Seeking Solutions to Reduce Wildfire Risk

CEO Dave MarkhamVegetation management helps reduce the threat of wildfires and enhances the resiliency of the electric grid. When the U.S. Forest Service recently announced its new vegetation management rule to improve the approval process, it was met with optimist–albeit tempered.

The new rule seeks to streamline the permitting process to allow utilities to remove vegetation along their rights-of-way on federal land, including dead snags, hazard trees and limbs that could fall into power lines. CEC has experienced lengthy delays and, at times, an unclear process to proceed with routine maintenance. I have shared frustrating ordeals with you before in this space and, more recently, in a national podcast.*

Since 2014, I have testified before Congress and met with federal land agencies’ representatives multiple times to educate and promote solutions to improve a problematic and expensive application process to get approval to carry out routine maintenance on power lines, some of which have been in place for more than 50 years.

For the past six-year, multiple legislative initiatives failed to gain traction. Not until 2018 did Congress pass meaningful vegetation management and fire-prevention measures. The legislation directed federal land agencies to draft new regulations to streamline the permitting process. Here we are two years later.

The new rule raises some concerns. As it reads, local ranger districts have wide latitude to implement the standards at their discretion. There is no guarantee of a consistent or uniform process. This is problematic.

CEC’s service territory covers approximately 5,300 square miles and includes multiple national forests. What the Ochoco national Forest requires to perform vegetation management may differ from Deschutes National Forest resulting in the co-op expending unnecessary additional time and resources to conduct routine vegetation management.

We do, however, have another bite at the apple. In an unprecedented step, the federal land agencies will solicit public input on their new directives before finalizing the
regulations. Historically, they limited public comment before releasing the final rule.

I welcome the opportunity and will work toward solutions to ensure a more consistent and uniform process to allow the co-op to expeditiously remove danger trees and vegetation for the general public’s safety and a more resilient electric grid.

We are not only engaged in the federal but the state arena, too. Earlier this year, Gov. Kate Brown issued an executive order directing the Oregon Public Utilities Commission to conduct workshops to develop and share best practices for mitigating wildfire risk. CEC participated in the first workshop on a panel to highlight the ongoing challenges and the wildfire assessment tools we deploy to mitigate wildfire risk. These practices are being formalized in CEC’s wildfire risk mitigation plan, due for completion later this year.

Partnering with federal and state land agencies and other electric utilities helps ensure we leave no stone unturned when it comes to protecting our members and the general public and strengthening our system to reduce wildfire risk.

*See pages 28-29 for an in-depth discussion excerpted from a recent interview with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s “Along Those Lines” podcast.