Control of Woody Vegetation in Rights of Way

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electricity, road, and railway rights of way (ROW)

Control of Woody Vegetation in Rights of Way

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electricity, road, and railway rights of way (ROW)

Rights of way (ROW) is a term used for land that is set aside for the transportation of humans, goods, and energy (roads, railways, and electricity). Though being difficult to accurately estimate, the total acreage of ROW in the United States encompasses over 4 million miles of roads, 140,000 miles of railways, and 160,000 miles of electrical power lines. That in itself is significant real estate. Without a doubt, ROW must be managed to prevent them from being overrun by vegetation.

What can happen if ROW vegetation is not managed properly?

Roads ROW – Overgrown and poorly managed roadside vegetation will affect visibility of drivers and may sometimes lead to vehicle accidents. In some instances, such as during inclement weather, plant debris such as tree branches could end up on the road and impede traffic or cause an accident.

Railway ROW – Similar to roads, overgrown and poorly managed vegetation along railway ROW can lead to plant debris or fallen trees on railway tracks, particularly during inclement weather. Consequently, impeding train traffic or causing derailments are possible outcomes that can be devastating.

Electricity ROW – The impact of poorly managed vegetation in electricity ROW can be devastating. For example, in August 2003, the largest electricity blackout in the United States and Canada happened when powerlines and trees came into contact with each other in Ohio. The short circuit that led to the blackout affected 50 million people, was connected to at least 11 deaths, and had an estimated cost of $6 billion.

What are the challenges to managing ROW vegetation?

Intensity of management – In crop production, vegetation management is frequent, simple, and intensive. On the other hand, vegetation management in ROW is less intensive and infrequent. 

Invasion by alien plant species – In crop production, alien plant species are quickly identified, studied, and strategies for their control developed and disseminated widely. This strategy helps prevent their establishment and spread. In contrast, alien plant species invading ROW are usually identified when they have become established and are spreading.

What are alien plant species?

Alien plant species are those that are new arrivals in a habitat having been introduced accidentally or intentionally. For example, accidental introductions are ones where the alien species’ arrival into the habitat is unknown. In contrast, intentional introductions are often linked to ornamental plants that ‘went rogue’ and invaded natural habitats.

What are some of the impacts of alien plant species?

Good – some alien plant species can improve the habitat they enter/invade. For example, an alien plant species that is a legume (like bean), will enhance the habitat with its nitrogen making capability.

Bad – some alien plant species can change the nature of the habitat in negative ways. For example, some plants can enter a habitat, quickly become established, and alter the nature of the habitat. This class of alien plant species is often referred to as weedy and invasive plants.

Should we be concerned with weedy and invasive plants in ROW vegetation?

The simple answer is YES, and here are some reasons why.

  1. Biodiversity – Weedy and invasive plants spread quickly, replace native plants, and often create monocultures. These are circumstances that lead to declines in a habitat and ecosystem.
  2. Fire risk – Weedy and invasive plant monocultures can serve as fuel for wildfires.
  3. Wildlife habitat – Weedy and invasive plants which become established in a habitat may cause declines in native plant species that ultimately endanger some vital habitat species.
  4. Cost – Annual cost of weedy and invasive species to the US economy is estimated at $120 billion.

Whether good or bad, all ROW vegetation must be managed so as not to impede transportation of humans, goods, and energy. ROW vegetation consists of annual and perennial herbs and grasses, shrubs, and softwood and hardwood trees. 

Management strategies for ROW vegetation

  • Mowing – A common procedure for herbs, grasses, and shrubs because the results are immediate. However, this method generally provides short-term success since it leaves rootstocks that can resprout. Furthermore, mowing can help spread some species, for example Chinese tallow (Triadica sebifera) which can resprout from stem pieces. Mowing cannot be used successfully with softwood or hardwood trees.
  • Herbicides – The most effective and inexpensive means of controlling ROW plants. In particular, the use of herbicides is the most ideal method for controlling shrubs, softwood trees, and hardwood trees. There are four techniques used to apply herbicide:
  1. Foliar application technique – herbicide spray is applied onto the leaves of a plant. This method is only effective on small species that are no more than six to eight feet in height.
  2. Basal application technique – applications of herbicide with oil penetrant are made to the lower 12 – 18 inches of woody plants. The woody plants must be less than six inches in diameter and have smooth bark.
  3. Hack and squirt technique – requires the use of a machete or hatchet to cut through thick bark and into the sapwood. The cut creates a “cup” to hold herbicide spray solution. This technique is ideal for control of large trees that cannot be managed with basal applications.
  4. Cut stump technique – employed after cutting a tree and is intended to eliminate, or greatly reduce, resprouts from stumps or lateral roots.

Highlighting the basal application technique

  • Basal applications can be made any time of year, but control may be reduced in the spring when trees are flushing new growth.
  • Winter is often the most ideal time to make basal applications because temperatures are cooler and many trees and surrounding herbaceous plants are dormant.
  • Basal applications will not provide rapid control and symptoms of injury will not be observed for several weeks after application. Complete control may require several months.
  • Basal applications are not effective on older trees greater than six inches in diameter or trees with very thick bark. For these situations, the hack and squirt or cut stump techniques may be a better control option.

Specific Guidelines for basal herbicide applications

a drawing of basal application technique sample
  1. Select the proper herbicide that is approved for ROW application. Be sure to read the herbicide label carefully and completely. For best results, select an oil soluble herbicide with instructions for basal applications.
  2. Select the proper adjuvant that is designed for basal applications. For example:
    1. Brewer Basal Oil™
      • Spray diluent for basal application of herbicides.
      • Made up of all-natural vegetable oil.
      • Carrier for oil-soluble herbicides.
    2. Brewer Basal Oil Blue LT™
      • Low temperature spray diluent for basal applications of herbicide.
      • Made up of a blend of petroleum based basal oils.
      • Carrier for oil-soluble herbicides.
    3. JLB Oil Plus™
      • Spray diluent for basal applications for crush control herbicides.
      • Made up of a blend of basal oils.
      • Eliminates the need for diesel or kerosene.
    4. Improved JLB Oil Plus™
      • Spray diluent for basal applications of brush control herbicides.
      • Made up of all natural vegetable oils.
      • Eliminates the need for diesel or kerosene.
  3. Make basal herbicide applications using a handheld sprayer or backpack sprayer.
  4. Apply basal herbicide spray to the lower 12 to 18 inches of the bark of woody plants with trunks that are no more than six inches in diameter. Herbicide spray should be applied to wet the surface, and not so much as to generate runoff. All sides of the plant must be covered with the herbicide spray.

Benefits of using Basal Applications

  • The herbicide – oil mixture will penetrate the bark and be transported down to the root system where it can cause the most harm to the targeted plant.
  • Nearby off-target desirable trees and shrubs should not be impacted.
  • The technique can be successfully accomplished on sites where foliar herbicide applications are difficult to make due to plant foliage being out of reach or intermingling with desirable non-target plants.
  • The technique is effective when plants are dormant, even when leaves are absent, as long as temperature and environmental conditions allow.


Brewer International (https://brewerint.com/) has been a leader in land and water chemistry since the 1980’s and for over 40 years has proudly served it’s national and regional distributors. 

Our products are used widely across the United States in agriculture, aquatics, forestry, rights of way, and land management. 

Our customers trust our dedication to quality ingredients, tried and true formulas, and positive outcomes.

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