Joe Pandy: Why should Mountain Parks Electric ratepayers pay to clean up hazard trees in the national forest?
July 9, 2010
To the Editor
As the area’s electric provider and a corporate citizen, Mountain Parks Electric’s (MPE’s) management and governing board on behalf of its rate payers feel compelled to respond to the July 2 Sky-Hi News article “Forest Service turns attention from fire to falling trees.”
In the article, Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest and Sulphur District Ranger Craig Magwire, addresses the fire threat from trees falling into power lines in the area’s federally managed forests with, “In my opinion, it’s the power company’s responsibility” and that “the District has given Mountain Parks Electric the ‘go’ to remove any trees that are a hazard to power lines …”
This is not what U.S. Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet had foreseen when they announced in February that Colorado would receive $30 million in federal funding to address the bark beetle epidemic fire threat. In their joint statement, the senators said: “The resources will be distributed to the neediest areas first, including sites where there are fire threats or other threats to public safety such as dead or weakened trees along trails, roads, campgrounds, or power lines and other infrastructures.” Now, the Forest Service has taken tree clearance near power lines out of the equation.
Despite the senators’ intentions, the Forest Service doesn’t plan to allocate one cent of its $30 million to reduce the fire threat posed by trees falling into power lines in federally forested areas in Grand County. When asked by Sen. Udall about the allocation of these funds, Kathleen Atkinson, the United States Department of Agriculture Director of Strategic Planning and Budget Accountability, wrote that the funds were budgeted as follows: emergency hazards fuel work ($23.1 million), road hazard mitigation ($9.0 million), and recreation facility hazard mitigation ($6.7 million). “Please be assured that we are placing a high priority on maximizing the value of these emergency funds in attaining the on-the-ground hazard mitigation in the forests of Colorado,” she wrote.
Nothing for tree clearance near power lines. That’s MPE’s responsibility, after all, right? It sounds reasonable until you follow the money.
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Over the past 6 years, MPE has spent more than $3 million removing trees near power lines. Where did that money come from? You paid for it. It’s part of your electric rate if you live in Grand or Jackson counties, or areas of Larimer, Summit or Routt counties.
An interesting side note: As a non-profit electric utility, MPE has no shareholders. It provides at-cost service. And because there are fewer customers in the mountains to pay for that electric service, your rates are approximately 30 percent higher than if you lived in the Denver area.
Since the 1950s, MPE has installed electric lines through Forest Service-managed areas. Our mutual agreement has always been that MPE would pay for clearing trees within our 20-foot easement and for “hazard” trees outside that easement. Now, the Forest Service wants to allocate all its federal funding to other purposes, implying that it’s MPE’s responsibility to clear cut a 150-foot tree clearing right of way in its 57.9 miles of power lines. The math on that: 210,000 trees at a price tag of $6.3 million. Who pays for that? If the Forest Service has its way, you will.
One question for the Forest Service: Who trumped the senators and decided that none of the $30 million should be used to reduce the fire threat of trees falling into power lines in the forest? We respectfully disagree with this decision and suggest that allocating funds toward mitigating the fire risks is in keeping with the bill’s intent and the Forest Service’s motto: caring for the land and serving the people.
Now Udall says Colorado’s $30 million isn’t enough. He is pushing for Congress to pass another bill to provide the Forest Service with additional tools and resources. Whether or not it passes, MPE hopes that the Forest Service will do its part to reduce the fire risk posed by trees falling into power lines. We all appreciate well groomed trails, roads and campgrounds, but if the forest catches fire, there will be nothing to show for the funding now being allocated for such projects.
For now, we are left scratching our heads. The U.S. Senate acts to fund $30 million toward the fire danger in our forest. Dollars allocated for tree clearance near power lines: zero. “Trees falling into power lines to be the most imminent fire hazard,” says Grand Lake Fire Chief Mike Long. Too bad he doesn’t work for the Forest Service. Is this an example of government at work or an example of how our government is broken?
Mountain Parks Electric Inc.