Tree Trimming Efforts Increase After Five Years of Storms Teach Utilities a Lesson

Snow flurries showed up in the forecast this week. Two years ago, it was a Halloween snow storm that hit much of the Northeast, with wet snow weighing down and toppling trees knocking out power lines and causing transformers to “explode.”

Millions of people lost electricity for days and some for weeks. Several utilities were fined record million dollar penalties for their failure to prepare for and respond to the October 2011 storm, and Irene, a few months earlier.

Given the unpredictable nature of weather, the companies are doing all they can to not get caught by surprise again. That includes doubling, sometimes tripling their “vegetation management plans.”

On a clear and cold autumn morning this week, tree cutter Joseph Rondeau has strapped himself into a bucket attached to a mechanical arm that takes him 70 feet in the air.

“I use a chainsaw for cutting stuff… snap cutting, and I use a hand saw for anything that could potentially hit the wire. I cut it back,” he says.

Rondeau is taking down a 150-year-old sugar maple on Sunset street in Amherst, Mass. It’s leaning heavily toward the power lines that run several blocks in length.

Rondeau works for Asplundh. Their orange trucks are synonymous with the sound of a chain saw.  Western Massachusetts Electric Company (WMECo) hired Asplundh to take down the mostly dead tree, sitting on Amherst town property.  It’s not the only one to go as the end of October nears. Rondeau says with any of the work he does, he always starts at the bottom.

“I’ve taken out all the bottom shelf on it, and I’m working my way toward the top so that way when I cut something from the top and I let it go to the ground, it doesn’t bounce off and hit somebody.”

WMECo is one of several utilities in western Massachusetts. It has 3400 miles of its own distribution lines to maintain. Its chief arborist, Calvin Layton, says along that stretch there’s maybe 2 million trees under his watch. Every single one needs to be addressed individually, he says. It’s a heck of a customer relations undertaking.

“We will not take a tree down unless we have permission to do it,” Layton says. “And so we have to find the owner of the tree and get his permission to remove it. The only time we don’t do that is when it imminently is going to fall and hurt somebody. Then we’ll just go ahead and safely remove it.”

There are some infamous stories from other parts of the country, about tree huggers  – and by that we mean people who are actually hugging trees – threatening and blocking crews from doing their work. 

Around here, Layton says, since the storms have been coming fast and furious, tree owners tend to be more cooperative -even gracious – in most cases.

“Homeowners and towns like their tree lined streets. They’re very important to the aesthetics of the community. We like our wires to stay up in the air,” he says. “So there’s this very healthy tension between us.”

Several WMECo customers back that up, including Hal Rosenthal, in Hadley, Massachusetts. He says WMECo came by his house recently, left a card in the door and then followed up with a visit.

“So they wanted to trim some of the trees and I had a large oak tree about 15 feet from the road that they said was looking like it was dying off. And they offered to take that tree down,” Rosenthal says.

Rosenthal was mostly satisfied with the work done. But he thought the trimming looked a little funny.

“As you approach the house you would see a couple of large trees that almost had an “L” cut into them. And I was a little bit surprised about how they did that,” he says.

But, Rosenthal adds, WMECo was open to his criticism.

WMECo is a private utility, like Northeast Utilities and CT Light and Power.  Some cities, like Westfield, Mass., have public utilities, where the board and line crews are mostly local.  Westfield Gas and Electric’s Sean Fitzgerald says that makes the buy-in for tree maintenance even easier.

“I think that when you have a municipally owned utility, that the community is very much woven into the fabric of your employee base. In fact, the majority of your employees are living next door to the customers who have the outage,” Fitzgerald says.

Utilities are so careful about how they manage individual trees, under distribution lines. But when it comes to managing vegetation under the taller transmission lines, the method is more sweeping.

This summer, Massachusetts State Rep. Chris Walsh got a call from someone in his town of Framingham saying that the utility NSTAR was cutting trees, right down to the earth.

“They brought in a logging company – fascinating machines that would grab these huge trees, grab it with one arm and then another arm would come out and a saw blade would saw it off in two seconds, and then go on to the next one,” Welch says. “So it was pretty stunning and pretty horrible to watch in a lot of ways.”

Through legislation, Walsh is pushing utilities to think more creatively, even consulting with landscape architects to create a view that residents can live with, but also gives utilities access to those major power lines.

WMECo arborist Calvin Layton – who clearly loves trees and early on in his career wanted to be a forest ranger – says taking down a beauty like the sixty-foot sugar maple on Sunset Street causes him some distress. But his bottom line is, you can’t plant a tree that will grow sixty feet tall under a thirty-five-foot wire.

“It hurts – one, that people never took care of trees, in the first place, to keep them healthy,” he says. “And then if they had been taken care of, maybe I wouldn’t have had to take them down. But on the other side, trees get old and die.”

And that’s something as inevitable as the snow that will fly this coming winter. Or sooner.