Dealing with vegetation management issues is a challenge every utility faces. Much of the time, dealing with such issues requires many work hours, causes tons of complaints and raises stress levels for everyone in the utility as well as for customers. It can be one big headache. But the good news is it does not have to be. In cases of managing the utility's portion of the community forest, prevention is indeed the best medicine.

The best way to avoid crisis situations is to devise a comprehensive, detailed plan for dealing with all kinds of vegetation management issues that includes educating and engaging the local community, one aspect of the Tree Line USA program of the Arbor Day Foundation in cooperation with the National Association of State Foresters. In the long run, the utility will be better off and customers will appreciate it.

Reaching Out to the Community

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) is exploring a new style of community outreach to improve communication with its customers. In April, PG&E's vegetation management staff along with staff from various other departments attended a two-day training session hosted by the Public Conversations Project of Watertown, Massachusetts, U.S. The training offers guidance to individuals, organizations and communities to constructively address and understand conflicts related to vegetation management projects.

The new style of community outreach will assist PG&E in maintaining customer satisfaction and in meeting the public's expectations of high reliability. The utility also will benefit from increased communication within its internal cross-functional teams.

Another area of PG&E's outreach focus is assisting cities within its service area by creating customized city tree guides. Each guide will contain a list of trees that have been approved by a city as well as PG&E's Right Tree, Right Place guidelines for planting near transmission and distribution lines. PG&E will develop tree guides for each city within its service area that is participating in Tree City USA — a program of the Arbor Day Foundation that encourages better care of the nation's community forests by awarding recognition to cities and towns that meet basic standards of a good tree-care plan.

PG&E embraces opportunities that boost communications and outreach efforts about avoiding tree and power line conflict. Finding creative and collaborative ways to partner with cities and communities will build on the joint Arbor Day events PG&E holds as a Tree Line USA utility.

Caring for Trees

There was a time not so long ago that Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC) took a different approach to managing vegetation issues. Managers used to take an “if-it-is-not-broken, do-not-fix-it” approach to vegetation issues — but not any longer. The focus has shifted from managing member complaints to managing the trees impacting power lines.

Instead of taking a ground-to-sky pruning approach, REC does what is best for the trees. All work done by REC's vegetation management crews is directed by a certified arborist, and the cooperative spends considerable time talking to its members about the benefits of having a sound tree-management program in place.

REC first sought the approval of its customers by engaging the communities it serves across 22 counties. The cooperative takes time to explain the specifics of what it is doing in relation to its trees and providing reliable service.

Healthy Trees Extend Pruning Cycles

The results have been remarkable. By focusing on the health of trees, REC changed its pruning cycle from a three-year to a five-year rotation. Instead of going from hot spot to hot spot, REC was able to extend its regular pruning cycle, which saved time and money in the long run. REC also invests time and money to educate members of the communities it serves about the benefits of strategically planting trees to help lower energy costs and ensure safe, reliable, uninterrupted power.

REC provides funds and educational tools to encourage its members to plant the right trees in the right places. For example, REC suggests its customers plant large deciduous trees south of the house but away from overhead power lines, use low-growing trees and shrubs within the utility's rights-of-way and place evergreen screens on the edge of the rights-of-way rather than directly under the conductors.

Engaging Future Homeowners and Tree Planters

REC also reaches out to local schools for its Arbor Day celebrations to engage a younger audience. During the past nine years, the utility has engaged hundreds of students and has planted over 60 trees at schools and parks across its service territory. REC uses these events to support the environment, local urban forests, its customers and their neighborhoods.

One of the first steps was for REC to receive Tree Line USA recognition from the Arbor Day Foundation. Tree Line USA is a validation of best-management practices in all aspects of the line-clearance program. Proper pruning practices allow the extension of the maintenance cycle while minimizing damage to retained trees. The improved health of trees adjacent to lines enhances service reliability while providing all the benefits of a healthy suburban forest to the community. Being recognized as a Tree Line USA utility speaks to the fact that an outside organization recognizes the good work being done.

Tree Line USA Encourages Best-Care Practices

Tree Line USA is about so much more than vegetation management. It is a holistic approach to managing America's vast urban forests, educating and engaging the public about planting the right tree in the right place, and training utility workers in best tree-care practices to protect and care for a community's vital asset — its trees.

Community involvement always has been a core value at REC and participation in the Tree Line USA program has encouraged additional outlets for these efforts. The new Tree Line USA requirements for an energy conservation component integrates nicely with corporate goals of providing members with ways to reduce their energy consumption. Public education efforts through the Arbor Day programs, print publications and website should provide members with the knowledge to select the proper tree for the location, enhancing the urban forest throughout the REC territory.

Communities benefit when utility providers meet Tree Line USA requirements. Proper tree care provides many benefits:

  • Helps reduce energy costs to consumers when trees are planted for energy conservation

  • Reduces the heat island effect by cooling paved areas in larger cities and towns

  • Increases reliable service of power because properly pruned and maintained trees are less likely to down lines during severe weather

  • Provides for healthier and more abundant urban forests.

Trees are an important part of urban landscapes in every region of the United States from an environmental and economic standpoint. Trees not only help clean the air and water sources, the shade they provide helps reduce peak energy usage and conserve energy. Utility providers who follow Tree Line USA standards are setting a good example about the importance of recognizing the need to take care of a valuable community resource like trees.

Tree Line USA Benefits

Last year, more than 140 utilities, including PG&E and REC, received Tree Line USA recognition from the Arbor Day Foundation. These providers experienced the benefits of being a Tree Line USA utility, including lower line-clearance costs that result from best pruning practices, improved rights-of-way management by engaging the community in right-tree-right-place planting practices, lower peak energy demand through an increased urban tree canopy, and increased reliability of service by following best tree-care practices.

A key component of Tree Line USA is tree planting and education. The program encourages utilities to participate in community tree plantings and outreach opportunities and to have an education program designed to add to a community's tree canopy and teach customers about the benefits of proper tree planting, placement and pruning.

This year, Tree Line USA utilities service customers living in 45 states plus the District of Columbia. More than 78 million Americans benefit when their electric utilities — by investing in trees — contribute to healthier urban forests and provide safe, reliable and efficient service.

Robert W. Beard ( is the Culpeper district manager for Rappahannock Electric Cooperative. He began working at REC during summers in college, and after graduating from the University of Virginia, he became a full-time employee.

Keith R. Forry ( has been the corporate arborist for Rappahannock Electric Cooperative since 2001. Previously, he was vice president of vegetation management services for Environmental Consultants Inc. Forry is a certified arborist, utility specialist, and a member of the Utility Arborist Association and International Society of Arboriculture. He holds a BS degree in biochemistry from Penn State University and a MS degree in forest science from Oregon State University.

Lisa Randle ( is the Vegetation Management Public Outreach program manager for Pacific Gas and Electric. Through the work of the vegetation management department, the National Arbor Day Foundation has recognized PG&E as a national leader in tree care every year since 1995.

Randy Gordon ( is programs manager with the Arbor Day Foundation and works with the Tree City USA and Tree Line USA recognition program, and the Partners in Community Forestry program and conference. Gordon works closely with utility foresters, municipal arborists, nonprofit tree-planting groups and state and federal forestry agencies in the promotion of healthy community tree management.

Companies mentioned:

Arbor Day Foundation

Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

Public Conversations Project of Watertown, Massachusetts

Rappahannock Electric Cooperative