Greening Up Causes Blacking Out

There are more lawyers per capita in Washington, D.C., than in any other city in the world, and for the most part, they spend their evenings and weekends in the tree-crammed greenbelts of Virginia and Maryland. What do these folks do for a hobby? They sue.

Right now they’re suing PEPCO, one of the big local utilities, because the power went out in an ice storm on January 14 and stayed out long enough to melt the Omaha steaks in the freezer. A more honest appraisal of this problem would result in our suing ourselves, instead of blaming the power companies for the costs of our own esthetic preferences.

To say that heavily wooded environments are very much in fashion is to understate the case. It’s not simply that we all enjoy sitting in the shade of a tree on a balmy summer day. It’s fast becoming an article of political faith in environmental circles that even trimming a branch here and there is an unpardonable assault on one of nature’s more important creations.

Senescent tree worship appears to be on the verge of becoming a state-sanctioned religion. Both the president and the vice president recently proposed substantial federal initiatives to encourage urban forests and preserve green spaces. The idea here is that the government — local or federal — buys up privately owned land or encumbers the heirs in such a way that they cannot build, say, a strip mall, or say again, maybe a new house. People would also get tax credits for not chopping down trees on existing property. Before long, of course, it’ll be against the law to cut one.

Trees that once would have been thinned out by natural processes such as fire now grow larger, higher and wider, just waiting for weather severe enough to bring them down across the power lines that allow us to live the lifestyle of the late 20th century.

And this idea will probably become law. It has bipartisan support, because Republicans are afraid to vote against trees. This proposal brought the largest number of them to their feet during the recent State of the Union Address.

While novel at the federal level, it’s not a new phenomenon in the states. When Jerry Brown was governor of California, he got the legislature to make it illegal to cut a California Live Oak. These trees are everywhere in the chaparral from Red Bluff to Bakersfield. They are not rare, but they are gorgeous. Brown and his acolytes loved them almost to the point of worship.

The price of our faith, however, is that trees grow and grow. And that brings us back to the recent ice storm. Allowed to grow unimpeded, tree branches become unnaturally long and accumulate a tremendous amount of weight every time an average “sleeze” storm comes around. “Sleeze” is a local contraction of SLeet and frEEZing rain. The area around and southwest of Washington, say, for about 150 miles, is the sleeze capital of North America, thanks to the proximity of the warm Gulf Stream, cold Canada and the Appalachian mountains, which prevent the cold air from escaping. Some places really get the weather they deserve.

The mean elevation of the mountains isn’t much — around 3,000 feet — so the depth of the cold air that they trap is about the same.

When precipitation falls through such a shallow layer, it doesn’t have time to grow into esthetically pleasing snowflakes. In fact, it often doesn’t even freeze, remaining liquid even though the surrounding air is well below freezing. That’s because water requires a little disturbance to actually crystallize, and the first disturbance it usually finds under these circumstances is a tree.

In the Washington suburbs (and plenty of other places around the country), trees that once would have been thinned out by natural processes such as fire now grow larger, higher and wider, just waiting for weather severe enough to bring them down across the power lines that allow us to live the lifestyle of the late 20th century.

Were nature to take its course, a garden-variety sleeze storm — whose severe path is usually only two dozen miles wide — would knock down a few small branches and no one would notice anything except the exhilarating spectacle of the sun rising over diamond-coated vegetation. But instead, every year the constantly growing branches reach out farther, relentlessly approaching the nearest power line.

A mere half inch of sleeze, spread over a large enough branch, can weigh several hundred pounds. And it has the same salutary effect on a branch as, say, a large bear. The branch breaks and comes crashing down on a power line. Sleeze storms, while narrow in extent, can go on for a hundred miles, producing such an imbalance in the power grid that the whole system goes kerblooey.

Utility people tell me they are doing their darndest to protect their lines, but they simply can’t get to every threatening branch. That’s because vegetation is growing in three dimensions, while electrical rates aren’t supposed to grow at all. The problem is Malthusian to the third power.

It’s a jungle out there, and we made it. So fire up the grill, put on the Omahas — they’re nice and thawed now — and stop crabbing.

Patrick J. Michaels is Senior Fellow in Environmental Studies at Cato Institute and Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia.