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How utility rights-of-ways became a key habitat for native plants

A bee pollinates native flowers on Preston Chapman's family farm's right-of-way.
Preston Chapman
A bee pollinates native flowers on Preston Chapman's family farm's right-of-way.
Biologists help Ameren Illinois combat invasive species around power lines

People may view electric transmission lines that cut through hills and forests as an eyesore. But environmentalists are finding these rights-of-way can provide a safe haven for threatened wildlife — including pollinators that are essential for food supplies.

For the past five years, Ameren Illinois has teamed up with the conservation nonprofit Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever to plant native vegetation on 175 acres of rural rights-of-way.

Typically, utility companies are risk-averse. Utilities that let vegetation get out of control in rights-of-way can face fines of up to $1 million — but Ameren Illinois sees the pollinator program as a win-win.

“We have about 43,700 square miles within our service territory,” Rick Johnson, Ameren’s vegetation manager, said on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “That's a really large footprint, and we just really want to protect that biodiversity wherever we can.”

In the U.S., utility rights-of-way around power transmission lines add up to around 9 million acres. That’s four times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Wildlife biologists say they see rights-of-way as an opportunity to boost declining populations of bees, butterflies and endangered birds.

“We're creating corridors for monarch [butterflies] to travel to mate to repopulate safely,” said Preston Chapman, a biologist for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. “A lot of these rights-of-way are in rural areas or secluded areas where they're not being harmed by pesticides or cars.”

Unruly invasive species, like honeysuckle, can make it harder for grounds crews to maintain the electrical grid — presenting a dangerous hurdle when they need to respond to power outages or make repairs. Ameren only has to mow pollinator areas once a year, which saves money.

“These species actually choke out those nonnative woody species that we don't want, so it's very cost-effective,” Johnson said.

A majority of the 175 acres being cultivated in Illinois is on Ameren-owned property. But some rights-of-way fall on private land, including Chapman’s family farm in Pinckneyville, Illinois. The town is an hour south of St. Louis.

Chapman said at first it was hard to convince his dad that native plants like milkwood and coneflowers would be better for the land — and less work. Typically, the family mowed the acreage twice a year and sprayed herbicide to prevent plants from growing.

 The right-of-way on Preston Chapman's family farm in Pinckneyville, Illinois after a recent mow. His family farm is part of Ameren's pollinator program.
Preston Chapman
The right-of-way on Preston Chapman's family farm in Pinckneyville, Illinois, after a recent mow. His family farm is part of Ameren's pollinator program.

But the pollinator project turned his dad from a skeptic to an advocate after he saw how much wildlife the native plants attracted, including a plethora of turkeys, rabbits and butterflies.

“That goes a long way more than just the biologists telling you, ‘Hey, this is good for you,’” Chapman said.

Chapman stressed that people don’t need a lot of land to create pollinator habitats.

“Every little tenth of an acre and 10-by-10 square-foot spot in your backyard counts,” Chapman said. “The more habitat, the more areas that we can create for these pollinators and these migratory species, the better.”

Chapman said to reach out to Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever on Facebook to learn more about planting native habitats to attract pollinators.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.