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Expanded Tree-Cutting Program Aims To Reduce Outages In Next Big Storm

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File image of a tree and power lines on Route 10 in Simsbury.  Photo by WTIC's Matt Dwyer.

File image of a tree and power lines on Route 10 in Simsbury. Photo by WTIC’s Matt Dwyer.

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By SUSAN HAIGH, Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Connecticut’s Department of Transportation and the state’s largest electric utility, armed with millions of dollars in extra resources, are both aggressively taking chain saws to many of the state’s trees– the main culprits in last year’s storms that left roads blocked and thousands of residents without power for days.

Signs of the wide-scale tree-trimming are already evident on the state’s limited access highways, and have even prompted some complaints to the DOT from motorists, including those who travel Route 9 through the middle of the state.

The extent of the trimming may surprise drivers but the tree crews are making up for years of routine trimming that had been delayed because of state budget constraints, said Kevin Nursick, a DOT spokesman. They are also still addressing the damage caused by the remnants of Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm, which harmed countless trees across the state.

The entire process is expected to take about a year.

“This is not tree-mageddon here,” he said. “We’re not talking about warfare against tall trees here. This is a prudent plan. It is a reasonable plan. It is not going to upset the natural beauty of Connecticut.”

Connecticut Light and Power is also expanding its tree-trimming efforts. The utility will announce Monday that it is nearly doubling its 2012 budget for tree-trimming to $53.5 million. That will enable CL&P to perform 4,900 miles of tree-trimming work _ an increase of 1,600 miles worth of routine and “enhanced” work, such as removing dead or diseased trees with the potential to cause electricity outages.

“Expanded tree work is a critical part of our plan to reduce the vulnerability of our distribution system to outages,” said Bill Quinlan, CL&P’s vice president of emergency preparedness, in a statement obtained by The Associated Press.

CL&P arborists began meeting with town officials last week to review its plans for expanded tree trimming in 120 towns and cities and coordinate with any local efforts. The utility is hiring about 100 additional contractor tree crews and they will be notifying and seeking written permission from property owners to perform the work if a targeted tree is on private land.

CL&P will oversee the contractors performing the work and promised that debris will be removed. Property owners, however, will be able to have wood chips or cut wood at no cost.

Quinlan said increased tree work will be performed in areas where there have been electrical circuits with poor performance during the past three years, major segments of circuits with a large number of customers, and sections of circuits where enhanced tree trimming has not been conducted before.

There are about 857 million trees in Connecticut and forests cover about 1.8 million acres or 58 percent of the state, according to 2007 statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the most recent available. Stepped up tree trimming was a key recommendation from the task force charged by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to review responses to the two storms. The group recommended a statewide tree risk assessment and priority schedule, focusing on hazardous trees, as well as an increase in the DOT’s tree maintenance budget.

Prior to Malloy taking office, about $500,000 was traditionally set aside each year for DOT tree-trimming efforts.

The 2012 budget boosted that figure to $1 million. Nursick said $3 million is proposed for 2013. Meanwhile, in recent weeks the agency has approximately doubled the number of tree-crew members from roughly 25 to 50 people, he said.

Those employees were busy along a section of Route 2 in Colchester last week, working with a contractor using a specialized piece of excavating equipment, nicknamed the brontosaurus, which can grind and pulverize a tree, top to bottom, in a minute or less. Besides removing trees that were compromised during the two storms, Nursick said the DOT crews are also clearing out a 30-foot zone where errant vehicles can safely run off the road.

Glenn Dreyer, director of the arboretum at Connecticut College in New London and a specialist in vegetation management and large and historic trees, acknowledged he was surprised to see the extent of trimming along Route 9, calling it “pretty dramatic.” But Dreyer said he was relieved to see that after the brontosaurus was used to shred and chip the trees, pruning crews came in to make appropriate cuts on the trees that were left.
Dreyer said there are proper ways to make a pruning cut so a tree can create a protective barrier from infection and insects.

“If they’re not pruned correctly, you kind of leave them open and exposed to that kind of problem,” he said.

Dreyer said he agrees DOT needed to catch up on its deferred maintenance of trees, some of which he said likely contributed to the various problems experienced during the two storms.

“Everybody kind of realized, whoops, we kind of let this slide,” he said.

Dreyer isn’t worried about too many trees being cut over the coming months. Ultimately, he said, the state and the utilities can only afford to do so much tree-trimming.

“There’s a lot of trees out there I don’t think we’re really going to miss,” he said. “I don’t think it will look all that bad after it leafs out.”

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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