Powerline Paths


From the ground, they are long, barren alleys into the forest, sometimes narrow, sometimes as wide as an interstate, and always ugly. From the sky, they are strands of thread traversing the fabric of the land, stitches that both render and join. And in our towns and cities, these lines parallel streets and are less obtrusive to the eye because they blend in with the trees.

And there’s the rub, the trees. For utility power lines and their right-of-ways, trees are both the problem and the cure.

The old saw, “Nature abhors a vacuum,” aptly applies to power lines. For decades, phone, gas and electric companies have maintained these corridors by spraying herbicides or sending in crews who climb, limb and clear almost everything within the 40 to 200 foot right-of-way. They don’t cut compatible, low-growing plants, like spicebush and redbud, but still when finished, they leave a path that looks like a straight-jacketed tornado passed through. We customers may abhor the sight but have unconsciously appreciated and expected this; we like to flick switches, cook supper, and stay connected, to be joined by these many lines that span our country.
The world wide web is, after all, both figurative and literal, digital and physical.

The utility companies need this vacuum of space to keep the power flowing and provide public safety. As Lynn Grayson, Forestry Supervisor for American Electric Power Company (AEP) explains, “Trees are the leading cause of power outages.” I’ve witnessed a sapling short out a line, and the sparks are pretty, but also frightening.
A simple tree can do amazing damage. Much of the northeast U.S. and parts of Canada lost electricity in the blackout of August 2003, 50 million people without lights because of a poorly maintained power line. Other smaller examples occur locally and often, especially during wind or ice storms. Because of a massive ice storm in the 1990s, our family cooked on the woodstove and read by candlelight for nine days. Hauling water didn’t stay romantic for long.

Trees, however, don’t have to be “the enemy,” don’t have to be a “threat to homeland security,” as one researcher calls them. They can instead fill this right-of-way vacuum, if we choose the right kind. That’s what Dr. Bonnie Appleton, researcher and teacher at Virginia Tech’s Hampton Roads Research and Extension Center has been preaching now for over ten years, and slowly, utility companies, governments, and landowners are beginning to listen.
The idea is to plant small trees that never reach power line height in the right-of-ways to fill the space and hold back the unwanted growth of towering pines and oaks.

Like several foresters in the industry, Kevin Sigmon, a Utility Forester for AEP calls this, “The right tree in the right place.” If done well, this eliminates the outage dangers and also improves the aesthetics. Any cruise down a recently pruned street with all the trees topped to look like hat racks will illustrate this ugliness. The heavy pruning does little for the health of the tree. I’ve witnessed crews limb one side of mature pines, and then a few years later, the excessive injury causes the pines to die. The dead trees then become an even greater hazard to the line.

Appleton started addressing this problem in the early 1990s, asking various agencies to help fund a Utility Line Arboretum at the Hampton Roads Center. In 1994, the local power company set up three poles and two spans of uncharged lines, and then Appleton and a graduate student went to work planting a variety of trees and shrubs both to demonstrate and test alternatives. To help landowners and towns, the two researchers created extensive lists of plants, from shrubs like crape myrtle and Rose of Sharon, to small trees like fringetree, saucer magnolia and dogwood. Photographs from 2004, ten years after the initial planting, show a blend of various trees and shrubs, all mature, and all filling the vacuum of a right-of-way without touching the power lines, clearly a good solution that is both utilitarian and beautiful.
Planting appropriately-sized trees makes sense economically and ecologically as well. Nationally, utility companies spend approximately $2 billion dollars annually to keep our lines clear. In southwest Virginia, Lynn Grayson estimates that Appalachian Power spends several million dollars per year to stay ahead of the vegetation on roughly 125,000 acres of rights-of-ways. Pruning and spraying costs anywhere from $200 to $800 per acre. No long-term cost analysis comparing these types of maintenance with appropriate tree planting has been done, but surely the potential economic benefits warrant one.

According to Grayson, most of the maintenance (75-80%) is done with a chainsaw, while 15-20% of the lines get sprayed with herbicide. Both herbicides and chainsaws degrade the environment, the spray through the obvious use of poison, and the saw through its use of petroleum and emission of pollution (including the noise kind).

Again, no long-term analysis comparing the ecological costs and benefits of line maintenance with “right-tree” planting has been done, but the environmental advantages should easily favor the tree. Ask any bird, and also ask the power industry and our own government who both see planting forests as the leading way to reduce global warming through carbon sequestration.

Dr. Appleton’s research focuses primarily on the needs of populated areas where she hopes to have the greatest impact. AEP Utility Forester Kevin Sigmon agrees with this urban focus. In Abingdon, VA, Sigmon and others have aggressively pursued the concept of “right tree, right place.” Since 2001, they’ve cut and replaced over 200 trees, huge ones like silver maple and ash, that because of the years of hard pruning and city life were in poor health. They’ve replanted these inappropriate trees with smaller ones like dogwood, witch hazel and redbud. Sigmon points out that a one-to-one cost comparison between maintaining the old trees with replanting the new should favor the new trees after about three trimming cycles, roughly 8-10 years. In his words, “It is the arborist’s solution to this problem.”

Rural landowners also face similar problems, and my wife and I fall into this group. Our house is serviced by a stretch of wire a half mile long and covering two acres. Much of it traverses an old pasture that we’re converting to timberland, so in the process of planting hardwoods and pines on the pasture, we decided to also plant the right-of-way. One of Appleton’s criteria for urban plantings is that the trees don’t create a mess with their fruit. This matters little to us in the country, so I eliminated that criteria and added a few others. We want shrubs and trees that are native, attractive, and that increase the diversity of our forest as well as provide food for both wildlife and us. Some of our choices include: pawpaw, serviceberry, crab apple, hazelnut, winterberry, and elderberry. Dogwood and redbud would also be high on our list but we already have several of these.

Before I ordered the trees, I contacted Steven Feggeler, the Utility Forester for our area. He approved my list of plants and made note of our pole numbers so that future maintenance crews will know that appropriate trees are planted in this right-of-way. Anyone planning a similar project should make sure they contact the local utility forester to protect their planting.

This spring, weather and body permitting, I’ll enjoy the slow hard work of planting these 700 seedlings, slicing holes into the soft earth and slipping in the delicate roots. In a few years, weather and body permitting, I’ll pick and eat the sweet fruit of pawpaw and hazelnut, trying to get a few bites before the birds and other creatures.

Hopefully by then, the seams of power lines that cover our land will no longer separate one side of the forest from the other, but instead stitch the right-of-way into its surroundings, helping it join the natural web of life.

Jim Minick lives, writes and farms in Wythe County, Virginia, and is a member of the Blue Ridge Forest Landowners Cooperative. He also teaches in the English Department at Radford University. His collection of essays, Finding a Clear Path, is forthcoming from WVU Press on April 1st, 2005.


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