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Words Get in the Way

Task Force tries to work out policy for W&OD Trail maintenance.

The Washington & Old Dominion Task Force met on Thursday, Feb. 10, to discuss a document designed to guide tree maintenance along the 42-mile length of the trail. The biggest disagreement was about what a “tree” is.

The trail is owned by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. Dominion Virginia Power has high-voltage transmission lines that run the length of the trail and an easement that allows the power company to maintain the corridor.

Once the policy document has been completed, it will need to be agreed to formally by both the Park Authority and Dominion Virginia. The task force includes a number of officials and residents from along different parts of the trail in Fairfax County. Although no one from Arlington or Loudoun county or the City of Falls Church was present, Barbara Hildreth, chair of the task force, said that she is in communication with people from Arlington.

While the utility has always trimmed the trees along the trail that threaten its power lines, this year the trimming program has become more aggressive. Residents along the trail, particularly in Vienna, have complained of what they call "clear-cutting."

Dominion has said that this is a new philosophy in vegetation management. Instead of trimming a tree year after year, Dominion now plans to remove the tree and replace it with a different species that they say will not grow to a height that would threaten their lines.

A task force was formed to develop guidelines for future trail maintenance. "The way it was was working peacefully for all those years," said Hildreth. "I'd like to get back to that."

The draft document being discussed last Thursday contained sections written by staff at both the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and Dominion Virginia Power.

Some parts of it referred repeatedly to "brush," which raised the question of how large a tree must be before it is considered a tree and not just a bit of brush.

"If it has the potential, that's where we start," said Kathy McDaniel, who manages the tree trimming along the trail for Dominion.

Residents on the task force say that a tree should be left in place until it becomes an imminent threat.

FOR EXAMPLE, if a sapling is growing near the power lines and it is of a species that could someday grow to a height that would threaten the lines, Dominion's preference would be to remove it while it is smaller and relatively easy to remove.

At least one resident would rather see the tree stay for a while. "Does it have to be removed now, or can it be removed in a cycle five years from now?" asked Claudia Thompson-Deihl of Reston.

This, said Mike Brucato, team leader for transmission line forestry for Dominion, is what caused the problems in Vienna. If Dominion waits until the tree has grown large, it needs to use heavier equipment to remove it, and its removal creates a more dramatic impact. "That's what we're trying to do over time is reduce that impact," Brucato said.

Dominion's plan is to plant trees that will not need to be cut down. If enough of those trees take root, they could eventually eliminate the other species and leave a more permanent tree canopy. "Our goal is to get the right tree, the right species, in the right place," said Charles Hardy of Dominion, expressing the utility company's philosophy in the same words he has used before.

"I think the whole crux of this issue is what's acceptable," said Paul McCray, who manages the trail for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. McCray pointed to areas of the trail in Loudoun County, where the trimming has not been as severe. "Why are you making exceptions there, but not in Vienna and Reston?" McCray asked.

"The difference in Vienna is the height of the conductor," Brucato said. The lines are so much lower in Vienna that more species of trees have the potential to have an impact.