What are your co-op's biggest challenges and successes with vegetation management?
The biggest challenge for Flathead Electric Cooperative’s vegetation management program is maintaining the delicate balance between providing reliable power to our members, reducing wildfire risk and preserving the natural beauty of our surroundings. Our service territory borders Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park, and our members (and visitors) truly appreciate and defend Montana’s pristine beauty. Educating members about our vegetation/forest management is challenging but crucial to gaining their support. Flathead Electric’s vegetation management journey has been marked by remarkable accomplishments, thanks to the establishment of robust partnerships with the U.S. Forest Service and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Forging these relationships has taken time, effort and trust. Building genuine connections and showcasing the complementary nature of our program has proven to be an asset. We are pursuing grant funding from various sources, seizing opportunities to collaborate with a diverse range of organizations during the application process. We know that grants will allow us to explore new techniques, adopt cutting-edge technologies and expand initiatives that otherwise we could not fund. With the risk of wildfires and resource adequacy concerns both rising, these grant opportunities could advance our vegetation management programs and prevent threats to our reliable delivery of power to our members.
Answer: It’s all about the landowners. They can make or break a successful program. Several times during my 13 years of cooperative vegetation management experience I have thought to myself, “Vegetation management would be easy if we could just do whatever we wanted.” If only it were that simple. The biggest challenge to management along transmission line rights-of-way is interaction with the landowners. Most are not aware of what an easement allows or even that one exists across their property. Often every problem tree is “special” to the family regardless of whether it’s dangerously close to our lines or not. This can become an even bigger challenge when the landowners are not cooperative members and have no personal connection to where their power comes from. Fortunately, even vegetation management challenges can be overcome by consistent education and communication. Contacting the landowner well ahead of the crew’s arrival is key. They then know what to expect, who to contact regarding questions and if alternative options are available. Treating all landowners as if they are part of our cooperative family benefits everyone. Having an empathetic response to concerns and working together toward a solution is how we gain landowner trust. They will always remember, good or bad, how they are treated by the cooperative, and it’s our job to make sure it leans heavily toward the good side.