People, Trees, and Power: Learning How to Strike a Balance and Keep the Lights On

Connecticut residents are broadly supportive of tree management practices, but good communication is essential

A large tree limb fallen in a residential street, flanked by orange traffic cones.

A fallen tree in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Isaias in 2020. Connecticut residents are broadly supportive of efforts to manage trees and vegetation near power lines, according to new research. (Tom Breen/UConn Photo)

Within the past 10 years or so, Connecticut has seen several severe weather events that have caused widespread power outages. From Hurricane Sandy to more recent wind and ice storms, the impacts of these year-round weather events have resulted in more aggressive vegetation management strategies in the state’s picturesque roadside forests.

Since tree trimming and removal is necessary to mitigate power disruption, public perception of tree management programs is important – and these perceptions vary across the state, according to findings recently published in the journal Land.

In the paper, UConn researchers from the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources StormWise Program, UConn Extension, and the Eversource Energy Center seek to better understand the public’s perception of vegetation management programs. This information can help with public outreach, which can make the management process smoother for everyone.

“Broadly, through this project, we’re seeking to reduce the risk of tree-related storm damage to power lines,” says Anita Morzillo, Associate Professor in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment and co-author of the paper. “There are three main pieces to this — people, trees, and power. Power includes the engineering to keep the electric infrastructure working. The tree part involves long-term management of the roadside forest, which includes both storm resilience and visual aesthetics, because trees are an important part of the landscape in Connecticut. The ‘people’ part in our study involves understanding how people relate to roadside forests and vegetation management practices.”

Morzillo says the general hypothesis is that, although Connecticut is a relatively small state, there are diverse perceptions, attitudes, and social processes at play that influence public perceptions of roadside vegetation management. Morzillo points out how important it is to understand these views, since public support is important for policy measures.

“People see the tree crews working along roadsides, it’s a very visible practice and very visible activity,” she says.

The team sent out surveys to residents in four different areas of Connecticut, including the northwest, southwest, northeast, and southeast portions of the state, all representing different degrees of the urban-rural gradient. Of the nearly 2,000 completed and returned surveys, Morzillo says that responses were favorable overall toward tree management.

“One thing we noticed was the responses to our surveys suggested that people really seem to understand tradeoffs between having reliable power and maintaining trees, especially when we have to consider these big storm events,” she says.

That understanding is captured in some of the statements from respondents included in the paper: “Removing trees within a certain distance from power lines or roads, I am OK with that,” one respondent wrote. “At the same time, I also think it is important not to remove too many trees, so the state is still able to maintain healthy ecosystems and forests.”

Morzillo says the researchers were excited to see their hypothesis confirmed, and they saw diversity in perceptions spatially across the state, illustrating that variations at the local level may influence support for management policies.

“We also noticed that people’s individual relationships to trees and what they know about trees played a role in how they perceive the vegetation management process,” she says.

Connecticut is an ideal place to study these types of socio-environmental processes, says Morzillo, since much of the state is defined as exurban, consisting of low-density development coupled with over 70% forest cover. This combination yields lots of opportunities to study interactions between people and nature.

“We have the greatest proportion of what we call ‘wildland-urban interface’ compared to other states in the United States. People and nature are very interspersed here.”

Though the researchers confirmed the diversity of perceptions they had expected to see from survey respondents, Morzillo says there was a common thread; how vital it is to inform people about processes like vegetation management, and why such programs are important.

“In speaking with different members of the public, it is clear people have an affinity for trees, particularly trees on their properties. One opportunity is to provide people with more detailed information about why management is done, what is going to be done, and why it is important. This is a great example of how we’re coupling research with practical implications, in this case, vegetation management, and natural resources policy.”