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Where Have All the Trees Gone?

Our tree canopy is already under considerable stress. Age, disease and pollution have taken a toll on the area’s mature trees, deer are destroying the young understory trees that replace trees as they die, and trees are lost as additions and bigger houses are built in older neighborhoods. For some time, Pepco has been pruning roadside trees, and there has long been concern that trees are pruned so heavily that survival is unlikely. Now trees are being cut down regardless of health and Pepco is dramatically increasing the removal of trees along power lines — not only trees under the power lines, but also trees near power lines. Pepco claims that this level of cutting is necessary to improve reliability.

A Washington Post analysis in 2010 showed that Pepco ranked as one of the worst utility companies in the country when it comes to keeping power on and restoring it after an outage. Pepco representatives claim that our region has the fourth-most dense canopy of metropolitan areas in the United States, and the higher number of trees is the cause of the high number of power outages. Forestry expert David Nowak of the U. S. Forest Service disputes Pepco's claim, noting that our area’s tree canopy cover is about average, and cities with denser canopy have better reliability.

Forester Mark Gavin of the nonprofit Casey Trees charged, "Pepco has turned vegetation into a convenient villain. It's a lot easier and cheaper to say trees are bad than to upgrade equipment.” The Post, citing internal Pepco records, found that most sustained power outages were caused by equipment failures, not trees. Pepco began a five-year $250 million reliability enhancement plan in September 2010. While there has been some improvement in reliability, how much is due to equipment upgrades? How much to increased tree cutting?

County Council members Marc Elrich and Roger Berliner introduced a bill that would ensure proper trimming and require written approval of homeowners to remove trees, but their attempt to limit tree cutting failed, when County Attorney Marc Hansen ruled that the county can not regulate utilities. The only authority able to regulate Pepco is the Maryland Public Service Commission. Pepco maintains that it is being directed by the state, but what is the level of oversight?

Homeowners receiving notice that Pepco wants to do tree work on the property or find their trees marked with blue dots can call Pepco. The number for Pepco's Forestry Department is 202-833-7500, and a forester will be sent to review the trees designated for cutting. If you have trees that you don't want removed tell them so — if you don't call, Pepco maintains the right to remove what it sees fit. If trees are removed, request vouchers from Pepco for new trees to replant. While it will take many, many years for a sapling to replace the tree that was cut, planting a new tree might make you feel a little better.