Episode 31: Solving for Roadside Forest Decline w/ Bob Allen

Episode 31: Solving for Urban Roadside Forest Decline w/ Bob Allen

Welcome to the 31st Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management!

Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 31

Join Iapetus Infrastructure Services (IIS) COO Tejpal Singh and Principal Advisor Dr. Phil Charlton for a conversation with Bob Allen, Manager of Vegetation Management at Eversource New Hampshire.

Episode 31 Transcript

Philip Charlton: Welcome back to another episode of The Trees and Lines podcast. In this episode, Bob Allen, manager of the Vegetation Management for Eversource New Hampshire, joins us to talk about his utility’s engagement of local schools to attract more people to the industry, how he sees urban roadside forest decline affecting his company, and how they are solving for bugs and diseases and everything else happening to the utility forest. Have a listen. Hope you enjoy.

Bob, welcome. It’s good to have you with us. I appreciate your joining us for today’s podcast.

Tej Singh: Thanks, Bob.

Bob Allen: Happy to do so.

Philip Charlton: Yeah, appreciate that. We thought maybe we’d start off like we always do and ask you to give us a little bit about your background and a little bit about the program you were on up there in New Hampshire.

Bob Allen: Sure thing. I’ve been doing tree work of some form or another since 1978, 45 years. I started as a ground man, laborer, climber, bucket operator. I’m working on private work and also at the municipal for the city of Springfield, Massachusetts. I graduated from Stockbridge School of Agriculture with a degree in agriculture and park management, worked for the city for about ten years, and then came on board with what used to be known as Western Mass Electric, which was part of Northeast Utilities. Northeast Utilities merged with NSTAR back in 2013 and became Eversource.

But I worked for Western Mass Electric for about five years as a permission specialist and also an arborist within the Connecticut Light and Power, one of our other predecessor companies, and worked there for 17 years as an arborist and a senior arborist. In 2009, after the ice storm of 2008 in New Hampshire, the fellow who had been running the program up here chose that he had other things to do with his life instead of go through another storm like that, so the job was open.

I came up from Connecticut and became supervisor of vegetation management for public service in New Hampshire. Upon the merger of NSTAR and Northeast Utilities, I then became manager of New Hampshire and Massachusetts for five years. In 2018, I went back to just New Hampshire, and we have a manager in all three states now. I’ve been happy to be up here. We have a really good program. I would say it’s the class of our system up here, and I’m proud of it. I’m proud of the team we have.

Philip Charlton: Yeah, good. We’re interested in learning about it. Eversource is the biggest utility in New Hampshire, right?

Bob Allen: It is. It’s the largest in New England. Across three states, we cover electricity, gas, water. We’re involved in wind energy as well.

Philip Charlton: And you’re over both transmission and distribution.

Bob Allen: I’m not currently. I’m just distribution in New Hampshire.

Philip Charlton: Yeah, very good.

Tej Singh: Bob, you’ve lived through lots of mergers and acquisition activity. What’s that journey been like in terms of the constant realignment of vegetation management objectives and program nuances and that deal, because there’s been a lot of activity with your utility?

Bob Allen: That’s a great question, Tej, and certainly, we’ve learned to roll with the punches, as they say. Veg management is always something that people wonder where it fits best. We’ve been in several different organizations through the years. Currently, we’re in engineering under asset management and process improvement. We switched in January 23 of this year. Prior to that, we’d been in operation services, which, along with fleet training and meter technical, served all four operating companies. But this year, we’ve aligned with engineering, which we’ve done that in the past as well. But I believe it’s the right move for us. We are in a situation where the best things that can be done to improve reliability for customers are done through veg management and engineering. If we’re working together and looking to solve problems together, instead of not having that communication, and we’ve been through that in the past—people like to use the term silos—when you’re working in a silo. We’re currently not in that situation. Engineering and veg are pretty closely aligned right now, and I’m very proud and happy about that.

Philip Charlton: One of the things I’ve heard you talk about is that the utility forest, or I guess the urban forest in general, is in decline. Can you talk to us some about that?

Bob Allen: Sure. The roadside forest in New England definitely is in– I wouldn’t say trouble, but it has had some decline. One of the issues is New Hampshire and Maine go back and forth between which one is the most forested state. Depending upon how big our hazard tree budget is, I always try and go to number two if I can get all the bad trees out. But currently, we’re probably number one or number two with Maine. However, Connecticut is number five, and Mass is number six. You don’t really think of that, Connecticut and Massachusetts as being that highly forested or that fully forested. One of the things that happened in New Hampshire, and in New England overall, was there was a lapse in agriculture, obviously, in the last 50 to 150 years. Prior to that, it had been an agricultural area, all of New England, and most of it had been logged. We’re in a situation now where we have even aged roadside forest, multiple stems per acre. I’m not a forester, I’m an arborist, but I’ve had to learn some of these terms because I look at what I’m managing every day, and you’re looking at the possibility that there could be a very big decline coming soon if we don’t find some way to manage some of these insects and diseases.

Philip Charlton: Why would the decline be different roadside versus backlot, rural?

Bob Allen: Eversource covers New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, as I said, and Massachusetts and Connecticut by state law have a tree warden for every town. That tree warden is in charge of the trees that are within the town, taking town right or way, the layout, whatever term you prefer to use. But there are public trees associated with the road.

In New Hampshire, we don’t have a tree warden law. So, Phil, if you and I lived on a three-rod road, 16 and a half feet equals a rod, three rods is 49 and a half or arbitrarily 50 feet. If we lived across the street from each other, you and I would own 25 feet to the center of the road. The trees that in Connecticut or Massachusetts right off the road would be considered public trees. In most cases in New Hampshire, they would be private trees. One of the things about New Hampshire managing the roadside forest is that those trees, we’re talking to the tree owner. Whereas in Connecticut, Massachusetts, we’re talking to the tree warden. It’s a significant difference in the fact that you need to make the conversation with the tree owner, so tree warden in Massachusetts and Connecticut, individual property owner in New Hampshire, and then figure out the best way to handle that tree relationship.

In New Hampshire, we also have a situation where, perhaps you’ve heard our motto, live free or die, and we don’t believe in taxing. There’s no sales tax for the most part. There is no income tax. How does that relate to the roadside forest? Well, for me, it relates to the fact that there’s no funding for a town DPW or a forestry division to take care of the trees that are on the roadside. As I said, most of them are owned by the private owner anyways, but the town would have some reason to maintain those. But they don’t have any money to maintain them because there is no tax dollars coming in for that. We prefer to spend it on education and health care, which I think is probably important. But I like the trees too. The trees then become pretty much the utility’s responsibility to manage that roadside forest. That’s why for me, the roadside forest is most important is that it’s incumbent on me as the manager of the wires to also manage that forest.

Tej Singh: That dynamic with the homeowner, can you shed a little bit of light in terms of generally what is that engagement like with the population, with the customer base? Folks are not being taxed, so they also have more discretionary income. What is their general relationship with you, your organization, and their position on their forest.

Bob Allen: Sure. It’s a great question, too. I don’t know about the discretionary income, but Connecticut and Massachusetts, they do have a higher per capita income than New Hampshire. You’re talking oftentimes in Connecticut and Massachusetts with people who are investing more in their personal landscape. So sometimes those conversations can be a little more difficult. In New Hampshire, we certainly have people invest in their landscape, and I’m one of them. I’ve got over 150 different species of trees planted at my house, much to my wife’s chagrin. But there are people who care tremendously about trees in New Hampshire, but we’re loaded with trees as well.

I think a lot of the things that we understand as New Hampshire residents is the beauty of Mother Nature is with us every day. While we understand that the utility needs to do the work that they do, it’s more often in alignment with what the customer base feels up here that we’re not doing anything out of the ordinary. We’re just maintaining the wires. Connecticut, Massachusetts, there’s fewer trees per property, and perhaps those conversations can be a little more pointed. But we also have Connecticut-license arborists. New Hampshire, Massachusetts certify them. We have licensed arborists on every area in Connecticut working for Connecticut Light and Power or what is known as Eversource Connecticut. Massachusetts, New Hampshire, we all have our certified arborists. We’re usually talking with somebody who’s passionate about trees. If the customer is also passionate about trees, I’ve never found a situation where we couldn’t find a way to strike a deal. It’s when somebody isn’t passionate about trees that we sometimes run into a problem.

Tej Singh: If the homeowner is responsible for– well, unless they own the tree, and those trees cause outages, where does the liability sit? It’s not with the utility, is it?

Bob Allen: If the tree causes an outage, we have necessarily no recourse on how to stop that. We would talk to the customer and explain to them that we want to take the tree down or trim the tree to keep it from causing another outage. Generally, that goes pretty well up here. One of the things that I wrote in that article about the decline of the roadside forest is all the insects and diseases that are affecting our roadside trees or our forest. In New Hampshire, there’s a significant amount of trees that we’ve identified as problems. I don’t know that we’ll be able to solve the problem ourselves. But homeowners generally feel like that tree is failing, and one of the things we have is the emerald ash borer up here. I know that’s been a big topic for 20 years in the U.S., but it’s really taken off in the last three or four years up here. You’re familiar with blonding, how the woodpeckers go after the bug and then make the bark turn a different color. That’s been a real push by the state forestry group up here to let people know that they have that ability to identify that there’s a blonding or infestation because otherwise, they wouldn’t know. Most people just drive by their trees or look at their trees, and they don’t really look up to see how bad they’re doing.

Philip Charlton: Till the tree comes down. Have you tried to find this? How fast is this decline hitting you?

Bob Allen: Good question, Phil. 2015 was the first time they noticed EAB up here, and each year, it’s gotten worse. Currently, I’ll throw some statistics out there that I’m not sure are 100% accurate, but what I’ve been told by state employees is that ash is 6% of the New Hampshire forest, but 30% of the New Hampshire roadside forest. That lines up with what we’re looking at for trees that we identify for removal. I would say definitely three to four out of every 10 are ash trees. It is ramping up compared to where it was five years ago.

There’s a couple that really are a concern for us right now. One of them, and it goes under the heading of WPND, and that is white pine needle damage. White pine is in New Hampshire and certainly in parts of New England, it is the dominant timber species out of all the species we have in the forest. There’s about five different diseases and insects that affect the health of the white pine in New England in the last few years, and they just put it under the general heading of WPND, white pine needle damage.

There’s not much you can do about it right now because they are forest trees, and there’s really nothing you can do to treat a tree in the forest. You’d have to treat the whole forest, and rarely do we have a white pine that’s one of those trees. They say, we’ve got to save this one. But it is affecting an awful lot of trees in our population, and white pines tend to be the tallest growing trees in New Hampshire. They are about 120 feet tall at maturity. Many of them near our wires are within the 80 to 100 feet tall. There’s a lot of these trees out there. As they fail, whereas we decide to work with somebody and take them down, it becomes an issue of what goes in its place because nature abhors a vacuum. There’s a space now where there used to be a big tree taking lots of nutrients and shading out a lot of other plants. Once that tree is gone, once a tree is gone, we end up with a space that invasive species could join, could grow in, or that some other species could be planted there that might not necessarily be the tree that we want near the wire. White pine needle damage is a big concern for us in the utility industry. It’s also a concern for the loggers. I’m not sure what’s going to happen with that. The symptoms of white pine needle damage could become something that becomes fatal to a lot of trees, depending upon the weather and the climate changing.

The other one I want to talk about is really the scariest one to me. This one is called beech leaf disease. We’ve had beech bark disease for years. Beech trees are part of the dominant species in the northern boreal forest, which is oak and beech as the dominant species. We don’t see a lot of beech along the roadside, but we do see them in people’s front yards. Beech leaf disease is—and I’ve been doing this a long time—one of the toughest ones I run into as far as an insect and what damage can be done before it’s even recognized that it’s in the plant.

This first came about in 2012, and it has just in the last three years been determined what actually caused it. It is a forest, a foliar nematode. Nematodes are a huge family in the world of organisms. There are nematodes everywhere. But as disciplined as people get, studying for their doctors or their masters, there’s really not been much work done on forest foliar nematode. It’s just not a thing that we’ve ever dealt with in the past. This particular nematode gets into the bud during the growing season and then feeds on the bud during the winter.

They don’t know it’s there. They’re tiny. There could be up to 100 or 1,000. I think as many as 1,000 nematodes inside a single bud. When the leaf breaks out of the bud and it comes out, the damage is already done. There’s no control that can be done to it at that time. What it does is it causes banding, what’s known as banding, a darker color green in the leaf, and that darker color can no longer perform photosynthesis. So the leaves are not as vigorous as they could be. The tree then loses vigor. It’s really a huge problem. Beeches in parks, cemeteries, college campuses, and certainly in large homes that have beeches, they are just a beautiful tree. There’s European beech, American beech. Both of them get very large, very statuesque, and they don’t withstand a whole lot of damage.

Root compaction really affects them. Drought really affects them. But this particular bug, having been a chance to get established since 2012 and then really just figuring out what it was a couple of years ago, and they don’t have a registered treatment for it yet. I’m afraid we’re going to lose an awful lot of beech trees. I mean, we lost millions of ash trees during the emerald ash borer infestation over the last 20 years. If you’ve ever been to Newport, Rhode Island, beech trees are huge down there. They’re big trees, and they’re a huge part of the landscape. If they get affected by this bug, it’s going to really change the whole outlook of Newport and the tree canopy there.

How does it affect the utilities? Well, it affects the utilities because, same thing as white pine needle damage, when these large trees go, there’s a void and something else is going to grow in that place. It could be an invasive; it could be just another tree. But the beech trees have been suppressing growth because they’re a very wide crown. They’ve been suppressing other growth, which helps the forest in a lot of ways because it gives the chance for the timber stand to get mature. But once those beeches and white pines are gone, there’s a big void in the forest then, and something will go in there in its place.

The beech tree loss is going to be just as substantial, I’m afraid. It’s the dominant species in New England, in the forest, and it’s been a hard time trying to figure out what this problem was. I don’t know that there’s anything going to be registered to treat this problem any time soon. Again, like with the white pine needle disease, there’s nothing you can do for forest trees besides treating a whole bunch of acreage, and that’s probably not something they’re going to do.

For the roadside and for the park and cemetery and school beech trees, there is a chance that they can treat them. They haven’t come up with anything that’s registered yet, but there have been some trials that have worked on treating the beech leaf disease. We work a lot with the New Hampshire Forests and Lands, and the forest health expert, Kyle Lombard works with us every year and gives a heatmap of what the infestation is for each species, for each insect and disease and where it is. We’re able to overlay that map over our trimming schedule, and we can determine where to start where there might be a lot of damage by a certain bug or disease. It helps us to go there working with the state on this stuff, go to that area and start trimming there first.

I’m going to quote Kyle and he said, beech leaf disease is the next elephant in the room when it comes to overall tree health problems in New Hampshire. And that room is already pretty crowded. To me, that’s quite a statement from somebody who works with forest health all the time. Beech leaf disease is going to cause us a lot of problems in New England. All the utilities will feel it because it is a dominant species. Hopefully, something will come that will be able to either be a natural enemy to the nematode, or they’ll come up with a treatment that will work.

Philip Charlton: Have you had challenges convincing your C-suite that we’ve got a problem?

Bob Allen: In the past in Connecticut, there was actually what used to be called gypsy moth, now called spongy moth, which tends to explode in populations after drought years. We had five of the last seven years were drought year in New England. Connecticut had what they called a two-bug panel. They put together interested parties from the private community, from the state, and from the utilities to work on this. This two-bug panel was based on EAB, the emerald ash borer, and the spongy moth. They started taking down a lot of trees, working with the DOT, and it’s been a very successful program, getting rid of the dead ash and dead oaks that were down in Connecticut. So when it comes time for me to say, hey, three years later, four years later, it’s now in New Hampshire, the same thing. They’re not happy about it in the C-suite, but they at least have heard of the problem before, so we’re able to talk to them about it. It’s more of the regulators that I want to understand it so that we can get the funding to take these trees down.

Tej Singh: Bob, you guys share the state with National Grid, you’re a utility. What are some similarities to your programs? What are some of the critical differences in terms of how you guys manage similar footprints? How do you guys run your programs both similarly and differently?

Bob Allen: In New Hampshire, Grid sold to Liberty a few years ago, so Liberty, Unitil, and New Hampshire Electric Co-op are the folks that we deal with, although Grid does have transmission lines in the state. You’re right there, Tej. They manage a little different than we do on the transmission end of it.

On the distribution end, as I said, Liberty, New Hampshire Electric Co-op, which is not part of the regulated group with our Department of Energy and New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission, and then Unitil. Sara Sankowich in Unitil and now Chris Moultroup, who took over for Sara as she moved up, we’ve always had a great relationship. One thing I did when I came up here was start having quarterly meetings with the other utilities and talk about what we’re doing for veg and maybe who was putting something out to bid, maybe who was going for a rate case, different issues that we were dealing with.

One of the things that we did at our most recent contract, which I don’t believe the other utilities did, was we put a four-year contract out, and we asked for fixed pricing for the first two years. The first two years were ‘20 and ‘21. So when I went to the regulators to explain where we were at, they said, how come you’re not asking for more money? I said, we’d certainly like more money, but we have fixed pricing for these first two years. Therefore, it didn’t jump with the COVID jump like it did with other folks. However, on the third and fourth year, we knew it was going to jump, but I was able to pre-soak them on that.

That was something that was different. We managed it that way to get the fixed price for the first two years. We have 12,000 overhead miles in New Hampshire, our distribution overhead miles, and managing a four- to five-year contract cycle. The regulators currently have us on a nothing longer than 60 months mandate, so up to five years. So when we told them we could keep the prices fixed for two years, they really liked that idea. I believe Liberty and Unitil have definitely done multiyear contracts. I’m not sure how they’re going in the future on those. This is the fourth year of that contract for us, so we’ll be looking at different ways of doing things next year. We’re also going into a rate case next year. I’d be interested to see the feedback we get on how we did things.

Tej Singh: What were some of the challenges that you guys experienced by structuring the contract that way?

Bob Allen: The challenges that, I think, the contractors experienced certainly was a fuel and supply chain that really affected them, and then that second year, that was something that we heard a lot about. So we tried to work with them and come up with innovative ways to work with them. Certainly, the fact that we were having as many failing trees as we were, we were able to adjust our budget so that the hazard tree or risk tree removal budget became more prevalent. It’s about 50/50 right now for staying on cycle and for hazard trees. Some of those contractors who maybe were feeling the pinch of unit pricing were able to do more hazard trees than perhaps they had planned on because the ash, the spongy moth, the hemlock woolly adelgid and hemlock looper, and hemlock elongate scale and beech leaf disease and all these other things that continue to affect these trees, from the work they looked at prior to bidding it and the health of the forest compared to where they were two years later, they were able to increase revenue by doing more hazard trees. I think that helped a lot.

One of the things the regulators said to us when they gave us this budget after the 2020 rate case was stay on cycle; the rest of the money, whatever you choose to do with it, we’re not going to tell you where to spend that money, which was different than they had been in the past. They had wanted us to spend x on what we used to call enhanced tree trimming, which is a larger clearance zone around the backbone lines. But since I had that autonomy to decide where that money was going, I did choose to spend it on hazard trees. That helped the contractors and also helped us. We got a lot of trees down that won’t ever cause us a problem.

Philip Charlton: That’s usually where the reliability issues are.

Tej Singh: When the rate cases, when you guys are going through that process, do you get involved in providing some education to the regulators in terms of current issues and challenges? It’s not just, hey, we’re asking for money, and it’s just a numerical exercise. Do you get into the qualitative side of things to help them understand ROI or biggest bang for buck? Do you get that opportunity?

Bob Allen: We do, and it’s been a wonderful situation. It’s different than it is in other states, I think. It’s much more conversational, and we are able to have what we call tech sessions where it’s either currently with Zoom or Teams we’re doing them. But in the past, we do them in-person and in a free-form talk about whatever the issues were and get some of your important points out in front of the rate case, so that they could understand what you might be looking at.

I mentioned I’ve been doing this 45 years, and one thing is for sure, I’ve never seen a tree fall up. If they’re failing, they’re coming down. If we have facilities beneath them, we’re going to have an outage. I think the regulators, to their credit and certainly they’re generous and listening to me, is that they have always looked to me to give them any insights on tree health or tree concerns and what we could do to alleviate some of those concerns. So it’s been a very good relationship. I hope it continues.

Philip Charlton: I was going to say we were up that way last year, and everybody has problems attracting workers. But it seemed a little bit acute right up there in New England, particularly acute. You must have the issue. Anything special you’re doing about worker recruitment, retention?

Bob Allen: The biggest problem we have every day, Phil, is how are we going to get the folks to do the job? I mentioned in that article in 1982, when I was in college, we had 60 students in the arbor culture major at Stockbridge. Last year, there was two. We’re just not attracting people into the field in that way. They might be going to other schools, but tree work is hard, and it’s in all kinds of weather. It’s not necessarily something you’re going to get rich at. It’s usually something that you love doing, or you’re interested in being outside and being your own boss.

I think things that we’ve done have been job fairs, which I think everybody tries to do. We have a really good one with the high school students here in New Hampshire. We had over 500 students show up for a job fair. We did a little bit of a touch a truck with utility and tree, so they could see what the trucks did and how the work went. As far as retention for the long term, folks– I used to say this, and I’m hopeful it still sounds right. I grew up in Massachusetts, worked in Connecticut for a long time, and I’ve been up here in New Hampshire for a while. In Massachusetts, in Connecticut, if you’re at a family gathering, you’re not always going to find somebody that runs a chainsaw for a living. But in New Hampshire, oftentimes you will. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that your neighbor or somebody down the road is doing tree work of some sort. It’s always been that way in New Hampshire. There’s always been a long history of logging, and timber sports even, and most folks feeling like they can do it themselves with a chainsaw. So we find that in New Hampshire we have a lot more homegrown folks that can go into the field and go into the business. It’s still a very big challenge.

After that ice storm, we had 75 crews. That was in 2008. Every day, I came up there and one of the tasks they gave me was to build the crew complement to 100. And so we did, but we didn’t do it by magic. We had to put some more money into the business and decide how we were going to help educate folks. We went out to the schools. I have lectured at UNH, UMass, and UConn every year as a guest lecturer trying to get folks to think about utility as another option. It’s never going to be easy.

I think one of the things we’ve seen in the business the last few years is the prevalence of new equipment, and the reason new equipment is being built is because we can’t have enough people to climb trees and to actually do the work. This new equipment that gives us access from a driver’s seat or from a remote control is probably the best way that we can use it as really a workforce multiplier. Some of these, whether it’s a roadside boom trimmer, sky trim unit type of thing, or a knuckle boom crane or a SENNEBOGEN, all of them have been developed I think mostly because we don’t have enough people going into the business.

Philip Charlton: It’s fascinating that tree work is part of the culture of the state. I’m not sure I’ve heard that before anywhere.

Bob Allen: Well, it’s my opinion, Phil. I could be wrong. I just think, having lived in all three states, it seems to be more prevalent up here that folks consider it a 12-month-a-year job.

Tej Singh: Bob, for you, at this stage of your career, you’ve covered multiple regions, multiple states. You’ve managed big footprints. What would be the next interesting step for you from a career perspective in this space? CEO of Eversource?

Bob Allen: Actually, I think one of the things that we could look to do, and I would certainly be interested in it, would be to do more outreach with our tree wardens in the two states, Connecticut, Massachusetts, up here in New Hampshire. Do more of that, getting involved with conservation commissions. Sustainability, native trees have been a huge issue through the last few years. We’ve done a real good job with pollinators. We have a pollinator roadmap that we won an award for. We worked with Dr. Michael Dirr, who’s a close personal friend of mine, and we have put together a 30 under 30 poster, which is 30 trees that only grow 30 feet tall. We worked with some growers out in Oregon and Washington to tell them which trees were going to be on the poster so that they could start lining out some stock that five, ten years would be available to purchase in New England.

That type of stuff really gets me excited. We have four utility arboretums here at Eversource. I think all of us in the business think we’re tree people, but not everybody thinks of electric utility folks as tree people. One of the things that I believe is that Eversource invests about $200 million on utility arboriculture every year across three states on TND. That’s about 10% of our operating budget. But I think if you looked at Eversource and somebody asked, what do you think 10% of that workforce is or 10% of that spend is? I don’t think most people would say it’s the trees. So for me to be able to get out there and continue to preach what I believe is important, and that is planting the right tree in the right place, discussing what we can do to eliminate some of these tree diseases and insects, that’s where I really think the next step would be for me. Hopefully, my boss will listen to this. If I could get a job like that, that would be excellent.

Tej Singh: Well, one thing’s for sure, you’re putting your money where your mouth is with 150 unique species on your own property. You might be the first person on our platform that I’ve ever heard say that. That’s crazy. That’s a lot.

Philip Charlton: Bob, I had my first right of way in ‘78 as well, so I came in with you. Most of our peers would have answered that question with something to do with retirement. You must still be enjoying what you’re doing.

Bob Allen: That’s definitely true, Phil. I love this job. I love it every day. Certainly, we had a storm last night, heavy, wet snow, 5,000 customers out in New Hampshire. Some of those trees that we thought could make it didn’t make it just because it was an early season snow. That was really heavy and wet. But that just energizes us. We get out there, and we talk to people and see what we could do differently. We see which kind of species. We investigate any outage that’s over 100 customers. Our arborists investigate any tree-related outage that’s over 100 customers. We capture species, what we think age of the tree might be, distance from the wires, and then we trend all that stuff. If it ends up that what we call red maples or some people call swamp maples are failing at age 40 to 50, 20 feet from the wires, then we’re going to start looking for those when we go out and profile a circuit and see what can we do to be proactive in that space.

That type of stuff, Phil, makes me happy to do this job. I don’t want to retire anytime soon, and planting those trees is something that really makes me feel great when I have my hands on the earth. There’s a lot of benefit to me to see what can grow in New Hampshire. A lot of these trees are trees that aren’t necessarily native or even in our zone. So I like the push zones and see what we can do. I probably have spent money more wisely in the past, but some of these trees really mean lot to me to try and get them to grow in New Hampshire and see what we can help educate our customers and our nurseries with what might grow up here.

Philip Charlton: Bob Allen Arboretum. I’ll have to visit sometime when I up.

Tej Singh: Yeah, same.

Bob Allen: You’re welcome any time.

Philip Charlton: They’ve been recognized by a Gold Leaf Award within the last year or two.

Bob Allen: The Gold Leaf Award is awarded to a company or an individual or group of individuals who’ve made an impact on the landscape in their area. It’s the International Society of Arboriculture New England chapter that awarded it to us for our involvement in utility arboretums. In 2012, we had a windstorm in Portsmouth at the Urban Forestry Center, and it knocked over a stand of spruce trees, probably 500 trees got blown over. It was an amazing storm. Right there at the Urban Forestry Center, there was now an opening, and I’m on the Community Forestry Advisory Council for the state. We usually met at the Urban Forestry Center in Portsmouth, and they asked, what should we do? We suggested doing a utility arboretum. It was our first one. It was only two pole sections, just 100 feet of de-energized line, and we put approximately 20 trees that we thought would be good trees to put near the wire. The whole plan before you plant thing, which every utility has been talking about for 50 years, we tried to put in action there.

Two years later, we have the merger of NU and NSTAR. Our director, Vera Admore-Sakyi, says let’s have an all-hands meeting. We had one at the Urban Forestry Center, and she saw the utility arboretum, as small as it was, and thought, this is fantastic. I told her how it came about, and she said, I want you to build one in Connecticut and Massachusetts. I said, well, I only cover New Hampshire. I really don’t have that ability to build it in Connecticut or Massachusetts. And she said, all right. Then a month later, she gave me Massachusetts, so I was able to take over that. We built one at UMass Amherst working with Dr. Dennis Ryan, Dr. Michael Dirr, Dr. Brian Kane, Mike Davidson, Todd Cournoyer, head of grounds at UMass. We built a really cool utility arboretum there, seven sections, a thousand feet of wire, de-energized, and that really got us started.

It’s a great training, environment. We left some mature trees there so that we could teach the students how to prune around the wires. We planted with both our contractors, our arborists on staff, the students, and the grounds crew at UMass, so really just a great situation. Additionally, with that, we were breaking down one of our training yards for Northeast Utilities. All the poles and transformers and wire were all going to be scrapped. After working here for so long, some people say, I was able to make a connection and were able to get all that stuff brought up to UMass. Then we had apprentices who would never get to build this type of thing live. Apprentice linemen were able to build this utility arboretum at UMass with the wires and the poles. A higher education place, UMass is a fantastic university, and we had our apprentices learning there. We had students learning there.

We moved that on to build two more since then, but the one we got the award for was in Hooksett, New Hampshire. It’s the only one of the four that has energized lines, so we don’t use it for training as much as we do for planting with garden clubs and explaining the right tree at the right place. We have a bunch of trees there. We have over 70 trees there and it’s about 600 feet. It’s really interesting to do these types of things. The ISA noticed that we had done this. We had worked with universities, public and private partnership, and we were given the Gold Leaf Award, which was really something I would have never dreamed would happen for a utility. We’re very proud of that.

Philip Charlton: Yeah, very innovative.

Bob Allen: Well, thank you. Our vice president accepted the award. It made it real to him. I’d been talking about this utility arboretum at meetings and stuff, and he never really had any idea what it was going to be. But once he saw it and he was given an award, it really hit home for him. It made a lot of sense to the company. We’ve continued to invest by building another one, so we have four now. I’d love to talk about that at another chance, Tej, if we decide to do that.

Tej Singh: Oh, no, we should definitely do that.

Philip Charlton: We’d love to have you back.

Tej Singh: I would love that whole episode to be totally focused on the utility arboretum. Bob, it was really great to get to know you, very fresh perspectives. Congratulations. It sounds like you guys have done a really good job and are continuing to evolve your footprint. It’ll be interesting to watch you continue to create customer engagement, especially given how you explained the different challenges with homeowner ownership of tree versus state-owned trees and the complexity around that. You’re doing some great stuff, and we really appreciate you spending some time with us today.

Bob Allen: Thank you very much.

Philip Charlton: We’ve got a lot of topics we didn’t get to, but do appreciate your time, Bob. Thanks.

Tej Singh: That’s it for this episode of Trees and Lines brought to you by Iapetus Holdings. If you like the show, please give us a five-star rating on Apple or Spotify. If you have any questions or comments on any of our episodes or ideas for topics or guests, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us at We’ll chat with you soon.

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