Area utility providers are abusing their legal rights.
By Kevin Dickey, Conservation Chair – Lakeland Audubon Society
We all have come to need reliable electric power in our modern way of life, but just how much should we have to sacrifice to continue having it? What if it meant you had to give up something you love or wouldn’t want to live without? I know that sounds pretty black and white, maybe overly simple, but that’s how I see the current situation regarding electric utility providers and how they are managing their right-of-ways or easements through both public and private property. The company that owns and operates the transmission lines in our area has adopted a “zero-vegetation” policy concerning maintenance of the land their lines run through. What that means is no trees, no shrubs, just mowed grass. Any tree that this company believes to pose a threat to their transmission lines is subject to removal. The company has said the main reasons for the shift in policy are reliability of service and safety for its workers. Those certainly are valid reasons for a change in policy, but how much really can be gained by going to a (in what I believe to be too stringent) “zero-vegetation” policy? Not enough, in my opinion when you consider the fact that it has never and will never be safe for someone to work on high-line power cables. Another fact is that wind force alone is enough to bring down power lines and the more trees that are removed from the landscape, the more wind velocity there will be, (history has proven that). It’s easy for the power companies to justify this trade-off when they don’t own the land, (just the easements) and they are not the ones who planted the trees. The losses in property values and overall aesthetics are also part of this equation that simply does not balance out.
What’s more is that a “zero-vegetation” or “no-vegetation” policy for land management is not compatible with wildlife conservation efforts. Power utility companies usually run new lines through undeveloped areas to minimize conflicts with property owners. This practice disregards the habitat needs of birds and other wildlife, while best serving the interests of a “big for-profit company”. It is simply more profitable in some instances and easier for the utility company to manage it’s easements without having to worry about trimming any trees. But why should the interests of a big for-profit company, such as an electric company dictate how privately owned and public property be managed? Because the law permits it. In fact, when local elected officials challenged the company that owns and operates the electric lines in Walworth County about clear-cutting land without prior approval, they simply said they were exempt from such a requirement. The dispute ended up in court with a judge ruling in favor of the power transmission company. This begs the question: is the law or laws regulating public utilities written correctly when they put them above and beyond the authority of our elected officials? A public utility should be subject to the wishes and approval of the communities and municipalities that it serves, not the other way around.