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Climate change, pollution, people and age are distressing Wethersfield trees

by Joyce Rosignol

Wethersfield’s street trees are in distress.

Townspeople who treasure the big old shade trees that are so much a part of the town’s charm are sounding the alarm.

Writer Linda Case sent a letter to the editor of this paper asking

“has anyone noticed the striking loss this year of street trees in Wethersfield?”

She observed that along Wolcott Hill Road, for example,

“the stretch between Nott and Wells used to be lined on either side with oaks, ashes, elms and so on. Thus summer six or seven had to be felled.”

She also saw trees in trouble in other neighborhoods where

“it seems a lot of other mature trees are in distress.”

She suggested the town put more money into its tree program, in upkeep but particularly in planting.

Robert Garrey, president of the Wethersfield Village Improvement Association, took up the cry, writing to the town council that WVIA members also had noticed and were concerned about the apparent loss of trees.

He reminded the council that the WVIA donates a tree to the town every Arbor Day, nine new cherry trees on Cumberland Avenue, seven new street trees on Church and five at Emerson Williams School. He recalled that through the WVIA a few years ago about 50 new trees were donated to the updated landscaping of the Pitkin Community Center.

He asked that the council “ensure a responsible process to manage the tree inventory and to ensure our future as a Tree City USA community.

Tree Warden John Lepper responds that many of the town’s trees are getting older, particularly in Old Wethersfield, and

“like us when they get old they get weak in structure. Public health, safety and welfare drive the train. If a tree looks like it’s going to be a danger to people or property you have to remove it.”

He also has seen that some trees are suffering from climate change which is

“having an effect, For example, maples, which are a cool climate tree, are stressed by these hot spells we have in the summertime. We’ve noticed a fair decline in Norway maples. Nobody gets upset because they are considered an invasive plant, but it’s part of the urban forest that’s being diminished.”

And pollutants are a problem. Mr. Lepper said,

“Sugar maples have been struggling for years now because they are susceptible to salt and other pollutants along the roadways.”

“We’ve also noticed with maple trees in recent years, we get temps in the 90s and the humidity too and on clear calm days, trees will start to lose branches which just break off and hit the ground. The tree is trying to cool itself . There is a lot of hydraulic pressure inside the trees that is moving fluids around and if there is a slight weakness it will find it and fail.”

He said another problem is people.

“There is a conflict between trees and people who hit them with lawn mowers, weed whackers. Cars driving over tree roots. And people for some reason take it upon themselves to prune our town trees and most of the time don’t know what they are doing and wind up damaging the tree.”

All that adds to the early demise of the town’s trees a number of which are, in fact, old anyway.

What Can Be Done?

Mr Lepper says the critics are correct. The town’s tree department, though professional and dedicated, does not have enough manpower to do the maintenance needed to keep the trees healthy.

“Any trees we plant should be re-examined two years after planting and have corrective pruning done and so forth, if that’s not done you wind up with problems down the road,” he said.

“If we are to continue to be a Tree City we have to spend some money to take care of the trees; they just don’t take care of themselves.”

In fact it has been Mr. Lepper who applied for the Tree City designation for Wethersfield which has been awarded again this year. He also submits the tree-care budget to the town.

“We have to spend $3 per capita on trees to be a Tree City USA,” he said. “That is the minimum.”

As for new plantings, he said all the trees the town plants are paid for by donors, including the Village Improvement Association. The town does not budget for new trees.

He said he is rethinking planting street trees.

“A lot of people think it’s right to have a tree planted in front of their house. But often times it’s not suitable: the snow shelf isn’t wide enough, utilities are in the was. People would do better to plant their own trees back from the street.”

And, again, there is the safety issue.

He said,

“There’s been a suggestion from the federal highway administration to keep the tree belt cleared back 10 to 12 feet because people run off the road and hit trees, so for safety it’s recommended they be set back. You notice on Jordan Lane the DOT has cut back from the travel lane. On Wells as trees die and they take them out, they’re not putting them back. And you’ve got the utilities to be concerned about. We are getting more violent storms with the possibility of trees taking out utility lines.”

He said he understands that a number of good tree-loving people speaking from their heart want trees put back out beside the road.

But there is a risk in that and part of the tree warden’s job is risk management.

The tree warden said,

“Last July we started a program of storm proofing the highways and roads. We are not going after healthy trees. But we cut back trees we felt were going to be potential problems. We might have said let them go a couple of years and see what happens.”

“But as a result of this program in the year we just closed out we had no road blockages or power outages as a result of trees. In this year fiscal year we’ve had two, but both on a street we’d not done yet.”

Trees Get Old

Mr. Lepper said,

“There is a category of baby boomer trees in housing developments build after World War II down in Old Wethersfield. In the Hubbard community they had a couple of trees infront of every house. Look at the age of those trees now. They’re getting to the end.”

“You got a tree that is getting into its 70s; it’s really old. In the forest it might live to be 100. But when you put them on the street you are putting it in an unnatural environment. It’s got to struggle to stay alive, not just here in Wethersfield. Everywhere.”

“It sounds bleak, but it’s not really. It has to have more thought and planning in it. When I started 15 years ago there were a lot of ash trees; they all died. At one point the town bought some dogwoods and put them out on the street. For various reasons we’ve had to take those out, site line problems, outright failing.

“A lot of people think you put a tree in the ground it lasts forever, but it’s a living, breathing thing and you have to treat them as such.

“It’s hard trying to find the trees that are going to make it, now and in the future. Our climate is getting so much warmer.

“Maybe we should try mimosas.”

Wethersfield LIFE Nov. 2007

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