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Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), department of energy, maintains more than 15,000 miles of transmission lines. As more people populate “Big Sky Country,” homes are developed adjacent to BPA’s transmission lines, which causes BPA to continually face new challenges to its right-of-way (ROW) management program to ensure that the concerns of the potentially affected parties are addressed.

A Prescription for Change in Big Sky Country

By Joe Jackson


 


Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), department of energy, maintains more than 15,000 miles of transmission lines. As more people populate “Big Sky Country,” homes are developed adjacent to BPA’s transmission lines, which causes BPA to continually face new challenges to its right-of-way (ROW) management program to ensure that the concerns of the potentially affected parties are addressed.


In the Spokane Region, BPA maintains 1,100 miles of major transmission lines that cross the vast expanse of Montana. ROW management plans take into consideration the different land uses in order to provide integrated vegetation management (IVM).


The first step in the BPA’s ROW planning process is completion of a detailed checklist aimed at identifying all environmental, historical and cultural concerns within the prescribed area. Although this extensive survey process can add a year or more to a proposed project, BPA considers it to be a vital part of being a good neighbor.


One of the components of the checklist is conducting cultural surveys whenever BPA proposes clearing projects that, for example, may cross tribal lands or homesteader properties. The cultural surveys identify all possible cultural sites — including burial grounds, gathering places, residences or artifacts. The survey takes into consideration the need to clear not only the power lines but also the prescription for creating the access roads needed for power maintenance. For example, a cultural survey is completed in advance by contacting the tribe and providing it with the details of the location of where the crews will be and what type of work is planned. The tribe then informs BPA if there are any conflicts. If a cultural site is still encountered, the project is shutdown immediately to preserve the integrity of the cultural site.


Additionally, BPA’s archeologist conducts a field survey of the area. The archeologist-collected data is provided to the State Historical Preservation Office (SHPO), which then determines if it is a site of significance.  SHPO takes into consideration BPA’s prescription and if it will have any adverse effect on the resource. 


BPA coordinates ROW management plans with the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and state forest and wildlife agencies to ensure that all of the state and federal regulations are met regarding any endangered, threatened or at-risk species. Even projects without human inhabitants but with endangered species such as the bald eagle, spotted owl, lynx, or bull trout — require significant planning and forethought to address all of the environmental concerns.


Where vegetation and power lines are involved there is always the risk of a fire or vegetation-caused outage. It is a must that appropriate separation between vegetation and the power lines be maintained on the ROW.


In the past, cut/lop/scatter (CLS) has been one method of clearing. Although effective in areas in which dense vegetation exists, this is not the preferred method of treatment. In dense stands, mulching is a better option. The CLS method also leaves a stump, which can regenerate reducing cycle time.


Mulching reduces vegetation, small logs and limbs into shredded mulch, which is left on the ground. Mulching reduces the risk from fire, reduces the debris to a smaller size that will decompose faster, and leaves the ROW with a manicured look with less accumulated fuel loading.


Mulching areas of dense vegetation reduces the amount of re-growth and makes herbicide applications easier.


Bob Nicklason of Upper Cut Tree Service is a longtime BPA contractor. During the past couple of decades his company has used several different mulching machines for BPA’s ROW maintenance. For the past few years his crews have been using SuperTrak carriers with Fecon mulcher heads.


“The fixed tooth design allows for us to grind to whatever spec we need to mulch to,” said Nicklason. “We can handle many different prescriptions with a single machine. We need fewer machines, which translates directly into lower overhead.


“The durability of the machines allows us to work longer without resurfacing hammers or replacing teeth. That is critical when you are surrounded by miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles. More versatility, faster processing, smaller particle size, and less downtime — all contribute to increased productivity.”


Mulching attachments are available in various sizes and can be mounted on different carriers to gain access to even the most difficult terrain. Compact carriers can be outfitted making it easier to access tight spots. Mulching heads can be placed on tracked and low-ground-pressure tracked vehicles to minimize adverse environmental impact.


Upper Cut Tree Service was able to take out trees at three to four feet before they could become a “grow into” problem. Removing the trees at this stage in their growth is accomplished quickly, reduces the amount of complaints about removing the trees, and is more cost effective than allowing them to grow an additional few years. 


This is especially important on the lush western portion of the Spokane Region of BPA’s territory, where four to five foot annual growth rates dictate 4-year maintenance cycles. BPA is striving to elongate the maintenance cycles by requiring contractors to aggressively mulch by removing problem trees and undergrowth early, and mulching everything into the ground. BPA tries to avoid the use of herbicides but their periodic use helps stretch the cycle times.


To help achieve BPA’s goal of a 10-year cycle in the eastern territories, BPA has adopted a more aggressive approach to maintaining power line clearance by taking out more questionable trees at an earlier stage, which can elongate the cycle times.


Extending cycle length by using mechanized mulching heads is cost effective. The elongated cycle times benefit wildlife, the environment, residents, and the cost savings of ROW maintenance can be passed right along to the customers.


 


Joe Jackson is a natural resource specialist for BPA.


Article provided by Fecon, Inc.


 

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