To provide the necessary energy and transportation needs of our country, transmission lines, pipelines, rails, and roads cross millions of acres. All these and the lands immediately adjacent to, under, or above them make up rights-of-way (ROWs), providing safe and reliable transportation of people, energy, and materials. Proper management of these ROWs is important for the safe and easy access to infrastructure, and at the same time, can provide valuable habitat for wildlife, native species, and pollinators through practicing integrated vegetation management (IVM).
Common clearing of ROWs often involves mowing or clearing the area every 3 to 7 years, however, this often just controls the tops of the plants, and can encourage woody plant regrowth. While longer mower cycles may sound more economical, clearing larger trees to maintain the ROWs can be more expensive. IVM is the process of promoting desirable, stable, low-growing plant communities that will resist the encroachment of trees by using environmentally sound and cost-effective control methods. Methods used can include one or more controls, such as chemical, biological, cultural, and mechanical. For the company or land manager, IVM looks to balance control, cost, public health, environmental quality and regulatory compliance, as well as reducing vegetative management costs, improving native habitat, limiting runoff, controlling the spread of invasive species, and creating wildlife natural surroundings.
Overgrown vegetation and trees on a ROWs have been directly tied to power outages on transmission and distribution power lines. Through IVM, native low-growing grassy and broadleaf communities are created to help resist the establishment of woody plants, thus lowering costs for the company in routine cutting and chemical use. Native plants help to stabilize the soil, decreasing erosion, and providing food and shelter for birds, insects and wildlife. These early successional habitats are especially beneficial for pollinators, especially the monarch butterfly that is in decline and may be considered for an endangered species listing in 2019.
Monarchs travel from overwintering in Mexico and migrate to the northern US states and Canada, breeding multiple generations along the way. ROWs providing proper pollinator habitat throughout the US would be beneficial to the butterflies.
Voluntary conservation programs can help keep plants, insects, and animals from being listed as endangered species. Companies can be heavily impacted if a ROW is considered habitat for an endangered species. By providing habitat upfront to keep a species like the monarch from being listed on the endangered species list, management of the ROWs is more easily maintained.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service identifies species that are candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as those that have enough information regarding their biological status to propose them as threatened, but listing them is currently precluded by higher priority listing activities. The Service provides a voluntary program called the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) where property owners are provided regulatory assurances if they would like to voluntarily agree to manage lands so that threats to the potential endangered species are removed or reduced. More information about CCAAs can be found on the Service’s website.
The Energy Resources Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago hosts the Rights-of-Way as Habitat Working Group, a unique collaboration of professionals from across multiple sectors, including gas, electric, rail, and road industries interested in supporting habitat on rights-of-way and other working landscapes. A variety of resource materials can be found on the ERC website.