Surgery or Slaughter?

Austin Energy calls it "progressive forestry"; some of their customers call it "tree mutilation."

The tree in front of the First Cumberland Presbyterian  Church after Austin Energy's trimming
The tree in front of the First Cumberland Presbyterian Church after Austin Energy's "trimming" (Photo By John Anderson)

The city calls it "progressive forestry" and a "comprehensive vegetation management program." Some residents use more graphic adjectives, such as "slaughter" and "butchery."

Gripes about Austin Energy's efforts to trim vegetation away from power lines are nothing new, and the latest round of trimming, beginning back in the spring, has sparked a fresh round of criticism and formal complaints. Several Austin Energy customers and neighborhood association leaders claim that a promised "trimming" ends up ruining their trees, both in terms of aesthetics and the health of the plants.

The trimming is actually performed by city contractors: Asplundh Tree Experts in the northern part of Austin, and Davey Tree Surgery in the south part. Austin Energy officials defend the severity of the cuts as necessary and conforming to national standards. Asplundh management did not return the Chronicle's calls, and a supervisor with Davey who refused to identify himself would not comment.

The Crestview and Brentwood neighborhoods offer plenty of startling examples of the cutters' handiwork. Strolling down Woodrow Avenue, which cuts through the two neighborhoods, it's easy to spot trees that have had enormous swaths of limbs and branches removed. The result is unquestionably unattractive, to say the least. In the worst cases, major limbs have been removed, rather than merely trimmed. Of particular note is a tree in the yard of First Cumberland Presbyterian Church (see photo), which previously could have been described as "perfect."

"Everybody came home that day, and all of us were out in the street wandering up and down looking at everybody's trees," said Laurie Janss, referring to when the tree trimmers came through her block of Cullen Avenue. Janss says that one of her trees, which already had some health problems, would almost certainly have its life shortened because of the cutting that was done. Janss said she met with Austin Energy utility forester Michelle McAfee and that McAfee apologized and said the city would replace the tree in the fall. (McAfee could not be reached for comment.)

"Some of the choices of limbs that they cut, she didn't understand why they did that," Janss said. "It's mind-boggling that so-called tree experts would do this. Trees add huge value to your property."

Lisa McIntyre, also a Cullen resident, said that officials of both Asplundh and Austin Energy met with her beforehand and told her that only smaller "sucker" limbs, rather than main branches, would be cut.

"I came home and ... they had cut a vertical part of the tree," McIntyre says. "I called the city and said, 'I'm no botanist, but that's no sucker.'"

Interestingly, the city dealt differently with McIntyre than with Janss and some other complainants. "The city said, 'That's between you and Asplundh,'" McIntyre says. "I don't know what kind of tree-trimming company this is, because I would never hire them on my own, because now my pecan tree is splitting. They ruined my tree." (Actually, McIntyre wouldn't be able to hire them if she wanted to -- Asplundh is a national firm that specializes in contract work with power utilities.) McIntyre says that Asplundh agreed to replace her tree, but this has not been done yet.

"I would have to agree they did a poor job," says Pastor Mark McNeese of First Cumberland about his church's tree. "If somebody gave me a haircut like that I wouldn't go back. [But] at the same time, they have to remove the threat of trees from the wires."

And that, says Austin Energy, is the crux of the matter.

"We receive complaints almost daily," says Jerry Fasel, AE's line clearance superintendent. "But they come from both directions. The larger number of complaints come from customers who want reliability [of electrical service]. ... Unfortunately, about 60% of all of our outages are caused by trees coming into contact with the power lines."

Fasel said AE's policy is to prune the trees back on a four- to five-year cycle, "and the unfortunate thing is that for oak trees that's a minimum of 6 to 8 feet of clearance." Fasel defended the tree-trimming companies, saying that "Our contractors are working with the customers for reaching our specifications, and those specifications are not Davey's, they're not Asplundh's. They are Austin Energy's specifications."

Fasel says the pre-cutting meeting with property owners beforehand results in a written plan acceptable to all parties concerned, and that "most of the time [when there is a complaint], the customer simply hasn't understood ... that this work was necessary, and they failed to realize how much that was going to be. That's why we have the contractor spend the time to draw up the vegetation work plan." Fasel also said that many times, "when a customer talks about damaging a tree, I don't know of but one tree [that was actually damaged]. The tree didn't die. Most of the time ... they [the contractors] are not killing the tree. They simply have removed limbs on it, and it looks very different. We would have to prune an extreme amount to kill a tree."

Fasel said doing more frequent, but less severe, trimmings, is financially unfeasible. "If we did it every year, we would have to have six to eight times as many crews. The cost would go to $36 million to $48 million a year instead of $6 million to $8 million.

Jeff Jack, aide to City Council Member Beverly Griffith and president of the Zilker Neighborhood Association, says that Griffith's office has received many complaints about the trimming, not only about Austin Energy but also about telecommunications companies doing similar trimmings. Jack said Griffith has sought to form a focus group that would bring together complainants, city staff, professional arborists, and outside landscapers to review the policy.

Clare Barry, a member of the Brentwood Neighborhood Association and former City Council candidate, said the "tree mutilation program" (a joke that accurately reflects the opinions of some other neighborhood association leaders) was a "huge issue" when she was a member of the city's Urban Forestry Board in the mid-Nineties.

"The larger issue is that they want reliable power, which everyone does," Barry says. "[But] I would like to take some of that money and look for alternatives. ... Austin Energy's response has always been the billions of dollars it would cost to put every overhead line underground. Of course we're not asking for every line in the city to go underground, and, in fact, we're looking at different options," Barry said, such as raising the lines.

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