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In East Lansing, tree trimming gets to root of outage issues

man trims tree near power line
Kevin Lavery
A tree trimmer works near a power line at a site in East Lansing.

UPDATE: With powerful winds knocking down trees and power lines on Wednesday, Michigan utilities are working to restore service. A month ago, Kevin Lavery reported on tree trimming efforts aimed at reducing the impact of storms.

If you live in East Lansing, you may have been hearing a lot of chainsaws lately. The city is in the midst of a five-year tree trimming project.  The Lansing Board of Water and Light is clearing branches away from power lines in hopes of avoiding the massive electric outages the region is prone to in icy and windy conditions.

8 a.m. in East Lansing.  The morning rhythm of school bus stops and driveway back-outs is over.  As the neighborhood clears out to start another workday, the tree crews come rumbling in to start theirs.


It’s cloudy and chilly...not the ideal weather for tying a yellow harness round the old oak tree.  Still, the work needs to be done.  This particular grove on Grove Street is branching out through some overhead power lines.

Clad in bright yellow safety vests, Adam Spence and Clint Widerberg gaze at the treetops like Caesar at the Rubicon.  Scaling a 30 or 40 foot tree is tricky business. Some strategy is in order.

The clinking of carabiners soon gives way to the churning of chainsaws.  

The weaker, decaying branches are near the top.  Some get the chainsaw.  Others in more delicate spots near the live wires require hand trimming.   

As the branches fall, they’re scooped up and sent to the mulcher.  

Thick limbs that may have once held adventurous children in days of old are quickly dispatched into tiny chips that may one day line countless garden beds.  

The circle of life in suburbia.

This job should have been done a long time ago.  By the time the now legendary Christmas ice storm paralyzed mid-Michigan in 2013, the Lansing Board of Water and Light had made the financial decision to cut back on tree trimming.

“And it really came back to bite us there,” says BWL general manager Dick Peffley. “The limbs were overhanging the wires, the ice got on, they brought the wires down.  And there were certain areas that when we went in to do any kind of trimming, we were met with a lot of resistance, and it was just easier to back off.  It wasn’t the right thing to do long term, which is what the ice storm showed us.”

The resistance Peffley talks about was born from a prolonged status quo.  Most areas of East Lansing had not seen systematic tree trimming in three decades.

“So you’ve moved into your house, you’ve been there 30 years and nothing has happened, and all of a sudden we’re coming through saying that we need to do this, and you’re wondering why now?  Weshould have been coming through every five years,” he says.

It took a year to clean up after the ice storm.  Then the BWL launched its five-year tree trimming program.  Crews began in their largest service area, the city of Lansing.

In 2016, the project got a reality check. When a windstorm swept through the region last July, the trimmed sections of Lansing suffered a less than 10 percent outage rate. Peffley says in East Lansing, where no trimming had yet been done, the rate topped 90 percent.

And there was another issue.  Some East Lansing customers needed some new infrastructure.

“The first areas we went to, their electrical service wasn’t even a compatible voltage with our service,” says Peffley.  “ So, when you had an outage, we couldn’t just cross them over because the two lines weren’t compatible, and the substation that was supplying them energy was built shortly after World War II.  We said, we need to upgrade you.  Unfortunately, to get there, the trees had grown up so much that we had to do a lot of removals.  I will not say people are happy, but they’re understanding.”


The Lansing Board of Water and Light is about halfway through its five-year campaign.  The utility will keep its focus on East Lansing.  In the coming year, trimming is scheduled in the Fairview, Glencairn and Pinecrest neighborhoods.  A complete map of the project can be found at the BWL website.  

Kevin Lavery is a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things considered.
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