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Trees on private land blamed for damage in study of Irene, October snowstorm

By Judy Benson

Publication: The Day

Published March 12. 2012 4:00AM

Trees on private property caused about 35 to 40 percent of the damage from Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm, a survey of town tree wardens shows.

Results of the survey are being presented today during the Connecticut Conference on Natural Resources at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Making the presentation will be Chris Donnelly, urban forestry coordinator at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Donnelly said last week that his office conducted the survey of tree wardens to quantify and better understand the effects of the two storms on the state's trees, and determine what lessons can be learned to improve tree-trimming programs to prevent the kinds of prolonged power outages that followed the two storms. Many of the outages were the result of lines downed by fallen trees and limbs.

Of the state's 171 tree wardens, each assigned to a different municipality, 71 responded to the survey.

One of the findings of the survey, he said, is that many of the outages were caused by trees on private property that were uprooted by the storm. While utilities have been criticized for a slow pace of power restoration and for not doing more tree trimming around power lines before the storms, Donnelly said, the role of trees on private property in causing damage may not have been fully appreciated.

In the case of private property trees at risk of falling, he said, "more intensive clearing by utilities around power lines isn't going to do anything," he said.

A bill pending in the state legislature is attempting to address the issue of private property trees in need of trimming or removal. It would require home insurers to establish a loan program homeowners could tap to pay for the proactive removal of hazardous trees. It would also require town tree wardens to inspect private property trees.

During a public hearing on the bill last week, several tree wardens objected to the idea of going on private property to inspect trees. A representative of the insurance industry also objected to the financial burden the bill would place on companies. DEEP also raised concerns about the bill.

"Although many of the concepts found in (the bill) have merit," DEEP Commissioner Daniel Esty said in his written testimony, "greater input from municipalities, utilities, licensed arborists and state agencies is needed to develop sound policies for roadside forest stewardship and sustainable management of private and public trees."

Donnelly said his survey also points to the need for experts to assess the condition of the state's roadside trees.

"It underscores the need for further research about our roadside forests and how trees behave in storms like these," he said.

Among questions researchers would seek to answer, he said, are: the status, condition and composition of roadside forests; why trees fail and which trees fail; and whether the methods being used to protect power lines are as effective as possible.

As spring approaches and trees bud and leaf out, Donnelly advised homeowners to check for signs of storm damage. Trees can often survive storm damage, as long as it is not excessive.

"But they should look for any excessive loss of crowns," he said. "There is also potential for diseases, because broken limbs become targets for diseases."

He also advised homeowners to move large piles of storm debris away from their homes. These can pose a fire hazard, especially during spring and summer.

Among other findings of the survey:

• During the October storm, Norway maples withstood the most severe damage, followed by sugar maples, pines, silver maples and other types of maples and spruces.

• In Tropical Storm Irene, the most damaged types were sugar maples, Norway maples, pin oaks and other oaks.

• Of the various types of tree damage, the most serious impacts were caused by uprooting, breakage of a trunk or major branch breaking off from the trunk.

• Tree damage from the October storm was rated at "extreme" by 24 percent of tree wardens who answered the survey. Another 24 percent rated it as "major," 19 percent said it was "moderate," and 33 percent characterized the damage as "minor" or "insignificant."

• Tree damage from Tropical Storm Irene was rated as "moderate" by 42 percent of respondents. Another 39 percent termed the damage "major" or "extreme," and 15 percent said it was "minor."

j.benson@theday.com

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