Driving down a Connecticut road with a canopy of green overhead delights Connecticut residents. But when a storm strikes, those same trees frustrate residents by blocking roads and causing power outages. Connecticut is the fourth most densely populated state in the union, and with 75% of the land covered by trees, power outages frequently occur. Tom Worthley, with team members in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (NRE), are working to make a difference with a program called “Stormwise.”
Stormwise is more than just a tree and forest management program, with a goal of making roadside forests more “wind firm.” Researching tree biomechanics is a key element of the Stormwise initiative, as is applying latest remote sensing technologies to understand landscape factors. A social science component of Stormwise helps develop appropriate outreach messages to stakeholder groups.
Stormwise vegetation management combines arboricultural and silvicultural techniques in innovative ways to address four key concepts. First, a tree with plenty of space to grow is healthier. Second, trees crowns and branches develop toward light, and develop lean towards the power line corridor. Third, trees become stronger and more wind-resistant if exposed to wind as they grow. And fourth, growing the right tree in the right place is within our control. Roadside woods can be managed for natural resistance to wind damage through judicious thinning of unhealthy and unsuitable specimens, and providing desirable trees with plenty of space to grow in a balanced and wind-firm manner.
“When our society first started stringing wires on poles, the forest in Connecticut was young,” Tom says. “Wires on poles were okay, but now the forest is older, and taller and it’s never been managed, like an un-weeded garden on the roadside. The power infrastructure has not changed, but roadside forests have matured. We can manage roadside forests for the right species mix, age structure and density for wind-resistance, as an alternative to simply trimming or clearing trees away.” Tom conducts vegetation management trials and outreach. Each forest area is managed according to its individual characteristics, with a focus on the four Stormwise principles. Answering questions like whether a tree will move differently if you give it space determines which trees are best for retaining in the roadside forest.
Three research sites study tree biomechanics, and eight sites have vegetation management projects. Fieldwork is being done at the UConn Forest, on state land in Coventry, on the UConn Torrington campus, on water company land in Orange, and with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES) on a variety of sites in each county. North Haven and Haddam are conducting pilot projects in which wood from roadside tree removals is recovered for log or chip markets, with proceeds from sales benefitting the towns.
Graduate students have collected three years of data on the motion of trees using sensors. At other sites, students identify trees to preserve, helping to create a multi-age condition in the forest. Vegetation management work is being done with a crew of student labor.
Public education about the need to manage roadside forests and plant shorter trees near power lines is a key part of the Stormwise mission. The challenge is the multitude of communities and stakeholders involved, including landowners, utility crews, elected officials and tree wardens. Everyone needs to be on board for Stormwise to be effective.
“Power outages would be shorter with Stormwise management techniques,” Tom says. “And roadside woods could be managed from the ground every 15 to 20 years instead of from a bucket truck every 4 or 5 years.
“My role is making connections for people, and providing technical assistance,” Tom continues. “For instance, I am teaching tree crews to look at trees for other product purposes.” The proceeds of timber sales can help to cover the cost of Stormwise management. Landowners and towns can also recoup costs.
As part of the public education process, Tom is working with social scientist Dr. Anita Morzillo of NRE to gather information about target audiences, and develop effective messages. They are seeking early adopters in communities to continue work with demonstration sites.
“The first big challenge was logistical work with the students as they tested management approaches,” Tom says. “Now Stormwise is ready to take to community groups.
“In an ideal world, trouble spots will be converted into more wind resistant conditions,” Tom concludes. “Each spot will be different, but we want fewer power outages caused by trees – our goal is to cut that number in half.”