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Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

In 2003, an enormous blackout hit the eastern U.S., causing a national security crisis. The federal government reacted by imposing strict standards on electric utilities in the management of their power lines.

These standards, under which utilities can be fined up to $1 million a day for tree-related outages, have determined the extent of tree clearing along the Xcel power line in my back yard. I decried the clearing in last week’s column. Soberly, I now alter my position.

First, let me address those who blogged The Aspen Times, labeling me a “tree hugger.” If a tree hugger is one who is emotionally attached to the land and to the ancient trees growing on it, then I accept the moniker and will endeavor to hug even more trees.



With tree hugging comes the vulnerability of taking a personal interest in a particular landscape, because any landscape is susceptible to degradation. Emotional stewards like me set themselves up for disappointment because the more you care, the more you hurt.

What I experienced last week was the first real pain I’ve felt from my backyard power lines, other than the blight they have imposed since they were installed in the ’70s. Escape from modern life is nearly impossible, no matter where you live, but I thought my little neck of the woods was pretty safe. Wrong. Power-line clearing has priority status.




To the credit of all involved, the cutting crews were pulled off my hillside immediately as all parties responded to my concerns. Scott Snelson, the new Forest Service District Ranger, inspected the site along with me and Pat Thrasher, a USFS public affairs officer. They contacted Xcel, which contacted Asplundh Tree Co., the clearing contractor. My trees, as I proprietarily call them, were issued a brief reprieve.

A few days later, Dave Fulford Jr. of Asplundh, came to my home. He showed me maps and explained how each individual tree is identified for cutting by a sophisticated aerial surveillance technique. He had walked the site the day before in a blizzard and confirmed that his crew had cut only those trees marked on his map, trees highlighted in blue.

Fulford’s maps revealed blue trees all along the line, thousands of them. The trees in my back yard make up only a fraction of what will be cleared. Compared to the devastating spread of beetle killed trees along the power-line corridor, my loss is small.

Fulford explained that Xcel is not clearing the entire line, but only those trees nearest the wires and towers. By the time I had confronted his crew the week before, they had already cut most of the designated trees on my hillside. There are half a dozen more to come down before they’re done for another five years.

This is when reason overcame emotion, and the bigger picture became painfully clear. Designating blue trees on a map doesn’t ease my doubts that they pose an “imminent threat,” but Fulford’s maps describe a studied, efficient, surgical approach to clearing that is so premeditated as to be practically unassailable. If it’s on a map, it must be true.

We shook hands when Fulford left, and I realized that my resistance was futile. Disheartened, but not embittered, I dropped my protest and invited Fulford’s crew to access the power lines through my property. My son and I have been invited to witness the final clearing of the blue trees to see how it’s done with mapped accuracy.

The fact that my protest stopped the cutting has bolstered my belief in the power of the individual and in the response of the bureaucracy. My subsequent acquiescence has clarified to me the overwhelming power of utility networks from which I derive benefits and suffer costs. They rule their corridors and the Feds rule them. The chain of command reaches from the guys cutting my blue trees to bureaucrats in D.C., a veritable leviathan.

I lament the loss of my venerable trees, the slow-growing pinons and junipers, but my son and I have made a pact to carry what cuttings we can down to our house to use for firewood. “At least it won’t be wasted,” said my son, clapping me on the back with an understanding smile. And so we adjust to the ways of the world.


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