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Alabama Electric Utility In Full Swing With Its Integrated Vegetation Management Program

Changing traditional practices means getting out of one's comfort zone, and Florence Utilities did just that when it initiated an integrated vegetation management (IVM) program back in 2005. While the driving force was to maintain right-of-ways (ROWs) more economically, the additional benefit of enhanced wildlife habitat and reduced maintenance costs proved it was a win for all involved: the utility, the landowners and the wildlife.

Looking Back

A few years ago, Joe McPhail joined Florence Utilities as the line supervisor. An arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), McPhail was hired to supervise the line clearance operation and upon arrival, he immediately initiated the IVM program. Once an all-mowing program, McPhail converted to using a combination of mowing and herbicides in the utility's 2,500 miles of ROWs.

“Until this was implemented, everything was mowed,” says McPhail. “Crews did the best they could with the mowing program, but it seemed they were always being pulled off scheduled clearance work to take care of ‘hot' spots, resulting in the whole operation getting out of cycle.”

How'd they do it?

Communicate

It isn't difficult for utilities to move from a mechanical and manual vegetation control program to an IVM approach incorporating the use of herbicides, but it does require some advance planning. The keys to success are strategy and communication: planners must select the IVM strategy best matched to the vegetation and topography for each situation and always walk through the new program with concerned customers and landowners.

Before Florence began the IVM program, it contacted landowners owning land within the ROW system personally to explain the new program, how the herbicide treatment program worked and the natural looking ROWs that would result. “We wanted the public to understand that we were sensitive to wildlife and that we wanted to be good stewards of their land,” McPhail says.

“We told them we wanted to control the invasive species on their property and get it back to the way it used to be,” says McPhail. “Landowners, for the most part, love our IVM program now that they've seen the results.”

The right program, the right products

The plan called for a low-volume foliar hydraulic application as the backbone of the program for most of the first year and basal bark applications carried out in the winter months. ROWs were mowed in year one and sprayed in year two with a low-volume spray program.

“By mowing first, we were able to get our spray equipment in easily and do a good application job,” says McPhail. “Once sprayed, the right-of-way tract was scheduled for follow-up treatments.”

Florence's IVM program continues to evolve. For the first time in 2006, the utility used Habitat® herbicide near stream crossings and in ponds in front and back yards. Designed for use in sensitive aquatic areas, Habitat is primarily considered a product used by aquatic applicators to control aquatic weed species in larger bodies of water. However, it can actually be used in many more areas, including utility ROWs. Habitat is ideal for use in ROWs where aquatic areas exist because it controls several terrestrial brush species including Russian olive, red maple, elm and black locust. Due to the success they've seen with Habitat, Florence plans to use Habitat more often in 2007, eliminating the need for hand trimming.

IVM Bonus for Florence and Wildlife
Since implementing this IVM program, the utility has seen better control and decreased maintenance costs.

“Anytime we can reduce our costs, we're pleased,” says Richard Morrissey, electricity department manager. “This program has improved our ability to maintain rights-of-ways because we're replacing the tall woody brush species with low-growing vegetation. Well-maintained rights-of-ways mean less chance of power outages, and that's critical for us and our customers.”

While McPhail was sold on the IVM program because of the easier and less costly vegetation control it provides, he also liked the additional benefit of natural-looking ROWs that support all types of wildlife.

“We haven't done actual studies on how much more wildlife we are seeing, but my observations tell me there is more,” he reports. “In one area where we sprayed, I noticed a large covey of quail. Quail numbers have been on a steady decline in Alabama for several years, so it was heartening to see such a big covey. We're also seeing an increase in the number of deer and turkey roaming the ROWs”

While primarily dedicated to transferring energy, ROWs also can exemplify a diverse and highly productive habitat component known as “early successional” habitat. Early successional habitat is defined by wildlife experts as habitat structure that has annual and perennial forbs, grasses and legumes present.

Harvey Holt, Ph.D., Professor of Forestry, Purdue University, says habitat diversity, such as that offered by a transmission or distribution line right-of-way, is critically important for wildlife to flourish.

“Mowing reduces plant diversity while the opposite is true with an IVM program,” says Holt.

“Diversity doesn't only mean more plant species, but also means a more diverse habitat structure. By this, I mean we have short plants and taller plants. Different wildlife prefer different types of structure for protective cover, nesting and feeding.”

Holt says that ROWs maintained with wildlife in mind also serve as travel corridors for some animals. “These corridors have a tremendous impact in terms of animal movement and dispersal patterns,” says Holt.

Florence Utilities stands as an example of the possibilities that exist when a well-run IVM program is implemented. Their program not only reduced costs and improved their ability to maintain right-of-ways, but it also created natural looking ROWs that support all types of wildlife – the ideal balance for any utility IVM program.

Always read and follow label directions. Habitat is a registered trademark of BASF.