Healthy trees and dependable utility service

For the ninth year in a row, FirstEnergy Corp., an electric company based in Akron, Ohio, and its seven electric utility companies, received a plaque and a flag bearing the distinction as a “Tree Line USA” utility by the National Arbor Day Foundation (, in cooperation with the National Association of State Foresters. FirstEnergy is one of 138 U.S. energy companies that received this distinction in 2007, an annual recognition of public and private utilities that work to promote the dual goals of dependable utility service and abundant, healthy trees along America’s streets and highways.


“This award shows that by following industry standards we can strike a balance between ensuring safe and reliable electric service and maintaining the beauty of the natural surroundings in the communities we serve,” said Donald R. Schneider, FirstEnergy senior vice president of energy delivery and customer service. “Our tree care program combines the best practices of certified arborists and foresters to keep vegetation away from power lines and other electric equipment, which helps reduce the number and severity of service interruptions our customers experience during storms.”

What does it take for an energy company to win this distinction? National Arbor Day Association’s Woody Nelson, a spokesperson for the Tree Line USA program, said that tree or tree limb contacts are one of the biggest reasons for service interruptions to utilities. The care and quality in which trees are properly cared for when they live “under the wire” is the main criteria when selecting a Tree Line USA utility company for recognition, Nelson said.

The right techniques

In order to qualify for Tree Line USA distinction, a utility company needs to formally adopt work practices for pruning near electric utility lines that were developed by Dr. Alex Shigo, author of many books on arboriculture including “Pruning Trees Near Electric Utility Lines,” a 32-page field pocket guide (available at

 “The practices outlined in Shigo’s pocket guide are the only pruning practices that are good for trees… that means no tree topping, no tipping, no long stubs, no collars… we want arborists employed [by the utility company] to have read this field guide,” said Nelson. Workers who perform line clearance, including contracted workers, must also read and understand Dr. Shigo’s field guide and follow its recommendations.

Another recommended guide is “Trenching and Tunneling Near Trees,” by Dr. James Fazio, which outlines methods for underground cable and wiring that will not tear up a tree’s root system or cause weaknesses in the tree.

Directional pruning

One useful technique in Shigo’s guide is the use of directional pruning to cut trees that are near power lines. Directional pruning involves removing entire branches and limbs back to the main trunk of the tree, where trees normally shed them. This way, any future tree growth will be away from the power lines. This kind of pruning is also healthier for the tree’s natural defense systems and other natural processes that protect the tree from decay and aggressive resprouting. While directionally pruned trees may look odd at first, in the long run the tree is less susceptible to pest and decay problems and less likely to drop branches and cause damage during storms.

Compared to other methods, such as topping, stubbing or pollarding, directional pruning is better for the protection of the tree’s health, according to Nelson. “But not enough tree professionals follow these pruning methods,” said Nelson. While trees do sometimes have to be cut down because of safety concerns, it should be a last resort, he said. “We hate to hear about trees that were cut down near power lines because of convenience, when quality pruning methods could have saved the tree.”

Community involvement

Tree Line USA recognition also makes a statement to the community at large about a utility company’s goodwill and the need for continuous tree care. One criterion for winning the award is for the utility company to be engaged in an ongoing community tree-planting program. “The utility must work toward an annual expenditure of 10 cents per customer to teach people about trees… it is a minimal expense, actually,” said Nelson.


Some utility companies make sure that communities understand how important it is to plant the right tree in the right place in order for trees not to impede power lines. Some will host an annual Arbor Day event, others will invite the community and plant trees. “This is an expenditure that does their part in helping to educate the community about trees and power lines,” said Nelson.

 “This is good for the utility company as well,” noted Chuck Olenik, manager of corporate forestry for FirstEnergy. “Often, utility companies take a bad rap for just removing trees… what we do is to encourage residents to call us before they start planting so that they plant the right kind of trees under a power line.” The key is for people to understand why a utility company is trimming the tree, and why they are trimming it with directional pruning. “People may not think that it is aesthetically pleasing, but most times people don’t mind if they understand that it is a way to keep the tree rather than taking it out.”

Right tree, right location

Part of educating the public is to get people to understand how to select the right tree for the right location, particularly when there are power lines in the vicinity. When planting trees near utility lines, choosing a low-growing tree that will mature at a height of 10 feet or less can enhance the beauty of a resident’s home and help ensure uninterrupted electric service. Other tips for selecting the right tree include:


• Avoid planting any tree directly underneath a power line.

• Make sure any tree that’s planted within 20 feet of a neighborhood power line grows only to a height of 25 feet or less (good choices include flowering crabapple, dogwood or serviceberry).

• Plant any medium-sized trees (those that grow to a height of 40 feet or less) at distances of 20 to 50 feet away from power lines. These trees can include linden or magnolia.

• Grow tall trees (such as maple, oak, pine or spruce) at least 50 feet away from the nearest residential overhead power line.

• Avoid the following tree varieties near any overhead lines of any kind (these trees can be brittle, which makes them vulnerable to storm damage or susceptible to diseases and insects): black locust, Callery pear, catalpa, box elder, elm (American and Siberian varieties), horsechestnut, mulberry, poplar (Carolina, Lombardi or other hybrids), silver maple, sycamore, tree of heaven, white pine and willow.

The Tree Line USA award, which started in 1992 with eight awards, recognized 138 public and private utility companies in 2007. These utilities serve more than 75 million households throughout the country, which is about half of their goal. “Our goal is to recognize all the utilities in the U.S., which serve about 150 million households, said Nelson.

The author is a freelance writer from Keene, N.H.