Managing Utility ROW Mechanically

This article was submitted, in part, in response to the article, “Report Finds IVM Can Be Greener and Less Costly for ROW Management,” by Geoff Kempter, in the June 2020 issue of TCI.

John C. Brown and Sons, Inc., went from using mostly integrated vegetation management (IVM) for clearing and maintenance of utility rights of way to a mostly mechanical program. “We decided as a company to design and create a mowing program that would be appealing to the utilities, the environmental field and the general public,” says the author, a supervisor with the company’s mowing division. All photos courtesy of the author.

Over the course of my 30 years of working utility rights of way (ROWs), I’ve seen many different approaches to maintaining utility easements. Most people driving across the beautiful scenery in New England don’t bat an eye while passing by a transmission ROW. Others –animal lovers, hunters, bird watchers, etc. – seem to know that transmission ROWs are some of the best areas for early successional habitat because of the cutting of vegetation on a cyclical basis. People understand, for the most part, that maintenance is a common practice we all do for some reason or another. We cut our lawns, we cut our hair, heck, we even cut our toenails.

We in the line-clearance and utility industry understand that trees/brush and power lines are not compatible. So we have to rectify this situation by having a plan. What a lot of people who are not in the industry don’t understand is the preparation that goes into this vegetation-management plan. One stem of brush can cause havoc, as we saw in August 2003 when power was cut off to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in the Northeast. This sparked new regulations and a strong utility response to ensure this would not happen again. Now comes the big question. Which management plan is going to give the financial and environmental results the utilities are looking for, mechanical or herbicidal, or a combination of the two?

Is there right or wrong?

Our company has been in the utility industry for 45-plus years supporting utility maintenance and other various vegetation needs for our valued customers. We were an integrated vegetation management (IVM) company for many years before we decided to break away from the chemical application end of maintenance. It became clear to us that we needed to direct our focus to a different diversification of our business. As years went by, we had a vision of a more environmentally friendly approach to maintaining the utility infrastructure, rather than just using chemicals designed to kill (eliminate) undesirable species and that would reside in the soils for who knows how long.

We decided as a company to design and create a mowing program that would be appealing to the utilities, the environmental field and the general public. After some trial and error, we were ready to present our plan to all who were interested.

Program 101

We knew we had to start with safety, then work the mowing plan around this. We first had our crew in house for a review of our expectations for each person involved, so the concept could be implemented for all to follow and understand.

Morning tailboard

Morning tailboard meetings are mandatory for the crew. These are led by the field supervisor or general foreperson on site, with full input from all participants. Naturally, we discuss location of the work, town, streets that work is being performed on, etc. We next discuss the hazards associated with the project and the mitigation steps to control them. We discuss the energy-source facilities and the controls needed to work around them, including voltage and minimum-approach distances (MAD).

The ground crew gets the tough areas – steep terrain or wetlands, and sensitive areas that do not allow mowing or herbicides due to the presence of a rare plant or wildlife.

We continue on to any special precautions that need to be addressed. Then on to emergency medical services, identifying the closest medical facility in case of an emergency, including the name and location as well as the phone number. Before we sign off, we review all personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements that will be needed to perform the tasks. Once the crew members acknowledge that they comprehend our tailboard discussion, we sign off.

General overview

Utilities usually provide structure sheets and maps, giving us insight into the details of precautions or important things that need to be monitored or addressed, including endangered plants and mammals, historical markers and any agreements that pertain to the easement. All of this information is discussed with the crew on a daily basis after the tailboard, so the whole crew is aware of the daily activities and procedures needed to perform at our safest and most proficient to meet our goals.

The utilities need year-round access to the structures in the event of an emergency or just for general structure maintenance.

Ground workers

Ground workers must understand the need for them to lead the preparation for the mowers so that every precaution is in place for successful progress. They start out in advance of the machinery, cutting a radius of 10 feet around structures and guy wires, as well as hanging ribbons on the guy wires so the operators see them. They venture ahead of the machines, marking any obstacles that could affect progress while keeping in mind our morning discussions of the scope of work. At day’s end, unless something required them to notify supervisory personnel immediately, they report any unusual situations they may have come across, as well as the status of the easement.

Mower operators

Every morning and at day’s end, mower operators perform a walk-around inspection of their machinery. They check for leaks, loose wires or damage to the machine that may cause a problem. They then proceed with a focus on the activities that had been discussed earlier at the scope-of-work talk.

Traversing their way down the easement, selectively mowing undesirable vegetation while leaving the compatible vegetation for the equal balance that’s needed to keep the cultural status of the land, operators’ objectives are clear. The utilities need access to the structures in the event of an emergency or just for general structure maintenance. The sag zones need to be clear of any vegetation that could be a hazard due to the fluctuations of the wires from extreme heat and electric capacity on those hot July and August days. Operators are trained on the best management practices (BMPs) and standards required by the state agencies for proper custodianship of the utility easement. The mower operators’ training goes to the degree of wetland identification and comprehension of the BMPs for the activities at hand near these areas.

Spotters for the mowers are a must-have asset as part of this successful program. Their responsibilities include, but are not limited to, spotting for wires, whether crossing roads or in general, looking for potential hazards that may obstruct the mowers’ progress and performing “turtle sweeps” as needed – to spot turtles and other wildlife that may need to be protected. Crossing roads or driveways is another responsibility of the spotter, to make sure before crossing that there is a discussion with operators as to: 1) the traffic-control plan, 2) if there are overhead wires or hazards to be aware of and 3) use of composite strips or planking for asphalt protection. We also have a lowbed truck available when needed for areas that are a non-crossing situation, i.e., with a median, fences or other obstacles that would make it unsafe or not possible to drive across.

Ground crew

The ground crew must be versatile in our company. They are the last set of eyes patrolling behind the mowers. They get the tough areas – steep terrain or wetlands, and sensitive areas that do not allow mowing or herbicides due to the presence of a rare plant or wildlife. They sometimes even beautify yard areas to complete our contractual agreement. Whether it’s mowing or IVM, this group is a necessity for each program.

IVM

My personal feelings are that, while herbicides are an important tool for the arborist, often in the long run, after every few cycles of herbicides, mowing needs to take place. This may be due to undesirable species taking over the easement, making great habitat for some, but not all, species to enjoy. And annual inspections on foot for hazard-tree awareness, structure inspection, etc., are difficult to perform properly and safely in our region due to having to get through the same multiflora rose and sumac you’re trying to manage. Also, the kill ratio from the chemical isn’t known for a period of time; therefore, you could be required to send the crew back to the same location multiple times until you achieve the results that meet the utility’s specifications.

On the other hand, mowing gives you instant results with, in my opinion, fewer opportunities for hazards when properly supervised. It is also a year-round service, allowing certain areas to benefit from mowing depending on the season that gives that area the best results. We use a low-ground-pressure, tracked, excavator-style mower that gives us capability regardless of the conditions or terrain. With 360 degrees of maneuverability and excellent visibility, including cameras that allow the operator to better see around the machine, the operator can selectively leave or remove vegetation.

With today’s advanced technology and equipment, lower emissions and, most important, great policies and procedures put into programs, mechanical ROW clearance and maintenance has come a very long way with regard to safety and advancing things such as species diversification and ecological balance of this great planet we all need for generations to come. We continue to mow 5,000 to 7,500 acres of utility easement a year. We also have diversified our clientele in that we mow for many entities outside of utilities, such as fish and game, municipalities, federal lands, local contractors and, yes, even farmers needing to open land for raising crops.

I will end by saying something told to me a long time ago when I thought one way was the only way. This man said, “You know, son, every tool has its purpose and place!” I kind of have to agree. But after 30 years, I love talking about the mowing program I put so much effort into developing and promoting, and I’m proud to supply good jobs for our employees and their families.

Michael Snook, CTSP, is a supervisor with the Brontosaurus Mowing Division of John C. Brown and Sons, Inc., a six-year TCIA member company based in Weare, New Hampshire.

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