Should Eversource cut down trees to avoid blackouts?

The tall trees lining the side roads are now in their full glory – yellow, russet and red, a great dazzle to leaf-gazing passers-by and regular locals alike.

Should they be cut off, if it means the lights stay on in the middle of the next big storm?

It’s the cities that push and pull and landowners with resplendent maples and lofty oaks must try to balance.

Amid an intensified debate over trees in Redding, Highstead – the town’s regional center for conservation and environmental research – has come out in favor of the trees.

Highstead Senior Ecologist Edward Faison has written a fact sheet on the value of roadside trees. It’s at https://highstead.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Roadside-Trees.pdf

In it, Faison makes these points; roadside trees grow without competition from other trees. Bathed in light, they grow bigger and faster than their deep wood counterparts.

As a result, they sequester far more carbon than smaller trees and significantly reduce air pollution. They provide shade in the summer and insulation from cold winter winds, reducing the air conditioning and heating costs of neighboring homes.

They are home to communities of insects and birds – the more caterpillars, the more warblers in the spring

And they are beautiful. When you cut them down, it takes decades, if not centuries, for their replacements to grow to their size and environmental benefits.

Faison said he wrote the fact sheet as part of the debate about cutting down trees in the city.

“It will be about the issue of caring for trees, in this city and in other cities,” he said.

It is a conflict where people often change sides. After a hurricane or northeast knocks down tree branches or entire trees, people are asking cities and power companies to do more to keep the juice running.

But a few months later, when asked if they want their noble hickory hewn – or even worse, dismantled – they refuse. Negotiations ensue.

“It’s a fine line,” said Rudy Marconi, Ridgefield’s first coach.

Arborist Sean Redding, vegetation management manager for Eversource — the state’s largest electric utility — said there are three types of customers when it comes to tree trimming.

Some won’t let Eversource near their trees. Some allow certain trees to be pruned in certain places.

“Some people want them all gone,” he said, especially if it’s an aging tree that needs to be felled anyway. They’d rather have Eversource do the work than pay an arborist.

The problems are compounded by the large number of ash trees in the state killed by the emerald ash borer. These are dead trees that need to be removed.

Mike Boucher, New Milford’s tree guardian, said his town was active in cutting and pruning trees.

“There have been some negative reactions, but people are realizing the roads are safe,” he said. Seven trees fell on New Milford roads last year, Boucher said, compared to 17 fallen trees in previous years.

In Redding, first coach Julia Pemberton said the city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on three moves and cuts, working with Eversource.

“It hasn’t been a problem until this year,” she said.

But this year, Eversource has offered to cut down a wide swath of trees – big or small, living or dead – along Cross Highway and Hill Road. The plan aroused strong opposition from the townspeople.

Eversource’s Redding said the utility chose the area after studying five years of outage reports and 10 years of major storm damage. The city is one of 12 in the state designated for such a cup.

He said the extent of the cut will depend on the trees and topography of each location. Trees that grow above power lines are more likely to fall on the lines than trees that grow below, he said.

Redding said that because private, municipal and state lands are involved, the utility will not make any cuts until private landowners, the city and the state Department of Transportation agree.

But Pemberton said Eversource is only turning to these more extensive tree-cutting measures after its much-criticized response to wind damage and power outages from Tropical Storm Isaias in 2020.

“It wasn’t the trees’ fault,” she says. “It was Eversource’s fault.”

Pemberton said the Western Connecticut Council of Governments is currently preparing an analysis of the value of trees to different communities in the area. This will add more data to the debate.

“People may not understand carbon sequestration,” she said. “But people understand dollars.”

Contact Robert Miller at [email protected]