There is perhaps a bit of irony in Matt Goff’s role as a vegetation manager.
Trained in forestry and working after graduation as a procurement forester, his goal was to keep trees growing as tall and straight as possible. But after a few years traveling the traditional forestry route, he received an offer from Georgia Power to manage the utility’s rights-of-way.
Now, after more than 15 years with the company, he’s gotten pretty good at keeping trees off the right of way and encouraging the undergrowth. It’s all in the spirit of keeping the lights on, though—and the same basic forestry principles still apply, even though the results are different.
“The silviculture and management skills we learn at Warnell still apply but the objective is, instead of managing the land to produce a crop of trees, you manage the land so that the trees aren’t in conflict with power lines,” he said. “You’re trying to keep trees suppressed. When you’re managing the right-of-way, you want to suppress the trees and promote forbs and grasses. The same forestry techniques work, you just steer your training toward a different objective.”
Goff started working for Georgia Power in 2003; today he’s managing utility arborists and contractors across the state. The puzzles they solve change from day to day, but the scale is no different than managing a large stand of pine: 38,000 miles of distribution power lines on 30-foot rights-of-ways amount to more than 120,000 acres of rights-of-way to manage.
He enjoys the variety of challenges, as well as how technology has influenced the role. For example, updates to herbicides have allowed utility arborists to lean heavily on those applications rather than mowing—cutting carbon emissions in the process. Also, Goff now incorporates remote-sensing technology to more efficiently manage vegetation across larger areas.
“Now, with data analytics and artificial intelligence approaches, we’re exploring all these new techniques to manage our assets—which is the right-of-way associated with power lines,” he said. “We have to manage it and work with the landowners. It’s a lot of smaller, custom management choices scaled up to make one big effect. There’s many local decisions made by the arborist on the best tool to choose.”
The field is also rapidly expanding. Goff saw the need for trained arborists and community foresters early on, and he was a leading voice in creating the Community Forestry and Arboriculture program at Warnell.
As the program continues to grow, Goff said he looks forward to the day when he can hire one of its graduates. But opportunities extend beyond the small crew employed by Georgia Power. Goff said Warnell’s program can help the University of Georgia plug into a global network of utility providers.
“There are many consultants and service companies that support utilities, and when you bring them into the mix, they offer jobs all over the country—all over the world—and they’re using GIS, remote sensing, dealing with the public, owning your own business,” he said. “That connection just further expands Warnell’s potential to leverage its brand and its knowledge base. … Pipelines, gas companies, DOTs, railroads—they all have people employed that manage their corridors and deal with the impact to the environment while also delivering product to customers and consumers. Everybody needs energy in whatever form it comes in, and we have to meet that challenge.”