We always loved trees, but we only recently learned how important they are. Trees preserve the planet and us by providing oxygen, absorbing greenhouse gases and pollutants, purifying water, helping make rain and protecting the earth from harmful temperature changes. A future without the benefits of trees would be dire. Yet electric cooperatives in Missouri have been clearing massive numbers of trees in far greater swaths than ever before.
We had a unique property in one of the few wooded locations in our area. The surrounding trees provided privacy and seclusion, and the road was lined with cedars that blocked the wind and filtered road dust. Although we were told that our trees did not immediately threaten its lines, the power company, an electric co-op, removed the woods on our property from 15 to 25 feet deep all along the 1,000-foot west boundary. We don’t know exactly how many dozens of our trees were removed because right after they were whacked against our stated wishes, they were dragged to a burn pile on someone else’s property across the road.
Why are they killing so many trees?
Across the country, utilities have adopted more aggressive vegetation management policies. Rather than trimming as they used to do and unbeknownst to many property owners, utilities are clear cutting any vegetation they expect will grow to a certain height (i.e. 12’ to 15’), and doing so along the full width of a right of way up to 150 feet on both sides of a power line.
These utilities claim that clear cutting enables them to ensure a safe and reliable power distribution system that meets strict federal guidelines. But there are no federal mandates or industry standards that endorse or require this kind of cutting clearance, despite utility after utility using this excuse with customers and local officials to justify their aggressive policies. Federal mandates apply to lines greater than 200,000 volts, maybe 3 percent of the system, rather than the more numerous lower-voltage lines that deliver power to most neighborhoods.
Actually, expanded clear cutting and spraying with herbicides are short-sighted and destructive practices that allow utilities to reduce costs because they won’t have to do vegetation maintenance as often. Their cost savings come at the expense of millions, maybe billions, of dollars’ worth of property, property value, and benefits that landowners and communities are losing.
In Missouri, extreme and unreasonable policies threaten constitutional rights as well as trees.
Throwing its considerable weight around, the co-op told us it had an easement, but never produced it. We later learned that co-ops are using Section 537.340 of the Missouri Revised Statutes, which (1) created extensive, one-size-fits-all cutting distances that allow utilities to clear cut trees in massive numbers for 30, 50, 75 or more feet deep on both sides of a power line and (2) appears to authorize their taking enormous amounts of private property, without consent, without having to secure or follow an easement, and without providing compensation or due process. The utilities can cut deep into a property — far in excess of national and industry standards and practices — and they may also be using this law to take trees beyond the right of way and then assume control over what owners are able to do with their private property after the vegetation is removed to ensure that trees don't grow there again. According to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Loretto v. Teleprompter Manhattan CATV Corp.), any permanent physical occupation of private property that is authorized by the government requires just compensation.
Missouri’s utilities are getting away with destroying Missouri’s trees in massive numbers, misleading us by blaming federal regulations and using a state law that is probably unconstitutional so they can reduce their costs at the expense of citizens’ rights and thousands of beneficial trees. With no effective limit to the amount of trees that can be cut, and no apparent state agency with oversight authority to rein in coops, scenic woodland rights-of-way are being turned into broad, unproductive meadows (or worse). In the process, trees that don't pose a threat and are unlikely to ever cause a problem are in jeopardy.
Citizens and public officials must decide whether the grave effects of excessive and over-aggressive clear cutting by utilities are worth the cost we will all pay. The more they cut, the more we all lose. Please contact your legislators and the attorney general and urge them to revisit and reform 537.340. Tell them that Missouri landscape and your property and due process rights are at stake.
Terry Huey is with Missouri Trees Matter. This commentary was distributed by Missouri Forum.