Updated on Wednesday, 5:00 p.m. — Eric Hammerling has a bumper sticker on his car that says: “don’t blame the trees.” It refers to power outages – like the massive ones since 2011 after the tropical-style storms Irene and Sandy, and a variety of blizzards and nor’easters.
Falling trees and limbs that took out power lines are most often cited for the outages, and the upshot has been a rush by utilities, the state Department of Transportation, municipalities and individuals to cut trees back and down.
“We can blame the trees,” said Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association. “But it’s mostly on us for failure to manage our roadside trees for many, many years.”
The management of trees – what, where and how much to cut – has become contentious in Connecticut. It pits those who are most concerned about keeping the lights on against those who believe we are verging on literal overkill in taking down trees.
The debate at the moment has focused mostly on United Illuminating’s tree-trimming policy proposal. The anticipated final ruling on it on Wednesday by the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA), was postponed as a result of additional material filed by UI and the need for more public hearings. The ruling when it comes, however, will also have broad implications for Connecticut Light & Power’s tree trimming.
UI’s proposal is identical to tree-trimming policies already OK’d by PURA last summer as part of UI’s rate approval that included $100 million for tree trimming over eight years. The guidelines in it for what are known as “enhanced tree trimming” (ETT) and “enhanced tree removal” (ETR) generally call for cutting or removing trees within 8 feet of power lines, from ground to sky.
UI recently began pilot projects in a few communities.
“The storms uncovered the need to do something,” said Joseph Thomas, UI’s vice president of electric system operations. “Our proposal is a balanced approach to minimize threats to infrastructure. If we wanted to eliminate it, we would do a lot more.”
CL&P has a similar policy. Beyond its standard maintenance tree trimming, it added 8-foot enhanced trimming and removal policies as part of its system resiliency plan. PURA approved it about a year ago in CL&P’s rates that include $300 million for tree trimming over five years.
Sean Redding, CL&P’s supervisor of vegetation management, said that in 2013 alone, CL&P did 3,385 miles of scheduled tree maintenance, 597 miles of enhanced tree trimming along its distribution lines and another 338 miles along the main lines.
“We understand that there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to this,” Redding said. ”It boils down to reliable service.”
He responded to criticism that CL&P’s aggressive trimming has resulted in misshapen trees that some think will make them more vulnerable.
“Utility pruning is not always pretty,” he said. “But it is scientific-based to remove the branches that are encroaching on power lines, to reduce risk to trees and to reduce the amount of grow-back.”
Critics see both utility policies as too broad and rigid, indiscriminately eliminating even healthy trees not interfering with wires, having shocking impacts on urban landscapes and ignoring the environmental benefits of trees.
“What’s really needed and what is easy is not one in the same,” said Chris Martin, the state forester at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “To think that we’re going to solve our risk problems completely by enhanced tree trimming is setting up people for disappointment.”
He and others said even with these tree-trimming polices, there would be power outages in extreme weather. “Folks have to understand a tree 60 feet tall 40 feet from power lines is still going to take out the power,” Martin said. “I’m not discounting the inconvenience of losing power for several days, but it’s not comparable.
“Trees are the silent warriors – cleaning air, providing habitat, cooling. All of a sudden the lights went out, and they became the enemy.”
Martin’s boss Susan Whalen, DEEP’s deputy commissioner for environmental conservation, was among dozens who swamped PURA with objections after its draft decision in December that upheld UI’s blanket 8-foot guidelines. She said that there was no one-size-fits-all for tree trimming, and that UI’s proposal “completely ignores the varying characteristics of the state’s roadways and land uses.”
Her letter continued: “Utility tree trimming standards should balance the need to protect wires from vegetative hazards with the aesthetic, public health, energy saving, economic, and cultural benefits derived from tree canopied communities and healthy roadside trees and forests.“
Hammerling, who also served as chair of the State Vegetation Management Task Force that in August 2012 offered its recommendations for roadside tree management, filed a list of proposed changes with PURA.
Generally, Hammerling called for flexible guidelines to account for differences in landscape among urban, suburban and rural areas.
He recommended “a more phased-in, incremental approach whereby roadside forests are managed to become more storm resistant over time through a combination of tree pruning, removal of hazardous trees, retention of healthy trees, and Right Tree/Right Place planting.”
Right tree/right place, a concept that allows for strategic planting of trees based on multiple conditions, including power lines, has become something of a mantra for tree advocates.
“I would rather see less trimming, more trees coming down (on their own) and then right tree/right place, putting the appropriate tree back,” said James Govoni, president of the Tree Wardens Association of Connecticut, Windsor’s tree warden and a member of the task force. “They want us to manage these trees to operate our electric system.”
But he conceded that most calls he gets are from residents who want to know when CL&P will be coming to trim their trees.
Those favoring less drastic tree cutting cite a lengthy list of well-known benefits from trees. They help reduce carbon, energy costs, noise, flooding and runoff, and erosion. They act as windbreaks, help prevent heat islands in urban areas, protect infrastructure like pavement and provide habitat for wildlife. Studies, Hammerling and others said, show that trees increase property values and result in overall better mental well-being.
“I certainly understand that if there are hazard trees, they should be removed,” he said. “But trees that have not gotten to that point and have community benefits should be retained.”
“My hope is we are not going to overreact by taking out all the trees and instead find the balance we probably should have had in the first place,” Hammerling said.
Several things have occurred lately to put the issue of tree trimming on the public radar. The Garden Club of New Haven, which prefers a more nuanced and site-specific approach to tree trimming, produced a photo of what one New Haven street might look like under UI’s tree trimming guidelines. It showed one side of the street tree-less.
“People simply did not realize what the consequences would be,” said Mary-Michelle Hirschoff, the club’s spokeswoman on trees and power. “They can read about it in language, but when they see what the consequences are of the plan in pictures, it comes home.”
Another public reminder has been the DOT’s statewide tree work along limited access interstates and state roads – most dramatically, the removal of many miles of trees along I-91.
“If we were on top of it like we were supposed to have been, it never would have been noticeable,” said Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for the DOT. The federal design standard, though not mandatory, is a 30-foot clear zone on each side of the road. DOT’s tree work budget was dramatically increased after the storms and its crews doubled.
But, Nursick added: “Before you make judgments on the aesthetics of it – you really have to give Mother Nature time to do some reclamation.”
“Most of these trees shouldn’t have been there in the first place,” he said, calling the effort an issue of public safety.
But Mayor Scott Jackson of Hamden, one of the communities in UI’s pilot project, said the DOT work in part accounted for the reluctance in his city to agree to UI’s trimming parameters.
“People see what happened on 91, and they think that’s what’s going to happen here,” he said noting that a couple of hundred people turned out recently to protest the UI plan at a public meeting.
“I get it when most of the state is dark after a storm and almost all of it is related to trees hitting power lines,” he said. “I answered the phones. I was without power in Sandy for seven days. I can tell you it was no fun.”
But after serving on the so-called Two-Storm state panel, where he felt like he was the resident environmentalist: “I don’t think we can chop our way to security,” he said.
So Jackson wrote a tree policy for Hamden that protects healthy trees and treats the different parts of town – its wooded areas vs. its downtown and suburban areas – individually.
UI would likely have to follow it, since under state law, unless there is an immediate danger from a tree and a power line, property owners have to agree to tree work on their land, and local tree wardens must approve any work along a public right of way. Appeal of a decision to PURA is permitted.
“I don’t think we’ll be going to war with UI over a tree or a series of trees,” Jackson said. “I do not think trees are our greatest enemy. In some ways I think they’re our best friend.”