monitoring for changes in ecosystem function and potential disturbances to habitat include, but are not limited to, these nondestructive sampling and quantifying methods:

  • Surveys to track the number and species and abundance of butterflies, bees and other pollinators
  • Vegetation surveys that assess the number and type of floral (nectar and pollen) resources
  • Counts of keystone plants that may be indicators of habitat health and quality
  • Visual assessment of habitat features, such as snags, brush piles, bare ground and wetlands
  • Scorecards to measure habitat quality and composition
  • Invasive species presence

By employing a robust protocol like IVM, utilities can go beyond meeting compliance standards, and, instead, develop a science-based action plan in support of environmental, social and corporate governance goals. They can also better engage the public in their environmental initiatives, as well as verify and report results for participation in ecological certification programs like Monarch CCAA, Habitat Wildlife Council and others.

The benefits of establishing habitat on ROWs far outweigh any potential drawbacks. This opportunity for utilities to assess biodiversity, track changes over time, evaluate successes and promote sustainability can transform a ROW from a parcel of land into something far more valuable: a true asset that benefits the utility and the customers and communities it serves.

Jill Golden ([email protected]) is a project manager in corporate communications for The Davey Tree Expert Company, which offers UVM and IVM services as well as tree, lawn care and environmental consulting services throughout the United States and Canada. Golden earned her bachelor’s degree in public relations from Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.

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