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Citizens, OG&E debate tree canopy issue

story by Aric Mitchell
amitchell@thecitywire.com

If a tree falls in the middle of Fort Smith, someone will be around to hear it.

That’s what Oklahoma Gas and Electric Company (OG&E) is figuring out. The company’s transmission upgrade project, which will move the older 69,000-volt aboveground lines to upgraded 161,000-volt aboveground lines in the Free Ferry neighborhood, has met with opposition.

The governing body of the Museum of the Hardwood Tree is “disappointed” in OG&E for the removal of trees in Fort Smith, said Museum representative Bob Worley in a recent email to City Administrator Ray Gosack.

“Even now the tree canopy of our city is less than one-half that recommended for good health,” Worley wrote.

According to a Fort Smith Parks document, Fort Smith’s tree canopy in 2006 was 13%, according to American Forests. The recommended canopy is 40%. The tree canopy as of 2006 in Little Rock was 27%, with Fayetteville at 30% and Van Buren at 18%.

However, Rob Ratley, OG&E Community Affairs Manager, points out that citizens with properties affected by the tree trimming and removal within their rights-of-way are compensated for the removal in the hopes that they will use that compensation to replenish trees and vegetation in areas that are outside the path necessary for the installation.

“I’d like to remind the public that trees are a renewable resource, and our hope is that these residents will replant trees of the right species in a correct placement,” said Ratley. “We realize this is a sensitive issue. There’s always a delicate balance when it comes down to trees and electric lines, and the public really enjoys their trees. But they also have an expectation of reliable electric service. Our challenge is to balance those two.”

ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS
While Worley acknowledges the compensation that OG&E provides property owners, he feels “being compensated for the tree does not detract from the fact that it is harmful for the tree canopy, water supply and clean air.”

Referring again to the finding that Fort Smith tree canopy levels are “less than one-half” what is needed for good health, Worley believes “all should be concerned about giving life back to the planet.”

“Cutting trees down is not good for the community or the planet, and shouldn’t be done unless it is absolutely necessary,” Worley added.

Dr. David Harper, DDS, of Harper Orthodontics, agrees. Harper was recently affected by the OG&E transmission upgrade, confirming that he did receive compensation from the company, but that “they don’t leave you much choice.”

Harper said he checked with his attorney and was told “that no one has ever beaten them (OG&E).”

When asked about Harper’s complaint, Ratley said, “We do have the use of other legal means, but we try not to exercise those because we want to deal with property owners in a professional manner. But we still have an obligation as a utility to deliver electric service — and these are transmission lines that serve thousands of homes — and we can’t let one, who refuses that, jeopardize the whole project. It’s not in the public interest to do so.”

Ratley continued: “This is really no different than a Highway (Department) project extending a highway when it’s in the best interests of the public to build that roadway. Doing so, you have to clear trees, you have to buy a right-of-way of property. The electric business is no different than other types of public projects.”

Still, the reality doesn’t sit well with Harper, and neither does the manner of removal.

“They gave me notice, and they did pay me, but it’s not about the money. I just don’t want the trees cut down. Free Ferry is a landmark street in the city and they’ve just butchered it. It’s a path of destruction through here. They’re removing 150-year old trees right and left and using no judgment whatsoever,” Harper said.

To that point, Ratley stated that OG&E directives come from Little Rock-based Southwest Power Pool, a Regional Transmission Organization set up by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission “to ensure reliable supplies of power, adequate transmission infrastructure, and competitive wholesale prices of electricity,” according to the organization’s website.

CITIZEN RESPONSIBILITY
Harper said he also wanted to know “who at the city is watching out for us to make sure we get underground wiring.”

“That’s nothing we have a hand in,” Gosack admitted, pointing out that the city has advised OG&E to go underground when feasible, but that, ultimately, some responsibility falls on the citizen.

“It’s up to the property owner, who receives payment from the trees, to reforest,” Gosack said. “The city has no ability to tell them what to do with the payment that OG&E gives them. In order to achieve that (reforestation), it requires cooperation from everyone. It would be desirable if people would take that money and plant replacement trees away from power lines and other utility lines.”

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Gosack added that the city is limited in what it is able to do to improve the tree canopy level, pointing out that Fort Smith is comprised of “around 41,600 acres,” and that city-owned property is “a very small percentage.”

“It’s up to the citizens. In our parks system, for every one tree that goes out, two are planted to replace it. But the parks acreage is only a few hundred. We have a few other city facilities, the old libraries, the Convention Center, the police and fire departments, but it still adds up to a very small percentage. We’re not going to make a substantial impact to the tree canopy by focusing only on city-owned property. It clearly takes private property owners,” Gosack said.

To the feasibility that the city has encouraged, Ratley said, “When we’re talking transmission lines, you simply can’t bury those. They’re the backbone of our system. A utility always has to have a certain part of their system aboveground for delivery of service. In newer installations, we go underground when we can. But, and this is something we try to remind the public, even when you go underground, there are a variety of maintenance issues that go along with that service. Because underground equipment will age and fail just like aboveground, and when it does, we’re digging up sidewalks, landscaping, other utilities. And the restoration time is longer. In an outage (with aboveground), we’re able to diagnose a line and see it, send a bucket truck out and repair it in pretty short order.”

“There are pros and cons to both, and that’s why we do a combination of both,” Ratley added.

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