August 17, 2021 — Paul Putter’s homestead used to be nestled in a grove of hardwoods and conifers. It was shady and cool, and he used to jog on a trail beneath the canopy. But now, with PG&E’s enhanced vegetation management program, crews of contractors are taking down any tree the company thinks could fall on a power line and start another massive fire. On August 7, kzyx was on site to see crews feeding dozens of smaller trees into a chipper and pouring large ones into a big red dumpster. “Maybe a hundred trees,” Putter estimated. “All along their power line, but some of them quite far away from their power line, maybe a hundred feet...I’m in kind of shock here. The extent of what they have cut on my property alone is really quite incredible. ”
Putter signed a contract on June 24th, though landowners all over the county have told kzyx they’ve had trees felled by PG&E crews with no contract. Putter’s document is basically a checklist, with the number 32 written by hand on a line following the typewritten words:” Tree Quantity.” PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras apologized for not being able to reach someone at the company who could explain the contract in time for this story. “I think I might have signed something without really understanding what the full implication of it was,” Putter noted. “It just didn’t register, what was going to happen.”
There’s no independent third-party environmental review for this work, and landowners complain about a lack of precise information about what it will entail.
It is legal. PG&E submitted its vegetation management plan to the California Public Utilities Commission late in 2018, and it’s now a part of the Public Resource Code.
The utility is required to give notice to landowners and provide damages if it removes a valuable tree, but the process is not defined in the code.
In April of this year, the CPUC placed the company into an enhanced oversight and enforcement process, because its wildfire safety division found that last year, PG&E failed to clear the most dangerous vegetation from the highest risk lines, focusing instead on lower-risk lines. If the company can prove that it’s prioritizing high-risk lines for its stepped-up vegetation program in 2021, it has a chance of being removed from the enhanced oversight process, which is a condition of its plan for exiting bankruptcy.
Nancy Macy of Santa Cruz is the chair of the Sierra Club wildfire mitigation task force and one of the co-authors of a white paper on the harmful effects of PG&E’s tree removal practices. The paper says outside professionals may be reluctant to pronounce a tree healthy once it’s been marked for removal by PG&E, out of fear of liability if the tree does fall. Still, there have been pockets of resistance. “They hit a big wall in Santa Cruz,” Macy recalled. “We insisted on public meetings, we insisted on people having the right to say no, that they could take the responsibility for the trees being there.” But the battles can take years. And laying the groundwork was a meticulous process, too. “We’ve done a lot of work to do research and provide the background information so that the supervisors could be educated as to what the problems are,” Macy said. “And so all the supervisors respond to that.”
Today on the consent calendar for their regular meeting, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors accepted informational reports on two emergency coastal development permits to remove a total of 182 trees along PG&E power lines between Fort Bragg and Gualala.
Meanwhile, Putter’s property, his neighbor’s land, and the steep slopes along Orr Springs Road where the power lines march across the ridgetops are steadily being cleared.
“This area has too many trees, there’s no question about it,” Putter reflected, over the sounds of heavy equipment. “But that’s not what PG&E is doing here. They’re not thinning trees. That’s just not what’s going on.”