June 30, 2016

Mostly clear

No offense, but trees are some of the best people we know

By JOHN GLADDEN | Staff Columnist

It has been a tough winter for our trees. We live on a busy corner and we are accustomed to highway and electrical crews coming through in the summer, trimming along the road and under the power lines. That’s maintenance, which I can appreciate. The crews always go out of their way to be considerate of us and our property.

One day last fall, I came home from work to find orange spray-paint marks on dozens of trees along our several hundred feet of frontage. It looked to me as if there had been a paintball war going on that afternoon. There were marks on mature ash, locust, basswood, hickory, white pine and maple trees — including one productive sugar maple I tapped to make syrup. My best wild blackberry patch was also in the path marked for clearing.

When I recovered my breath and came back into the house, I said to my wife: “Well, we’re all set for firewood next year, but it’s a heck of a way to get it.”

Weeks earlier, we had received a notice from the natural gas company announcing it would be conducting “vegetation management” in its right-of-way on our property. It had contracted a forester to manage the tree clearing, who told me the work was part of the federal response to utility problems that led to the 2003 blackout. It is called “right-of-way reclamation” and it is going on throughout Ohio and neighboring states.

The forester met me at the house, walked the right-of-way with me, and explained the orange marks. To my relief, not all meant removal. Some meant the trees only needed trimming. Others were reference marks that will eventually wear away. The forester was considerate and willing to take a second look at a couple of trees I thought could be saved.

If I needed to hire a forester and tree crew, I’d gladly hire the same ones the gas company did. I hope you get the clear impression I’m not mad at anyone. They did the job they were hired to do and did it well. You couldn’t ask for more professional and understanding people. What’s more, I am grateful for roads and electrical wires and natural gas pipelines. All require upkeep to remain in good service. Most everyone who has a body, a house or a car understands the concept of maintenance.

I am, however, disappointed in the gas company and regulators. To fail to keep up lines for decades, then declare the large trees and vegetation that have become part of the landscape must be cut down, is terrible stewardship. Removing 30- or 40-year-old trees in the name of routine maintenance is a contradiction in terms. Either it’s not necessary or not routine. One or the other.

And don’t tell me this slack approach somehow helped keep my utility rates low. Putting off necessary work rarely saves money in the long run. I’m sure the tree work on our property alone cost thousands of dollars.

We paid a heavy price, too, in the loss of shade, traffic screening, wildlife habitat, maple syrup, wild berries, clean air, anchored soil, and beauty the trees and other plants provided.

We now have an odd, wide, bare, unwanted swath around our property. Now that the right-of-way has been “reclaimed,” the gas company will come through with herbicide on a regular basis to make sure the area stays reclaimed and nothing much is allowed to grow there again. There are few things more unnatural than a space where nothing is allowed to grow.

Trees are some of the best people I know. They are steadfast, protective, productive and lovely, asking very little from us, only that we occasionally return the favor and do what we can to protect them from the forces of mankind. I feel like I’ve failed in that.

Many of our ash and maple trees seem to be sick and dying from mysterious ailments. The winds of Hurricane Ike took out four trees in September. Given that, it was hard to watch chain saws put to trees that were tall, straight and healthy.

Later this winter, I will open the last jar of blackberry jam with a little more sadness than usual. Some of next year’s fires in the woodstove will feel more wistful than warm — especially when I come across a piece of maple firewood and I can see where the tree had once been tapped for syrup, but never will be again.

Sometime between the last of the jam and the first fire of fall, outside anyone’s right-of-way but my own, I aim to plant some trees.

Gladden may be contacted at gladden@ohio.net or 330-721-4052.