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Utilities, Communities and Urban Trees: Tree Conference 2017

Stockbridge Hall, UMass Amherst campus
March 13, 2017

Nearly 200 arborists, professors, town officials, utility employees and students attended this year’s tree conference held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on March 7.

While they came to learn about current tree issues of importance to communities (such as pests and diseases), the main emphasis of the day was on partnerships between communities and utilities.  This topic was chosen as a result of last year’s survey requesting input from arborists on their preferred focus.

Moderators for the day were Rick Harper, assistant extension professor of environmental conservation and David Bloniarz, adjunct faculty at UMass and USDA Forest Service.

Morning discussions concentrated on issues such as design solutions for sustainable streets. This included an overview of the benefits of trees in urban settings: to cool down heat islands, decrease wind speeds, increase property values, decrease air pollution and more.  Attendees were encouraged to take into consideration the tree canopy at full height when designing a tree scape around overhead electrical wires. 

The UMass Arboriculture/Urban Forestry Program reported that there is currently a widespread shortage of graduate employees in the urban forestry arboriculture sector. Program faculty are hopeful that the high demand for skilled graduates combined with UMass outreach initiatives like the summer pre-college program, will help to increase enrollment numbers that have been declining for several decades.

Calvin Layton, Eversource senior arborist, discussed ways to enhance public safety and protect trees from the utility’s perspective. His first point, and a theme throughout his presentation, was that he serves customers. His job is to provide a safe and reliable source of electricity. However, that mission can sometimes be at odds with other needs of people and neighborhoods. For example, the need to remove tree branches, or entire trees, when electrical wires are competing for the same space can result in conflict if is not thoughtfully explained. Layton described two common key areas of difficulty: aesthetics (the value of tree-lined streets) and preservation (personal attachment or a tree planted by a relative or as a memorial, as two typical examples). Layton places great emphasis on building proactive relationships, identifying stakeholders and building dialog before a major project.  He prefers creating solutions up front.  A good example of a current issue surrounds the life span of a Norway maple tree. Layton offered public education around the challenges of tree-shaded streets once lined by tall graceful elm trees. When Dutch elm disease required their removal 50 years ago, they were frequently replaced with Norway maple trees. Not only were these maple trees found to be invasive, they also have a life span of 40 to 50 years. And we have arrived at that milestone. These fully mature trees, many of which are beginning to rot, can pose a threat to wires, sidewalks, and homes. A solution is to tag the trees for removal, have discussions with the neighborhoods about the need for removal and work with local DPW’s to re-plant appropriate trees: the right tree for the right space.

Alan Snow, tree warden in Amherst, presented the community perspective of working with utilities to enhance public safety and protect (or remove) trees.  Snow said Massachusetts has a long history of protecting public shade trees, being the first state to do so. As is typical of cities and towns today, Amherst is no exception in having a small staff to manage all tree-related issues.  They spend most of the time responding to calls with little time for tree care such as proper fertilizing, watering and pruning. Snow is grateful for a healthy working partnership with utility companies. Communities benefit greatly from their expertise, from working closely with certified arborists to receiving assistance when mitigating issues. For example, just two months into 2017, Eversource has already removed 80 trees at risk. Communities do not have resources for taller bucket trucks and other specialized equipment, making utility companies especially valued partners in urban tree care and maintenance.

Sponsors of this year’s conference: UMass Extension, UMass Amherst Department of Environmental Conservation, USDA Forest Service Urban Natural Resources Institute and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Community & Economic Vitality
Environmental Conservation