Trees are an asset in commercial, private and public landscapes. They add beauty, help our environment, and add value to the property. However, these same trees can be a major challenge for NNEC. Trees caused more than 80% of outages affecting members in 2022, and they are a major cause of blinks and outages on electric distribution systems. Brush and trees growing near power lines hinder a repair crew’s ability to access damaged lines quickly, increasing outage times. Reducing excess tree growth while encouraging grasses and plants like milkweed and blackberries in the right-of-way is essential for safe, reliable electric service, and continues to provide habitat to a variety of animals and insects.
Rich Steensma, manager of vegetation and facilities, and a forester, balances the safety and reliability of more than 1,500 miles of overhead line with the environmental and conservation needs. With over 20 years of expertise, Steensma is a key component of NNEC’s vegetation management goal to maintain our rights-of-way relatively free of trees growing into our overhead power lines and disrupt the reliable delivery of electricity to our members.
Steensma, contractors and NNEC employees work through a roughly six-year cycle of management for all 1,500 miles. In the first year, crews, such as Asplundh, will use mechanical cutting to prune or remove trees within the right-of-way that pose a hazard or could pose a hazard to the power lines within the near future.
After a power line right-of-way is recleared, it may be treated with an EPA-approved forestry herbicide to reduce tree regeneration and allow many low-growing species to expand, posing no threat to overhead lines. NNEC uses professional, state-licensed contractors to apply low-volume herbicides by backpack application to specific vegetation within the right-of-way. The herbicides we use to control the growth of woody plants allow grasses, ferns, wildflowers and low-growing shrubs to thrive, providing excellent habitat for wildlife. They are safe to apply and have no effect on people, pets, wildlife or insects. The herbicides used by NNEC are tightly bound to soil particles and will not leach into streams, ponds, ground water or wells. They are relatively short-lived within the environment and degraded by sunlight and soil microorganisms into innocuous compounds.
In some rights-of-way, brush mowing is also used three years after the initial cutting to reduce woody plants and trees that are relatively fast-growing, such as American sweetgum. This mowing can reduce the seed bank of these species, which could make management easier over time.
Members are encouraged to use rights-of-ways for yards, gardens, pastures, cropland, wildlife plantings, Christmas tree farms and other similar uses minimizing the need for vegetation management by NNEC, but must always maintain access by crews for restoration and maintenance of NNEC-owned facilities.