PG&E’s War Against Trees

Photo: Tree Sitters Union, Local 707.

PG&E’s war against trees isn’t  confined to Humboldt County.  I’ve received letters from outraged landowners in  Shasta and Mendocino Counties, and read about infuriating encounters  with PG&E’s frontline troops in the media. People described threats, other harassments. They complained of being watched until they had to go out for something or other,at which point  tree-cutters swiftly  pounced on their  beloved trees. In Santa Cruz, the complaints were so vociferous  that the Board of Supervisors  filed a lawsuit  with the California  Public Utilities Commission (CPUC)  charging PG&E with the illegal removal of trees, disruption of sensitive habitat, violating the rights of private property owners, dangerously  increasing  erosion and landslide risk, compromising the water supply, and hundreds of violations of the Public Resources Code.

Government leaders in San Jose and San Francisco have called for PG&E to be taken out of investor control, and to be run by the  government or  its customers.

PG&E  often refuses to respond, an increasingly frequent reaction to government authorities  among the nation’s giant corporations and monied interests. It claims it needs no permits since vegetation management is mandated by state law.

Of course the State does not dictate HOW the vegetation should be managed, and  in our current perilous fire situation, PG&E could justify removing every tree in California. Indeed, trees have been known to be hurled for miles  by mighty fire-generated winds.

Humboldt County, with its long history  of  lumber production, has been slow to regard its forests as anything but  a rugged and colorful way to make a living.  Concerning  forests and their function in climate stabilization(trees absorb 25% of human  CO2-generated emissions)   timber harvest plans contain language questioning climate change, and  dismissing it as  an argument between  schools of scientists. They have been dismissive of the  enormous  role large trees play in the cycle of carbon sequestration, arguing that old trees age out, and that the young trees they plant  fix carbon more rapidly.

Though admitting the role habitat maintenance  plays in the  survival of wildlife, one  million  of whose species are predicted to become extinct in the next decade, the industry puts  pressure on the limits established in the forest practice rules regarding protections, and takes advantage of the impoverishment of the wildlife agencies.

A  letter to the  Community  Services District, written by  a member of the Anderson Valley Fire Department, addresses the subject of big trees,, specifically in regard to Faulkner Park but with general application. He begins by commending  PG&E’s  new vegetation management as  a “very wise and overdue solution” to reducing wild-fire. Then, very politely, almost in baby-talk, he  discusses the utterly misguided and disingenuous  way they go about what they profess to be their objective.

He  describes the value of the big trees, the ones PG&E is after, which offer shade.” This shading slows down the process of warming surface temperatures on smaller fuels. Along with keeping temperatures down it assists in holding  relative humidity longer. Although shaded fuels will dry and warm, like all other vegetative matter, their seasonal conditions are slower to transition into a ripe fire environment. Fuels that are in direct sunlight lose fuel moistures quicker and are subsequently drier earlier in the season than shaded fuels. These sundried fuels  take less energy to start and support fire growth when ember cast, sparks or other heat sources are introduced….an assumption is that PG&E would not manage  the understory  growth  since it is not a contributor to powerline  limb strike, and yet the new landscape would be at increased risk from fire…when powerlines fall on to these newly created conditions below.”

The Camp Fire, which caused  85 deaths, originated with a nearly-100-year-old power line falling into  just this kind of kindling. Many of PG&E’s  fires have been caused by their stunningly antiquated  equipment. Loretta Lynch, (not the AG) former president of the  CPUC,  described  equipment  maintenance (charged to rate-payers) as “Cadillac prices for a jalopy” and multimillion-dollar  fines she levied on  the corporation as  “chump change” from PG&E’s  standpoint. Caroline Thomas  Jacobs, the current Wildfire Safety Division director at CPUC,  has the same view:” You have to put together and develop a study and tell us why enhanced vegetation management is the way to go here…they have to think it through and not just pick the easy button and the cheapest approach… you can’t just cut a bunch of trees to look like you’re doing something.”

In spite of the chaos, in spite of the well-demonstrated  increased fire risk imposed on  the people, in spite of the piles of  cut-too-short-to-use logs, which landowners do not have the capacity to move, piled up around their houses,, and the branches and chips scattered across the landscape, PG&E continues, as it were, Sherman’s March Through Georgia.

The sudden disappearance of all these big trees has a primitive  psychological effect. One even  imagines how the Vietnamese felt after  we dropped nalpalm.


Besides the time-consuming law suits and all the talk, nobody is stopping it.. Except for Mattole   Forest Defense, which has been trying to protect  Humboldt Redwood State Park for four months. PG&E’s destructive action here is a true outrage. This buffer zone, purchased by the Parks in 1984, because it  realized this last stand of ancient redwoods would  be destroyed by logging-induced erosion if they didn’t, is being  fragmented  and frayed   as you read . Forest Defense is too few. There is no authority over the activity of the contractors, who are from all over the country and the majority of whom do not speak English. They do not understand the topography, the weather, the ecology or the history of the Forest. They are “just doing their job” as the ominous refrain always goes.

The Park administrator, Victor Bjelajac, and the Park biologist Amber Transou, are  phlegmatic and  silent. Why  don’t they spring into action? The Park is the largest forest of  ancient redwoods  on the planet. It was saved from logging by a  very brave and dedicated group of people in the 1920’s.  It shelters its own exquisite biodiversity much of which is endangered.  It will live a long time if we’re careful, but it is threatened by climate change, earthquakes, maybe even, in the remoter future, tsunamis. Here is the place for the Seventh Generation principle to be applied.  The forest  may  require very careful management techniques such as controlled burns, to help maintain habitat diversity. But why does the Park allow PG&E to rampage through its  protective buffer, knowing that the land is  extremely steep  and susceptible to erosion, is part of a wildlife corridor, the “Redwoods to the Sea”?  Removing the big trees PG&E is after will destabilize the remaining ones to windfall. It will heat up and dry out the  ground  and the trees, creating an edge effect.

Where is the Audubon Society? Where is the Nature Conservancy, EPIC, Save the Redwoods League?

A  demonstration of  PG&E’s true objectives in its overall mission is its thrust to kill solar. Simultaneous with its war on trees, PG&E is attacking  independent electricity generation. It complains  that people who have bought solar  panels and are selling back electricity to PG&E are  unloading the cost of equipment maintenance on the poor. They want people with solar panels to pay them a  tax. They want to get the rooftop electricity practically  for free.

This is a sickeningly specious argument, as anyone who has ever had their power turned off for nonpayment knows. If PG&E cared about poor people, they would subsidize solar panels for them, and pay for their own  equipment maintenance out of their profits.

If they cared about the climate catastrophe, and the anguish they themselves have caused, they would fix their  equipment.

They would put their lines underground.

They would persuade the Biden administration which has just secured $73 billion from the Infrastructure Bill to construct a new power grid, to put it underground…as Europe has done, for years, and end this maniacal self-mutilation in what’s left of our forests.


Ellen Taylor can be reached at