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PSE says work will improve power reliability

"Photo: Tree trimmers working for Asplundh Tree Removal work near electrical lines on Cultus Bay Road to remove overhanging tree branches. Their work is part of Puget Sound Energy's Tree Watch program.Matt Johnson / staff photoTree Watch infoFor more information about the Tree Watch program, call PSE at 888-225-5773, select option 4, then enter the Tree Watch, six-digit extension, 89-5148.Orange is the color of doom for trees on South Whidbey.For the past few weeks, orange dots of spray paint have been appearing on trees near roadsides. Painted by tree removal contractors hired by Puget Sound Energy, the dots are the first step in a program designed to reduce tree-related power outages. Throughout the coming spring, tree cutters working for PSE will remove hazard trees from roadsides where they could take down power lines if they fall.For the cost of $10,000 per mile, PSE officials say their Tree Watch program could prevent dozens of outages on South Whidbey every year. A local environmentalist group, on the other hand, is not in favor of a program that will take down acres of trees -- albeit spread out along miles of roadsides.I think if they don't begin the process of undergrounding lines, the problem will go on forever, said Steve Erickson, of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network.But, according to Beth Rogers, PSE's director of the Tree Watch program, the solution to the problem will not go on forever. There is no question, she said, that trees are a real problem wherever a utility runs overhead electric lines. On average, PSE experiences about 2,400 power outages per year regionally due to tree or branch fall, said Rogers. Two-thirds of the trees that fall into lines are on private property, which means the company cannot just trim or remove them at will, as they can with trees in their right-of way. The Tree Watch program addresses that problem, allowing the utility to negotiate tree removal on private land. To date, negotiating has worked, and this week crews with Asplundh Tree Removal began trimming and cutting along Cultus Bay Road.We've had very good results so far, Rogers said.If negotiation does not work, Rogers said PSE will flex a little muscle to convince a property owner to cut a tree. However, she acknowledges that PSE will back down on some cutting if a property owner is particularly adamant about keeping his or her trees. But she encourages even the reluctant to hear her company's case.We try to convince them of the hazards of the tree, she said.When PSE finishes cutting in mid 2003, the company expects to see about 1,600 fewer tree-related power outages in its entire system.We feel we can get really good outage prevention results, said Rogers.The work is costing the company more than $10,000 a mile on South Whidbey. But, Rogers said, this is a bargain price compared to the cost of burying lines or installing tree wire. Undergrounding starts at $500,000 a mile, Rogers said, while tree wire runs the company $93,000 per mile.Rogers said tree cutting and trimming will reduce outages the most for the least amount of money.Targeted are trees leaning toward lines, diseased trees, and trees with multiple tops. Driving along Cultus Bay Road, Bailey Road, and Scatchet Head Road, it is easy to see that among all the roadside tree species, alders are going to take the biggest hit. Rogers said Asplundh crews have been instructed to avoid cutting conifers if at all possible.At the corner of Swede Hill Road and Scatchet Head Road, more than 20 trees are marked to come down near and on Ron and Sally McBride's property. As per PSE policy, tree cutters will leave the downed trees in manageable lengths for the McBrides to use as firewood. Rogers said cutting crews will leave cut trees almost any condition a land owner requests. Ron McBride said he has no problem with the tree cutting, as it will reduce outages at his home.In fact, I'm happy to see some of them come down, he said.WEAN's Erickson said he hopes the cutting is not the start of a wider cutting program. As one row of trees is cut, the next becomes a hazard, he said, which could lead to more rounds of cutting and an even more fragmented forest ecology on Whidbey Island.The right of way will get wider and wider as time goes on. Over time, it will get to be huge, he said."

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