A tree advocate defends Oncor’s tree trimming practices

Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Bob Curry considers himself a radical when it comes to tree preservation, especially for a Dallasite.

Curry is the chairman of the city’s Urban Forest Advisory Committee, which focuses on preserving Dallas’ large “heritage” trees, he says, from developers with construction projects that threaten them.

If Curry had his way, he wouldn’t let people saw trees down unless they were diseased.

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“You want to build a new house and there’s good sized tree on the lot? Design around it,” Curry says. “What happens here is people take the path of least resistance. It’s easier to saw it down.”

The Urban Forest Advisory Committee has no jurisdiction over lots smaller than two acres, so most residential construction is out of his committee’s control. They have more say over commercially developed land, but not as much as Curry would like.

“If you went out and clear-cut a piece of property without permission, I probably wouldn’t let you develop on it for five years,” Curry says, even though city ordinances don’t carry these types of consequences. “I would probably be more demanding than our political climate would tolerate.”

That’s because trees “clean our air and lower our energy consumption and make this place a more comfortable place to live,” Curry believes.

But when asked about Oncor’s tree pruning practices, Curry doesn’t get riled up.

“Power companies across the United States are mandated by federal regulations saying the power grid has to be protected from trees planted under power lines,” Curry says. “What has happened in the City of Dallas is the result of no evil plot.”

Curry knows well the ire Oncor draws when residents find their tree limbs lopped off or cut into a V-shape around power lines after Oncor’s trucks make the rounds through a neighborhood. Oncor’s website states that trees near power lines “are one of the top causes of power outages each year, along with lightning and wildlife,” therefore, “Oncor may prune or remove trees that interfere with the reliability and integrity of electrical service within our service area.”

Curry’s committee would endorse a more arborist-driven solution, which is “perhaps a little more intense than Oncor would like to do,” he says. Some residents have demanded an arborist on site at each tree trimming, “which is very expensive and isn’t practical,” Curry says.

“People love the tree-lined neighborhoods and shaded property. They value those trees and, in fairness, bought the property because of them,” Curry says. “And now Oncor wants to come in and cut them down. It’s unfortunate that that’s occurring, but who would have thought 40 years ago when those trees were starting out that this would be the case?”

There’s not a great solution for the trees planted near power lines decades ago before landscape regulations existed, or the many random tree plantings caused by both trees and “our squirrel friends,” Curry says. For any future plantings, the Urban Forest Advisory Committee endorses Oncor’s instructions to plant the “right tree in the right location,” he says, meaning that trees with a mature height of more than 25 feet shouldn’t be planted near power lines.

The committee also is pleased with Oncor’s efforts to create a rotating pruning schedule, so that a neighborhood’s trees are trimmed only once every few years, and to contact residents before arriving to trim.

“We’re sympathetic to what Oncor is trying to do,” Curry says. “Could it be better? Probably so. But they’re not going out there destroying trees just for the fun of it.”

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How to plant a tree for free

Because Oncor sponsors the Arbor Day Foundation, Oncor customers (that’s all of us) can sign up for up to two free trees to plant in their yards. Starting Aug. 19, visit energysavingtrees.arborday.org to qualify for the trees, which are first come, first served. The site also advises where to position the trees on your property to avoid power lines and maximize the energy efficiency potential of the tree.

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