Right-of-Way Vegetation Management Programs

Nov. 1, 2003
Each state develops its own right-of-way vegetation management programs and decides how it will adopt the noxious-weed laws. The need for noxious-weed laws and vegetation management programs began with pressure from the agricultural community, according to National Roadside Vegetation Management Association Executive Director Paul Northcutt. “If invasive species migrate to crops, then you end up with a costly infestation. Farmers have a direct interest in controlling weeds and other pests,” Northcutt explains. “While each state adopts its own laws, many of the states have very strict laws and weed-control programs.” State departments of transportation (DOTs) all have a vegetation management program of some kind, he adds. The days are gone when roadside crews could simply sharpen a mower blade and calibrate their backpack sprayers – and rely on those for their only tools. Right-of-way vegetation managers now are fluent in botany, forestry, chemistry, entomology, and soil sciences. For most, that’s only a beginning list of specialties. In addition to having an exemplary knowledge base, managers must be good decision-makers and public relations experts, and they must work cooperatively with other offices and agencies at the state and federal levels for a successful management plan. Northcutt lists having a good vegetation management plan in place as the number-one thing necessary for success of a program. What’s a Right of Way; Where Did It Come From?
Scotch broom along a Washington highwayRights of way became crucial when travel and delivery of utilities became necessary for society to function. Transportation rights of way are found along highways and roadsides, railroad tracks, and airports. Public irrigation waterways, surface drainage, public bargeways, and areas around dams have public rights of way. Easements are critical for utility companies to gain access to switching stations, transmission and distribution lines, and substations. Overgrown vegetation can be a danger for citizens as it limits visibility or presents a fire hazard. Ensuring the safety of the common transport involved is the major goal of vegetation management, along with protecting its operation and stability. In the case of utilities and transportation, continuance of service is essential to customer satisfaction. Lee H. Townsend of the Department of Entomology at University of Kentucky and editor of the university Cooperative Extension Service’s “Training Manual for Right-of-Way Vegetation Management” lists the following as the primary goals of a vegetation management program: Naturalize the right of way using native plants where possible to make it blend in with surrounding landscape and benefit the native ecosystemReduce maintenance costsReduce erosion and water-quality problemsProvide food and shelter for wildlifeHaving a Reliable PlanIf having a sound vegetation management plan is the primary item to successfully managing right-of-way areas, what should a plan include and what results can be expected? Townsend reports, “A properly planned and executed management program uses varied control techniques and strategies that are determined by economics, terrain, vegetation and public relations. The program should have options for alternative management methods, such as cropping and grazing, as well as chemical weed and brush control.” Townsend lists the results of good planning and execution: Increased public acceptance of the right-of-way facilityFewer complaints about the right of wayReduced maintenance costsDecreased damage to facilities and structuresFewer operational interruptionsIncreased safetyImproved public relations and less legal difficulty with public action groups and right-of-way neighborsReduced erosion and water pollutionImproved cost planning and controlBetter utilization of equipment and reduced workload fluctuationThere are three main control methods in right-of-way vegetation management. Biological control uses animals, birds, insects, and competing plants to control unwanted vegetation. Mechanical control is the age-old technique of manually removing or cutting plants. Mechanical control includes mowing, handpulling and pruning, hoeing, controlled burns, and in some areas flooding. Mechanical controls are the most labor-intensive and result in higher costs. They are often limited by rough and steep terrain. More-rugged areas often are left with chemical control as the only workable option. Chemical controls have a variety of uses and have become safer to use in more areas. No matter which control measure is used, or whether they are combined, an honest approach in public relations benefits the overall plan for everyone. Insects as Biocontrol A wildlife biologist shows this Bug Crew how to collect Galerucella beetles, which keep the purple loosestrife in check.In five counties of southern Idaho, weeds currently infest many acres of rangeland and agricultural land. Diffuse and spotted knapweeds are some of the worst weeds on roadside rights of way and in Camas and Lincoln Counties. Herbicide spraying is a difficult decision because the area is a flyway for many birds. And because of the isolation of the area, organic farmers have found it ideal for their crops. In the heat of summer, around July and August, it’s not uncommon to see teenagers crowded around a mesh tent with their crew leaders along Highway 26 between Gooding and Lincoln Counties. But these enthusiastic teens aren’t camping; they’re the “Bug Crews” from the Southern Idaho Regional Bio-Control program, and they’re carefully checking the counts on the beneficial insects they’re rearing in tents to be transplanted later to another knapweed-infested roadside.The Southern Idaho Regional Bio-Control program was started as a way to use biocontrol measures to limit weeds and allow desirable plants to reestablish. The minimum time duration for the project, according to Program Administrator Nan Reedy, is five years. The timeline was set to account for weed-control effectiveness, revegetation of desirable plant species, and impacts of any year-to-year weather variables. “The program’s goal is to use beneficial insects to control the spread of diffuse and spotted knapweed, leafy spurge, Dalmatian toadflax, and purple loosestrife,” Reedy explains. To meet this goal, the program has several objectives: (1) establish working groups of diverse individuals in three or more counties to oversee the project and select student researchers to do the fieldwork; (2) select six or more sites in each of the counties as insect-release sites, based on such factors as degree of infestation by targeted noxious weed, accessibility of the site, cooperation of the land manager (public or private), and isolation from the general public; (3) protect each site from grazing if necessary; (4) install a 6- x 12-ft. mesh tent to help establish the insects after the initial release; (5) count plant and insect populations within each selected site; (6) record and monitor all data collected; (7) summarize the collected data; and (8) publish statistical analysis of data.This sounds like a pretty tall order, but the Camas Soil Conservation District is delighted that the Bug Crew project has become a regional noxious-weed-control effort. High school and middle school students are used to spread the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)­approved biological-control insects into the infected areas, including federal, state, and private properties. Under Reedy’s direction, the students monitor their sites and collect data. Precise records are kept with accuracy checked and stressed by the crew leaders, Lisa Carnohan in Gooding County and Bridget Kapala in Blaine County.Carnohan takes the Gooding crew to scout right-of-way strips and look for infested areas. They currently have six sites where they monitor purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and five sites where they monitor knapweed (Centaurea diffusa and C. maculosa). To be eligible for the program, the weedy strips should measure 100 ft. in all four map directions from a center stake. Once a site is identified that meets the criteria, crews drive the identification stake in the ground and begin recording. “Using a Daubenmire frame [a 20-square-inch frame], students record stem counts, measure height and determine cover scale, and figure the percentage of weeds present,” Carnohan explains. “The final preliminary step is to photograph the site.” Monitoring is done once a month by repeating and recording the measurements. “The USDA Forest Service entomologists and biologists – namely Dr. George Markin from Bozeman, Montana, and Dayle Bennett and his Boise staff – keep the Bug Crews on firm scientific ground,” Reedy emphasizes. “The kids themselves create a lively public-relations campaign.” Markin tends to downplay his role with the program and says it’s the Idaho leaders and the crews themselves who have made the program a success. “I helped get the insects over there to them,” he says matter-of-factly. “In the first phase, they raised insects in Camas County rights of way. In the second phase, they began moving the insects around to other sites.” Data collected when the program began in 1998 demonstrate that there is less knapweed and a higher percentage of native grasses filling in. Carnohan is excited to see results and says it takes a good four years for the insects to have the intended effect on the knapweeds. For knapweed control, the Bug Crew is rearing Larinus minutus and Urophora affinis, both of which attack the seed heads of the plant. Cyphocleonus achates feeds on the root crown, causing a gall to form, and Sphenoptera jugoslavica mines the root system. The purple loosestrife, however, is under control after one year using Galerucella calmariensis. The insect attacks the leaves and lowers the plants’ ability to photosynthesize. Scott Gamo of Idaho Fish and Game released the Galerucella in the Hagerman Valley where purple loosestrife was choking areas of Snake River. A year later, the only work being done is monitoring and recording of the sites, which the Bug Crew has taken over. “We are the group that takes the scientists’ work to the land where we record baseline vegetative data, then release specific insects, and then monitor the vegetation for five years to help determine the effectiveness of the insects,” says Reedy. “We have seen the success of biocontrol of knapweed, leafy spurge, and purple loosestrife with our own eyes and measured those successes using Daubenmire frames and tape measures – not guesswork. Biocontrol is subtle; it happens right under our noses and goes on day and night 365 days a year as it quietly alters the plant communities that make up the backdrop of the forests and rangelands.” Public Highways and Spraying: Can You See It at 60 mph? Savannah Electric Company serves approximately 320,000 customers over a 2,000-mi.2 region that consists of five counties in urban southeast Georgia. The utility company is concerned with efficiently serving its 117,200 residential and 16,121 commercial customers. Part of its model program includes keeping the number of service interruptions to a minimum. To do so, it’s vital to keep trees and invasive vegetation from growing under and around transmission and distribution lines. Woody vegetation, such as pines, sweet gum, wild cherry, and various species of oak, are a few of the weedy plants that Tim Beale must keep under control. He’s the right-of-way vegetation specialist for Savannah Electric. The company owns most of the property where it has transmission lines, but on right-of-way property with distribution lines, the company relies on easements, Beale explains. “Generally when a line is run across property, a legal document is developed with the property owner and Savannah Electric. These are transferable rights, so they go through with a sale if the property is ever sold.” Beale’s job must be performed under the watchful eye of the public. He explains why the company decided to try a Brown Brush Monitor – one of the first prototypes in 1998. “One reason we decided to try the Brown initially was to avoid the negative perception that brownout and dead brush along the right of way in an urban setting can cause for a utility.” Developed by Brown Manufacturing Company and Dow AgroSciences, the machine is designed for chemical mowing – mowing and applying herbicide in a single pass, making the application of herbicide less obvious to the public. The machine is designed to apply the chemical to the cut ends of stems rather than do a broadcast herbicide application. With the low visibility offered by the mower, crews can reduce incompatible species in right-of-way areas and the public sees it as environmentally friendly.“In urban areas, people are used to seeing mowing along the roadsides,” Beale notes. “But with the Brown, we kill two birds with one stone. That is, we can mow and take out woody vegetation at one time, and we can extend the cycle length. If we reduce mowing, that’s a cost savings to us.” When the company began using the mower, stem densities were fairly high in most locations, with some areas as high as 15,000 stems per acre. Beale says most of the brush was only two years old, and some of the stems measured 3-4 in. at the base after cutting. “The thing about tall, woody species is that they block access to rights of way and we can’t get in to work on the lines. You just can’t drive through all that. But you can drive right over grasses and wildflower covers.” Bill Kline of Dow AgroSciences became frustrated by the never-ending cycles of mowing he observed vegetation managers carrying out. With only so many weed-control methods available – mechanical and chemical being the most commonly used – the Brown Brush Monitor was designed with the idea to mow and apply the herbicide treatments in one pass.  “We tried the mower back then,” Beale says, “and since then they’ve worked some of the bugs out and beefed it up to be even more durable.” Beale says his crew now has the ability to spray along fence lines or up against a building without leaving the cab. The new hand spray gun with 25 ft. of hose allows them to treat fencerows and other hard-to-reach areas. These areas used to be treated with another pass, which essentially amounted to another complete treatment. “Before, we had to come in every three years and mow the whole right-of-way area,” Beale concludes. “Now we’ve cut down on the amount of time it takes because it’s all converted over to wildflowers and grasses.” With the money and time it has saved, Savannah Electric hopes to add a crew with an all-terrain vehicle that can inspect for dangerous trees and also do selective spot treatments for undesirable vegetation. The Battle Against Scotch Broom in Washington Duke Stryker is the road maintenance supervisor for the Washington Department of Transportation and has worked 19 years for the department, 14 of them on the WDOT roadside management program. WDOT has used the Brown Brush Monitor on Interstate 5 by Olympia to control Scotch broom. “It doesn’t have the tendency to throw debris like regular mowers,” Stryker says. “And the public here loves it because it’s so low-profile.” Right-of-way management employees used to mow the Scotch broom at least once a year. With an employee wage of approximately $32 per hour and 24-30 hours of labor involved, Stryker says mowing the Scotch broom alone was costing the state around $960 per employee per year. “As of yet we have not had to re-mow any of the areas that we mowed with the Brown,” he says. “So we’re on a three-year cycle now.” Dana Coggon, weed education specialist with the State of Washington, explains that it’s been critical to control Scotch broom. The woody shrub that can grow up to 10 ft. tall causes visibility problems on the highways if left uncontrolled. The plant is very aggressive, says Coggon, and will compete with newly planted trees in the harvested forests of Washington as well.“It’s a very large ecological detriment to our state,” Coggon says. “Even after removing Scotch broom from an area, we still have to continue surveying the area to monitor for its return.” Scotch broom is a B-class weed in Washington, bringing a fine of $500­$1,500 for failure to control. (See sidebar.)Lake Enhancements in the World of Disney Although rights of way are usually associated with narrow strips of land along roadsides and railroad tracks or under utility lines, other stretches of land that require vegetation management are shorelines, ditches, and waterways. Twenty-five years or so ago when Disney World came to Orlando, FL, the mayor and city fathers of the time decided to spruce up the shorelines around Orlando. To do so, they removed cattails and primrose willows, torpedo grasses, and the ever-aggressive water hyacinths. They replaced the invasive species with more desirable plants, including bulrush, pickerelweed, arrowhead, and alligator-flag. In addition, they planted more than 10,000 cypress trees.John Evertsen currently works with the Lake Enhancement Program for the City of Orlando, maintaining 5,500 ac. of surface water in the 95 lakes located in the greater Orlando area. To control the vigorous water hyacinths along the 114 mi. of shoreline, Evertsen uses Reward, an aquatic-approved Syngenta herbicide. In addition, Evertsen oversees maintenance of 17.43 mi. of shoreline owned directly by the City of Orlando and 68 mi. of swales, ditches, and canals. With the warm Florida climate, the maintenance crews have nine mowing cycles a year and apply herbicide in the ditches approximately five times a year. “Where we’re spraying in an aquatic environment, we have to use the herbicides that are labeled for it, like Reward, Rodeo, 2,4-D, and fluridone, and we use chelated coppers. And we can use some Aquathol for underwater species,” he explains. If you are the type who likes to relax and watch the grass grow, go to Florida; if you’re there for more than a couple of days, you can measure the growth of water hyacinths from the time you arrived. If left unattended, they fill in the ditches and canals in the South very rapidly. “Hyacinths grow year-round,” Evertsen says. “They can actually double their growing area in as little as two weeks. And they have a 10- to 15-year dormancy.” It sounds a little tricky to spray herbicides in lakes where there’s an abundance of people and tourists present. But that doesn’t deter Evertsen from doing what needs to be done. “I tailor the herbicide strictly to the environment,” he notes. “If I am treating a swimming area, I’ll use an herbicide that doesn’t restrict swimming or fishing.” Honesty is the best policy when dealing with the public, and Evertsen trains his employees how to deal with curious onlookers. “We’re open and honest about what we’re doing, and we have the labels right there for them to read if they want to. I can and will even hook them up with a company representative if they’re that interested.”Orlando utility fees assessed to residents, churches, and all commercial businesses pay for the Lake Enhancement Program. No Power – Now What? Mechanical crews clearing trees in the right of way After second spray cycle of herbicide application on the transmission lineIn August 1992, Hurricane Andrew ripped through the Gulf States, including Louisiana, leaving in excess of $26 billion of damage in its wake. Andrew destroyed more than 100,000 homes and annihilated power lines of Dixie Electric Membership Corporation (DEMCO). “Every single customer lost power. It took more than 14 days to restore electricity to our customers,” says Gueth Braddock, DEMCO’s forester. “You can’t imagine how much money and time it took to recover from that storm.” Hurricane Andrew was a driving force at DEMCO to change the way it managed its rights of way. Soon after, the utility company adopted an integrated vegetation management (IVM) program for its 7,000 mi. of distribution lines and 215 mi. of transmission lines. “Hurricane Andrew was also a motivation to hire a professional forester in Gueth Braddock,” notes DEMCO Vice President Greg Lindsly. “We were planning to hire someone with utility experience, but after the problems we had with Andrew and right-of-way restoration, we decided we needed a person to take a look at our program with an intelligent and educated eye, and he has done an excellent job managing a multimillion-dollar project.”Contractors implement the IVM program that Braddock launched in 1993 after joining DEMCO. The IVM program “emphasizes use of low-volume herbicides and adoption of long-term strategies for elimination of undesirable plant species while allowing the growth of vegetation that benefits wildlife as a food source, travel corridors, and ground cover.” Braddock recalls the 25- to 30-ft.-tall brush that grew from the floor up to the power lines 10 years or so ago. At that time, DEMCO did what he calls “hot spotting,” in which crews mow and trim on circuits with the majority of outages and leave the others for another time. The first thing Braddock did was assess the plant species on the rights of way. “The predominate brush species we wanted to control were Chinese tallow and Japanese privet,” says Braddock. “Both are invasive, exotic species that take over if left unmanaged.” Braddock decided to use a mixture of Arsenal and Krenite herbicides along with Nu-Film IR adjuvant, designed to increase the herbicides’ effectiveness. “Our contractors will also add a little Tordon K where we have waxy leaf plants that need to be controlled,” says Braddock. “We try to be as site-specific as possible with regard to the herbicides we use.” After initial treatments, follow-up herbicides are applied every two or three years, and mechanical trimming is performed five or six years after the first mowing. As with any goal-oriented program, it’s important to determine the results early to ensure success. Perennial forbs, legumes, and native grasses have returned to the 14,000 ac. – a drastic change from the pre-Andrew times. “An IVM program can also reduce costs, especially in the long term,” Braddock says. “Our mowing costs were doubling every five to six years.” Lindsly estimates that DEMCO’s right-of-way maintenance costs are 25-30% less in real-dollar values using the IVM program. When Hurricane Lily and Tropical Storm Isadore tried to beat Andrew’s destruction records last year, the savings was apparent. “Keeping our rights of way in good shape costs money, but when storms like this hit, the cost to repair lines is much more. When our line-repair crews are only out 24 hours instead of a week, that’s a significant savings,” concludes Braddock. Watering Hillsides Without IrrigationResults of the Lake Enhancement Program in Orlando using maidencane and bulrushAs part of a University of Idaho remote-area right-of-way project, Stan Miller, a professor of geological engineering, set out to establish native plants in highly erodible hillside areas, focusing on roadside slope stabilization. The arid climate and poor soils of southern Idaho generally prohibit establishing vegetation during the summer months when work crews can easily get to these remote areas.Miller established sites to test Rain Bird’s Irrigation Supplement (IS, previously called DriWater) as an irrigation alternative. IS is used to help establish native plants where permanent irrigation is not an option. Providing the continual moisture necessary to reduce transplant shock gives plants a head start and increases the survivability of vegetation. Use of the portable IS cartons was tested as a means of providing the first few months of necessary moisture for the native shrubs to become established. The right-of-way slope stabilization project was funded by the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) and administered through the University of Idaho’s National Center for Advanced Transportation Technology. Miller and ITD crews established two sites in southwest Idaho, one on the Horseshoe Bend grade and one in the Devil’s Elbow region near the town of Weiser. Both areas have rolling foothills and poor soils. In the summer of 1996, native shrubs, including silver sage, winter fat, and bitterbrush, were transplanted from either 5-cm tubes or 4-lit. (1-gal.) containers. Preparation for planting included fairly normal bed establishment with imported topsoil, diluted chemical fertilizer, organic soil stimulants, and mycorrhizal inoculants. After being planted, each plant received a 1-qt. container of IS. For comparison of climate conditions, Miller also established five sites in less arid northern Idaho. There the local native shrubs include snowberry, creeping Oregon grape, and Woods’ rose. Northern Idaho transplants were planted at the same time in the summer as the southern Idaho sites. Evaluations of both sites were conducted in late October. “Though the shrubs were planted in poor soil [generally containing little organic matter] during 90° [Fahrenheit] weather and received no hand watering and little rainfall, most of the plants survived and some were thriving and producing seed,” says Miller. Of the 60 transplants in southwest Idaho, Miller says 88% survived and 76% received a rating of 1 or 2, meaning they were healthy with new growth and seed or they appeared healthy with little signs of stress. In northern Idaho, of 69 transplants, 94% survived and 77% received a rating of 1 or 2.

“Although a few additional plants may not survive into the next growing season, the initial results suggest that mid-summer transplanting along roadsides can be carried out successful