Landowners frustrated by lack of control over tree removal
September 1, 2021 — In mid-August, Katharine Cole drove out to her pasture in Hopland through a thick haze from the Dixie Fire. Earlier this summer, she lost 20-25 trees to PG&E’s vegetation management program, which the California Public Utilities Commission approved as a strategy to prevent catastrophic wildfire. “Basically, I’m looking at a war zone here,” she said, pulling over to survey the felled trees; “that was beautiful oak and madrone and manzanita.”
Cole was especially mourning the loss of an ancient blue oak, marked with blue dots and lying on the ground in sections a few feet from its stump. She says about a year and a half ago, she did get notice that crews would come out to some work, but that she never received a contract or any detailed information about the extent of the work that was to be done. Crews marked some trees and said they would remove dead brush and debris left over from the River Fire, which scorched part of the property in 2017. “But we were not notified that they were going to take down this oak without some kind of consideration,” she added. Limbs and sections of the tree were left in the pasture, leaving her to wonder how she will mow. She doesn’t have the equipment she would need to buck up the large-diameter rounds for firewood, or the wherewithal to hire someone who does. In addition, crews scattered wood chips around the site, which damages its viability as pasture. “I re-seed in here,” she said, scuffing a toe in the inches-deep carpet of wood chips. “I don’t know if I can rake in here, or what.”
PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said in an email, “Unless it’s a transmission line that runs through their property...PG&E contractors should’ve communicated with them clearly about the work, what to do with the chips, and what was going to be removed and when. We understand that chips spread out hinders the reseeding for livestock process.” Contreras offered to send a supervisor out to the property, but between stress about covid and wells running dry, Cole demurred. Also, she added, “it’s not like I trust them to come down here and clean all this out.” And PG&E does have an easement along the transmission line.
Cole is especially frustrated, in light of the fact that in July, PG&E announced plans to launch a multi-year effort to underground about 10,000 miles of power lines in districts at high risk of fire. “If they put underground lines and they come down here after they’ve cut all these trees,” she said, laughing in disbelief. “Well, thanks! And now just dig it out.”
Cole shares an easement along the transmission lines with her neighbor Kellen Kaiser, whose cattle run on both properties. Kaiser is doing her best to keep the company off her land. The company, she says, has been absent most of her life, but early last year, crews started doing “significant amounts of work on the property, and treating it very disrespectfully, leaving gates open that let my cows out, leaving gates closed between pastures that my cows were supposed to have access to, leaving messes in terms of cutting wood and not cleaning up that wood. So me and my mother started resisting their presence on the property.”
Resistance is difficult for both women, who have jobs off the ranch and are not always home to monitor goings-on at the property. “I’m a sex educator,” Kaiser says, “and so I teach about consent all the time. And it seems to me that the concept of consent is lost upon these people. Even though I have explained repeatedly that we are a group of women who would love to know the random strange men that are wandering around the property. That concept, even, is lost upon them.”
The transmission lines run along Parsons Creek, which, in the middle of August, still had a pool of cool water shaded by a tree with a blue dot on it. Most of the trees on Kaiser’s property by the creek are marked with one blue dot, which Contreras said means they’ve been selected for trimming. The blue oak on Cole’s pasture had two blue dots, which sometimes indicates that it’s been selected for removal, and another tree still standing along the creek had three blue dots. Kzyx sent a picture of that tree to Contreras, asking what the markings meant, but did not receive an answer.
Kaiser reported that she ran into a crew on her property one morning while she was doing chores. She had expected them three hours earlier, but joined them for a tour of their plans. “And as we went along, they were just going to cut down so many trees that are a part of this riparian corridor that exists on this protected creek,” she recalled. “And over the years, I have had so many people tell me what I can and cannot do with that creek as a property owner...but if I have to treat the creek with that much respect, which I think is the right thing to do, why doesn’t PG&E have the responsibility to treat the creek with the same amount of caution?”
She says she was assured that environmental reviews were conducted, but that she has not had any success being connected to the people who have done the work. Her consent to any work, she says, is contingent upon her speaking with those who have done the environmental reviews.
That hasn’t happened yet. In the meantime, the combination of fires and the lack of control or communication about the work being done on their land has taken an emotional toll. Kaiser compared the work of the crews to her experience with wildfire, which “sweeps over your land, you have no control over it...and this is sort of a similar process, where this much larger force sweeps through your property, and again, you have no control over it.”
“And so now I have a double PTSD,” Cole added. “PG&E PTSD.”
This morning, PG&E announced that it is extending the deadline for eligible landowners to request removal of large-diameter wood. “The deadline for landowners to submit permission forms to authorize PG&E to remove trees that were cut down for safety after the 2020 Wildfires has been extended to September 14, 2021. Landowners who are interested in the Wood Management Program and have safely accessible wood from trees that PG&E felled, should call 1-877-295-4949 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.” The statement adds that. “After completing tree work, crews chipped wood that was less than four inches in diameter and spread the chips onsite, where possible. Because wood is considered the property of the landowner, any wood larger than four inches in diameter was left onsite. There is no legal or regulatory requirement to remove large-diameter wood, since it is the property of the landowner.”