The Power of Focusing on What We DO Want

January 2016
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For me personally, figuring out what I do want in life usually takes the greatest amount of effort. Once I have figured it out I am focused, determined and actively track progress. I also thought this would be true for the field I work in – until I realized that we already know what we want, but we almost completely focus on what we don't want. By focusing on what we don’t want we seem to stop short of the larger goal to achieve all that we do want.

Over the years IVM has developed into a finely tuned, sophisticated system of information gathering, planning, implementing, reviewing, and improving vegetation management treatments. Utilities today have the opportunity to become accredited by the Right-of-Way Stewardship Council (ROWSC) to show their dedication to IVM Best Management Practices (BMP). The IVM BMP publication (a companion publication to the ANSI A300, Part 7) describes four main methods of vegetation control: Mechanical, Chemical, Cultural and Biological. Two of them focus on what we don’t want, two focus on what we do want.

Mechanical vegetation control methods use machines such as brush-hogs and -cutters, chainsaws, shears, pruning equipment, and aerial lifts. These machines mow, cut, remove or prune undesirable ROW vegetation. The Chemical vegetation control methods use a range of different growth regulators and herbicides to either stunt or kill targeted ROW vegetation. These two methods' aim is to eradicate vegetation we don’t want, with the intention that the desired vegetation will either be left in place or will occupy new and open spaces. Both methods are abundantly available and heavily applied in today’s ROW vegetation maintenance market. Less attention has been given to Cultural and Biological vegetation control methods. Cultural methods modify habitats to discourage incompatible vegetation and to establish and manage desirable plant communities. Biological control methods focus on promoting and maintaining desirable vegetation to make it difficult for undesirable vegetation to establish. Both of these less developed methods actively encourage the vegetation we do want. Though Mechanical and Chemical methods are more widespread, that does not mean they are better. The fact that Cultural and Biological methods are less developed does not mean they are lesser practices. In fact, many were advocated by Frank Edwin Egler (1911-1996), a seminal American plant ecologist and research pioneer in the study of vegetation science. He famously encouraged a balance of philosophy, research, and applied knowledge to ROW work. His writing Vegetation Management for Rights-of-way and Roadsides (1954) influenced the vision and practices on Rights-of-way Integrated Vegetation Management (IVM) Systems. Egler is also known for his strong influence on Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

While our current practices that heavily emphasize Chemical and Mechanical vegetation management have drifted away from Egler's vision, there is clearly much reason to come back around to his philosophy of balance. In today’s world in which companies strive to become good corporate citizens by encouraging healthy environments, and in which people increasingly value thriving ecosystems, huge potential lays in further fine tuning Cultural and Biological BMP IVM methods. These methods focus on the health of the land as well as ROW functionality.

It may be a far stretch to apply the law of attraction to our ROWs, but I do believe there are many advantages to focusing on what we do want – the right plant in the right place, so to speak. In addition to adopting Egler’s work and thinking style, we could explore vegetation management options from other industries, such as “green” methods sprouting up in unconventional agriculture. In our increasingly ecologically conscious world, we are fortunate to have a growing number of alternatives to Mechanical and Chemical methods. Among other utilities, Nova Scotia Power encouraged the involvement of various stakeholders, acting as liaisons between land owners and interest groups to cultivate certain vegetation on ROWs. They actively cultivate or select for certain indigenous, compatible ROW vegetation. Other utilities' aim and main focus (i.e., NY Power Authority) is to increase the percentage of desirable leaf coverage every year. Their ROW planners and vegetation crews know, recognize, and actively map and protect desirable vegetation. These utilities are steadily working towards a 100% desirable vegetation ROW coverage area, never losing a focus on what they do want. It is worth noting that these “ideal” ROW conditions offer “minimum maintenance” for an IVM program – not “zero maintenance”. Though low growing plants help immensely to preclude the growth of trees, pressures from natural plant community succession will ultimately occur. These voluntary biological controls cannot be expected to fully exclude trees alone over long periods of time from infiltrating the ROW and exploiting their well-defined ecological niches. If qualified vegetation managers utilize IVM to manage plant communities along the ROWs, they will be able to maintain a “nearly” tree free ROW requiring a minimum of judiciously applied herbicides to produce the desired effect. At this stage the low growing vegetation will be firmly established and will offer a relatively stable condition that effectively inhibits the rapid resurgence of trees. Let us imagine what could happen if we shift our main focus away from actively eradicating undesirable vegetation to actively encouraging growth we do want: desirable ROW plant life would flourish in a healthy environment and support our functional needs on every ROW. Just as our increased attention to safety has produced safer work practices and spaces over the years, I foresee a shift in the focus on ROW vegetation management – one in which we not only hold in check undesirable vegetation, but balance our purposes and work by encouraging the growth we desire.

Stan Vera-Art consults for companies in the ROW industry, holds a Master’s in Project Management, is a PMP and ISA Certified Arborist. He is the author of The Arborist Field Guide to Project Management (available at