Clearing the Way for the Environment
February 4, 2021
Nestled at the base of forested mountains, the city of Reading, Pa., has become a destination for hikers and cyclists who are drawn by more than 125 miles of trails in five major preserves. One of these, Neversink Mountain, is the site of a unique, ongoing FirstEnergy partnership that has transformed a transmission line right-of-way into specialized habitat that nurtures plants and wildlife.
The Neversink Mountain Preserve and Community Forest encompasses 1,065 acres of woods, shrublands and headwater creeks, managed by the Berks Nature conservation organization.
While it’s a preserve today, nature at Neversink had a rough couple of centuries. After the Reading Railroad was built in the 1830s, Neversink became a tourist destination, with miles of rail and trolley lines, large hotels and amusement parks.
Much of that was gone by the end of World War I, but in 1927, Met-Ed built a transmission line across the mountain. Newer lines were built in the 1950s and 1970s, and today a broad right-of-way corridor runs across Neversink’s otherwise wooded ridge.
The corridor, up to 100-feet wide in places, contains two parallel 69-kilovolt (kV) lines, and is actively managed by Met-Ed to keep it free of vegetation that might interfere with reliable transmission. By working together, Met-Ed and Berks Nature have transformed the right-of-way into valuable habitat.
“We take pride in our relationships with our community and organizations,” said Katrina Schnobrich, manager, Transmission Vegetation Management. “Two years ago, we rebuilt one of the lines – which provided an opportunity. While we need to ensure reliable service and the safety of our lines and the land, we also recognize that our communities have needs as well. The goal was to come together and agree upon best practices that are beneficial for all parties.”
Coordinating with Berks Nature, Met-Ed performed significant vegetation management work within the easement, and in the process turned a transmission right-of-way into a sanctuary.
“We worked with ecologists and biologists to ensure native and beneficial species remained and would thrive,” Katrina said. “Environmental scientists flagged specific plants either for removal or preservation,” said Associate Transmission Forestry Tech Nathan Reed. “During the initial line construction, we removed vegetation in large areas where it was called for. However, in specialized areas and around sensitive vegetation, we used backpacks to apply herbicides with more precision.”
Met-Ed turned the wide right-of-way corridor into acreage that acts like a natural forest clearing, providing a home for sensitive species that today are losing habitat.
“In the old days there were more niche habitats available for species to thrive in. But increased commercialization and suburbanization have decreased the amount of land available to these species,” said Kelly Grube, senior scientist, Transmission Permitting. “We worked to encourage a number of ecologically important species on Neversink. They included Eastern Gamma Grass, which is endangered in Pennsylvania; Wild Bleeding Hearts, which is a locally important plant found mostly along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, and Yellow Wild Indigo, which is a host plant for the critically imperiled Frosted Elfin butterfly caterpillar.”
Wildlife supported by the cultivated environment includes a species of turtle native to the area.
“I think there is increasing recognition in the environmental community that our rights-of-way can be beneficial for species that otherwise may find themselves increasingly threatened by habitat loss,” said Kelly.
The work on Neversink Mountain isn’t finished. Met-Ed is scheduled to rebuild the second transmission line in the right-of-way, and planning is underway to further enhance the ecological corridor.
“It takes an extreme amount of planning,” said Katrina. “We have to coordinate work with groups across the company, including Vegetation Management, Environmental Services, Lines, Construction and Engineering… This really is an across the board commitment within Met-Ed.” “It’s a nice opportunity to show the public that we care, and we want to be a positive force in the community,” said Layne Miller, supervisor, Transmission Vegetation Management.