In an effort to comply with the North American Reliability Corporation's (NERC's) Vegetation Management Program standard FAC-003-01, utilities across North America have been aggressively clearing trees from rights-of-way of lines covered under the standard.

Understandably, aggressive removals conducted on developed landscapes and other areas have generated emotional controversy and considerable interest from the press.

Recall that NERC was empowered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to develop reliability standards, and the vegetation management program is one standard that NERC produced in response. The FERC can levy fines of up to US$1 million for each violation for every day that a violation of a reliability standard occurs.

The Blame Game

In defense of their removal policies, many utilities are pinning responsibility on FERC. I have seen several newspaper articles covering property owner's emotional complaints against rights-of-way reclamation, where utilities have defended their policy by claiming that FERC is making them remove trees.

Moreover, FERC staff is receiving angry calls from members of Congress demanding an explanation for what appears to be a governmental body overstepping its authority. Evidently, utility vegetation management team members have been blaming FERC in their conversations with affected property owners, and those citizens have petitioned their congressional representatives for relief.

It's unfair of our industry to blame FERC, they are only insisting that the industry do what we ought to have done on our own — keep trees from growing into critical lines. More importantly, it's not true that FERC is requiring tree removal on bulk transmission lines.

The NERC standard forbids outages caused by grow-ins and says utilities need to keep trees from entering a critical clearance zone (clearance 2 in the current standard). It also requires that utilities get clearance beyond the critical zone at the time of work (clearance 1 in the standard), but it doesn't specify how much clearance to get, as long as it is more than clearance 2. I don't think that provides a very honest or compelling justification for removals.

I'm not arguing against removals and reclaiming rights-of-ways. Far from it. I think it's rational and responsible policy. What I am saying is that we need to explain our actions directly, rather than trying to unfairly blame others. We need to educate the public on why removals are the only rational way of fixing a problem that probably would not have existed if landscapers, arborists and others had been sensible in their species selection, and if we — or perhaps more accurately, our predecessors — had been more protective of our rights-of-way.

Argue for a Cause

We should be arguing that the service reliability and public safety risks of trees contacting transmission lines are intolerable. We need to let the public know that there is no such thing as a tree too far away from a line energized to hundreds of thousands of volts. The blackouts show that from a reliability perspective, but that's also true from a public safety standpoint.

We need to argue that removal is the best way to ensure blackouts never happen and to reduce public safety risks across countless thousands of miles of transmission lines.

Even considering the trees, it's irrational to continue to cultivate tall species under bulk transmission lines. Tall trees leave utilities with two options: removal or pruning.

Pruning for clearance is seldom a reasonable option, unless the lines are high off the ground. Transmission lines are built on wide structures, and there is often no way to train them away from conductors by pruning, as can be done in many cases with lower-voltage distribution lines.

If we can't remove trees, we're left with no choice but to impose radical crown reduction. Repeated crown reduction doesn't do a tree any good, and under transmission lines, it is often so severe that it leaves a tree remnant that can never develop naturally. Finally if that's not enough, it's an unnecessary expense to our rate payers to repeatedly prune trees that ought to be removed.

The arguments I've noted are just of few of the reasons to remove trees from transmission rights-of-way. Using them is the responsible approach to our public relations difficulties. They are more honest and compelling than deflecting blame to others. So, don't blame the Feds — it's a matter of public safety and professional integrity.

Randall H. Miller ( is the vegetation management director at PacifiCorp. He is a certified arborist and certified utility specialist. Miller is also a past president of the Utility Arborist Association.