Tree-trimming practices hated but effective

Friday, May 27, 2011, Vol. 35, No. 21
By Hollie Deese

It might seem an abonimation to tree lovers, but the distinctive "Y" shape of a tree trimmed to fit beneath power lines is correct under guidelines used by Nashville Electric and its contractors.

-- Photo By Lyle Graves

If you haven’t been a victim yourself, chances are you know someone who has. And while it’s not criminal, many Davidson Country residents view Nashville Electric Services’ tree-trimming practices as a crime against nature.

“I was watching them cut these four little trees across the street from us, and they just butchered them,” says Diane Sussman, vice president of Richland-West End Neighborhood Association. “I voiced my opinion with the men who were the cutters, but none of them spoke English and they didn’t really care about my feelings of the matter.”

NES representatives had attended a neighborhood meeting late last year and told attendees neighborhood trees were going to be trimmed soon, Sussman says, but that they would alert the residents ahead of time with flyers.

“That was not done,” she explains says. “These guys just showed up out of the blue and people couldn’t be there to make sure their trees were taken care of.”

At her request, an NES-certified arborist came out to inspect what the contractors had done and deemed the work acceptable.

“The arborist said he thought they had done a fine job,” she says. “He explained to me it has to do with the way the wires are set up they have to gauge out this huge “V” in the center of the tree to make sure in a storm they won’t hurt the power lines.”

Most people complaining about NES trimming say pruned tree no longer look like a mature, full specimens, but instead a letter from the alphabet: V, L, C, etc. Stephan Kivett, an urban forester with the Department of Codes and Building Safety, says that’s what a good pruning job is supposed to produce.

“When I get calls from people complaining about their pruning, I always direct them to NES. But I also ask them what their tree looks like, and they will say, ‘My tree looks like a V or it looks like an L,’” Kivett says. “And I tell them, typically, if it is shaped like a letter it is pruned properly. What NES is trying to do is prune the tree away from the line and keep the tree.”

NES officials confirm Kivett’s assessment. Their contractors trim based on the International Society of Arboriculture standards, which calls for lateral pruning to keep the overall structure of the tree strong, making it more resistant to high winds and ice storms, but also directing the growth away from power lines.

In fact, NES is Tree Line USA certified by the Arbor Day Foundation for meeting three requirements: a program of quality tree care, annual worker training in quality tree care practices, and a tree-planting and public education program.

“We trim to the national ISA standards, in other words, we trim the laterals and sometimes the trees come out with shapes, like an L or a C or whatever, and sometimes people don’t like the shapes,” says Glenn Springer, the manager of vegetation management at NES. “But a tree within 20 feet of the power line will likely have to be trimmed in its lifetime. And tree trimming is an important part of reliable service.”

One thing they are not supposed to do is sever limbs anywhere other than at a joint, a practice that open trees to infection.

But Sussman says that is exactly what the contract crew hired by NES did.

“I am not an arborist but I have been around trees long enough to know that if you chop a branch midway they are open to disease,” she says. “And there are all kinds of midway chopping through the whole neighborhood.” She also says they trimmed some trees to the point where they are too one-sided, leaving property open to harm if the tree falls during a storm.

“The tree is thrown so far off weight that you are asking for it to fall,” she says. “I just find that reprehensible.”

Barnett viewed a photo of a tree in Sussman’s neighborhood and confirmed the unsafe pruning, adding the tree should have been removed and replaced.

“It is leaning sharply and is very lopsided, and poses a risk of falling on the parking lot,” Barnett says. “It is apparently hackberry, meaning that it is weak-wooded, subject to decay and more likely than most species to fall.”

There is a tree-planting and education program that comes from a partnership NES has with the Metro Tree Advisory Council and the Nashville Tree Foundation.

“The program began several years ago as an education component when we partnered with NES,” says Carolyn Sorenson, the Nashville Tree Foundation coordinator. “What they wanted to do was help educate the public that they can replace trees if they have to remove the ones endangering their power lines.”

Property owners can request a tree replacement from a list of approved power line trees, they can have the tree outright removed and the stump ground up, and they can even request an arborist be on site the day of the trimming, either provided by NES or one of their own choosing.

“We send out postcards in advance telling people we are going to be trimming in their area,” Springer says. “Then, once we send those out, within two weeks we will call the people up and tell them we are in the process of doing some planning work for tree trimming.”

He says NES then sends a planner out to knock on doors and leave door hangers requesting homeowners call the tree-trimming hotline number to set up an appointment with the planner.

“Some people prefer to have their own contractor do their trimming, and that is fine as long as they do it within a timely manner,” Springer says. “And we will do a tree replacement. We have been doing tree replacements since 1989. Normally, we plant anywhere from 3,000-4,000 trees a year.”

NES’s trimming practices are the result of the February 1994 ice storm that knocked out power for days or weeks, depending onn the area. In 2002, the current tree-trimming standards were put into place to prevent trees from being topped.

“Topping trees is at best a waste of money and really, in addition to being waste of money, it damages the tree,” Barnett says. “Plus it looks ugly as sin. It causes infection, it causes breakage of the limbs and it reduces the root area because if there are not leaves to support the roots, the tree is out of balance. So it doesn’t help the tree at all.”

Topping trees also goes against Mayor Karl Dean’s commitment to increasing Nashville’s green canopy. A tree canopy assessment was done last year to serve as a benchmark from which to measure the improvement of planning and maintain the urban forest.

“We had a significant amount of tree canopy coverage, but obviously we want to be sure we are maintaining the tree canopy in our downtown areas and other areas like Hillsboro Village and Madison,” says Veronica Frazier, the executive director of Metro Beautification. “Including big shopping centers where there are larger business districts where often times the trees are cut down.”

Neighborhoods are currently on a four-year rotation, with NES creating a planning list for contractors detailing exactly what needs to be done. But with 60 contract crews working on the system at any given time, consistency and accuracy can be an issue.

“We do some training on an annual basis,” Springer says. “But whenever the contractors work in the area, we have our own staff and some contract staff who go around and inspect the work and correct any poor trimming or any mistakes that the contractor makes. We catch them and make them do it right.”

Plus, since NES owns the actual pole, it has the right to trim back power line-approved trees that are touching phone or cable wires on those poles.

“We trim for anything that is on our poles,” Springer says. “If it is a telephone line we trim for that and if it is Comcast we trim for that. We own the pole and they rent a space on the pole from us. Typically a cherry can be planted right there but it might need some minor trimming.”

While it’s easy to argue aesthetics, trimming has proven effective in cutting outages.

“In the past in non-storm situations, we were having tree-related outages that were in the 21-22 percentile,” Springer says. “They are now, typically, 4.5- 5.5 percent.”

Reliable service is something Sussman appreciates, but feels NES also has to take the aesthetics into account.

“They can’t just come through and do what they want to do on the guise that it is for electrical outages,” she says. “Believe me, every time the wind blows I am thankful that my power stays on. But at the same time, you can’t ruin a city full of trees.”

New Davidson County developments are now required to bury utility lines, but NES has no intention of burying existing lines because of the cost. That doesn’t help the city’s older neighborhoods.