Pioneers crossing the American frontier came upon the Great Prairie in what is now Illinois. The vast expanse of grassland earned Illinois the nickname “The Prairie State.” But today, nearly all of the state’s 22 million acres of native meadow are gone, plowed under by farmers and dug up by developers.
Restoring part of that natural heritage has become a mission for many in the state, including its largest utility — Commonwealth Edison (ComEd). ComEd owns 2,100 acres of right-of-way (ROW) in Illinois, making it one of the state’s largest landowners. Those holdings expand every year as new homes and businesses connect to the electrical grid.
In the past, ComEd managed the vegetation on its property mainly by mowing. The price was considerable — nearly $500,000 a year. Contributing to that cost was extra mowing ComEd performed to satisfy customers who complained about the weeds in some ROWs.
ComEd wanted a more cost-effective and efficient way to manage ROWs. The solution came in a rare partnership between the public utility and the wildlife conservation group Pheasants Forever. Together, they are converting the ROWs into prairie and restoring the natural habitat — all while saving money for the utility.
Less measurable is the aesthetic benefit of this landscaping to ComEd’s 3.8 million customers in northern Illinois. However, the project has not gone unnoticed by the industry, winning two major awards — the Exelon Energy’s Chairman’s Environmental Award in 2005 and a 2006 QVM Project Habitat Award. Even more important have been the effects on the environment, said Tim Zidek, senior project leader for vegetation management at ComEd.
“We are returning the land to its natural state,” said Zidek. “That attracts the birds and other animals that once thrived here.”
Putting the plan in place
The idea for the partnership resulted from conversations Zidek had with members of ComEd’s Vegetation Management and Real Estate departments. Those conversations led him to Shannon Hansel, a habitat specialist with Pheasants Forever, a non-profit group that strives to create more places for pheasant and other wildlife to thrive. Based on this mission alone, Zidek knew he had found the right partner.
He explained the utility’s problems to the people at Pheasants Forever, and they returned with several scenarios to transform the ROWs with more manageable native forbs and grasses.
Pheasants Forever’s plan called for the use of herbicides to prepare sites for seeding. The team decided to plant short species of native prairie grasses and other plants that would improve the look of the ROWs, reduce long-term maintenance costs, and establish valuable wildlife habitat.
The plan pinpointed 200 ROW acres, where eight native species were planted: purple coneflower, Illinois bundle flower, partridge pea, Canada wild rye, side oats, black-eyed susans, and little and big blue stem. This diverse plant mix is beneficial because the different species can handle different soil conditions, which reduces the number of unwanted weeds while the new species take root.
The conversion process consisted of pre-and postemergent herbicide application in the late spring to prepare the site for seeding. The preemergent controlled undesirable weeds such as teasel and giant ragweed without affecting desirable vegetation. Using a herbicide with little or no impact on native vegetation was important because the seed mixture was drilled into the soil just a few weeks after the herbicide application.
ComEd and Pheasants Forever have encountered many challenges since the program started in 2005. Originally, the plan was to establish a three-year stand of new vegetation in one year, but Mother Nature had her way with Illinois in 2005.
“The first year there was barely any rain. It was so dry the ground split open and the seeds fell through the cracks,” said Hansel said. “So we replanted in the spring of 2006 and hoped for rain.”
Hansel and his boss, Matt O’Connor, habitat team coordinator for Pheasants Forever, know establishing a prairie is difficult, and they anticipated some setbacks.
“Starting a prairie is a long-term process,” said O’Connor. “There’s an old saying: ‘Plan on buying a new pair of jeans because you’ll wear them out crawling around on the ground scrutinizing your new seedlings.’ But a healthy prairie and thriving ecosystem is well worth the work.”
At the end of 2006, more than 210 acres were treated. Despite a few weather-related setbacks, plants started popping up. ComEd continues to treat more acreage.
ComEd is saving a couple hundred dollars on each acre per year, said Zidek. He added that over the long-term, he thinks the costs of controlling weeds on the converted sites will be a lot less than mowing. That’s a clear advantage for ComEd because its ROW acres expand anywhere from 20 to 100 each year as more houses and businesses sprout up in rural areas.
“If every year we can look at increasing the size of the acreage we’re converting, we’ll be able to keep our budget in check, absorb some of the urban sprawl, and continue to provide current and new customers with superior service,” said Zidek.
Some of those customers have learned about the project from team members in the field.
“When we’re out there spraying and planting, people often asked what we’re doing and we’re more than happy to explain it to them,” Zidek said. “We also posted signs that said ‘ComEd Native Prairie Restoration.’”
The project has enabled Pheasants Forever to broaden its reach beyond rural areas and to explain its goals to people who are not in its mainstream audience.
“A lot of customers were very happy when they heard their backyards were going to be full of flowers,” said Hansel.
The ComEd/Pheasants Forever team plans to annually increase the number of acres in the program, continuing the work of restoring native plants and improving animal and human habitats. For these reasons, the project was awarded the 2006 Quality Vegetation Management (QVM) Project Habitat Award* by BASF ProVM. The award honors projects that demonstrate the principles and practices of QVM, and represent an outstanding commitment to restoring habitat, applying herbicide responsibly, and protecting threatened and endangered species.
In 2005, ComEd was awarded the top honor by its parent company, Exelon Energy. The Chairman’s Environmental Award recognized the project for its contribution to the environment.
The partnership between ComEd and Pheasants Forever is a prime example of how a team can establish a common goal and utilize each other’s resources to make a positive impact on the environment.
Article provided by BASF ProVM. For more information on prairie restoration and other vegetation management practices, visit vmanswers.com.
* Quality Vegetation Management and Project Habitat are trademarks of BASF.