Park Board guessed wrong, so trees get whacked

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 24, 2007 - 8:55 PM

The board mistakenly assumed that power lines in Minneapolis would be buried by now. The result: Drastic pruning.

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Bryan Hotbedt of Asplundh Tree Service trimmed trees in south Minneapolis this month. Sometimes the trees must be disfigured in order to keep branches under control.

A generation of oaks, maples, lindens and other shade trees that replaced diseased elms in Minneapolis have grown tall enough to bump up against 30-foot power lines. Now tree trimmers working for Xcel Energy are pruning those trees into bizarre shapes, much to the frustration of some homeowners.

For 20 years the Park and Recreation Board planted the shade trees with the mistaken belief that power lines would be buried by the time the trunks and branches grew tall enough to reach them. Since 1998 the Park Board has planted only shorter-growing trees under electric wires, but the earlier miscalculation is now leading to the loss of limbs from beloved trees.

A crew pruning a line of trees along 22nd Avenue in northeast Minneapolis a few months ago created an ugly vista, according to Lee Gilbertson, who lives on Stinson Parkway.

"They did a horrendous job aesthetically," Gilbertson said.

"One day we had some shade, and the next day you had these barren spots like someone shot a missile right down between the tree lines."

When Don Grogan saw tree trimmers working recently in his south Minneapolis neighborhood, he was astonished to see how radically they were pruning the branches.

"There's a 30-foot pine tree out here cut to 20 feet with no top on it," he said.

Grogan's complaint isn't unique to Minneapolis: Homeowners throughout the metro area are sometimes unhappy when tree limbs are lopped off so that power lines can be clear.

For Xcel Energy, it's a necessity.

"The two main drivers are public safety and electricity reliability," said Fletcher Johnson, vegetation management supervisor for the utility. About 75 crews hired by Xcel work year-round in the seven-county metro area, he said, pruning about 1.6 million trees along streets and alleys on a five-year rotation.

How trees are trimmed is determined by their branch structure and shape, he said, and in many cases the only choice is to remove the central stem at 20 to 30 feet and leave branches that grow sideways. "We're ultimately forced into trying to make a tree into a different shape than what Mother Nature intended," Johnson said.

Problem dates to the 1970s

Ralph Sievert, director of forestry for the Park and Recreation Board, said that part of the problem traces back to the late 1970s when Minneapolis and other cities saw their dominant street tree species, the American elm, decimated by Dutch elm disease. The lesson learned as the 1980s began was to avoid depending on a single species to forest the city, he said, and instead to plant multiple types of trees and spread them out around the city.

Sievert discontinued the policy of planting large species under power lines in 1998 after learning that there was no plan to bury the wires. For the past decade, he said, the city has planted only shorter species--Japanese tree lilacs, crabapples, prairie gem pear, amur maple, and hawthorn --near electric lines.

He said that the city has had very few problems and complaints about Xcel contractors over the years.

"Any time crews are doing line clearance, it doesn't look good and it's not good for the tree," said Sievert. "We look at it as a necessary evil in a city environment, because people are relying on that power, sometimes for life-preserving reasons."

For Jeff Perry, who lives in south Bloomington, tree trimming crews were too aggressive when they cut back several 50-year-old oaks on his property in 2006. Pruning in the middle of summer was hard on the trees, he said, and they still haven't recovered.

"They didn't come back strong at all this spring," he said. "One is a goner, and the others are looking pretty peaked."

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