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Episode 40: Building the Case for Habitat Conservation in UVM w/ Caroline Hernandez

Episode 40: Building the Case for Habitat Conservation in UVM w/ Caroline Hernandez

Welcome to the 40th Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management

Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 40

Join Iapetus Infrastructure Services (IIS) COO Tejpal Singh and Principal Advisor Dr. Phil Charlton for a conversation with Caroline Hernandez, Assistant Program Director of Sustainable Landscapes at the University of Illinois Chicago’s Energy Resources Center.

Episode 40 Transcript

Philip Charlton: Welcome to another episode of the Trees and Lines podcast. Today, Caroline Hernandez, Assistant Program Director of Sustainability Landscapes at the University of Illinois, joins us to discuss how her work is affecting utility vegetation management, pollinator habitats, and making connections to better the industry. Have a listen. I hope you enjoy.

Welcome, Caroline. We appreciate you joining us for Trees and Lines. I’ve been looking forward to having you for quite some time. It’s taken us a little bit longer than expected to get it all worked out, but thank you for joining us.

Caroline Hernandez: I’m excited to be here and to talk about the work that we do. Thanks for inviting me.

Philip Charlton: Would you just start us off by giving us a little bit of your background? Tell us about Caroline, and then tell us a little bit about the working group.

Caroline Hernandez: I’ve been all over the place, living and studying, working all over the place, all over the world, up until I met my then fiancé and moved to Chicago so we could live together. I found the job at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and the Energy Resources Center, so it’s a research institute through UIC, and it focuses on energy efficiency and sustainable landscapes.

I was hired in 2018, and the working group, the Rights-of-Way as Habitat Working Group, started back in late 2015. But it was still taking off, so I feel like I’ve been on it since the beginning, but I know there were several years before me. But it’s been a fun ride to just see it expand.

Tej Singh: Do you mind shedding some color? I’m curious about your time in Ecuador. I know you were with the Peace Corps, but why Ecuador? What sustainable work were you doing down there? I just thought it was interesting. What’s the specific reason that you were there?

Caroline Hernandez: You did some digging. I was in the Peace Corps, and when I joined the Peace Corps, it was not at the point where you could select your country. I minored in Spanish. I studied abroad in Spain. I lived in Spain, so I spoke Spanish, and then I applied for the Peace Corps. I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do after college. Then I had this environmental studies background as well as a globalization background. They sent me to Ecuador because I spoke Spanish. It was between Africa and Ecuador. They taught me Kichwa. They sent me to a small indigenous community up in the Andes. It was really small. Most of the time I was there, I worked with the small women’s groups and worked on some women’s empowerment. I also worked at their school and taught about things like, don’t bring your trash if you can and we’re recycling this and things like that.

The second year that I was there, I moved to a different city, and we worked in silviculture. It was a research organization, and we went to really remote, really tiny places, and we talked to the farmers who had done a lot of slash and burn work for their cows. There was this type of tree that my organization was trying to get everyone to plant that you could actually cut off the branches, the cows could eat it, then they would actually have more nutrition, and then you were reforesting as well. I liked that because I feel like every time you talk about sustainability, it’s usually at the peril of somebody if you have to cut somewhere. But I liked the idea of sustainable development, where you can reforest while also taking care of people. After that, I went to grad school.

Tej Singh: You have such an interesting background. As we explore this space in our business ventures, but also in this platform where we’re like you, trying to button this case, building a digital community where people can share ideas and talk about things. You come from a very unique perspective on some of the work that you’re doing and how you guys are going about doing it. It’s somewhat of a unique discussion that we’ve had because it may be the first type of discussion like this where the traditional vegetation management piece that we typically circle around is really a part of your world. You’ve got the Department of Transportation and all these other large federal organizations that also have a keen interest in making sure that habitat preservation is at the forefront. It’s very cool, and you’re doing some great work. I really appreciate you joining us today.

Caroline Hernandez: Thank you.

Philip Charlton: Tell us about the working group. What was the motivation for forming it? What are its goals? What’s it doing now?

Caroline Hernandez: The Rights-of-Way as Habitat Working Group is a group of more than 1,700 individuals comprised of more than 400 organizations. But it started grassroots. It started with Iris Caldwell, my boss, just having some conversations with Departments of Transportation and utility companies, and they would tell her, we’re really interested in creating and conserving habitat on our working lands, on our rights-of-way. But we need resources. We want to learn from each other. We want to be able to share what we’ve learned, best management practices, and things like that.

Back in 2015, she started hosting our first Rights-of-Way as Habitat Working Group meetings. It started small. Actually, I think the meetings still had about 100 people at them at the beginning, and then they have just been increasing. Now, we’re not just energy and transportation organizations; we’re academia, contractors, and conservation organizations. We have really good representation from the federal government as well as state governments and local governments. It’s all with the intent of supporting this conservation of rights-of-way.

Philip Charlton: As you look back on where you’ve come from, what do you see as your biggest accomplishments?

Caroline Hernandez: That’s hard to say because we’ve got our flagship programs, which we’re really well known for. But I also just think the work that our partners have done is just as highly or just as important and should be highly lauded as well. One of our main programs that has gotten the most national attention is the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances, and that’s a voluntary conservation agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and energy and transportation organizations for the monarch butterfly.

The monarch butterfly is a candidate species right now. They’re considering listing it as a threatened or endangered species. Organizations can enroll in this agreement that UIC is the programmatic administrator of and commit to creating habitat on their rights-of-way. In return, they get assurances if the monarch is listed as threatened or endangered, that they’re not going to have to do additional conservation measures for the monarch butterfly. But really, it’s about trying to get as much habitat on the ground as possible for the monarch prior to the listing or even to preclude the listing. The numbers have just come out for the eastern population, and they’re low now. But what our partners are doing is just really incredible. They’ve committed over 900,000 acres of habitat just through this agreement and since it was finalized in 2020.

Philip Charlton: Just the eastern population or also the western population?

Caroline Hernandez: The agreement is the first nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances, and so anyone within the contiguous U.S. can enroll. There are, of course, organizations in the western half. I was just thinking of the eastern population numbers that came out.

Tej Singh: Is it fair to say then that you guys are building the case for the importance of habitat preservation and the importance of certain species, etc., and then the people that own the rights-of-way, whether it’s utilities or transportation organizations, work with you to modify how they engage with their respective rights-of-way to ensure that the research that you guys are doing is being incorporated in their planning? Is that the lifecycle of how this works?

Caroline Hernandez: I would say that it’s on its head. I think of UIC and us as representing the Rights-of-Way as Habitat Working Group, and I think of us as like the public servants of the energy and transportation organizations. We do have some research that we’re doing, but a lot of it is just making the right connections. They’re doing the work, making sure that they’re getting kudos for the work that they’re doing. We’re creating the tools; we’re creating the resources; they’re telling us what they need, and then we give those and make those connections. They’re doing the really important work, and then we’re doing what we can to support them.

Tej Singh: Do you get funding from them? Is that how the dollar flows?

Caroline Hernandez: We are open source on all of our resources. We are funded through the Energy Resources Center. The majority of the work that we do is grant-funded. Someone tells me what they want to do. I go and find the grants, I write the grants, we get them the funding, then we do the work, and then whatever we create is just on our website for anybody to access. We collaborate with other organizations and create resources like that to do that kind of research. In the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances, there is an administrative fee, so we can continue administering that. That is another way to support the work that we do.

Tej Singh: Let’s say, Caroline, I took your organization out. You guys don’t exist anymore. What would be missing? How would the balance of the ecosystem shift if you guys weren’t there?

Caroline Hernandez: I think we provide a space for these organizations to learn from each other. If a DOT wants to find an energy company that has succeeded in a certain type of vegetation management on their right-of-way, that might be more difficult. A lot of the tools and resources that we create and provide, of course, wouldn’t be there. We’ve got some incredible conservation partners that are working on similar efforts, but we do a lot of that connecting and focus just on the energy and transportation organizations. That, I think, is where we fill that unique niche.

Philip Charlton: How many utilities have gone for the CCAA?

Caroline Hernandez: I wish I had gotten those numbers up. We just received our 51st application this morning. I think it’s something like, and especially with the pending listing decision this fall, we’re expecting a lot more applications and a lot faster coming in. I think we’ve got 37 utility companies that are enrolled right now, and then the rest are transportation agencies. But it’s really interesting; we also have organizations with private companies that have roadways, and they’re managing the vegetation on those roadways, so they are eligible to enroll. We’ve had conversations with data companies, and they’re transporting that data through pipelines, so they’re eligible to enroll. It’s a really unique agreement just based on the eligibility and the fact that it’s national.

Tej Singh: Could anybody who has any exposure to the specific assets, the right-of-ways, join this working group? What has to be a part of that? What is the key critical part of the criteria to join?

Caroline Hernandez: You’ve got to have vegetation management control over a right-of-way, energy, or transportation right-of-way. What we’re looking at is how generally rights-of-way are managed and then the conservation measures that you are taking on a portion of those rights-of-way. It should still have a net conservation benefit based on the conservation activities that you’re doing.

Philip Charlton: You’re doing a lot of work around solar fields now, am I right?

Caroline Hernandez: One of our grants that we received a couple of years ago was from the Department of Energy, and we’re looking at co-locating pollinator habitat and large-scale solar facilities. Of course, that does tie in to whether any of those energy companies could enroll in the Monarch CCAA, but we are looking at the economic factors of what vegetation management is. What are the costs of vegetation management if you are just doing your regular constant mowing versus you’re going to seed it and let it lay for a while and then just do the maintenance and upkeep?

We’re also looking at the performance factor. Is it affecting the effectiveness of the solar panel? We’re keeping that vegetation below the height of the panels, of course, but with vegetation under the panels because it can cause a cooling effect, cooler panels mean more efficient panels, so we’re looking at that. We’re, of course, looking at its ecology. If we’re creating habitat, what are we bringing to the solar arrays? Are we getting a greater diversity of bee species, of birds, and of butterflies? We’re looking at the ecology, and we’re taking all of that information, and we’re creating decision-support tools for the solar industry to determine whether they want to implement habitat on their land, such as a cost-benefit calculator, a seed selection tool, a scorecard for solar, and then an implementation manual that walks you from the beginning. It’s very thorough, and it’s a really great manual, but it walks you through it from the beginning. Is this the right decision for me? Who would you need to talk to? What kind of vegetation management do you need to consider? What kind of seeds do you need to consider? Things like that.

Philip Charlton: I run into your pollinator scorecard more and more.

Caroline Hernandez: Good.

Philip Charlton: Well done.

Caroline Hernandez: Thank you.

Philip Charlton: Explain it. Tell us about it.

Caroline Hernandez: The solar pollinator scorecard is a spin-off of our standard pollinator scorecard. It is a scorecard that we wanted to create to create a standard that could be used across the United States on energy or transportation lands and help organizations track the quality of their habitat. There are three tiers. You can essentially identify whether it is a nectar plant or not; that’s the first tier. If you are a biologist, you know what you’re looking for; you know the noxious and invasive plants; you know the native plants; that’s going to be the third tier. We’ve got it on a survey, one, two, three up. People are using it. They’re using it for the CCAA. They’re also just using it to track how they’re doing, creating, and conserving that habitat.

I’ll add that they’re uploading that data into our geospatial habitat database. That’s a geospatial system where organizations can not only track the quality of their habitat, but they can track where they’re doing what types of management. They’re doing conservation mowing here, they’re doing seeding here, they’ve got programs, and then they can even share that data on that database with specific organizations that they choose. You could even plan your vegetation management activities to align.

Tej Singh: How big is your team? Obviously, you’re creating this ecosystem of connecting people. You’ve got a data repository. You’re processing these applications. You’re creating dialog and infrastructure. What does this look like in terms of your organization and all the people involved?

Caroline Hernandez: Tej, how big do you think our team is?

Tej Singh: I mean, I’m going to go based on the economy firing everybody. I’m going to say, I don’t know, maybe you’re a team of seven?

Caroline Hernandez: We have not hired anybody for the past couple of years. It’s been three people plus a bunch of student interns. We’ve just hired two more, which I’m super excited about because we’re growing our team, and it’s making it so that we can focus on more projects and do other things. Of course, we constantly have our student interns, who are really helpful and lovely.

Tej Singh: Where are they interning from?

Caroline Hernandez: UIC, and so it’s nice that we can just support the students that are working there. We’ve got undergraduate students and graduate students that are interning with us.

Tej Singh: That’s very cool.

Philip Charlton: I’ve watched that growth over the years. It’s hard to believe you do that with three; that’s pretty impressive.

Caroline Hernandez: Well, Iris was doing it by herself for several years. I mean, by yourself, we’ve had the support of contractors; we’ve had the support of other organizations, but she’s worked hard.

Tej Singh: When I looked at your background, you have been in the sustainability space for quite some time, and you find yourself here. Where are you guys going to go next? It sounds like you’re touching on some of the renewable assets. It almost feels like it’s not just right-of-ways; it’s maybe all infrastructure and its impact on habitats. What’s the limit here, or what’s the direction that you guys are headed?

Caroline Hernandez: I think that’s actually a conversation we have a bunch. We could do this, and we could expand. But we have a staff of five. Because we’re at the Energy Resources Center and we are the sustainable landscapes program, but we still have this base of energy, we are staying within that main infrastructure. We’re developing another agreement similar to the Monarch CCAA, but it’s focused on the at-risk bumblebee species. We’re specifically including water infrastructure for that. So still the long, narrow passageways when we’re thinking about how all of that is managed, but physically, so rights-of-way type of things, we’ve been doing a lot of work with different federal agencies. We recently received a grant from the Department of Defense to help their military installations and support the creation and conservation of pollinator habitat on their lands, having conversations with the EPA on pesticide use.

Tej Singh: Is that something that they become aware of, and they know that you’re in the market, or are you reaching out to them for grants and for more work?

Caroline Hernandez: I think it’s a little bit of both. We have a good relationship with people from different organizations. We attend conferences, and we present at conferences. If they’re presenting about something and we see something that I think matches what we’re interested in, we’ll reach out to them, and vice versa. I think we just try to do regular check-ins with the people who know our work and want to keep tabs on what the energy and transportation industries are doing.

Tej Singh: You mentioned 37 utilities. Can you give us a little bit of a demographic breakdown, mostly within the Midwest and Northeast? Are we talking 37 across the country? Are there co-ops? What does the mix look like?

Caroline Hernandez: That’s just 37 for the Monarch agreement. We’ve got representation from more than 400 organizations across the U.S. and Canada. It’s just the Monarch agreement that those 37 organizations have enrolled in that agreement and agreed to this voluntary conservation. But I would say, across the country—in Canada, we’ve got a chapter of the Rights-of-Way as Habitat Working Group in Canada as well. They’re making similar efforts, but we support each other as much as possible too.

Philip Charlton: You have these millions of acres under management; I have no idea what the number would be. There is a lot of integrated vegetation management that uses pesticides; do you have a position on that? What is your thinking around here? How can people improve habitat? What are the concerns? What are the benefits?

Caroline Hernandez: There is a lot of research there that we have not done but that we’ve seen, and we support that research. I’m thinking of Carolyn Mahan who is doing a lot of research on integrated vegetation management. From what we see, if you are using pesticides to target the noxious and invasive species on your rights-of-way, then it is creating a space for the native species to come back and thrive and then support the pollinators.

Even in the CCAA, for example, one of the conservation measures that you can do is use targeted herbicides for the noxious and invasive species and then create that habitat. It’s very challenging to manage a right-of-way and try and get rid of the woody species, the invasive species, and the noxious species without herbicides.

The fact of the matter is that they need to make sure that there is no disruption in their utilities that they’re providing, and then we can encourage them to do so while also creating native or supporting native habitat for pollinators.

Philip Charlton: You mentioned Carolyn, the Game Lands 33 website, that just has such great information about the impacts.

Caroline Hernandez: We ended up having a conversation about how it would be great to have Game Lands 33 in different eco-regions and different parts of the country. That’s still in the back of our heads. If we can find the right people, we would love to push for and support that. I’ll write the grant for that. You tell me the people that are willing to do it, and I will write the proposal for that. It’s well needed to see it in the southwest, where it’s drier and they have to deal with different species and different vegetation management activities.

Tej Singh: How many grants are you writing a year?

Caroline Hernandez: I probably wrote four or five last year.

Tej Singh: Can you give us a sense of what  dollar amounts we’re talking about here?

Caroline Hernandez: I’d say the lowest dollar amount that I wrote a grant for was a small grant, thankfully, but I think it was $5,000. Then we also wrote a proposal; the DOE proposal is over $1,000,000. It depends on the project. It depends on our partners. We’ve got a small Chicago-based working group that’s modeled off the Rights-of-Way as Habitat Working Group. That obviously takes a little bit less money than some of the other things that we’re doing.

Philip Charlton: Working on military bases–

Caroline Hernandez: Yes, that was one of them.

Philip Charlton: You’re into everything. What are you doing there?

Caroline Hernandez: That’s where we’re helping the DOD. They’re concerned about the monarch butterfly. They’ve got so much land. We’re looking at whether we can support energy and transportation lands on DOD installations to enroll in the CCAA. What can we do to support the collaboration of both organizations to also work with the Fish and Wildlife Service and limit the take of threatened or endangered species or at-risk species to make it easier for conservation? Whatever we can do to make their lives easier—just do a spot herbicide treatment, timed mowing, or things like that—that’s what we’re looking to do.

Tej Singh: Do you think that your work and your scope will extend to things like offshore wind, offshore storage, and offshore solar? I know NextEra and FPL have a lot of interesting studies going on and investments going on with some of these types of projects. They have an incubator with some technology that focuses on desalination. really interesting things, but obviously that has a huge impact on environmental elements. Are you guys limited to stuff that’s on land and stuff that is specifically tied to right-of-way, or will you dive into all sorts of things that affect species, fish species, etc.?

Caroline Hernandez: That’s a good question. We are predominantly focused on pollinators. I think we have explored, and there’s plenty of interest from our partners who are looking at turtles, snakes, and things like that. A lot of the work that they’re already doing for pollinators benefits them. We haven’t really discussed offshore, but some of the partners that you named are also working with us on other projects.

I’d say the other thing that we’re just starting to hear conversations about is ESG reporting and things like that. That’s something that I think we’re also interested in exploring. We’ve got a task force with the geospatial database to look at how we expand that database to potentially support some of those needs as well.

Philip Charlton: I’ll give you a chance to give a plug here. I know the working group does quite a bit of educational work for people. You’ve got webinars. I know I’ve attended the annual meeting. Tell us a little bit about how people can engage and what the plan is for them.

Caroline Hernandez: We obviously took a break from our meetings during COVID, but we are back, and we have been actually co-hosting the last two meetings. We’ve got one coming up in two weeks with Monarch Joint Venture, and this upcoming one is also with Farmers for Monarchs. It’s going to be a really neat meeting. We have representation from three of the largest nonfederal landowners and land managers across the US. You’ve got energy companies, DOTs, and then farmers all meeting together for conservation. We plan on continuing these types of meetings on a yearly basis.

We also host webinars. We know there’s a lot of really interesting research that’s happening out there, and it’s just on-the-ground work. We found those organizations. We’ve been hosting like a research roundtable where we get newly published research, we get those researchers on, they talk about it, and then we have breakout sessions and people discuss where this research could be used, but also where there are still gaps and where the next steps for the research are. Then we’ve got case studies and things like that. We know this organization, this D.O.T., this energy company is doing something really cool and really unique, and we want to share about it. So all of that, plus all of our projects and everything else, can be found on our website. We’ve got a YouTube page, but I would just recommend our website to find everything there.

Tej Singh: No, this is great.

Philip Charlton: We appreciate your joining us.

Tej Singh: You’re going to have to let us know how we can engage with some of your material and maybe even at some of your meetings. We’d like to see how we can also get involved and if there is a way to get involved and just hear the discussion. I think there’s a lot to learn and glean from what you guys are doing.

Caroline Hernandez: Yeah, we’d love to have you.

Philip Charlton: We have a lot of asset managers listening in. Any encouraging words, or what would you like to see out of the utility pipeline, electric?

Caroline Hernandez: I’m a huge fan of their work, especially when they’re doing it for the benefit of the environment. It always just takes one person to have that interest and to start that ball rolling. There are usually a lot more people who are interested but haven’t spoken up yet. You’re definitely not alone. To join the working group and to get support, however, we can support you and keep doing the good work that you’re doing.

Philip Charlton: I’ll reinforce that. It’s just interesting to me how many utilities might not be focused on it, but if there is one person at that utility that has a passion, then that utility will have a passion in a year from now. If you’re out there and you’re interested, speak up and encourage your coworkers.

Tej Singh: That was great. Thank you, Caroline.

Caroline Hernandez: Thanks for having me.

Tej Singh: That’s  it  for  this  episode  of  Trees  and  Lines,  brought to you by  Iapetus  Holdings. If you like the show, please give us a five-star rating on Apple or Spotify. If you have any questions or comments on any of our episodes or ideas for topics or guests, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us at treesandlines@iapetusllc.com. We’ll chat with you soon.

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