Utility arborists: Give ‘em a break

One of our semi-recurring themes on the Garden Professor’s is our WOW’s or “Why Oh Why’s”.  As in “Why oh why do nurseries continue to sell invasive plants?”  Today, I’d like to turn things around a bit and look at a group of people that are often maligned by the public but, in fact, are getting a bad rap and could use a break; utility arborists.


Right tree, right place?

Utility arborists face a nearly impossible and unenviable task.   The goal of every electrical utility is to provide safe, uninterrupted power to their customers.  What do their customers do in return?  Plant large, fast growing trees under powerlines.  This invariably necessitates line-clearance pruning and, in some cases, tree removal.  So who takes the wrath of the neighborhood?  The oblivious homeowner who planted a row of Norway spruces under the lines? Or the trained professional arborist that does the trimming?


Betcha can’t top this…

Among the arborists with whom I interact, utility arborists are often the best trained and the most professional.  They have to be.  An amateur pruning around electrical lines suspended 50’ in the air in a bucket lift is virtually guaranteed a Darwin Award nomination.  Arborists can’t even win when they try to do the right thing.  Many utility forestry programs utilize directional pruning as an alternative to topping or removing trees.  When done properly, directional pruning allow trees to coexist with powerlines and enables neighborhoods to continue to benefit from large trees.  A survey by Mike Kuhns at Utah State a few years ago, however, found that homeowners actually preferred the look of a topped tree to a tree that had been directionally pruned.  Granted, directional pruning isn’t always pretty but it’s vastly preferable to topping or removal.


The utility arborists I know are dedicated and ‘tree people’ in the best sense.  If they lived in a perfect world, the right tree would always be planted in the right place.  Since it’s not they have to rely on techniques like directional pruning to help ensure safe and uninterrupted power.  So give ‘em a break.

9 thoughts on “Utility arborists: Give ‘em a break”

  1. Here, here. I agree with you on the dedicated tree people.

    But come on…. these fast growing misplanted evergreens are my stock and trade this time of year. All trhese removed white pines, blue spruces, arbor vitaes and Leylands end up in the landfill for me to collect and use for my Christmas greenery business. Great quality and fresh my slogan is “Bringing you the Freshness of the Valley”. What a wonderful array of materirial is to be found at teh dump! I hope people keep on misplanting evergreens and harvesting them for me 10 or 12 years later. Oh yes, don’t forget the invasive nandinas that provide such great color for my wreaths. 🙂

  2. I’ve always maintained that good arborists are the elite gymnasts of the horticultural world. A good arborist is a pleasure to watch work, though not for the fainthearted when around power lines.
    A lot of tree pruning happens in Melbourne, Australia, mostly directional pruning. I often look at all the streetscapes around where I live. They mostly consist as one side of the street being full of beautiful specimens, with the other side a comparative mess of pruned and contorted specimens, all to accommodate power lines. I think all power lines should be underground – the increase in amenity value of our street trees alone would be well worth it.

  3. I’m going to continue to blame the power company (not the guys who do the pruning). In this day and age there is no reason for ANY power lines to be above ground. Put them below ground where they belong and, like Jimbo said, the trees will look better and homeowners (knowing or unknowing) can plant more to their heart’s content.

    Of course this doesn’t solve the problem of power company workers who don’t comply with local zoning and don’t bury the lines deep enough, nor does it solve the issue of folks (professionals included) not calling the ‘Ooops’ line BEFORE they dig!

  4. To back Bert up on this one: most of the sites he shows are in rural neighborhoods where underground utilities aren’t an option. The cost to run one service underground can be in the thousands, so I can’t even imagine what it is like to run for miles and miles along a country road. Most new developments require underground utilities nowadays anyway, so at least we are working in the right direction.

    Plus, Michigan’s rural areas are notoriously bad for poor tree selection. I used to work a lot in rural areas of Mid-Michigan as a forestry consultant and it never ceased to amaze me what some people would plant near the power lines.

  5. In my neighborhood the city planted lots of large growing, beautiful street trees – right under the power lines. Talk about not planning ahead!

  6. I’m with GardenHoe -what a beautiful world it would be without overhead utility lines. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to photoshop them out of a tree photo!

  7. When we moved from Alaska (buried lines) to Pennsylvania (above ground), my astute 8-year old son asked me, “Mom – why do all the houses have leashes? Is that to keep them from blowing away?” Life through the eyes of a child…

  8. It’s true that buried lines can be cost prohibitive to install and maintain. Topping trees and directional pruning are, in my opinion, ugly at best. Unreasonable homeowner rail agaist being told what they can and cannot do. I say, let the homeowners plant whatever the heck they want, just so long as they understand that they will be billed for the full cost of ALL trimming work that must be done to maintain the integrity of the power lines. Maybe when they get estimates of what it will cost for a lifetime of professional pruning, they’ll start seeing the sense of planing appropiate plants under lines.

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