How Dangerous Power Lines Could Save Wildlife
In a lot of peoples’ minds, power transmission lines are the devil, and the idea that a transmission line right-of-way could function as useful wildlife habitat is the devil speaking in tongues. These corridors, an infuriated reader once told me, “have a devastating impact on the environment, kill thousands of birds, cause habitat segmentation, ruin property values, chase people from their homes, have dreadful visual impacts, and significantly reduce wildlife use per acre.”
These are no doubt all important issues to discuss, especially when wind, solar, and hydroelectric projects are increasing the demand for new power line corridors everywhere. And it’s not “thousands of birds.” A 2014 analysis estimated that 25.5 million birds now die every year in the United States from power line collisions and another 5.6 million from electrocutions. These are appalling numbers.
But the other reality is that the United States now has an estimated 9 million acres of land in existing power transmission corridors. That’s largely open space underneath the electric wires, and much of it is in regions where open space is hard to come by. In some cases, it is already becoming the best available habitat for certain birds, butterflies, native bees, and other pollinators.
In southern New England, where I live, for instance, transmission lines may now be “critically important,” according to Robert Askins, a Connecticut College ornithologist, for brown thrashers, yellow-breasted chats (a state-endangered species), and other birds that require scrubby, relatively open landscapes. That’s partly because their old habitat—19th-century farmland and meadows—has largely vanished, giving way over the past century to suburbs and dense forests.
Likewise, Sam Droege of the United States Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland has come to consider power line corridors the best place to hunt for many native bee species. He thinks power line rights-of-way could even become a sort of quasi-public corollary to the national park system, with the added advantage of providing corridors to connect distant wildlife populations that might otherwise become isolated and inbred.
The appeal of these corridors for wildlife depends entirely on how utilities choose to manage them, and that now appears to be changing for the better. It could hardly have gotten worse: For much of the past dozen years, many utilities practiced scorched-earth management, largely because of an August 2003 incident in which power lines sagged into trees, contributing to the largest blackout in North American history.
Federal rules subsequently required utility companies to clear all large trees and other tall vegetation from their transmission corridors or face penalties up to $1 million a day. Many utility executives interpreted that as a mandate to send in the mowers at regular intervals and maintain a grassy monoculture, with spraying of herbicides often added in.
But that approach didn’t do anything to improve the environmental reputation of utilities. (Apart from those 31 million bird deaths every year, think climate change and coal-fired power plants.) It was also expensive. So some utilities gradually stopped mowing and limited herbicide use to spot-spraying on unwanted plants, almost accidentally establishing a shrubby habitat of wildflowers, sedges, ferns, and low shrubs. That’s now called Integrated Vegetation Management, and the result is incidentally ideal for many native birds, insects, and even small mammals.
In 2012, utility companies, together with The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and other organizations, formed the Right of Way Stewardship Council to establish standards and best practices. So far seven power companies have earned accreditation from the council and now manage their power line corridors for low-growth vegetation and thus, incidentally, native wildlife.
Will this approach spread to North America’s several hundred other utilities? “What you have to do is show the utilities that they’re going to save money if they manage versus mowing,” said Rick Johnstone, a former power company land manager who is now an IVM consultant. “You get resistance not only from the contractors who do the mowing but from the foresters in the utilities, because it’s more work to manage,” he said. “I can sit in my office and say it’s time to mow. But when you get into IVM you need to look at it, you need to do the assessment and determine what’s the best practice. What’s the vegetation? What’s the density? Are you near water? And all that takes more expertise.”
Still, utilities that have tried the approach report that the savings can be substantial. In addition to what it does for wildlife, it also brings huge public relations benefits.
But what about all those birds that continue to die by collisions with power lines and by electrocution? A utility group called the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee now works to develop and promote methods to minimize both ways that power lines kill. But APLIC has been at it for a quarter century, and 30 million birds are still dying.
So here’s a bargaining chip for people resisting new power line proposals: Insist that utilities commit to employing IVM methods and bird mortality prevention devices on any new power lines. Or, wait, that’s not quite good enough. Before they move on to new projects, insist that they demonstrate good faith by making their existing power lines benefit wildlife after years of destroying it.