In wake of storms, debate flares over Conn. trees

December 4, 2011 2:05:46 PM PST
Once again, Connecticut's trees are at the center of a storm.

Countless trees and limbs were brought down by the remnants of Hurricane Irene in late August. Two months later, trees with their leaves still fully on branches were overwhelmed by a rare October snowstorm and were felled by heavy snow.

Both times, overhead electric lines were tangled in downed branches, which blocked roads and slowed repair trucks.

Politicians, utilities and tree-lovers are now battling over the future of trees in one of the most heavily forested states.

Investigations are focusing on how to avoid future widespread outages such as those that affected more than 800,000 utility customers for a week or longer in October and early November. One solution that's emerging is to trim or remove trees to provide greater clearance for overhead wires.

Opponents of broader tree clearance have skewed priorities, said state Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester.

"Those same people were not pleased to not have power for eight days or 10, let alone two blackouts in six, eight weeks," he said.

The cause of the outages was obvious, Cassano said.

"The reason the power was down was because of trees," he said.

"We have been complaining about being over-treed, and a lot of people would probably disagree."

The Greenwich Tree Conservancy would disagree. It's urging state officials to require Connecticut Light & Power to bury power lines to avoid tree removal.

"The cutting down of hundreds of thousands of trees is not going to solve the problem," said Peter Malkin, president of the group. "It would be an environmental disaster."

He said trimming also is unacceptable because it "takes the heart out of the trees and they die."

But United Illuminating, which serves 325,000 customers, says burying power lines is prohibitively expensive.

"It isn't prudent and customers don't appear to be in the mood to pay those costs," said spokesman Michael West.

In addition, trimming alone does not solve the problem, he said.

United Illuminating trimmed trees in its easements and outages still occurred, he said.

Malkin said not burying power lines leads to costly cleanup and restoration operations after destructive storms. Connecticut Light & Power and its parent company, Northeast Utilities, have said it expects the tab to be $200 million or more for cleanup and restoration related to the two storms.

Utilities are required to provide uninterrupted service, but fail to do so when the weather turns nasty, Malkin said.

"The system we have in Connecticut is 19th-century. It must be updated," Malkin said.

Mitch Gross, a spokesman for Connecticut Light & Power, said the utility has 17,000 miles of electric lines and interest by towns in burying lines evaporates when CL&P officials mention the cost. In addition, lines belonging to cable and telephone companies also would have to be buried in construction projects that are extremely disruptive, Gross said.

In the conflict between aesthetics and trimming or removing trees to ensure reliable electricity, the balance has shifted to cutting trees because of the outages, said Dave Goodson, manager of vegetation management at CL&P.

The state's largest utility is asking Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and legislators to change state law that limits tree cutting and trimming, he said. For example, making it easier to cut trees on private property and streamlining an array of state laws and local ordinances governing tree maintenance in scores of towns are among changes that are needed, Goodson said.

"There is no short-term fix here," he said.

The battle over trees covers a lot of ground. As much as 58 percent of Connecticut is forested, making it 12th among the states in forest cover, said Jeffrey Ward, chief scientist at the Department of Forestry and Horticulture at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

"That's one of our connections to nature," he said. "When you think of New England, you think of stone walls and trees."

In a recent report, Ward said about 48 percent of Connecticut's trees are maples, which are more likely than other species to have such structural defects as cavities and weak forks that make them prone to high winds, snow and other forces that bring down trees.

Ward said a solution could be to plant small ornamental trees such as dogwoods or firs, spruces and holly trees to provide beauty without brushing up against power lines.

"We think of spreading oaks and maples, which are entirely appropriate in a backyard but not near wires," he said.

Acknowledging the emotional aspects of the debate, Ward said, "People are going to be upset no matter what the decision is."

Among the casualties of the rare Oct. 29 snowstorm was the Granby Oak, a 500-year-old tree that serves as Granby's town symbol. Already debilitated by age, the tree lost several large branches during the storm, said James Klase, director of public works.

Specialists are keeping an eye on the ancient tree and assessing the damage to determine what needs to be done to make sure it survives, he said.

"The prognosis is better than 50 percent it will survive," Klase said.

Tree wardens are hoping the state will come up with money to trim and remove trees, said Karl Reichle, South Windsor tree warden and a board member of the Tree Wardens Association of Connecticut.

He understands that the state, which struggled to erase a deficit of more than $3 billion recently, is hard-pressed to come up with more money. But Reichle said the alternative would be to endure extended power outages with each storm.

"Insanity is doing the same thing but expecting different results," he said.