Treetilization: A Model for Transforming UVM into a Green IndustryInnovation
by Will Porter, Director of Consulting
CN Utility Consulting (CNUC) Director of Consulting Will Porter wrote an opinion editorial titled “Treetilization: A Model for Transforming UVM into a Green Industry” for the July/August issue of the Utility Arborist Newsline.
It is often said that utility vegetation management (UVM) is, or should be, an integral part of the green industry. Does what we do really fit the current understanding of green industry, though? The Connecticut Department of Labor, similar to other state and federal agencies, defines green industry as “producing a product or service that contribute[s] directly to preserving and enhancing the quality of the environment.” Does this fit the objectives of the UVM industry? Not currently. Our objectives need to change, or our resources will be wasted, and our industry will continue to struggle for legitimacy and respect.
If UVM doesn’t reinvent itself as an ally to the green industry to benefit the environment, it is in danger of becoming solely classified as industrial and toxic. In fact, it is already considered so by some people and media organizations.
Our roughly 45,000 industry professionals are well trained, disciplined, and ready to be mobilized for emergency or routine care of any type of vegetation in practically any condition. This is a needed resource, and we shouldn’t waste it on hammering the same trees over and over until decay does the rest.
Treetilization is a new model for tomorrow’s UVM—or better said, tomorrow’s green corridor management. It is a term for the transformation of the UVM industry from a singular focus on reliability of the electric grid to a focus on cultivating and protecting the many environmental benefits possible within and adjacent to distribution and transmission rights-of-way (ROW). Treetilization is a theoretical model of how ROW and land adjacent to ROW could be managed if the culture, the regulations, and the objectives of UVM were realigned to fit the current impetus to manage our environment sustainably for future generations.
There are quite a few concepts and trends that tie into treetilization and should be considered when architecting the new UVM.
The rating systems and new standards for built infrastructure that have been recognized by state and federal agencies are creeping into the space where UVM exists. Standards, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), LEED for Neighborhood Development, Performance Excellence in Electricity Renewal Program (PEER), WELL Building Standard, and the Green Building Initiative (GBI) are various forms of rating systems for sustainable power systems and are quickly becoming the new normal. Additionally, new programs are developing that focus even more on the non-built environment’s tie into built infrastructure. Examples include the Sustainable SITES Initiative, the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), conservation easements, the Arbor Day Foundation’s Energy-Saving Trees program, and the ROW Stewardship Accreditation Program.
Private property owners also have a changing mindset. There is an upwelling of environmental consciousness. Landowners are getting more informed on the rules and standards for protecting the environment. More importantly, they are realizing that environmental protection is a good responsibility and can be leveraged for enjoyment, profit, and protection against anyone who might have an impact on their property.
The Urban Forest
The urban forestry legal code (see below) is separate from the more historical and celebrated regulations regarding natural resources found in National Forests and wild timber management areas. But perhaps the management of the urban forest should bear more resemblance to the forest management on remote wild lands or in national forests.
U.S. code Title 16 Conservation, Chapter 41 Cooperative Forestry Assistance, Sec. 2109(d)(3), The term “urban forestry” means the planning, establishment, protection, and management of trees and associated plants, individually, in small groups, or under forest conditions within cities, their suburbs, and towns.
Protection and preservation of wildlands and national forests have been priority values for over a century in the U.S., and these same values are currently being utilized to combat the issues that threaten to undo a century of conservation effort—climate change, air pollution, invasive species, dwindling pollinator habitat, insect invasions, erosion, water quality, droughts, forest fires, and declining forest health. These issues are the same for urban forests.
Although the urban forestry statute is not currently fully equipped with directives and enforceable standards, it is likely that requirements will be developed for the billions of trees found in populated areas. Shouldn’t similar efforts to protect, manage, and utilize the urban forest be the UVM industry’s mantra?
Health and Safety
The concept of urban forestry also includes the benefits it provides in the areas, such as wellness, mental health, and crime prevention. Academic research has established the value of the neighborhood forest, and that means more than just the trees in parks and along sidewalks. Trees are a dominant natural feature of a neighborhood. If it takes a neighborhood to raise a child, then the trees and landscapes should be carefully managed like houses, schools, streets, and other features of a neighborhood.
The use of trees for energy conservation is closer to the current purpose of UVM, but has not been an objective anytime in its history. It is possible that the Arbor Day Foundation’s Energy-Saving Trees program will eclipse the Tree Line USA and Tree City USA programs that have made the foundation a household name. What better customer service initiative is hanging on the tree like a ripe apple than energy conservation?
Many utilities are cultivating energy-saving, tree-planting programs, which requires adherence to the “right tree, right place” concept and in some cases provides an incentive to cut down the trees that are in conflict with power lines. More importantly, UVM could provide more benefits than the removal of obstructing and offending vegetation.
Fires have brought attention to the problems associated with power lines and vegetation. The fires ignited by electrical contact have been some of the most notorious wildland fires in recorded history. Fuel accumulations rise and fall with the occurrence of droughts and tree mortality, and large fires can incapacitate and destroy large sections of the electrical grid. Given the facts of wildland fires, we still do not have much in the way of UVM practices specific to that issue, or regulations to protect cities and towns from the expected recurrence of catastrophic fires. California is the only state that requires and enforces a significant distance between vegetation and power lines that is designed to prevent powerline-caused fires. Not only could a standard of care for all utilities prevent many of these fires, but the active management of wildland areas could also introduce many other corridor benefits, such as wildlife and pollinator habitat, fire breaks, and the cultivation of useful and fire-resistant plants.
A final component of treetilization that is particularly intriguing is the infrequently employed practice of harvesting mature city and rural trees for wood production. This idea has gained more attention in recent years as a way to manage widespread tree mortality caused by insect, fungus and bacteria, and drought. The mountain pine beetle and the emerald ash borer are two examples of organized harvesting of trees that were not grown for harvest, but are salvageable for wood use. It is estimated that available urban trees (three to four billion board feet) is a substantial percent of the total board feet produced in the US. According to a recent study, 88 percent of logs cut in urban areas are merchantable.
Changes in society and the natural world are happening quickly. UVM can no longer operate in relative isolation, focused only on the special interests of the utility industry, protecting facilities from vegetation encroachments. Without a conscious effort to change what we are doing, we could be propelled into a future that is very different from the world we live in now.
UVM operates in the same physical space as many other entities. If their priorities are changing, UVM must be prepared to understand and respond to those new objectives.
To see the published article, click here.