On the chopping block

PG&E meets the public, offers to replace trees slated for removal along pipeline

BEC Executive Director Robyn DiFalco addresses the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission as PG&E spokesman Joe Wilson looks on.

BEC Executive Director Robyn DiFalco addresses the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission as PG&E spokesman Joe Wilson looks on.

Photo by Ken Smith

Last February, tree advocates’ attempts to save several century-old sycamores from PG&E chainsaws ended in a tense, days-long standoff, police intervention and the eventual removal of the stately giants from where they stood outside of the Oroville Cemetery.

It also caused a public relations nightmare for PG&E and its Pipeline Pathways project, the energy company’s effort to remove trees, vegetation and structures along 6,750 miles of natural gas pipelines throughout the state for safety, maintenance and access purposes. With similar work planned to remove 33 trees from a mile-long swath in south Chico near Comanche Creek, PG&E is hoping to avoid troubles like those in Oroville, and sent a representative to the city’s Bidwell Park and Playground Commission meeting on Monday (Aug. 31) to hear public comment and make an offer to mitigate the loss of the trees.

“When we first started this work in Butte County, particularly in Oroville, our approach was too uniform, too rigid,” said Joe Wilson, PG&E’s local governmental relations representative, during the meeting. “We didn’t meet the balance of maintaining the beauty and character of our communities with maintaining public safety.”

Wilson, who noted he lives in Chico and was partly drawn to the city because of its natural beauty, said PG&E has changed its policy to do “tree by tree reviews” to evaluate if removal of some trees can can be avoided with monitoring and maintenance. He said the company has held the Chico removals off for six months to meet with the Butte Environmental Council, city staff and community members for feedback.

The trees in question are on private property owned by at least 10 different people and businesses, and as Wilson noted several times during his presentation—and Parks and Natural Resource Manager Dan Efseaff confirmed—PG&E doesn’t legally need permits or the city’s approval to remove the trees (although the company must work out the details with property owners).

Still, Wilson said the company is offering property owners two replacements—plus a bonus one to be given to the city—for every tree removed, as well as the funds to plant and maintain them until they’re established. He also said the owners can choose to instead let the city plant the trees anywhere they want.

Wilson said the project originally called for the removal of 86 trees, but PG&E’s new review policy is to remove only the trees within 5 feet of the pipeline, and instead monitor and maintain those that are between 5 and 14 feet away.

BEC Executive Director Robyn DiFalco was the first person to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting. She lauded the power company for reaching out and offering to plant replacements, but also urged caution as the city moves forward.

“You can never truly mitigate or replace the mature trees that are removed, but you can do the next best thing, and PG&E has shown a willingness to do the next best thing,” she said.

“Once the commission has heard from the community, I ask you show leadership on this issue, and that you, as representatives of the city, work on an agreement that seeks to cut the fewest number of trees necessary, and then to remedy the impact those removals have,” she said. DiFalco also asked that PG&E reveal the exact criteria met by each tree pegged for removal.

There were about 15 speakers from the public. Several were veterans of the Oroville standoff and expressed varying degrees of anger toward and mistrust of the power company.

“We lost 243 trees to PG&E in Oroville,” said William Bynam, spokesman for Save Oroville Trees, an advocacy group that formed during the fight to protect the cemetery sycamores. “They cut down 230 before the public even knew about it, and we had a three-month-long battle trying to save the last 10.

“They came in the middle of the night and cut those trees down,” Bynam continued. “They lied to us, they bullied us, they tried to intimidate us.”

Mark Stemen, a Chico State geography professor and president of BEC’s board of directors, added some dramatic flair to the already emotionally charged forum. After a brief history lesson based on the estimated ages of the oldest trees slated for removal, he summarized: “The trees were here first, and some of them predate European contact. PG&E has no morally defensible right to cut them down for easy access [to a pipeline].

“There’s actually hundreds of trees there,” Stemen continued, criticizing—as other speakers did—the company’s exclusion of those under 4 inches in diameter from the list. “Because babies don’t count—PG&E calls them ‘brush.’”