Embracing a preferred alternative

Grass path with trees on both sides

Over 10 years ago, Egyptian Electric Cooperative made the decision to start using selective herbicides as part of its vegetation management program throughout utility rights-of-way. Doing so has enhanced worksite safety, improved conditions for the development of native plant communities, and reduced maintenance costs along the way.

As a consumer-owned corporation that supplies utility services to members in portions of 10 counties in southwestern Illinois, Egyptian Electric Cooperative is responsible for providing safe and reliable power to more than 15,000 households and businesses each year. And while the co-op succeeds in doing so, it is working behind the scenes to ensure utility site accessibility and peace of mind for surrounding communities.

As recently as 2008, funding for Egyptian Electric’s vegetation management program was relatively low. At that time, mowing and mechanical approaches represented the co-op’s go-to method of control for incompatible brush and plant species. But after a 2009 storm wreaked havoc throughout southwestern portions of the state and compromised utility site accessibility, Egyptian Electric decided to identify a more sustainable solution that could help restructure the co-op’s vegetation management strategies, reduce undesirable stem densities and improve worksite and electrical transmission safety throughout utility right-of-way (ROW) corridors.

Tall-growing vegetation can impede access to rights-of-way and jeopardize the availability of utility service when it grows or falls into power lines. Egyptian Electric needed a method of control that could effectively target incompatible brush species without increasing the cost of maintenance. Travis Deterding, a forestry and safety manager who has worked on land supervised by Egyptian Electric for over 15 years, says the use of selective herbicides presented an effective and cost-efficient alternative to the co-op’s mechanical strategies.

“When it comes to our program, the ultimate goals are safety and reliability,” Deterding says. “In the past, we couldn’t access rights-of-way to spray because vegetation was too thick and too tall. In heavily forested areas, we had to bring in specialty equipment mowers to take care of that, and it was expensive.”

In addition to increased maintenance costs, mowing practices present a variety of environmental and safety hazards. When slopes or hillsides are wet, they are prone to rutting, and the use of large equipment can result in flying debris. This poses a risk to not only workers on site but also surrounding wildlife. Worst of all, mowing is a nonselective method of control, meaning native plant communities are impacted by mowing practices as much as targeted brush.

“We no longer have to subject the equipment and people to that type of terrain,” Deterding says. “We can keep our areas controlled with herbicides.”

To get key decision-makers to fully embrace chemical control methods, Deterding presented projected labor costs and images of field-tested results to Egyptian Electric’s general manager as well as the co-op’s board of directors. Deterding shared images that showcased selective herbicide applications and their ability to effectively control incompatible brush species. Field tests also limited resprouting, which is a common problem with physical control methods like mowing.

"Trees are prolific resprouters,” Deterding says. “You can mow them, but two to three years later, you’re at the point where your right-of-way is inaccessible again.”

Controlling target plant species allows selective herbicides to effectively ensure the development of compatible plant communities. As stem densities lower over time, less maintenance is required, and low-growing vegetation is able to thrive. Having to mow less certainly appealed to Egyptian Electric’s board of directors from an economic standpoint, but the ability to protect the development of native plants made the integration of selective herbicide applications all the more intriguing.

“Herbicides are desirable because you can be more selective,” Deterding says. “With mowing, desirable plants are going to get the same treatment as undesirables. With herbicides, we can go in there and selectively treat a pretty specific area within a right-of-way.”

Initiating change

Considering the economic impact and increased efficacy of herbicides, Egyptian Electric’s board of directors decided to endorse the use of selective herbicides by doubling the co-op’s vegetation management budget in 2010. At first, high-volume applications were used to effectively target some of the region’s most troublesome species, which include autumn olive, shrub honeysuckle and Callery pear. However, as time has gone on, the stem densities of these incompatible brush species have diminished to the point that the amount of herbicide required to control each species has reduced significantly, and applicators now use backpacks or utility terrain vehicles to complete low-volume applications directly. As the level of incompatible brush control has improved, so has ROW accessibility.

"It’s amazing,” Deterding says. “When you start a herbicide program and stick with it, you go from not being able to walk through a right-of-way to now having low-growing vegetation. You no longer have accessibility issues.”

Part of Egyptian Electric’s success can be attributed to the use of effective herbicide products. As a Pasture and Land Management territory manager with Corteva Agriscience, Stacie Songer works to ensure customers have access to the right selective herbicides for their application needs. In the case of Egyptian Electric, Vastlan® herbicide continues to represent a suitable solution for target plant species throughout the co-op’s ROW corridors.

“Vastlan herbicide is a mainstay of any brush control program,” Songer says. “As an essentially nonvolatile product that can be used in nearly any situation where grass-safe brush and broadleaf weed control is needed, Vastlan can be used on a variety of application sites, including utility rights-of-way.”

Today, Egyptian Electric uses Vastlan and other selective herbicide products to ensure approximately 500 miles of utility rights-of-way are effectively managed each year throughout southwestern Illinois. Whereas mowing previously accounted for 20% of the program’s budget in 2008, only 10% to 12% is used today to clean up the results of planned cycle trimming.

“You can always have a mechanical component to ROW maintenance,” Deterding says. “But you’re going to spend a lot more money mowing than you would with herbicides.”

Addressing public concerns

Despite the improvements selective herbicide applications have provided to the efficiency and efficacy of Egyptian Electric’s vegetation management program, Deterding reports that members of the general public are still skeptical of chemical methods of control. To ease these concerns, Egyptian Electric has taken measures to address public misperceptions in an informational and productive manner.

“I think typically the apprehension comes from not being educated about herbicides, the value they bring to a program and how they are beneficial from an environmental standpoint,” Deterding says.

In the past, Egyptian Electric had sent out notecard mailers to let members of the community know when licensed applicators were going to be servicing their area with products approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Today, phone calls are used to increase awareness and encourage the public to call the co-op’s office to have questions or concerns addressed directly. Keeping this transparency allows Deterding and other members of Egyptian Electric’s vegetation management program to educate the public, explain the benefits their work provides and find potential treatment alternatives if necessary.

“Communicate, communicate, communicate,” Deterding says. “Make that phone call; knock on that door. It’s a matter of finding out what the public doesn’t like and providing information that can help them understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

To learn more about selective herbicide applications, the environmental benefits they provide and industry-leading products supporting a variety of use sites across the country, visit VegetationMgmt.com.

 

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