Petersburg Municipal Power and Light hopes to clear more trees from around the utility’s power line along Mitkof Highway. (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

Petersburg’s electric utility this fall paid to have some trees cut around a power line south of Petersburg and ended up clearing more than first anticipated. The trees were donated to the high school wrestling team for a fire wood fund raiser.

The tree clearing work happened just across Mitkof Highway from the old Experimental Fur Farm property, about eight miles south of downtown. It’s a visible spot along the highway and large enough area that it’s generated a few questions about what’s happening there. Petersburg Municipal Power and Light paid local company D and D Tree Services around 29,000 dollars to fall trees around the power line. It’s the locally-owned transmission line extending from Petersburg along Mitkof Highway all the way to Blind Slough.

The borough’s utility director Karl Hagerman explained a tree come down last spring that caused a 5-6 hour outage at that spot. Other trees were dead or dying nearby and threatened to fall on the line as well. Hagerman ended up talking with property owner, the University of Alaska Land Office.

“I started talking to that office about getting permission to just clear some danger trees from the line and they were actually very open to eliminating their liability for the long run on their property and allowing us to go back 50 feet from the line which is obviously much better for us in the long run as far as keeping those trees away from the power line and eliminating a liability for a long time in the future,” Hagerman said.

Hagerman said that’s when the project changed from just clearing some danger trees to clearing a wider swath along the power line. The University’s land office wanted the logs to go to a local sawmill or some other community benefit. But Hagerman said the lower quality hemlock and spruce wood did not generate interest from sawmill owners.

“From Power and Light’s perspective we were paying to get ‘em on the ground,” he said. “So I just wanted the mill operator to come in and get the trees out of the woods and then take them to the mill and incorporate them into their business plan. But the quality of the wood wasn’t very good. It was difficult for the mill operators to see any kind of a profit margin even with the wood being given to them because of the effort that it would take to get those trees to their mill.”

Instead he said PMPL donated the trees to the high school wrestling program. Another local company Rock N Road donated work to move the trees to the parking lot behind the swimming pool. The team cut up some of the logs for firewood and gave that out in exchange for donations.

“It was a very beneficial project for Power and Light in that we eliminated a very high risk of trees,” Hagerman said. “The university land office doesn’t have the liability that they had with danger trees on their property any more. D and D Tree Services got a good contract out of the deal and the wrestling program is continuing to cut and split the wood for residents in town that need to fill up their woodsheds. It’s been a very good project and I’m happy to be part of it.”

Residents can contact one of the wrestling team coaches for firewood orders. As for other trees threatening the local power grid, Hagerman explains other places in town have trees as close as 10 feet away. Power and Light’s line crew cut some this fall, borrowing a bucket truck from Wrangell to do that work. But Hagerman said the utility needs to do more.

“Anybody that’s driving around, just look up every once in a while at the power lines and you’ll see big holes in the sides of the tree canopy where we’ve trimmed back branches to keep them away from the lines,” he said. “Every one of those trees that you see that has that big hole in the canopy on the side of the tree really should come down, should be gone. I know it’s not popular but we will be slowly making our way around town and trying to address those trees over time.”

He says the University has another parcel of land just south of the site that was cleared and more tree clearing near the power line may happen there as well.