The Utility of Land Use: Whose Rights, Whose Way?

Power lines in Suffolk England in twilightImage via WikipediaUnder a clear blue late November sky I stood boot-ankle deep in the cold water of Goose Creek, thankful for the respite from a spate of bitter, blustery days the week before, thankful for this windfall firewood that straddled the creek near home. Its bare-pronged roots like the jaw end of a molar were washed clean since the little oak slumped down the rocky face of the bluff.

An opalescent sheen shimmered past with the slow flow of the creek as the whining chain cut into the thin, straight trunk. I quickly realized to my horror that I had just created this slick with the bar oil from my saw. I would never have noticed this environmental “cost of doing business” on dry land, but here was the visible effluence of my work, buoyant and rippling downstream.

This unbidden insight led me to recall the meeting just a few days earlier where I heard AEP officials claim that petroleum products (including bar oil) from mechanical clearing of their right-of-ways woud leave behind more dangerous chemical residues than did their spraying. A specific herbicide incident this summer had been the source of community concern culminating in a November 19 meeting in Cave Springs that I attended. It could just as well have been Goose Creek.

While that claim of relative toxicity of the chosen poisons remains to be known for certain, it is a certainty that by our need for and expectation of uninterrupted power, we impact the land and planet to a greater or lesser degree in whatever way our utility providers choose to make sure that power transmission lines stay clear and standing in every season.

And with more than 46,000 miles of distribution lines and the cumulative hundreds of square miles of clearing in them in the eleven-state region serviced by AEP alone, it was not just Crystal Creek at issue in that Roanoke meeting. In my rubber boots standing in the creek, it dawned on me that this is an issue of national reach and relevance.

The problem from the utilities point of view is that their lines must traverse hundreds of miles, taking the shortest distance between the source at power plants and destinations of use at businesses or homes. Those cleared corridors will necessarily bisect city, farm and forest. The energized wires are dangerous and must be held well out of harm’s way. The lines, too, are prone to sway and sag and tree damage, and their access for repair must be maintained.

Meanwhile you and I will raise all kinds of heck if our service is interrupted, our trees are cut or our water quality or health is placed potentially at risk. Can we have our cake and eat it too?

Those power lines and their clearings are only there because we are here. The denuded and unnaturally straight-edged gouges that cut across the contours of our mountains are not pretty but they are regrettably necessary in our time of history, given consumer electricity addiction and utility mandates to feed those habits.

A bright room at the flip of a switch comes at a price. Like coal, utility right-of-ways are a cost of doing business that require a total of some two billion dollars every year just to maintain. However, this is a human enterprise in transition.

I can imagine a day hopefully not too many decades ahead when the coal under Appalachian mountaintops will stay just where it is and each home or business will generate its own electricity with technologies we can only now imagine. Until then, with rights-of-way issues we are going to have a problem in need of solutions short of a total fix. These will not be problems solved satisfactorily by using a bigger chemical or mechanical hammer or by more vociferous protests.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing to know is that more people within and outside of the electrical industry are comprehending that working with rather than against nature on this issue makes the most sense. Managing corridors to create understory vegetation suited by its growth habit to be both attractive and productive while posing no risk to the power lines overhead is part of the “right tree in the right place” program gaining increased attention.

Right-of-ways course through wetland, meadow, cove forest and coniferous woods–whatever lies in their path–creating edge effects and early successional stages in every conceivable kind of plant and animal community. Botanists, ecologists, hydrologists, wildlife biologists and teachers of every stripe are concerned and involved in helping utilities like AEP become better stewards of these imminent domains that belong to all of us.

The next linear utility clearing you see on your travels is but a single thread of the larger tapestry of our dependence on electricity produced for us and carried to us at no small environmental cost. We should not take the work our utilities do on our behalf for granted, nor they our collective dedication and concern for the common wealth we share together.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. (So, “right-of-ways” won.)
    It is always easier for me to conjure up the damage that you, Fred, are doing to our environment than it is for me to see what I am doing. Thanks for a thoughtful piece!

  2. “Managing corridors to create understory vegetation suited by its growth habit to be both attractive and productive while posing no risk to the power lines overhead . . ” Now that sounds very intelligent! And it is very good news that this idea that is getting a following.

  3. A few weeks ago I went to a friend’s home for dinner. While there my friends took me for a walk on their property. Right on the very edge of this beautiful piece of land AEP had placed high tension power lines. I had seen them from far away but this was the closest I had ever been to them. The power lines are massive and they are noisy. The ground under them is scrubby. I can say I felt very uncomfortable under them. I hope that someday soon a better source of power will be available to everyone at a price everyone can afford. Being under those lines made me even more determined to, as soon as I can afford it, invest in alternative power for my personal use in the mean time I will be conserve power as best I can.