New London - Trees aren't the enemy. Poor management of trees and poor planting decisions are.
Trying to get that message out, the New London Garden Club hosted a program Tuesday with an agenda intended to promote a balanced approach to the tree-utility line conflicts that have plagued the state since Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
"We have to come to the realization that there is a fundamental incompatibility with most utility infrastructure and tall, healthy trees," said Glenn Dreyer, director of the Connecticut College Arboretum and one of three program speakers. "In some places, maybe trees aren't even appropriate at all."
But Dreyer is hardly against planting trees. Instead, he's promoting the "Right Tree - Right Place" approach, in which property owners make thoughtful decisions about which trees they plant near power lines so that fewer outages will happen when future storms hit.
Dreyer is one of the authors of the "Right Tree - Right Place" list created after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's Two Storms Panel analyzed the prolonged power outages of Irene and the October snowstorm of 2011. The list includes 42 types of trees and 24 shrubs with short mature heights that would not pose a risk to utility poles from falling limbs.
"We're not recommending the wholesale replacement" of all the state's large, mature trees, Dreyer said. "But this is a way to phase in more appropriate vegetation along roadsides. It's not rocket science. It's planting shorter stuff near wires, and planting taller trees farther from the roads and wires."
Dreyer also noted that many of the state's trees have been weakened by repeated batterings from the increased frequency of severe weather, including flooding, high winds from Irene and Superstorm Sandy and lightning strikes.
Marie-Michelle Hirschoff, a retired attorney and law professor and spokeswoman on trees and power issues in the legislature for the Garden Club of New Haven, said she has worked to emphasize aesthetic, health, environmental and economic benefits of trees, to counter the impulse to cut down trees unnecessarily or prune too severely.
"We want a balanced approached, and we urge a serious consideration of undergrounding power lines where appropriate, and that wires and poles be strengthened," she said. "It would give us greater (power) reliability, and allow us to have a roadside forest. We also need more focus on removing hazardous trees, versus a too-aggressive tree trimming that can harm trees."
A bill introduced in the legislature this session would expand the authority of utility companies to cut and trim trees on private or publicly owned property without the owner's consent. It was strongly opposed by several town tree wardens, Hirschoff's group, the Connecticut Forest & Park Association and others, and is almost certainly not going forward, she said.
But another pending bill receiving wide support, she said, is advancing. It would establish qualifications for arborists and tree wardens.
"The tree wardens are critical," she said. "The best defense for protection of the roadside forest is a properly trained and committed tree warden."
Karl Reichle, retired South Windsor tree warden and past president and founding member of the Tree Wardens Association of Connecticut, is a strong supporter of the bill. Reichle also served on the State Vegetation Management Task Force report, created out of the Two Storms Panel.
Currently he said, state laws require every town have a tree warden, but not all towns follow it. In addition, there are no specific requirements for tree wardens.
"The only requirement in the state of Connecticut to be a tree warden is that you must breathe," Reichle said.
Under the bill, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection would establish requirements of coursework tree wardens would have to complete to become certified. It would be a change for the better, he said, because tree wardens perform an important - if often overlooked - job in their communities.
"What do tree wardens do? We manage liability," he said. "No matter how beautiful the tree is, you want to look at it and say, 'Is it time for this tree to go?'"