By David Lusk
Heavy Handed Power Line Clearance Butchers a Winston-Salem Neighborhood’s Trees
We need the electricity that brings us heat and light; electricity that powers appliances, computers, and wide screen televisions. The system of overhead power lines stretching throughout our older neighborhoods is often taken for granted, at least, until a storm knocks them down. Both linemen and power line clearance tree cutters work diligently by either climbing or using their aerial lift trucks and bright orange tree trucks to insure that there is an uninterrupted flow of electricity to power our homes. You routinely see them (or you don’t see them) stationed street side in the tide of the hurried traffic. Their efforts are too often taken for granted. They work everyday within close proximity to a lethal dose of electricity. The work is difficult and highly dangerous.
Maintenance of overhead power lines requires cutting back tree limbs or the complete removal of trees that threaten to short out or knock down the lines. Over time, trees grow into the power line right-of-way which is a distance of 15 feet on each side of the power poles and lines. Who owns the sky is clearly not the tree whose canopy matures into the right-of-way. The offending tree’s size and proximity to the power line dictates the amount of foliage reduction and subsequent damage to individual tree health and appearance.
The sudden loss of neighborhood trees and their place defining characteristics can be shocking. Unknown to many Winston-Salem residents was one of the most magnificent examples of a “tree tunnel” boulevard anywhere in North Carolina. Undisturbed, unaltered, naturally green, organically lush, “free range” (not mutilated) crepe myrtle trees lined both sides of E. 11th Street. These trees were purposely planted by the City of Winston-Salem along city right-of-way. As city owned trees, they escaped the misinformed “tree topper” mentality that has unfortunately, “crepe murdered”, “hat racked”, and over pruned most all of their kin on residential and commercial properties throughout the city. This made E. 11th Street all the more special. With their summer foliage and flowers, these crepe myrtles created a beautiful setting with shaded sidewalks that neighborhood residents have cherished for years. Their only nemesis – the power lines that loomed above. The recent cutting of these trees on the power line side of the street is a prime example that no matter the location, uniqueness or special contribution, trees have no safe place within a power line right-of-way.
Compared to the slow, gentle growth of trees that we acclimate to over time, heavy handed power line clearance is harsh, confusing and sudden. There are strategic and logistical reasons for Duke Energy’s prescribed tree cutting methods. They have little to do with aesthetics or adherence to arboricultural tree care practices and preservation. Their steadfast mission is to cost effectively provide electricity with as few return trips as possible to deal with trees. Furthermore, the cost to put our existing overhead power lines below ground is prohibitively expensive, damaging to the root systems of nearby trees and is a highly disruptive construction process. The results are severely shorn branches and negatively transformed neighborhoods. Could these trees have been cut in a less drastic, more sensitive manner? Yes, but when their “day of reckoning” comes, there are no exceptions. Can there be exceptions? Theoretically, yes. Logistically, yes. Aesthetically, yes. Financially… highly unlikely.
There are practical, less distressing solutions to the conundrum of wanting both shade trees and needing affordable electricity. First, and foremost comes acceptance that where your trees have grown as volunteers or were purposely planted within a power line right -of- way, the inevitable day of reckoning will surely come. Secondly, adopt a succession plan for new trees by planting one of the many small growing varieties of trees that will pose no threat to the lines above. Plant larger growing varieties far enough away from power lines to afford their spreading canopies in the years to come. So to really love ’em better, we gotta replace lots of trees, with more appropriate varieties, with better placement and better care ( i.e. say no to “crepe murdered” trees). Finally, during the next ice or wind storm share a cup of coffee with the neighborhood tree workers and power line workers. These days of tree reckoning do not come easily for worker or resident.
David Lusk is President and consulting arborist for Lusk Tree Care Services, Inc. In Winston-Salem.