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News: 05/15/2012

PG&E intends to clear cut

Company says it will take up to 80 percent of trees for 39 miles

The gloves have come off. After months of meetings and vague promises to “discuss” tree removal, PG&E told Oakmont and Bennett Valley residents on May 7 that it intends to clear cut the entire 39-mile-long, high voltage line that stretches from Petaluma to the Geysers. Steve Tankersley, head of the statewide vegetation management program told people at the meeting that the company intends to remove up to 4,000 trees between May 15 and June 15, and to finish the entire job by December.

The decision to clear cut is a significant departure from the company’s 50-year policy of examining and trimming trees that threaten power lines.

Seventeen trees have already been removed in Phase I of the latest revision to the company’s new vegetation management policy. Since they were first notified almost a year ago that the company intended to cut a lot more trees than normal, Oakmont residents have been given several different scenarios of what could be expected, with constant assurances that PG&E would “discuss” any tree removal before actually cutting.

Thousands of trees have been marked with blue dots and yellow ribbons, and in spite of several meetings with PG&E, property owners still don’t have a clue what they mean.

Phase II, according to Tankersley, will see the removal of up to 4,000 trees by June 15, along with some trimming. The final Phase III will involve clear cutting up to 80 percent of the trees under the high voltage line that runs over Mt. Hood and Annadel parks, two nature preserves, and hundreds of private properties, starting July 1 and running though November. Phase III will also take trees that were just trimmed earlier, Tankersley said.

PG&E spokeswoman Brandi Ehlers confirmed the dates of the expected tree work, but could not confirm any numbers or percentages of removal.

“We recently conducted a LIDAR [Light Detection and Ranging] analysis to get a better reading and get a precise count of how many trees in Phase II, and to determine how many are imminent threat,” Ehlers said. The entire line was examined by helicopter and the results are being turned into a complex model that can accurately determine where trees are, in relation to the line. “We’re still waiting for the results.”

Ehlers characterizes Phase I and Phase II as the same work that has been done in previous years, but described Phase III as “right-of-way work that will be scheduled once we complete modelings, communicate with property owners, and complete environmental screening” which involves consultations with state Fish & Game over habitat conservation. She continued to emphasis that the company will communicate with landowners, but noted that disagreeing with PG&E’s decisions will not save a tree.

Property owners have formed an ad-hoc committee, Save our Sonoma Trees, put up a web site at, and have met with PG&E representatives three times already. They are trying to stop the clear cutting plan through several means.

Oakmont resident and 7th District Assemblyman Michael Allen has already introduced a bill, AB 2556, aimed at reining in any clear cutting policy, but it will take months to wend its way through state government in the middle of a budget crisis. Meanwhile, he is setting up a meeting at his Santa Rosa offices with senior PG&E officials and members of SOS-Trees.

Dan Viele lives off Sonoma Mountain Road and has many trees targeted for destruction on his property. He is a core member of SOS-Trees. While he has no trouble with removing trees that actually threaten the power lines, he says most of the marked trees are clearly non-threatening.

“My easement from PG&E allows the utility to decide its policy, trim and cut trees,” Viele said. “It also gives me the right to enjoy my property while they do that. It does not give PG&E the right to make a mess of my land and walk away making believe that’s management.”

PG&E has said it will not remove trees it cuts down, but will leave them on site.

“PG&E is not honoring the owners’ right to enjoy their land. It says money is not an issue, then explains why they can’t plan for environmental impact statements, or clean up after the mess they make cutting down an entire forest,” said Viele.

PG&E’s claim that they are required by federal law to cut trees is not reflected in the federal standard, which says, “The choice of control method or methods should be based on environmental impact and anticipated effectiveness, along with site characteristics, security, economics, current land use and other factors such as erosion/mudslides.”

The company has said it faces million dollar in fines for not clear cutting, but the fines are only applicable if the company hasn’t maintained the vegetation along the high-power lines. The company has adequately maintained their 230 kilovolt lines for over 50 years without incident.

Land owners say PG&E stands to save a lot of money through the clear cutting policy. Instead of having to inspect and trim trees annually, they cut them once and don’t have to do anything for another 20 years.

Skip Van Loben Sels, a Starry Knoll homeowners association resident just above the Oakmont Golf Course, said Tankersley compared removing the trees to clearing trees for a golf course or Highway 12. “We informed him that removing trees was necessary to play golf and drive on a road, but not for transmission lines that have been adequately maintained for many years.”

Perhaps nowhere will the impact of PG&E’s new policy be felt more than at Pepperwood Preserve, a 3,200-acre nature preserve on Franz Valley Road, on the way to Calistoga. The high-voltage lines run for four miles across the property.

“We are really discouraged with what PG&E is doing,” preserve manager Michael Gillogly said. “I’ve been here 18 years and they’ve trimmed and done some removal throughout that time. I feel that this is a step too far. They are proposing to eliminate hundreds of trees on this preserve. Oak woodlands are imperiled in California.”

SOS is retaining counsel and is also trying to meet with the California Public Utility Commissioners that have oversight of PG&E.

SOS-Trees will host a meeting of concerned property owners on May 17 from 5-7 p.m. at the Bennett Valley Grange, 4145 Grange Road in Bennett Valley. There will be an environmental attorney on hand to answer questions and provide guidance.


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