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Com Ed Clear-Cuts DeKalb Trail To Protect Power Lines

More than a mile of trees and plants are being mowed to the ground along a DeKalb nature trail. That’s how Com Ed is handling a federal mandate meant to keep trees away from its largest transmission lines. WNIJ’s Susan Stephens reports.

For the past week, anyone near the DeKalb Park District’s Nature Trail has heard the sounds: chainsaws, chippers, and heavy equipment tearing out trees and brush all along one side of the popular path -- the side directly under the high voltage power lines that feed the area’s need for electricity. The path is a strip of blacktop connecting Sycamore Road and First Street. It’s a mostly wooded area and one of the countless recreation paths across the country that took advantage of obsolete railroad corridors. Jane Levinsky has had a view of the trail from her house for the past 32 years. She received a call at work last Friday morning from a friend telling her someone was cutting down big trees on her street. That was the first she had heard of it.

We love the nature trail and we love being surrounded by nature. There are just so few areas left in the city like this. This is a jewel they are going to destroy.

“They” meaning Com Ed, the electrical utility that owns the massive high voltage power lines that run all along one side of the path. “They” ALSO meaning Asplundh, the contractor Com Ed hired to take out all of the vegetation underneath those power lines. ALL of it.

Patty Nyquist also lives near the nature path. She has spent the past week trying to halt the chainsaws by calling officials, getting the word out through a Facebook page, and learning everything she can about how this happened. That includes changes in federal rules requiring trees to be far enough away from transmission lines to prevent “flashovers.”

The federal mandate is part of a package of power company regulations for high voltage lines, NOT the power lines that serve individual homes and businesses. The legislation was a reaction to the 2003 east coast power outage that could be blamed in part on trees hitting lines in Ohio. Power companies are required to keep trees a calculated distance from the lines, although that distance isn’t clear. It’s based on electrical engineering standards -- the Federal Energy Regulation Commission is in the process of trying to approve something more specific.

Commission spokesman Craig Cano says the federal agency’s involvement is very limited. He says the mandate doesn’t spell out how an energy company should make sure there’s a minimum distance between the power lines and trees. He’s not even sure where the nature path neighbors should take their complaints about the clear-cutting.

The nature trail is owned by the DeKalb Park District, but Com Ed has the right of way in the form of a 48 foot wide swath directly under the power lines. Cindy Capek is executive director of the park district. She knows the trail well: she runs it every day. She says her staff learned about Com Ed’s plans to “trim” along the path in late September. They figured it wouldn’t be anything more than the usual light maintenance: they were unaware the trimming was going to be that aggressive.

Ralph Petersen compares the clear-cut to the devastation he saw as a veteran of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He considers himself a conservationist, and says there was definitely a need for some management along the path, with invasive non-native plants needing to be removed. But in the process, natives like jack in the pulpit and morel mushrooms were destroyed, too. Petersen also worries about the animals he is used to seeing in the area: deer, fox, mink, coyotes, hawks, rabbits, and squirrels. All animals that need to have cover with winter weather on the way.

Com Ed spokesman Paul Callighan says it’s a real challenge for his company to try to meet the new federal standards for high voltage power line maintenance AND do it in a heavily overgrown area such as DeKalb’s nature trail. Callighan admits the change to the trail’s aesthetic is “drastic.” He says the hope…and the plan…is to hit the mile long stretch with an herbicide soon, weather permitting, and again in the spring. He says that will clear the area for native prairie grasses and plants to come back. But the Park District’s Cindy Capek says it’s not so easy...or simple. She has spent a lot of time and money on her own backyard prairie restoration. She says she took a walk along the half-bare trail with Callighan this week and suggested that Com Ed help out with the cost of restoring the area to prairie.

It’s not without precedent: Com Ed raised the ire of some DuPage County residents over the past decade by chopping trees down and leaving tall stumps along the Illinois Prairie Path. The utility worked with county officials and replanted power-line friendly trees and shrubs along that path two years ago.

Tonight, people who live near or use DeKalb’s Nature Trail will get a chance to sound off before the Park District’s board. The board added a public comment segment to its previously-scheduled special budget meeting and invited Com Ed’s Paul Callighan to answer questions about the company’s policies and plans. The meeting gets underway at 6:30 pm at Hopkins Park in DeKalb. 

Susan is an award-winning reporter/writer at her favorite radio station. She's also WNIJ's Perspectives editor, Under Rocks contributor, and local host of All Things Considered.