By Stephen R. Cieslewicz
Want to know how to get a roomful of utility foresters and line clearance workers to raise their hands? Ask them if they have ever been called a “tree butcher.” During a recent speech I gave in the Pacific Northwest, I got the entire audience to respond in unison. Indeed, all had been accused of being tree butchers on more than one occasion.
How is this meme perpetuated? Is it a reasonable and accurate accusation? Are utility arborists and line clearance crews actually tree butchers, or should we be pointing that accusatory finger elsewhere?
To address these questions, I would like to tell you about a class action lawsuit I participated in as an expert many years ago. My conclusions in this particular case have since been re-confirmed in other similar legal and regulatory cases.
Approximately 10 years ago, I received a call from a Midwest utility company that had been embroiled in a very high-profile bit of litigation that had resulted in frequent newspaper articles and TV news stories. While the particulars of the case were wide ranging, one critical accusation of the utility was that they (or better yet, their line clearing contractors) were “butchering” trees across the jurisdiction with little regard to the public outcry, let alone proper tree care. The ongoing news coverage included pictures of trees with large portions of the canopy removed — V-shaped, L-shaped, and a couple of W-shaped trees — all of which were captioned with a reference to “examples of butchered trees.”
The utility attorneys in this case asked if I would act as their expert to answer the following simple question: Were the trees butchered, or not?
My subsequent investigation involved an initial meeting with the opposition’s expert (a local well respected commercial arborist) in order to first agree upon industry standards, and then to visit each and every one of the hundreds of trees that were identified as having been butchered. The latter task involved slogging through a lot of snow and spending a great many hours and days evaluating each tree. Our collective intent during this frigid foray was to hopefully reach independent consensus on each tree and bring our results back to both the plaintiff and defendant.
At the post-investigation meeting with the utility and plaintiffs, both experts (we) presented the same results. While we may have encountered one or two bad pruning cuts here and there (when looking at hundreds of pruning cuts), the trees were, for the most part, pruned in accordance with proper ANSI pruning standards. Contrary to months of negative media coverage, the line clearance contractor had actually done an admirable job of performing work based on the industry accepted best practices at that time. My personal conclusion was that the perception of tree butchery was purely that of an aesthetic perception, and not the result of bad work. People just didn’t like the way the trees looked.
The utility was happy with the results, but our findings afforded no consolation for the damage that was already done to their reputation and standing with the public and their customers. For many of the preceding months, the utility had appeared on front-page articles and in news stories with the typical inferred byline that they were butchers who did not care about the trees. As was to be expected, the subsequent news coverage of our findings did not garner the same level of attention, nor vindicate the utility’s reputation.
Problems like these seem to occur when people who do not understand proper tree care make an uninformed allegation based purely on an aesthetic perception (which often times is then spread through media). “The tree looks like a V! The tree looks imbalanced! The tree looks like hell! You butchered my tree!”
I think those of us who advocate for science-based proper tree care should be quick to speak against the erroneous melding of proper tree care and aesthetic perceptions. They are two different issues, and should not be considered compatible in many cases. This is particularly true when it comes to trees near power lines.
Would you, as a tree care professional, plant a juvenile sycamore tree directly underneath the overhang of your roof and snug the trunk of the new planting next to your foundation and exterior wall? Probably not, because you know that within a short period of time it will cause problems. The sycamore will want to grow taller than the roof overhang and wider than your exterior wall will permit, and it will likely desire to intrude into your house’s foundation.
If, on the other hand, you did think it was a good idea to plant a sycamore in this unlikely location, you would obviously have to set up a regular and frequent pruning schedule to manage that tree in that ill-suited location.
But no self-respecting arborist would ever plant a big tree in a confined location, right? We would match the mature size of the plant to the specific site (both above and below ground). At a minimum, we would follow the advice of the late great Dr. Richard Harris who said, in his classic book “Arboriculture”:
Pruning can reduce shade, the danger of wind-throw, and interference with utility wires, can simplify pest-control spraying, and can prevent the obstruction of views and traffic. If you choose plants that will be an appropriate size at maturity, this will minimize the need for pruning. If a plant must be pruned more than every five to seven years to control its size, it is the wrong plant for the particular location or use.
Dr. Harris said this, in large part, because we know repeated pruning for size reduction will ultimately kill an ornamental tree long before its time.
If you did act against all we know regarding plant and site selection, and did indeed plant the sycamore in the wrong location, how would the tree look after a period of several pruning cycles? If the tree has the genetic potential and resolute capacity to grow in excess of 100 feet tall, what will it look like after it reaches the overhang? Let me cut to the chase here. Over a period of time the sycamore will look like it has been “butchered.” Notably, it will look that way to laypersons and professionals alike.
Let me offer up another interesting finding I uncovered related to the Midwest lawsuit. As it turns out, the overwhelming majority of trees that were claimed to have been “butchered” were actually planted after the lines where installed. In other words, and very much like the sycamore example above, these big trees were planted under or adjacent to existing power lines with no regard to the long-term implications of trying to manage a genetically large tree in a confined space.
This brings me to my main point and strong personal conviction. There are many folks out there who are quick to raise the “tree butcher” accusation against utility arborists when looking at the results of their efforts to clear the energized lines. However, the pruning techniques are not the reason the trees look bad. In the vast majority of cases, the real reason the tree looks “butchered” is because it doesn’t belong there.
It is my belief that the “tree butcher” label should be handed over to the likely well-intended person who improperly selected and planted the tree in the first place — not to the folks who are ultimately charged by law with maintaining the required space between the vegetation and electric facilities. When factoring in the availability of planting choices and the implications of tree and power line conflicts (fires, outages, electrocutions, and billions of ratepayer maintenance dollars spent each year on mitigating these threats), there are absolutely no valid reasons for planting a large tree underneath power lines.
So, next time you run into a customer who claims the utility has butchered their tree, consider going through the following checklist with them:
1. What was there first, the tree or the wires? If the answer is the wires, you might explain to them that the wrong tree was planted in the wrong location.
2. Was the work done in accordance with ANSI A300 standards? If so, and the tree looks bad, you might explain the aesthetic issues are really a result of a bad planting choice.
3. How often has the tree been pruned by the utility in the past? If the answer is more than once every 5-7 years, you might explain that the tree should be removed and replaced with a more suitable tree or shrub for that location.
I think you will find out, as I have, that in the vast majority of cases, the utility company performed the tree work consistent with industry best practices. They were stuck managing someone else’s poor planting choice.
The frequent aesthetic allegation of “butchered” trees should not be levied haphazardly against the utilities, but rather imposed on the people who caused the problem in the first place.
Stephen R. Cieslewicz is president and chief consultant of CN Utility Consulting Inc. With more than 30 years of industry experience, Cieslewicz is a recognized expert in utility vegetation management (UVM). In working with utilities, regulators and service providers around the world, Cieslewicz has been directly involved in the bulk of tree and power line issues of note. He was a principal UVM investigator for the Joint U.S./Canada Power Systems Outage Task Force, a principal author of all UVM related reports following the August 14, 2003 blackout, and is a member of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) FAC-003 drafting committees. Cieslewicz has testified as an expert at many significant legal, regulatory and legislative hearings and is a past president of the Utility Arborist Association (UAA).