The success of the utility arboretum at UMass spawned developments at Hooksett, New Hampshire, with ongoing discussions about a utility arboretum in Connecticut.
Photos provided by Michael A. Dirr and Eversource

A campus tree walk in 2014 at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst — where I received my Ph.D. in 1972 — brought together arborists, horticulturists, landscape architects, nurserymen and tree lovers. I enjoy leading these close encounters of the tree kind, for the interaction among participants is a teaching/learning/sharing opportunity. Once the group becomes acclimated, the depth of tree knowledge flows like an artesian well. Such was the situation on July 25 with Todd Cournoyer, head of landscape management at UMass, and Robert (Bob) Allen, vegetation manager at Eversource Energy, which supplies power to Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire. Bob is a UMass graduate in arboriculture and manages the vegetation management program at Eversource, which maintains over 40,000 miles of power lines and more than 450 contracted tree crews. Bob is responsible for the Massachusetts and New Hampshire programs. Massachusetts has very strong public shade tree laws and by statute requires that each town have a tree warden. The tree warden is responsible for the health, maintenance and welfare of the trees that are growing in the public right-of-way, often known as a tree belt. This is usually where the overhead electric lines exist as well, so the relationship between Eversource arborists and the tree wardens is an important one. The interaction/intersection of trees and utility lines, the good and bad, is part of Bob’s everyday juggling responsibilities.

Stephen Driscoll, vice president of operations services at Eversource, kicks off a training exercise at the utility arboretum.

His stance is that customers love their trees, but less so when electricity is compromised. During the campus tree walk, he jumped into the discussion about tree selection and pulled a bookmark with pictures and text of 10 small trees his company recommends for use under utility lines. Eversource spends $200 million per year on tree care, including maintenance, pruning and tree removal, and another $20 million clearing rights-of-way/main transmission line areas. The company’s goal is to reduce these costs by proper tree planting and care. Customers demand trees, so why not accommodate with the best choices.

An idea takes root

This idea of a utility arboretum emerged from this serendipitous encounter of tree aficionados and was eventually carried to completion by Bob and his company who understood the economic and public relations logic for such a facility. Bob had worked with the Community Forest Advisory Council of New Hampshire and the United States Forest Service to create a much smaller utility arboretum at the Urban Forestry Center in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a few years earlier. That had come about after an historic windstorm decimated the mature spruce forest at the Urban Forestry Center. PSNH (an Eversource predecessor company) installed two poles and 150 feet of non-energized wire as a demonstration site for planting the “right tree in the right place.” The Community Forest Advisory Council worked together with Eversource to select and plant 10 trees that could co-exist with overhead electric lines. When the merger took place to create Eversource — an all-hands meeting of the vegetation management group was held in Portsmouth at the Urban Forestry Center. Bob’s new leadership team, headed by Vera Admore-Sakyi, director vegetation management at Eversource, was impressed by the utility arboretum and challenged Bob to expand on the idea in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

For 32 years, he has managed trees and wires through the vagaries of New England weather, at times living in his office to coordinate storm repair and cleanup. He is also a dedicated gardener, continually sourcing new trees for his New Hampshire garden. We bonded during this first meeting and shared ideas about how to develop the utility arboretum. My wife, Bonnie, called us brothers from another mother. In fact, Bob and his wife, Loring, visited Athens in December 2017 where we spent days visiting nurseries, talking trees and strategizing how to bring the idea to reality.

Prunus incisa ‘Little Twist’ in bloom at the arboretum. To the left of ‘Little Twist’ is Amur Maackia. In the background are mature trees that are used for utility trimming training.

Eversource vegetation management was now a part of operations services which was led by Stephen J. Driscoll, Eversource vice president. Also, part of operations services was the Eversource training department. The training group was moving their facilities to the Eversource main campus in Berlin, Connecticut, which meant that old poles, wires, transformers and other equipment would be scrapped. Bob worked with the training department leadership to have that equipment repurposed to the UMass site. An ancillary benefit to this was that apprentice line workers would perform the tearing down and then the construction of this demonstration site. Since there would be seven poles and over 1,000 feet of de-energized wire, it allowed the apprentices to experience this construction in training mode as it was not a “live line.” The fact that the construction was educational for the apprentice line workers and that it was taking place at a university with the goal of education of students, landscape architects, contractors, tree wardens and industry professionals added to the synergy. Eversource believed that this was an ideal gateway to a conversation about trying new tree species and cultivars under and adjacent to the lines. If we could have an easily accessible site, in partnership with the highly regarded University of Massachusetts, then we could work together with the industry to show underutilized species that would reduce maintenance costs for Eversource and the towns.

A public/private partnership

Previously there were utility company-sponsored tree evaluations mediated/managed by academics in Ohio, Minnesota and Virginia, and possibly other states. How would this be different? Eversource would partner with UMass, Stockbridge School of Agriculture, the arboriculture program, faculty, staff, students and nurseries to replicate transmission lines, poles and transformers for student training. The idea was to develop best management practices for tree selection/care in the utility environment. Research and evaluation of new trees and large shrubs under and adjacent to the wires would run concurrently. Professor Brian Kane and his students would collect data on growth rates, storm damage, ornamental features (for example, excess messy fruit), pests and diseases. Bob and I crafted a working list of some 55 species that fit a “30 under 30” umbrella — trees under 30 feet tall that would fit under 30-foot power lines. The initial list dated April 12, 2015 has undergone several revisions, especially as new cultivars were included. Amherst, Massachusetts, is Zone 5/6 and we selected most species for hardiness, but we went far afield and included Lagerstroemia (crapemyrtle) as an outlier.

The future home of the utility arboretum in 2015.
The utility arboretum at UMass in 2019, which serves as a teaching tool for power companies, cities, counties, nurseries, landowners and managers, landscape contractors and designers, and consumers. The arboretum helps develop best management practices for tree selection/care in the utility environment.

The concept continued to crystallize, yet we still needed a location for the arboretum. Enter UMass, where a seldom-utilized gravel road on the north side of campus at the Wysocki Farm presented the perfect solution. In October 2015, Cournoyer managed the site cleanup and Bob brought several arboriculture companies to remove all extraneous vegetation. The many moving parts (UMass administration, campus landscape management, faculty, Eversource) worked seamlessly and symbiotically to complete the project. Sixty trees and shrubs were planted by students, contractors, Eversource arborists and by Todd’s staff during successive springs in 2017 and 2018. Professional signage showcased and explained the purpose of the arboretum. A list of trees and shrubs, along with a poster that featured photos and characteristics, was installed. Eversource produced copies of the poster to distribute at arboriculture and nursery conferences, as well as to cities and citizens groups.

“Eversource believes strongly in communicating ‘the right tree in the right place’ to the public,” says Driscoll. “When the University of Massachusetts utility arboretum site became available, we knew it was a great opportunity to visually get that message across.”

The success of the utility arboretum at UMass spawned developments at Hooksett, New Hampshire, with ongoing discussions about a utility arboretum in Connecticut. I believe the initial utility arboretum could serve as a model for other regions of the country, partially supported by energy companies. With the cadre of tree and shrub breeders/introducers at the University of Georgia, North Carolina State University and several Georgia nurseries (Bold Spring, Select Trees and Moon Tree Farm, for example) a location in the southeast makes perfect sense. Everyone benefits, as new trees are tested for the criteria previously mentioned and the tree communities become aware of the best.

The arboretum is open to the public and signage explains the mission.

J. Frank Schmidt and Son Co. in Boring, Oregon, branded UtiliTrees to promote small-statured trees whose mature heights rarely exceed 25 feet. Any process that makes selection easier benefits our industry.

The utility arboretum at UMass is open to the public, and during the 100-year anniversary celebration of the Stockbridge School of Agriculture in the fall of 2018, the tours of the arboretum and the campus tree walk were the most popular events. People love trees and this is but another way to influence them.