Published July 30. 2014 4:00AM
Storrs — Connecticut's miles of tree-lined roads are for many residents a favorite feature of the state's landscape, and Thomas Worthley agrees these shady corridors are beautiful.
But, he believes, a developed place like Connecticut shouldn't continue to coexist with so much forest without managing it wisely.
"The untended forest tends to grow in very densely, like an unweeded garden," said Worthley, assistant extension professor at the University of Connecticut. "All these woods have developed during our lifetimes, with virtually no attention whatsoever."
Nearby, a slender, 100-foot beech swayed gently in the light summer breeze passing through the UConn forest. Attached to the tree were wires connected to a sensor mounted on a stump several feet away. The device was measuring how the beech and a dozen other trees near power lines through the forest moved with wind, logging the direction and extent of the tilt.
With graduate assistant Amanda Bunce, Worthley last week explained how this site and others around the state in the Stormwise project are being used to accumulate data and test some basic forestry management principles to help Connecticut become less prone to power outages when the next big storm hits. The purpose of Stormwise, a project of UConn's Department of Natural Resources and the Environment and the School of Engineering, the state, the state's two biggest utilities and the U.S. Forest Service, is to foster more resilient border woodlands 100 feet on either side of power lines, the source of the vast majority of fallen limbs that cause outages.
"During the recent storms, over 90 percent of the power outages were caused by trees," said Worthley, referring to Tropical Storm Irene, the October snowstorm of 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
"And," added Bunce, as she opened the sensor to show the monitor, recording the trees' movements every 10 seconds, "50 percent of that 90 percent was entire trees falling over."
Stormwise was created, Worthley explained, as part of the state's response to the widespread storm damage, when experts realized that there was no good research about how to make Eastern hardwood forests more "wind firm." At the UConn site and at about a half-dozen others around the state with different mixes of tree species and habitats, trees are being selectively thinned to give remaining ones more room to grow and develop stronger roots, fatter trunks and sturdier crowns. Changes in how the remaining trees move and grow after diseased and weak, older trees are culled, as well as differences in response to the wind in different seasons, are being monitored.
At the UConn site, for example, the data shows the remaining trees have shifted the main direction of their movement in the wind since the forest was thinned. Eventually, there will be eight Stormwise research sites statewide, Worthley said, including one at a site in New London County yet to be determined.
"There are three very basic ideas," Worthley said, pausing by the stump of an enormous white oak felled a year ago for the project and sold for lumber, the proceeds reinvested in Stormwise. "The first is that a tree with plenty of space to grow is going to be a healthier tree. The second is that trees will develop towards the light, so they will tend to fall towards the power line corridor" because that's the open area where the sunlight penetrates.
The third principle, he said, is that trees will become stronger and more wind-resistant if they're exposed to the wind as they grow. In other words, trees crowded together in a woodland will be more vulnerable to strong hurricane gusts than those that have developed from saplings to mature trees unprotected from daily doses of average winds.
"But the devil is in the details," Worthley said. "Every spot will look different."
Wetter red maple-sugar maple forests, he explained, are being thinned and managed differently from the drier oak-hickory UConn forest site. There will also be differences in recommended spacing between trees depending on the average ages and sizes of the particular species at various sites. The thinning along the power line corridors, he added, would be done in 15- to 20-year intervals.
Another part of Stormwise is to develop markets for the wood being cut from these areas. That, he said, entails identifying trees suitable for sale as lumber versus those valuable only as firewood. Municipalities, utilities, the state and private owners of forests along power lines would be encouraged to recoup the costs of managing the forests from the wood sales.
"The big, big challenge," Worthley said, "will be to foster a Stormwise community."
Public education about the need to manage border forests, he said, is a main part of the Stormwise mission. There is often public resistance to cutting down trees, particularly large older ones people have become attached to seeing.
"Trees do get old, and they do get defective, and there comes a time when the old dog needs to be put down, I hate to say it," he said. "Part of our public education program will be working with local towns and conservation commissions on encouraging the planting of new trees" that grow shorter and are more suited to power line corridors.
Worthley and other Stormwise experts will begin taking their message on the road this fall, when they offer their first "Tree Sanity" workshop on Stormwise principles to the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments. Based in Essex, the council comprises 17 Connecticut River-area towns including Lyme, Old Lyme and Old Saybrook.
"After that, we'll go statewide," he said. "We want to focus on what we're trying to create here, rather than what we're trying to lose."
Ultimately, he believes, the Stormwise approach will benefit not only the state's roadside forests, enabling them to be healthier and more storm resistant, but also households and businesses that won't be as prone to lose power in the next big storm.
"I would like to think that would save money for ratepayers as well as utilities," he said.