Trees in New England are in trouble

Drought, insects are causing many to weaken and fall over

DESPITE THE RECENT RAIN, most of New England remains in the throes of a persistent drought – including an extreme drought in Boston and surrounding areas. For many, droughts may immediately conjure images of burned-out lawns or raise concerns about wells drying up and economic impacts on industries like agriculture or travel and tourism. But drought also takes a harmful toll on our trees, which – even beyond the lumber industry – can affect every resident and visitor in our region.

While this year’s abnormally dry conditions have had a devastating impact on our trees, the challenges are only further exacerbated by the successive annual droughts in recent years that have also greatly stressed our trees, as well as the infestations by insects like the Emerald Ash Borer and Spongy Moth.

Because of these cumulative drought conditions and the persistent presence of invasive insects, the number of dead, dying, and hazardous trees across the region continues to increase, posing wide-ranging challenges to all our communities. At ever-present risk of coming down – even in the absence of the regular strong winds we’re accustomed to in New England – these trees can cause public safety concerns, including blocked roads during storms, while also threatening treasured local historic and cultural resources and the fall foliage season that is cherished in every corner of our region.

Dead, dying, and hazardous trees also pose a significant risk to electric reliability, with trees being the number one cause of power outages across our service territory at Eversource (even when we’re not in the midst of a drought and our trees are healthy). In fact, as home to some of the most forested states in the country, tree failure is responsible for 90 percent of outages during storms in the forested Northeast, according to a recent report published by the Eversource Energy Center at the University of Connecticut.

As the largest utility in New England, we know that managing the state’s many dead and dying trees to help prevent power outages, enhance public safety, and nurture this treasured natural resource requires partnership and is a shared responsibility with our states, our communities, and many others as well – including individual property owners.

At the heart of those efforts, we focus year-round on our comprehensive vegetation management program that is annually planned in close coordination with communities across all three states we serve (Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire). We regularly perform maintenance to clear branches, trees, and other vegetation that cause outages or are public safety concerns and implement those plans along thousands of overhead distribution and transmission lines across our service territory each year. Importantly, these programs are designed to balance preserving the many benefits and natural beauty that trees provide with the need for safe and reliable power. And recognizing that different trees play different roles in different communities, we work directly with each of our communities to address specific, local needs.

But individual property owners can also help by understanding their responsibility to maintain their own trees, including keeping branches away from the lower-voltage service wires connecting homes and businesses to the main utility lines, and choosing to plant the appropriate low-growing species in proximity to the power lines.

Importantly, anyone can also look for these signs of tree stress on their property:

  • Thinning of the crown
  • Early foliage loss or color changes
  • Presence of mushrooms near the base of the tree

That’s why we’re asking our customers, if they see any of these telltale signs of drought-induced tree stress, to call a certified arborist to assess them and provide advice on the best actions to take to revitalize or – in some cases – remove their tree. By improving the health of their trees, property owners can help prevent tree-related damage, as well as enhance the aesthetics and value of their property. And by working to recognize the signs of dead and hazardous trees and planting the right tree in the right place, we can all help address drought-induced tree stress together.

Stephen Driscoll is the vice president of operation services at Eversource.