COVENTRY — Tens of thousands of dead oak trees that succumbed to years of severe gypsy moth defoliation are now beginning to lose their smaller branches, and soon, larger branches and entire trees will fall, causing a widespread threat to homes, roads and power lines.
In an effort to stay ahead of what could become an expensive and dangerous situation, National Grid and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation have been removing dead trees near state roads and power lines. They need the cooperation of municipalities to help with the monumental task, so they invited officials from cities and towns throughout Rhode Island to a workshop in Coventry — a dead tree summit of sorts.
In attendance Tuesday were about 40 administrators and public works representatives, including several from Hopkinton and Richmond. The towns don’t have the money in their budgets to remove all their dead tress, and Hopkinton Town Council President Frank Landolfi said he was also concerned about the frequency of power outages in his town.
“We typically lose a lot more power these days and I need to know what’s going on and how we can try and mitigate it as a town,” he said. “I’m hopeful that I’ll learn a lot today, and hopefully, there’ll be a plan in place so we can plan for it, budget for it and figure something out.”
National Grid Forestry Supervisor Chris Rooney said the utility regularly trims each circuit, or power line, every four years. National Grid is currently using satellite photos of areas of dead trees and laying circuit maps over them to determine which lines serve the largest populations and also face the greatest threat from falling trees.
Rooney pointed to a map showing the new Chase Hill substation in Ashaway to illustrate why National Grid needed help from the towns.
“This circuit is 84 miles, 186 dead trees that are going to impact the wires — on one circuit,” he said. “This circuit, it’s not in our work plan. It’s not in our four-year cycle. This is going to be where we all of have to get together and find out where our work plans are, together, where the damage is, together, so we can get it right.”
DEM Forest Health Program Coordinator Paul Ricard presented an overveiew of the extent of the gypsy moth defoliation problem. Ricard does aerial surveys and also uses satellite imagery to assess the health of Rhode Island’s forest canopy.
“You can see how patchwork the defoliation is,” he said, showing an aerial photograph of the forest. “So that’s why sometimes, you might talk to somebody and they say ‘There’s nothing going on on my property’ and you go a quarter of a mile and it’s like nuclear winter.”
Ricard showed a map of the state prepared in 2017 that shows the areas where defoliation has occurred. The devastation is widespread, affecting almost all of the state’s forests.
“We estimated that there was a total of about 354,000 acres defoliated in 2017, and we consider our forested areas to be about 370,000 acres,” he said. “So it was nearly the entire forested area that was impacted in some way.”
After two or more years of defoliation, the trees, most of them oaks, have died.
“This September, I did an aerial survey and this is what I saw then: tens of thousands of acres of mortality,” Ricard said.
John Campanini, technical adviser for the nonprofit Rhode Island Tree Council, said changes in weather, specifically wet springs followed by hot, dry summers, had also been detrimental. Tree roots require moisture and soil temperatures of between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit in order to develop, he said.
“We’re getting some really decent rain in the spring, but then all of a sudden, the summers…just fall away below their average monthly precipitation…I believe that this has really triggered some of the mortality we’re seeing,” he said.
Rooney said National Grid would be asking for the towns’ help with traffic details, identifying dead trees and cleaning up the wood from felled trees. There is no time to waste, because the trees could fall at any time, not just during storms.
“As these trees, over the course of next summer, start falling apart, they’re going to fall apart on blue sky, nice, dry, 76-degree days,” Rooney said. “So everybody’s talking about storm prep — this is everyday prep.”
The work will begin in earnest in the spring, and Richmond Public Works Director Scott Barber said he was optimistic that the towns, the state and National Grid would be able to work together.
“The initial meetings we’ve had with the Grid have been very positive, so we anticipate that the partnership is just going to get stronger as the problem gets bigger, because we have to do something to address it,” he said. “For anyone to ignore it and not work together, then they’re not doing their job.”