The Right Tree in the Right Place

Across our country, utility companies spend more than $2 billion annually to control woody vegetation around power lines, and for good reason. One falling tree can cause havoc. Witness August 2003, when the failure of a poorly maintained line left over 50 million Northeasterners and Canadians without electricity.

But those billions for pruning and spraying could be better spent. Instead of creating straight-edged tornado alleys by cutting trees to the ground, we should be planting smaller trees. The line crews currently work around dogwood, redbud and other low growers. Why not also pay them to plant appropriate trees that fill the space without touching the electric line?

Utilities already understand this logic. They encourage landowners to plant “the right tree in the right place,” and Virginia Tech researcher Bonnie Appleton says it’s slowly catching on.

In 1994, Appleton created the Utility Line Arboretum. The local power company set up three poles and two spans of uncharged lines. Appleton and a graduate student planted the right of way. To help others, they created extensive lists of suitable plants, from shrubs like crape myrtle to small trees like saucer magnolia. Ten years later, the arboretum shows how trees can fill the space without crowding the lines, a solution both utilitarian and beautiful.

This practice makes ecological sense as well. Regular maintenance is required until the new trees become established. But once mature, they shade out competitors and reduce the need for herbicides and pollution-spewing chain saws. The plants provide habitat and food for wildlife, and possibly people, if they like eating papaws and hazelnuts. Our own Agriculture Department recognizes planting forests as a method to reduce global warming, so why not plant the acres of power lines for this cause as well?

This “right tree, right place” philosophy also should make economic sense. Kevin Sigmon, utility forester for American Electric Power and also arborist for Abingdon, Va., sees this on a small scale in the replacement of 200 huge, high-maintenance trees like silver maple. He estimates the cost of replanting will be recovered in eight to 10 years. The new trees, dogwoods and fringe trees, stop growing at 30 feet, the power keeps flowing, and the utility company and customers are both happy.

On our family farm, we’ve planted several acres of abandoned pasture to hardwoods. We like trees and we want our land to be productive, so we signed up for government programs created to help landowners plant trees. Incentives covered most of our costs. Our power line also crosses this land, so we filled the half-mile right of way with a dozen species of shrubs and small trees. We couldn’t afford this without the government’s help.

However, such incentives don’t exist for forested or urban landscapes. If landowners want to convert rights of way traversing woodlots to appropriate plants, they must fund it all themselves. This is wrong. Our government needs to create incentives to encourage planting right-sized trees, and utility companies could help as well with incentives, education and a shift from clear cutting to following their own “right tree, right place” slogan.

We also need the help of research institutions. Lynn Grayson, forestry supervisor for American Electric, estimates that it spends $200 to $800 per acre to keep the lines clear, millions of dollars annually for 125,000 acres of line. How much of this money would we need to plant with small trees, and how much over the long run would we save, once they became established? A large-scale study would answer such questions.

We all like trees, especially when they can grow where others have been cut, especially when we can witness an otherwise barren right of way filled with the vibrant pink of redbuds flowering with their own quiet power.

JIM MINICK teaches at Radford University in Virginia and also farms. A poet and essayist, his latest book is “Finding a Clear Path.” He wrote this essay for the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.