Connecticut’s trees are a source of pride for its residents and they attract visitors with their picturesque beauty, lining downtowns and neighborhoods across the state. The aesthetic splendor of trees in the state are complemented by the multiple environmental benefits they offer. They reduce noise and air pollution, decrease the erosion of soil by slowing rainfall, supply wildlife habitat and provide shade. It is easy to appreciate these valuable natural resources without considering the important responsibility that rests with a municipal tree warden, who ensures the protection of these public assets.
The Tree Wardens’ Association of Connecticut (TWAC) celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary this spring, in observation of a quarter of a century of efforts to guide municipal tree wardens. A 501(c)(3) voluntary membership organization, TWAC was established by Senior Extension Educator Bob Ricard in 1992. As a member of UConn Extension, Ricard sought to provide training, assistance and education to tree wardens across the state and create social networking opportunities. TWAC held a gala event, with workshops and an award ceremony on April 28 at the Omni Hotel in New Haven to mark the occasion.
The stewardship of public trees was formalized in Connecticut General Assembly in 1901 with the passage of a state law requiring every town and city to appoint a tree warden. The appointed tree warden is responsible for the care and control of trees and shrubs in their municipality. The only exceptions are trees along state highways, which are overseen by the Commissioner of Transportation, and trees in parks that fall under the jurisdiction of a Park Commissioner. Tree wardens may appoint deputies to assist with carrying out the duties of the tree warden. The intention of the legislation was urban reforestation while ensuring public benefit and safety.
“The law was passed to protect public trees in urban areas,” says Ricard. “In that same year, Connecticut passed an additional law to create a state forester position and approved land purchases for the first state forest. This was the start of the Connecticut State Forest system. These laws were about protecting trees after intense deforestation and the rapid building of infrastructure, particularly roads.”
Unaddressed in the 1901 tree warden law was any standard of qualification for the role. As appointees, tree wardens were not required to possess any particular skills or expertise.
As the years progressed, the need for qualifications became more obvious. Cryphonectria parasitica, a fungus, caused a massive loss of American chestnut trees in the early 1900s. In the 1930s, American elm trees became susceptible to an inadvertently imported Asian fungus, Ophiostoma ulmi. Beetles spread the disease as they dug into tree bark for sap.
While knowledge of tree diseases became of greater importance, towns and tree wardens also found themselves liable for accidents involving public trees and needed to step up efforts to protect the public from harm.
“There was potentially a huge danger to the public if trees were poorly managed. There were also serious legal ramifications for towns and the tree wardens if found responsible for injuries or deaths caused by mismanaged trees. It was apparent establishing a baseline of knowledge was essential,” says Ricard.
Despite the growing need for training, there was a lack of funding and assistance devoted to community and urban forestry at both the state and federal level. Federal forestry programs were the first to be amended, acknowledging the growing importance of urban and community forestry. The Cooperative Forest Management Act (CFMA), first passed in 1950, was modified in 1972 to include urban and community forestry programs but without increased funding. The CFMA provided states with financial and technical assistance to aid private forest landowners. A few years later, in 1978, the Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act (CFAA) was passed. The CFAA allocated federal funds that provided monetary assistance to state foresters towards community and urban forestry initiatives.
The passage of the Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act of 1990 expanded the reach of programs and stepped up funding dedicated to urban and community forestry. The omnibus bill, more commonly known as the 1990 Farm Bill, increased financial assistance to states and focused on promoting the benefits of trees, bolstering public support for trees through volunteer planting programs and other educational projects.
This momentum of urban and community forestry practices created an opportunity for Ricard to initiate a tree warden training program in Connecticut. Through the CFAA, the Renewable Resources Extension Act (RREA) created grant funding for extension activities related to forestry and natural resources at land grant universities.
“I came to UConn in 1991. Upon arriving, I conducted a study on Connecticut tree wardens. I found that most tree wardens in that state had backgrounds in public works or held an unrelated role, like a First Selectman. It created a situation where tree removals were common and hazard evaluation was not being properly done,” says Ricard.
Connecticut has a long history of caring about and for its trees. The Connecticut Forest & Park Association, a non-profit conservation organization, was established in 1895. The Connecticut Tree Protective Association was created in 1922 in response to state arborist requirements passed in 1919.
“There have been positive initiatives in the state to protect and educate about trees, but these projects typically focused on different aspects, such as trees for commercial use or those on private lands. The tree warden position requires similar knowledge of trees, in terms of biology, structure, function, etc., but the role also demands an understanding of public policy and human dimensions. I wanted TWAC to help meet those essential needs,” says Ricard.
Since its foundation, TWAC has brought together tree wardens and deputy tree wardens from across the state and has helped to connect other professionals in similar fields.
“Whether you’re in horticulture or arboriculture, working in a forest or in a municipal setting, TWAC welcomes everyone,” says Ricard.
In 1998, TWAC and UConn Extension established the Tree Warden School. A voluntary program, it provides six classes focusing on tree biology, threats to trees, risk assessment, management and care practices, background on relevant legislation and training for public interaction. Over 300 individuals have complete the program.
Connecticut revised its 1901 tree warden law in 2013 to address qualification concerns, requiring all tree wardens or a deputy tree warden to have completed the Tree Warden School or be a Connecticut Licensed Arborist.
“I have devoted much of my career to improving the knowledge and efficiency of tree wardens. I fully supported Connecticut taking this crucial step to professionalize tree wardens,” says Ricard.
“Since my arrival at UConn, I’ve assessed the quality of municipal community forest programs every ten years and there have been gains in awareness and skills. TWAC has already helped raise the percentage of qualified tree wardens from 60 percent to nearly 90 percent. There have been advancements in everything except budgeting. Over 80 percent of Connecticut towns have no budget specifically for trees. Unfortunately, this funding shortage also prevents effective oversight of the tree warden legislation,” says Ricard.
Ricard has focused his energy on other urban forestry initiatives as well, such as the ten-year Meskwaka Tree Project, which he started in 1992. Ricard designed the program to provide volunteers with knowledge, skills and networking opportunities in order to improve the relationship between communities and their forestry and tree programs. Effecting changes in policy to improve awareness of tree benefits, conservation activities and ensuring public safety were main goals of the Meskwaka Tree Project.
Volunteers completed a course at Connecticut College that featured classes and hikes around the school’s arboretum. A three-day, two-night program, the Meskwaka Tree Project Weekend taught participates about tree biology and care while also instructing them in media relations, community affairs and marketing.
“Applicants had to meet certain requirements and one of those was that they had to demonstrate they were interested in initiating and participating in public policy processes,” says Ricard. “People vote; trees don’t. Advocacy and public opinion are important tools as communities often have insufficient attention and resources devoted to their urban forestry agenda.”
The critical need for proper community and urban forestry is most apparent when the state is struck by storms. Tree failure, when trees become uprooted or their limbs snap, accounts for over 80 percent of power outages during storm events.
A rise in extreme weather events is expected to continue as global temperatures climb, causing spells of hot weather and intense periods of rainfall and flooding that will create new challenges for tree wardens that need to be confronted.
The duties of tree wardens have evolved over the years. Whereas tree removal from disease or road construction were once at the forefront, re-planting and the right tree, right place approach address a changing world.
“The improvements to tree and forestry laws over the years and the work of TWAC have helped organize and coordinate tree wardens across the state. The importance of the tree warden role in assuring safety and maintaining these natural resources is more acknowledged and visible than it ever has been. I hope to continue moving it in that direction,” says Ricard.