Picture John Kalish

BY: John Kalish, Public Agency Co-Chair

While working at the BLM’s Palm Springs-South Coast Field Office (1999-2016), I handled issues related to right of way (ROW) grant holder’s ability to manage operation and maintenance (O&M) activities within electrical transmission corridors. From a regional perspective, it was clear that a utility company would have numerous offices to coordinate with to service their transmission facilities, that handling of O&M needs was very inconsistent across office and agency boundaries and that environmental processes often delayed a timely response to O&M issues including addressing environmental hazards within these corridors. This was clearly true in mitigating fuels, snags and other fire hazards within these corridors, especially as catastrophic fire events were becoming more frequent.

These issues provided a basis for developing the agency-wide BLM Instruction Memorandum (IM) No. 2018-070, Edison Electric Institute Memorandum of Understanding (MOU); Vegetation Management in Electric Utility Corridors, dated July 19, 2018. This IM incorporates goals of the 2016 MOU on Vegetation Management for Powerline Rights of Way among the Edison Electric Institute Utility Arborist Association, Department of Interior agencies (BLM, NPS & FWS), the US Forest Service and US Environmental Protection Agency. The objective of this IM is to ensure that ROW grant holders are not unnecessarily delayed or prevented from carrying out their obligations to mitigate hazards to public safety and private property within and adjacent to their ROW. The IM clarifies requirements for notification, NEPA compliance and resource surveys for vegetation management actions and hazard tree removals conducted by ROW holders. The IM also establishes a seamless approach at addressing these wildland fire issues across office and agency boundaries.

After issuance of this national IM, BLM State Offices have issued annual state-wide IMs to reinforce measures to address fire risks within transmission ROWs. For example, the BLM’s California State Office issued IM No. CA-2020-005, Routine Operations and Maintenance to Reduce Fire Risk on Utility Rights-Of-Way, on December 13, 2019. In addition, the US Forest Service issued regulations on July 10, 2020 to address these issues, entitled Land Uses; Special Uses; Procedures for Operating Plans and Agreements for Powerline Facility Maintenance and Vegetation Management Within and Abutting the Linear Boundary of a Special Use Authorization for a Powerline Facility.

California is often credited with setting trends that spread across the nation. As with this issue, it is safe to associate this effort, having national implications, to a unique combination of catastrophic California fire events, very proactive utilities companies, the Edison Electric Institute and committed agencies managing extensive transmission line ROWs in large public land and forest areas.