Trees provide many benefits. They shade homes, provide shelter for wildlife, pump oxygen into the air and add beauty to the landscape. But when they grow into power lines they become a real liability.
“They can be our worst enemy,” says Chris Gaines, line superintendent for Ralls County Electric Cooperative based in New London. “In the wrong place they are. The right tree in the right place, we preach that. It’s on the back of our Rural Missouri. We have links on our website. It is something we are passionate about.”
The northeast Missouri electric cooperative cares so much about the trees and the safety of its members that it joined the Tree Line USA program, where it is one of four Missouri electric cooperatives to partner with the Arbor Day Foundation initiative. Ralls County Electric’s participation in the program has led to a unique community outreach based around trees.
On a blustery day in July Chris joins a group of kids from the Salem Baptist Church Daycare at the Ralls County Courthouse in New London. Two of the co-op’s interns dig a hole in the courthouse lawn while Chris explains some important steps to take before planting a tree.
He tells them the first step is to look up, because you never want to plant a tree where it could grow into the power lines. The second step is to call Missouri One Call to ensure it’s safe to dig in the spot you have chosen.
Surrounding the group are lush, shady trees, all planted with help from local third graders and their electric co-op. Chris recalls the year strong winds blew through the county, taking out almost all of the trees on the courthouse square. “There were no trees left untouched,” he says. “I think there are only two trees left that were pre-tornado. We started putting those trees back. A lot of third-grade kids helped. I’d say there are 10 years of them walking down and helping us plant trees.”
The cooperative’s community spirit extends well beyond the courthouse square, however. Over the years Ralls County Electric has celebrated Arbor Day with third grade students from Ralls County Elementary School. Many trees have been added to the campus through this outreach.
When rural cemeteries need assistance removing a dead tree, they know who to call. “They say, We heard about Ralls County taking down this tree around Spencerburg, maybe they will help us.’ So the next year we get them. We cover the headstones with pallets, bring the trucks in and remove the wood,” Chris says.
“They don’t have the resources to go in nor the budget to have someone come in and cut the tree,” adds Ralls County Electric CEO Lynn Hodges. “We can be very particular about it with our equipment and lower things to the ground.”
The volunteer hours are part of being a Tree Line USA Utility. The program exists to recognize best practices in public and private utility rights of way, demonstrating how trees and utilities can co-exist for the benefit of communities and citizens.
Where once the cooperative trimmed trees as efficiently as possible, now it takes the time to consider what is best for the trees and the members that own them. That might mean careful pruning, or it might mean removing the tree, if it poses a risk.
The focus on trees is all about safety, Lynn says. “We’ve had some issues with folks getting into trees and then getting into power lines,” he says. “We had a young man lose an arm with that issue. That really changed the philosophy here. If we have to choose between a tree and a young man’s arm, we are going to take down that tree.”
Adds Chris: “Public safety is No. 1 and reliability is No. 2. Years ago, we trimmed the tree because people didn’t want us to take it down. And now we are coming back and I have to take the tree down. Why? You used to trim it.’ Well, we were doing the wrong thing.”
As the co-op revamped its right-of-way clearing program with an eye to ensuring trees don’t encroach on its power lines, they were determined to do it the right way. Adopting proper trimming methods pushed by Tree Line USA led to stronger trees less likely to be damaged by storms. Problem trees that might grow or fall into lines were removed. Better public relations efforts helped members understand why the trees needed trimmed or dropped. And a free tree replacement program worked wonders with ensuring that “right tree, right place” ideal.
“I work in Ralls County a lot and all the trees here look good,” says David Vance, resource forester for the Missouri Department of Conservation. “By properly pruning trees the public is not even going to realize it has been pruned, probably. Whereas if you go in and hack the tree, they are going to see that and complain.
“I am really happy with them. They are adhering to the standards, attending the educational classes. They are putting forth the effort, money and resources to do what tree people like me want to see.”
Aside from the goodwill the program has brought to Ralls County Electric, the Tree Line USA program also has improved reliability for the cooperative’s members.
“I have a few members I talk to who say they remember daily outages,” Chris recalls. “And they lived with it. Now they ask, What have you done different, there’s hardly a blink anymore?’ I know exactly what we’ve done different. We’ve trimmed the trees.”