By Scott Smith
It’s a power struggle, alright, and so far the powers that be are winning – and Connecticut’s trees are losing.
In 2023 alone, Eversource, the energy company that manages the electric grid in much of New England, plans to trim or cut down trees along a staggering 4,300 miles of Connecticut roads and rights of way – representing nearly a quarter of the 16,000 miles of transmission lines it manages in the state.
For its part, Eversource says it needs to remove trees that may fall across power lines, a very real problem intensified by the resurgence of tree growth throughout the Northeast and an ever-more wired world.
Critics counter that the publicly traded utility is taking advantage of a lax regulatory environment to run roughshod through communities who value their tree canopy, indiscriminately cutting healthy trees and destroying habitat in a shortsighted strategy to deal with the climate crisis, which is fueling more intense storms with each passing year.
It’s not just Eversource chopping down trees across Connecticut. The CT Department of Transportation has also ramped up its tree-removal efforts, clear-cutting wide swaths of trees from along interstates 95 and 91, state-managed roads, and the scenic parkway (Merritt and Wilbur Cross) that bisects the western half of the state. Add to this the logging efforts along the Metro North rail corridor, which includes easements provided to Eversource.
“We can’t cut them fast enough,” Kevin Nursick, CT DOT spokesman said in a Hartford Courant article about the ongoing tree-removal efforts to maintain 30-foot-wide “clear zones” along major highway medians and shoulders. CT DOT cites years of underfunding and delayed maintenance as the reasons for the ramped-up tree clearing, as well as insect infestations and drought.
CT residents have for years lobbied the state to halt the rampant destruction of trees along roadways and rights of way. The latest attempt is HB 5936, which would require utilities to obtain a permit from the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection before removing trees; seek sign-off from a licensed arborist; require stump removal and replacement planting for trees removed from private property; and set penalties for utilities that do not comply with the regulations. A similar bill, HB5506, would establish guidelines to govern vegetation along state highways. To contact your CT state elected officials, urging them to rein in these wholesale tree-clearing programs, use this online form.
Sign of the times
As is, most local municipalities are left to fight tree-removal projects on their own, relying on grass-roots activism and the few regulatory tactics available to them. State statute CGS § 23-65(f) generally requires anyone who plans to prune or remove a tree on municipal property, including utility companies, to first obtain a permit from the local tree warden. The tree warden may hold a hearing on the permit application before ruling on it.
Last summer in Redding, for example, residents protested a plan from Eversource to clear hundreds of trees growing on municipal and private property along a four-mile stretch of Cross Highway, with signs proclaiming ‘Say No to Eversource’ on one side and ‘Bury the Lines’ on the other, according to the News Times. The tree-cutting project was halted in July in part because of opposition from property owners and because the town of Redding’s tree warden position was vacant. It’s a part-time position that pays $1,500 a year.
“We understand that nothing can proceed on the public roadway until the town has a tree warden and it goes through the process,” said Sean Redding, Eversource Connecticut manager of vegetation management.
The utility’s current proposal to remove approximately 124 “hazard trees only along a 1.81 mile portion of Cross Highway within the scenic road right of way” is still before the Redding Planning Commission, said Eversource’s Redding in a March 23, 2023 update. According to James Gracy, director of public works, officials from the Town of Redding, including new tree warden Charlie Hyatt, are planning to discuss the current proposal with Eversource toward the end of March.
Likewise, Darien has been battling a triple whammy of Eversource, CT DOT and Metro North since March 2021, with the latest fight centered on cutting down trees along high-voltage transmission lines, part of an 18-mile corridor of clear cutting from Greenwich through Westport.
In a mediated settlement between Darien and Eversource, while most of the trees were axed, the utility agreed to plant some new trees, and will be responsible for the new growth over a two-year period, reported the Darien Times.
Friends of Animals, which is based in Darien, has been on the front lines of these local tree wars, contesting the removal by DOT of trees along the Post Road, the town’s main thoroughfare. While several trees were cut down on the road bordering FoA’s offices, at least to date, one large red oak has been spared.
“It’s a travesty that the utilities and state DOT are allowed to cut down so many trees, and at best replace a small fraction of mature growth with saplings,” says Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. “It’s like the old saying, ‘If the only tool you have is a chain saw, then the only problem you see is a tree that needs to be cut down.’
“We need more trees standing, not less, especially in developed areas and along roadways where properly managed plantings reduce air pollutants, protect water quality, store carbon, and cool urban heat islands while beautifying our streetscapes.”
Living on the edge
As our native woodlands become ever-more fragmented by development, the trees and habitat that remain on the edges of roadways, train tracks and transmission lines become ever-more valuable.
Reporting on Connecticut’s roadside trees, Edward Faison, senior ecologist at Highstead Arboretum in West Redding, points out that because of increased light and reduced competition, roadside trees grow bigger and faster than their counterparts in the deep woods. Large roadside trees absorb carbon much faster and store more carbon than the average tree in the forest. A 30-inch diameter tree filters 60 to 70 times the pollutants as a replacement tree 3 inches in diameter in the same place, adds Faison.
Large street trees function as “keystone structures” because of their critical value for biodiversity, providing nesting sites for birds and supporting a wide range of insects that are an important food source for birds and other wildlife. “Street trees also create linear corridors of habitat, connecting otherwise isolated areas to each other and out to rural surroundings. This is important for wildlife migration and for connecting natural areas,” concludes a case study conducted by the University of British Columbia.
Eversource does not keep statistics on what happens to the thousands of trees trimmed or cut down each year, though Eversource manager Sean Redding said in a recent email to FoA that “All branches and smaller diameter stems from tree work are chipped, with all logs left for the tree owner or hauled off-site if the owner does not want the wood.” While wood-chip mulch has its benefits in controlling weed growth and improving soil health, most of the stored carbon in the shredded wood is rapidly converted to CO2 and released into the atmosphere, exacerbating the climate problem. Most of the logs left are cut up for firewood and burned locally, adding to the pollution load and carbon deficit.
As for sustainable alternatives such as burying wires underground, Eversource’s Redding discounted the idea as too costly and complex. “An underground system is made up of different electric lines and equipment and requires building completely new infrastructure. Based on industry estimates, the cost ranges from $2 million to $10 million dollars per mile.”
Eversource, which sparked consumer outrage by raising rates on Jan. 1 that increased bills by 31 percent to 42 percent for the vast majority of CT customers, reported record profits of more than $1.4 billion in 2022. The 2022-2023 American Customer Satisfaction Index Energy Utilities Study, released on March 21, puts Eversource in next to last place among 28 energy utilities included in the study. Only Pacific Gas & Electric, based in storm- and wildfire-ravaged California, fared worse.
‘A major mind shift’
Convincing a public utility to put down the chain saw and come to the negotiating table is the necessary step for residents concerned about the scale of tree-cutting projects and their impact on the local landscape and ecosystem.
Alarmed by its ranking as having the lowest tree canopy of any city in Western Connecticut, particularly in its urban core, as well as reports by residents of planned tree removals, members of the Norwalk Common Council took action to enact a new, more comprehensive tree ordinance in 2021.
The ordinance regulates how tree planting, pruning and removal shall be accomplished on city properties and how improper removals will be mitigated. “Other revisions will require the protection of city trees during construction and how utilities will work with a tree warden when they want to prune or remove trees below the power lines,” said Ordinance Committee Chairwoman Lisa Shanahan in late 2021.
Utility companies seeking to alter public trees or shrubs now need to seek approval from the tree warden 30 days before the work is to begin. Violations can result in a civil penalty equal to a maximum three times the value of the tree, plus legal costs and fees, the ordinance states.
“I think there’s been a major mind shift within the city government that these trees are really assets and we need to protect them,” Shanahan told Coastal Connecticut Times in a recent article about Norwalk’s investment of $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, in addition to other grant and city funds, toward improving and maintaining its tree canopy and related climate-related initiatives.