Residents are urged not to overdo it on tree-trimming

Before storm-weary Connecticut all but denudes its roadsides of trees to prevent future power outages, residents should consider a more selective approach.

That's the message Tom Worthley, forester and assistant extension professor for the University of Connecticut, and Glenn Dreyer, director of the Connecticut College Arboretum in New London, would like people to heed, even as some are calling for an aggressive tree-trimming program after the massive power outages triggered by Tropical Storm Irene and last weekend's nor'easter.

"We may not need an all-or-nothing approach," Worthley said Tuesday. "If you take a scorched earth approach to clearing all the tree limbs from power line rights of way, that's a long-term commitment that requires its own expense."

The application of "good forestry principles" should guide the choice of which trees are unhealthy and should be felled, Worthley said, and which kept and given more room to grow. Many otherwise healthy trees can heal after losing large limbs during a storm, particularly if at least half of its crown remains, he said. Smaller ornamental trees left bent over from the weight of this weekend's snowfall will likely right themselves over time.

"There's no need to panic," he said. "Wait and see how nicely the tree leafs out in the spring and then make the decision."

In areas where tree removal is unavoidable, Worthley suggested planting smaller replacement varieties and keeping them trimmed below the height of power lines.

Dreyer urged residents to put the last two storms into a longer-term perspective. After Tropical Storm Irene, Dreyer himself was without power for six days, he said, but that was the first time in 25 years he's experienced an outage of more than a few hours. Some trimming is prudent, but excessive cutting would sacrifice wildlife habitat, shade and aesthetics unnecessarily.

"It's a question of what kind of place we want to live in," he said. For maximum safety, all trees within 100 feet of a power line would have to be trimmed back or removed, "but that doesn't look like New England to me," Dreyer said. "That would be many people's entire yards with no shade."

In southeastern Connecticut, maple and ash trees tend to look the worst after the two storms, Worthley said, because their leaves were more susceptible to withering from the salt spray carried from Long Island Sound by Irene. Dreyer noted that maples often have split main trunks with a weak spot in the middle vulnerable to breakage in storms.

Maple and ash were also already stressed after the wet spring and summer spread various funguses onto leaves. After losing their leaves early in the year, many of these trees "just made a biological decision to go into dormancy earlier," he said.

"Oaks and hickories are not as susceptible to salt spray," Worthley said. But that strength became a weakness in the nor'easter, because many oaks were still flush with green leaves that left more surfaces for this weekend's heavy snow to stick to, stressings limbs.

Both Worthley and Dreyer advised any homeowner concerned about the stability of their trees after the storms to hire a licensed arborist to evaluate them, and get more than one estimate for a trimming or tree removal job.

"The temptation may be to run out and get a chain saw" or to ask a friend or relative with one for help, Worthley said.

"But just because someone owns a chain saw, doesn't mean they know how to use it," he said. Safety gear including a helmet, chaps, leather boots and ear protectors is essential.

"A chain saw injury is a life-changing event," he warned.

Caution is also in order for hikers, hunters, mountain bikers and others who enjoy the state's forests, Worthley said.

"Broken branches are going to be an issue for a long time," he said. "Recreational users of forests should keep their eye on the canopy, because there are limbs that can come down at any time."

j.benson@theday.com

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