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Trees down in Willits

Cut-up madrone rounds on the ground alongside Ridgewood Road on Pine Mountain in Willits.
Cynthia Raiser Jeavons
Cut-up madrone rounds on the ground alongside Ridgewood Road on Pine Mountain in Willits.

April 4, 2022 — As PG&E’s tree-cutting crews move into more neighborhoods, some property owners are slowly starting to think in terms of an organized response. But the enhanced vegetation management program, with its multitude of contractors and the lack of education or publicly available documents, is bewildering to most landowners.

Lauren Robertson is a resident of Pine Mountain in Willits. She described the approach she’s seen in her neighborhood. “PG&E has been masterful at dealing with people individually,” she opined; “doing favors for some property owners. And as soon as they do a favor for a property owner, that property owner is suddenly not mad anymore. And that’s a little disturbing.” Robertson is scrupulous about hardening her property for fire safety. “We could bury our houses also, and that would prevent fires from burning our houses down,” she reasoned. “But we’ve hardened our houses. And I think that’s what PG&E is not doing. They’re not hardening their lines. Or hardening their infrastructure by cutting down trees.” 

A recent report by acting State Auditor Michael Tilden blasted the privately owned utilities and the agencies that are supposed to regulate them. Tilden wrote that the Energy Safety Office, which is part of the California Natural Resources Agency, approved PG&E’s 2021 safety plan, in spite of its own review, which “found that the utility failed to demonstrate that it was properly prioritizing other mitigation activities, particularly power line replacement and system hardening efforts,” like insulating bare cable in high-risk areas. Tilden added that, “The CPUC does not consistently audit all areas in the utilities’ service territories, it did not audit several areas that include high fire-threat areas, and it does not use its authority to penalize utilities when its audits uncover violations.”

“There’s no authority that can tell them what to do. They can just do whatever they want,” according to Walter Smith, a former logger who turned his attention to international deforestation prevention efforts in the 1990’s. “We all know that corporate power is a problem. And now it’s right in our face.” Smith was also instrumental in starting the Mendocino County Climate Advisory Committee in 2019. For the past month, he’s been spending three or four hours a day researching the public resource code, making phone calls, and sharing his findings with an email list that includes dozens of environmentalists and political representatives in Mendocino and Humboldt counties. So far, he’s succeeded in keeping crews out of an old-growth grove that’s especially important in a millennial drought.

“This whole hill was left as old growth,” he said on a recent afternoon, as he led a reporter into the deep, cool shade of the grove. “Because underneath, at the bottom of this hill, is an underground river, which we get our water from, and all these houses get their water off of that same one. The old-timers knew to protect the water, you gotta keep shade on it, and you gotta keep the old-growth trees on it.”

Smith is especially perturbed by the damage that was done to an old madrone, when crews felled a tree from his neighbor’s property into the grove, tearing limbs from the old struggling hardwood and leaving debris from the felled firs all over the forest floor. “This tree, in terms of this neighborhood, is a heritage tree,” Walter related. He said neighborhood kids used to sit high in its branches and feel like they were “at the top of the world,” or swing out over the underground river on a rope swing. “So this old tree meant something, other than just being an old tree in the forest,” he concluded. “It was a home base, if you will, for children on this hill.”

Marie Jones is the chair of the Mendocino County Climate Advisory Committee, which recently drafted a letter imploring the Board of Supervisors to petition the Governor and the Office of Energy and Infrastructure Safety to call a halt to the program long enough to get some answers, “on a range of issues,” she began. “So one is, what are landowners’ rights regarding tree removal? A lot of people don’t realize, but landowners can actually say, no you can’t remove these trees from my property. And also, if PG&E’s tree removal results in significant devaluation of your property, you can actually require PG&E to pay for that devaluation. We’re also very concerned about whether or not there really is a scientific basis for tree removal. I think it’s an easy fix for PG&E because it’s relatively inexpensive compared to upgrading their systems. But in the long term, it’s also very ineffective, because it does increase the fire risk, rather than reducing it.”

The organized response is slow-moving and small-scale. But Randy MacDonald of Pine Mountain is holding out until he gets the documents and contracts and signatures he expects from any serious, legitimate project. “They have not been able to provide that,” he reported. “Now it’s been two weeks, and I said, get back to me when you have all the paperwork. And they have not gotten back to me, and I’m just getting more and more educated here.”

On Thrusday afternoon, MacDonald’s neighbor Bobbi Mallace sat on her porch looking at what remains of the trees that used to shade her home and provide privacy from the road.

“Obviously, we can’t move it,” she said. “So we’re dependent on PG&E, which tells us they’re going to pick it up. If they pick it up, great. If they don’t pick it up, it’s going to stay there and become a fire hazard…I don’t feel safer.” Asked if she thought there was any kind of legal response, Mallace said the only one she could come up with was a class-action suit. But “you’ve got to have a class,” she pointed out. “Because fighting PG&E has got to be a pretty big class. Alone, I don’t think you could do a thing.”

Local News
Sarah Reith is the lead reporter for KZYX News. She joined the KZYX News team in 2017, and covers local politics, water, law enforcement and the arts in Mendocino County.