I was intrigued with the Council briefing on Vegetation Management given by ONCOR on Wednesday. The company has sure come a long way in learning to communicate with the neighborhoods and City Hall; all the way to making some folks just giddy about how their trees are 'vegetation managed.'
Frankly, I'm supportive of ONCOR as they have a difficult job with an almost impossible task of trying to make everyone happy. They provide a necessary service. Sure, they're very jealous about keeping the good humor of the Public Utility Commission, and for good reason. It's not like Jim Bob on Main Street is going to fine them millions for poor performance and power failures. The PUC, on the other hand, has teeth. It's difficult to criticize the utility provider in general. However, I have had a few cases over the years where I have criticized some of the work of their contractors, and I'm sure I will still find moments of disfavor. I would like a more tree species-specific strategy, but they have their reasons for following their path and I don't intend to debate them. But we also need to remember our history goes far back and I respectfully support them and know that everyone is entitled to improve themselves. ONCOR does learn and adapt.
They have lots of arborists fanning out across town to talk with homeowners where the neighborhood trees are about to be pruned. Yes, they are, for the most part, being pruned, not 'massacred.' We can talk about degrees of damage, appearances, and longevity of trees, but I'm not interested in covering this in this article. I'd like to focus on the positives of their strategy. I'm going somewhere with this.
This communication process with the neighbors by ONCOR is the beginning, middle, and end of their process. I give them much credit for emphasizing this forestry communication because it's the public interaction and education that can make their efforts successful. But as far as they have gone, it's still not enough.
However, the additional responsibility to the community is not with ONCOR. This needs a greater team effort.
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COMMUNITY FOREST TEAM EFFORT
The City of Dallas, non-profits and environmental groups, developers, other utilities, and neighborhood activists should learn from this process. I'm not saying that ONCOR invented this process, and it's not perfect and it is capable of improvement. Utility vegetation management is just one branch of community forest management that is conducted in neighborhoods across the city. As this utility has learned, each neighborhood is different in the level of community activism and in the scale of work to be completed. When homeowners are educated about their resource, and become more invested in the forest around them, they will tend to better understand how the trees and the rest of the green infrastructure provide a great value to their homes and their personal health, but also a great responsibility on themselves. But this responsibility does not need to be feared.
Forest management happens everywhere across Dallas on a daily basis but is rarely recognized as such. The work is conducted by utility crews, city crews, and mostly by private tree services, landscapers and homeowners. The distinction in all of this is there is no central standard guiding them unless self-imposed. Homeowners do not tend to recognize themselves as tree stewards, but when they call for assistance with the tree on their property, they are directing a tree service (if they are wise enough to call one) to care for the tree. The large mature shade tree is a great responsibility and investment for a homeowner. But that tree also provides values that are sometimes considered incalculable. Well, we're doing better now at calculating the real values of trees to our communities thanks to partnerships between private interests and public offices which can benefit from the information.
The Dallas community forest has many masters, and many protectors, and many caretakers. It has many inhabitants, comprised of many species. It provides many services for our public health, safety and welfare. What it does not have is a unified goal and management plan from which we are guided in its care. We do not have dedicated resources, best management plans, directives or regional (neighborhood) goals. These are not products of ordinance but they can be accomplished by determination of the community to oversee the conservation and renewal of their forest. Beyond amending ordinances, we should be asking ourselves if we need this direction and guidance to manage our great natural infrastructure which sustains us. The ordinance would only be a tool in supporting those goals. It takes community buy-in to make any such effort successful.
COMMUNITY FOREST EDUCATION
The beginning of the organization of our forest objectives is talking. Education, which is being pursued in great effort by ONCOR, needs to be intensified by other groups. Management of the forest does not begin and end with utilities. It is only a part of a whole and this needs to be recognized. We should also recognize the importance of each and every individual citizen in the care of this forest and equip them with the knowledge and skills to care for their part. The City of Dallas is already blessed with a core of individuals who unify for this effort already. We can build on this foundation. The area has citizen foresters, master gardeners, master naturalists, volunteer park and planting groups, and other advocates, upon which to develop any programming.
COMMUNITY FOREST REGULATION
We should determine if we need further regulation to help guide the protection of overhead - and underground - utilities by managing the young volunteer trees that happen to spring up below utility lines or along utility easements.. Will property owners control these perimeter trees voluntarily, or should we seek assistance through regulation? What do we do about the trees we plant near overhead utilities? Do we address them by ordinance where we can while also restricting by regulation zones to allow only small planted nursery trees.under 20 feet in height?
We cannot forget the underground infrastructure, be it underground man-made local and franchise utilities, or the natural tree root systems which provide the life support of the tree. The conflicts below ground can be more severe than those above, and harder to manage without damaging, or destroying, the trees. As our underground utility systems age, we become more protective of them and we must be more careful of how our trees interact with them. We need to better educate ourselves to recognizing the whole tree and not just the great canopies that sustain us in the air above.
Much of what we wish to accomplish we may be able to do simply by expanding education campaigns across neighborhoods for a long duration to encourage us to change our habits. When we look at a space for tree planting, or look at a tree at all, what would happen if we trained ourselves to project the growth of that tree 50 years into the future in our imagination? Would we decide to avoid future conflicts by then recognizing we need to adjust our planting locations, or the trees we place in those zones? If we can regulate ourselves, regulation by enforcement no longer becomes necessary.
COMMUNITY FOREST COMPREHENSIVE SOLUTIONS
The problem of utility vegetation management and the impacts to the trees along these miles of corridor will not go away quickly. The utility company should not be expected to be the only group to take the initiative here to reduce the impact to our communities. We can take POSITIVE steps before we would ever have to deal with the NEGATIVE impact of a severe tree pruning. As mature trees die over time, as they will quite naturally, we need to assure new large canopy trees are not placed in proximity to those utilities. As young invasive and fast-growing volunteer trees sprout up along, and intertwining with, fence lines and utility corridors, we should do better to control them before the trees become more difficult, and much more expensive, to remove or prune later. It may take generations of living in this city to fully minimize the utility threats to conflicting trees, but it must begin with compromise and vision, and agreement the community is in this together.
Management of the community forest takes all of us following established best management practices for an attainable goal. When we have confidence in mind in these practices as a natural process for maintaining your property, the entire community will benefit and the negatives are diminished. Your children and their children will be the beneficiaries of a safer and sustainable city.