In the year since Tropical Storm Irene battered the state, Connecticut’s trees have come to be regarded as instruments of evil. They’ve been blamed for the extensive power outages caused by both Irene and the October snowstorm two months later, and utility companies have since been sawing away at the roadside forest around their transmission lines.

But the results from yet another post-storm task force may shift those duties. Municipal responsibility for trees is at the heart of recommendations by the State Vegetation Management Task Force, whose mandate from the governor’s Two Storm Panel was to look at the state’s roadside tree care.

The report, expected to be finalized to coincide with the first year anniversary of Irene on Aug. 28, concludes that trees and other large vegetation along Connecticut roads have been generally ignored over years, if not decades. That means there are a lot of them and they’re old — which makes them potentially more hazardous.

Panel members are united behind the concept of tree management — not just cutting down problem trees, which is typically the extent of what municipalities do now. Rather, they endorse genuine and holistic care for trees in the form of a five-year plan that includes replanting them strategically. It’s a concept known as “right tree, right place.”

Amphitheater effect

That means choosing trees suited to their surroundings — especially those destined for urban areas — and in some locations moving toward a so-called amphitheater effect — low trees under power lines, taller ones farther back.

This all costs money, and the task force recommends that the state put up $100,000 a year per community for two years — that’s $16.9 million a year — to start the planning and maintenance processes. It calls on additional resources from cities and towns for trees

“I realize this is a difficult time to make that argument,” said Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association and task force chairman. “If we don’t invest at the municipal level in tree management, we’re going to insure we have just as much, if not more, damage in future storms.”

Statewide, Hammerling said, cities and towns spend about $10.5 million annually on tree work. Nearly two-thirds spend less than $3 per capita on tree care, and half of those spend less than $1. By contrast, the utility’s tree budget was criticized for being only about $30 million a year. It’s expected to increase to about $50 million, but panel members were adamant that municipalities and the state contribute.

“If we don’t have additional resources at the municipal level, at the state level,” Hammerling said, “then none of the recommendations of the task force are going to be implemented or successful.”

Dave Goodson, a task force member and arborist who oversees vegetation management for Northeast Utilities, Connecticut Light & Power‘s parent company, said a big surprise was to see how little tree work cities and towns do.

“It was an eye-opener,” he said. “Clearly we Nutmeggers love our trees, but we can’t overlook the maintenance of those trees anymore than we’d overlook the maintenance of any built infrastructure.”

Enter folks like Bruce Lindsay, who, on a recent hot morning, was trudging through the admittedly overgrown nursery maintained in Milford by the all-volunteer, nonprofit Milford Trees, which he heads. Increasingly it’s falling to groups like Milford Trees to fill a void municipalities can’t — or won’t.

Bruce Lindsay

Bruce Lindsay, head of the all-volunteer group Milford Trees.

“I think you would see less than six trees planted a year if it weren’t for our group,” he said. Lindsay is a horticulturist and licensed arborist with his own landscape design company.

In the dozen years Milford Trees has been around, it’s planted about 60 trees a year through donations, contributions and a scant $600 a year from the Milford Tree Commission. Milford Trees is also exploring a regional relationship with West Haven and Orange to pool resources to inventory trees.

While Lindsay said his group has a good rapport with Mayor Ben Blake, he feels there is some friction with the town’s department of public works.

“My job is to make sure everybody is rowing in the same direction,” said Blake, while not directly addressing the tension.

Lindsay said he felt Milford Trees was making the department’s job easier. “We’re trying to offer tree planting and replacement,” he said. “We’re not a bunch of lunatics and tree-hugging hippies.”

“We’re not just running around like Johnny Appleseed. We’re not planting white pines in an intersection where there’s line-of-sight issues or traffic light concerns or crosswalk concerns.”

Folks who have been running similar programs say winning respect and engaging the public are keys to making a nonprofit/government volunteer tree operation work, although there are barely a handful in Connecticut.

“People are really willing and happy to be part of managing the resources right outside their front door,” said Colleen Murphy-Dunning, director of the Urban Resources Initiative in New Haven, a nonprofit group affiliated with Yale University.

Since 1991, URI has used about 1,000 volunteers a year to plant, maintain, inventory and map trees in New Haven. Its work dovetails with a job-training program run by Yale graduate students for high school students and at-risk adults, such as ex-offenders.

Tree planting in Milford

A tree-planting group from the all-volunteer Milford Trees.

“It took time for us to get where we are now,” Murphy-Dunning said. “In the early years we had to get permission for every single tree we planted. This is the address. This is the species we want. We built a really strong relationship and trust.”

Christy Hass, New Haven’s tree warden and deputy director of the parks department, said URI provides a service that otherwise might not get done. “This is the ideal situation,” she said. “It has a 98 percent success rate, because they are involved with the neighborhood.”

In Hartford, the nonprofit Knox Parks has done tree planting and minor maintenance since the mid-1970s, placing some 3,500 trees, not including a 1,000-tree effort under way this year. It’s an uphill battle with 300 trees lost a year routinely and about 3,000 in last year’s October snowstorm alone.

As in New Haven, Knox uses volunteers combined with job training. It’s a paradigm Heather Dionne, the new city forester — the first one in years — is hoping to use to inventory the city’s estimated half-million trees.

Ron Pitz, the Knox’s executive director, said he thinks there would be a little tree planting and care in Hartford even without his organization. “But I don’t think there would be a comprehensive planting plan in place,” he said.

Work has been so neglected, Pitz said, that Knox volunteers are digging out tree stumps that have been there for 30 years. “It is working; we’re getting things done,” he said. “It’s not the easiest way to do things, but it’s the only way as far as we’re concerned.”

But he and others cautioned against relying solely on volunteers. “I also think that cities, as cash-strapped as they are, are going to have to have the vision and the courage to back some of these efforts with some funding.”

Task force member Chris Donnelly, urban forestry coordinator with the Division of Forestry at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said volunteers would not be able to handle everything.

“A major reason why we’re having this whole conversation has to do with tree maintenance,” he said. “So on the one hand, yes, there is a lot of opportunity for volunteer involvement, but it does not mean there are not going to be expensive parts of the job that still need to be done.”

Another key recommendation from the task force calls for more stringent qualifications for tree wardens. While every city and town is required to have one, there is no requirement that they actually know anything about trees.

The Tree Wardens Association of Connecticut offers certifications, but only about half the wardens in the state have them. The task force calls for required certifications and better standards governing them.

The association’s president, James Govoni, tree warden in Windsor and a member of the task force, is on board with that. But he worries that volunteer tree planting will increase a community’s liability and re-create the “same headache” with trees under power lines.

“How can you tell me to manage a tree when you keep planting them in the wrong place?” he asked. “And I keep having to cut them back, and you get mad at me?”

A radio version of this story <a href=”… “>is available here.

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.

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