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Hack Job 

Are PG&E and Davey Tree going too far with their tree-trimming 'reliability program'?


Mervis Reissig received the frantic phone call on a Friday afternoon. Davey Tree, a tree-service company contracted by Pacific Gas & Electric, had just finished "routine compliance pruning" on the rental property Reissig owns on the outskirts of Santa Rosa. Her tenant, who has lived in the house for the past three years, "was practically hysterical," says Reissig. Davey Tree workers, the tenant informed her, had "butchered" a large redwood next to the house, removing a swath of the tree above and below the power lines.

"The combination of everything set me off," Reissig says by phone from Southern California. "PG&E do this every year. They don't pay attention to anything but the whacking of branches off their line."

The tree looked imbalanced and top-heavy, and the tenant feared it might fall onto the house. Reissig called the company to lodge a complaint, leading to a property visit by Greg Holquist, head of Sonoma County's Vegetation Management department. But she was surprised when Holquist, a licensed arborist, assessed that the tree had been trimmed in accordance with International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) standards. Additionally, the tenant later told Reissig that Holquist had been rude and threatening, and that he had made veiled threats to remove the redwood tree entirely. (Repeated calls to Holquist for this story were not returned; Sandra Reid, manager of corporate communications for Davey Tree, would not comment.)

Reissig called in two local tree experts to get a second opinion.

"It's poorly thought-out, poorly executed work," says Darryl Sukovitzen, owner of Forestville-based tree service company the Tree Climber, regarding Davey Tree's quality of "workmanship." He claims the redwood does indeed pose a danger to the house. Gary Balcerak, an ISA-certified arborist in Santa Rosa, also examined the tree and says that while the tree wasn't structurally compromised, he does believe that "it was thinned beyond normal arborial practices."

Davey Tree, based out of Kent, Ohio, has had a contract with PG&E to do tree work for the past 30 years, according to PG&E spokeswoman Brandi Ehlers. Ehlers says that within city jurisdiction, vegetation must be cleared 18 inches from distribution lines 365 days a year. In state responses areas—the rural locales where the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has jurisdiction—trees must be cleared at least four feet from power lines. But critics accuse Davey Tree and PG&E of going overboard in clearing vegetation, as a means of cutting costs, time and repeat visits, and that the result poses a danger not only to trees, but to people living below them.

"What PG&E is arguing is that they need to create clearance to make sure that power lines are not threatened, but it appears that they overthinned the tree to minimize the effort required and to reduce their return trip time," says Balcerak.

Balcerak also says that companies like PG&E are loathe to increase their knowledge of trees, especially if it is not the best interest of their infrastructure. "I've never had a public works department employee willing to have a sensible talk about how we might meet their goals and minimize damage to the trees," he says.

Sukovitzen says that overtrimming in an area known for its vegetation and redwoods is a "microcosm of what is happening on a larger scale," where short-term investment and financial gain take precedence over long-term damage to the trees.

An old-school environmental activist, Sukovitzen has a history of taking different corporations to task; in 1987, he was arrested in Humboldt County while protesting the clearcutting of forests by Pacific Lumber. Over the past three years, Sukovitzen has made it his mission to challenge the policies that PG&E has implemented via its reliability pruning program. He asserts that the enhanced measures toward "reliability" will actually lead to widespread and systematic tree failures in the next five years.

"The trees can go into shock from all of these intrusions. Once they adapt to the shock, they start breaking," he says, pointing out redwoods along River Road, their limbs sheared off on the side facing power lines.

"They side-stripped the crap out of this one, and others they leave the limbs," he says. "It's just the edict of some underling in PG&E corporate getting the bosses off his back. The new trimming regime is indicative of what PG&E is: irresponsible and corrupt."

According to Sukovitzen, this aggressive way of trimming creates an imbalanced distribution of nutrients, moisture and oxygen to the untrimmed side of the tree, causing a shock reaction. He wants PG&E to return to its old way of tree maintenance: cutting off the branches without chopping them away entirely. Until then, he says, residents will be dealing with wind tunnels, increased fire danger and risk of trees falling and tops breaking off.

"I get letters from people all of the time to deal with the aftermath," he says. "It affects property values. This program will create thousands of bad situations in the future."

The reliability program was put in place as a way to address the high number of power outages in the Russian River region due to falling trees. According to PG&E spokeswoman Ehlers, the program began in 2006 in Sonoma County and was expanded to other service areas. The program is implemented in areas with "historically poor reliability due to vegetation-related outages," says Ehlers. Meaning that tall redwoods in rural areas get side-stripped.

Matthew Banchero, a self-employed tree worker based in the Occidental area, claims that some homeowners have had to pay for the removal of trees that have been damaged by the company, and that Davey Tree has lopped off the top of trees and left them standing by the road, waiting to fall.

"I would like to know how Davey can have an ISA number listed on the side of the truck when they do not abide by any of the international standards mandated by the ISA," says Banchero by email.

"The pruning we do follows national ISA guidelines and safety standards," claims Ehlers. When asked whether complaints had increased at PG&E regarding tree trimming practices, Ehlers says that there has actually been an increase in positive comments, in regards to power outages, though she would not give the Bohemian access to the data that officially showed this to be true.

Balcerak's issues with PG&E and Davey Tree's work go beyond the trimming itself. He's noticed in his 15 years working in Sonoma and Marin counties that trees in affluent neighborhoods don't tend to get cut back as severely. He recalls an uproar that ensued when a eucalyptus tree was overtrimmed in the wealthy McDonald Avenue area of Santa Rosa, complaints which merited an article in the Press Democrat. The tree-cutting that occurs in less affluent areas, like Reissig's house in Southwest Santa Rosa, is sometimes "egregious."

In the meantime, Reissig plans on sending PG&E a written notice that Davey Tree is never allowed on her property again. She's looking into other options for tree service companies, including Family Tree, a local company based out of Laytonville.

"Now that I've started talking to people, I'm beginning to see the scope of the issue," declares Reissig. "If it was one tree, one time, I'd be less upset. Maybe as a community we can bring attention to the long-term damage they're doing."

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