The shady Fairfield street where I moved my family two decades ago is slowly disappearing. Since our arrival, I count five trees total gone from the 100-yard stretches to either side of my home. If I draw a circle with that radius, the number is 14. This past winter the town removed a mature maple from the nearby corner, its trunk three feet in diameter. Disease required a handful of these cut-downs, new construction demanded a few more. I believe climate change caused many of the others.
The wind is stronger these days, its visits more frequent, its rain heavier. The strident beep of the National Weather Service was a rare interruption to television shows when I was young. I only recall three occasions when we lost power. Now, warnings of violent disturbances scroll across the TV with regularity. The lights go black once or twice a year. When they do, portable generators rattle to life throughout the neighborhood. People’s preparedness testifies to the new normal.
Recent studies support my sense of change. A 2014 study by Climate Central found that major outages (those affecting more than 50,000 customers) increased by a factor of 10 from the mid-’80s to 2012. From 2003 to 2012 blackouts caused by weather doubled. A 2020 analysis showed a 67 percent increase in weather-related major outages since 2000.
Regardless of whether this report convinces you that human behavior is generating more potent storms, the new attitude toward trees seems undeniable, at least for municipalities, and certainly for power companies. The oak and ash are now a threat. After hurricanes Irene and Sandy roared through our state, customers of United Illuminating and Connecticut Light & Power (today known as Eversource) endured lengthy losses of service. In response to the complaints provoked by those delays, the utilities began campaigns to eradicate any dead wood overhanging their lines. The maple we lost did show signs of disease in some limbs but the trunk was unblemished. I’ve come to believe that the guiding principle is, “When in doubt, chainsaw to the ground.”
In this same period, both providers cut their maintenance crews. A study by the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, as reported in August 2020 by the Connecticut Post, found that in 2016, CL&P employed 21 percent fewer line and craft workers than in 2011. In 2017, UI employed 5 percent fewer. These are the workers who restore power after an outage. The same article states that after those reductions CL&P’s net annual income rose $111 million from 2015 to 2019. Avangrid did not post numbers for its subsidiary UI, but financial statements for the parent company show a $179 million increase in the same period.
The corporate thinking seems clear: the best, i.e., most profitable, response to a more hostile environment is to remove as many leafy hazards as possible.
Government entities face the same reality and appear to have reached the same conclusion.
After the 2012 hurricane, the state Department of Transportation began a years long effort to clear 30-foot margins around the Merritt Parkway. When area residents and conservancy groups complained, the agency countered that they were taking up maintenance neglected for the past three decades. More importantly, they cited the higher rate of tree-related fatalities on Route 15 to comparable state roads. Drivers’ safety is of paramount concern when discussing highways, but I do mourn what we lost. Before, the Merritt felt like a natural cathedral, the miles traveled on it a retreat from my hectic day. Now the commute on 15 is the same as any other.
Though on a lesser scale, a similar transformation is occurring in my town. Once shaded streets are now sun-drenched. The change is happening gradually. On a frequent route, I see a tree is gone. Weeks later, another on a different corner. It’s always sad to lose a longtime pillar of the community even when necessary because of rot or damage. Only recently have I realized how these excisions are redrawing the face of my home.
The agenda to keep us safe from our swaying neighbors appears ill conceived to me. They are effective allies against climate change. “Trees Pay Us Back,” a U.S. Forest Service brochure declares, stating that 100 trees remove 53 tons of carbon dioxide and 430 pounds of other air pollutants each year. They prevent 139,000 gallons of rainwater runoff along with the accompanying soil erosion. Properly placed shade saves up to 56 percent per season in air-conditioning costs, 3 percent from heating. This translates to less power plant emissions. Shoppers say that business districts with leafy cover entice them to visit more often, stay longer, and spend more. An analysis by the University of Adelaide in Australia found that in Los Angeles, the protection of a cypress lowers air temperature by 1 to 8 degrees Celsius. In Fahrenheit, that means up to 20 degrees cooler. The same green canopy can reduce wind speeds by 10 percent. These benefits surely occur here. In July and August, I would rather stand beneath our sycamore than in the grass beyond its reach.
Weather patterns are evolving. We must all evaluate the safety of our own surroundings. Just miles from me, a 2019 storm killed a man when a branch crashed through his car in his driveway. The dangers are real. Nevertheless, I believe they have blinded us to the aid which these grand sentries deliver and the comfort they bring daily to our lives. I moved to a storybook New England town, its streets dappled with shadows from overarching limbs. Fairfield is still a wonderful place to live, but it is not the place that enchanted me back then. What has been lost needs decades to replace. You who have lived long in your own villages, when you think back, is the home of your memories the one you inhabit now? And if not, do you regret the change?