November 3, 2021 — PG&E crews have been moving through public and private forest lands throughout northern California, taking down thousands of healthy trees within hundreds of feet of its lines. Many landowners believe that if they refuse to allow this work to be done, they, not PG&E, will be liable if the utility’s infrastructure causes a fire that spreads in the surrounding vegetation.
But Harry Vaughn, a landowner in southern Humboldt, may have found a way to save the marked trees on land that’s been in his family for generations — and make PG&E pay for it.
“We had all these people walking around our property without identifying themselves, and at some point, you just get pissed off,” he said. “You find out what your options are, because the landowner does have options.”
Vaughn said PG&E contractors had been on his property almost every day for more than three months, often at odd hours with little or no notice. Crews marked almost 700 trees, many of them high-value Douglas firs. He estimated that he would suffer losses up to $80,000 if the company removed all the trees they had marked along one of the power lines. When I visited at the end of September, he led me around his mushroom farm, his shaded fuel breaks, a salmon restoration project, and a grove of tanoaks that he’s dedicated to scientific studies of sudden oak death. We paused next to a Douglas fir with a big yellow X on its trunk. The tree stood just outside the dappled shade that’s essential to the well-being of the shiitake mushrooms he sells at the farmers market in Miranda.
Vaughn also has a non-industrial timber management plan on his 260 acres of mixed canopy.
His situation may have taken a turn, with the help of the registered professional forester he hires to writes those plans. The forester also does contract work for PG&E, and has access to the company’s database of marked trees. He and his subcontractors are being paid by PG&E, so at this time, Vaughn is not picking up the tab for any of the work.
Meanwhile, the foresters are now engaged in the lengthy process of reviewing the marks that PG&E crews have made. “They’re un-marking a lot of trees, because we’ve had all these arborists that have no training whatsoever in tree species, and they don’t understand forestry in California, and they don’t understand tree species,” Vaughn said. “I’ve had fir trees marked in the database as tanoaks. And it’s really hard to get that mixed up, but the people PG&E have hired can’t even tell the difference between a tanoak and a fir.”
Another benefit to having a registered professional forester on staff, says Vaughn, is that he knows how to file a no-work order. “We now have established a no-work policy until we re-evaluate the nearly 700 trees on our property, that no work will be done until we evaluate the mark...now they’ve got to pay foresters to re-mark and re-evaluate. Meanwhile, we’ve got time. These trees have been here for decades. They’ve got time. We’ve got time. I don’t know what PG&E’s rush is.”
Vaughn says his foresters will also be on site to supervise the work of the tree crews, once the evaluation is complete. He also indicated that he will only allow a limited number of vehicles and people on wet roads. “We can’t just unleash a bunch of people on our property,” he said. “And we don’t want to damage our roads. They’re wet right now.” He is also demanding that crews disinfect their spikes before they climb trees, so they don’t bring diseases into the forest.
Nesting birds are a concern, too. “We have warblers and orioles that nest in these trees,” he observed. “And we can’t be having bird nests cut down. So if it goes into the spring, then we’ll probably have to not allow cutting during spring, during nesting season, until it opens up in June or July.”
Vaughn has some advice and encouragement for other landowners.
“Go through the phonebook,” he suggested. “Find out who your foresters are in your area, and just start making calls and find out if there’s a forester who will come out and evaluate. You don’t have to let these PG&E contractors on your property without recourse or a second opinion. Or, as we say in science, peer review. My background is in science, and not political science, so I believe in the scientific method and peer review, and not just accepting being bullied and intimidated by PG&E and their crews.”
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KZYX reporters cover local news for Mendocino County, California, Monday through Friday in six and a half minute reports. Featuring Sarah Reith, Sonia Waraich, Michelle Blackwell, Jim Culp, Marty Durlin and Alicia Bales.