Christopher Grey Studios/Arbor Day Foundation
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Seven Key Takeaways from Trees & Utilities 2021

Nov. 22, 2021
The conference brought together utility vegetation management professionals for networking and education.

In communities across America, people depend on safe, reliable electric service to power their homes, businesses and public buildings. With about 500 million trees running under and adjacent to electric distribution and transmission lines, utility vegetation managers and associated urban forestry professionals play a vital role in maintaining both traditional and urban forests while keeping the power on and safe for their customers. It is why they look to the Trees & Utilities Conference year after year to stay updated on the newest research and best practices in the industry. 

The conference, which is made possible through the partnership of the Utility Arborist Association and the Arbor Day Foundation, empowers attendees to learn about new tree management research and technology available for the field. This year’s conference from Oct. 26 to 28, 2021, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, hosted more than 550 attendees who had the opportunity to network and learn emerging best practices from fellow utility practitioners across the nation. The 67 exhibits and 27 breakout sessions, keynotes and panels offered an abundance of learning opportunities to share information. 

Here are some of the top takeaways from this year’s conference:

1. Biodiversity Must Be Built Back.
Who knew there would be so much conversation around bees, butterflies and biodiversity at a utility industry trade show? It was quite a sight to see, time and again, speakers stand up to speak about the lengths they and their teams go to help foster habitat and encourage biodiversity throughout their project sites. The level of research, data, dollars and compassion put towards protecting these natural landscapes to promote a healthy environment was nothing short of commendable.

2. PR is a Vegetation Manager’s Best Friend.
In many sessions this year, speakers acknowledged that the industry has a PR opportunity. Vegetation managers are sitting on stories that the local media would be interested in telling if they knew about them. Additionally, the investors, shareholders and the general public need to be provided with all of the incredible work and stewardship that goes on in a utility’s vegetation management department. Utilities are always blamed for being “groups that cut trees and hack them down,” as one speaker put it at the conference, but that narrative can be changed by shining a light on all the great environmental work that is done to protect the land they manage.

3. Technology is More Sophisticated Than Ever.
The network of professionals who attended this year’s conference is taking a more sophisticated approach to technology, data and creative communications than ever before. They are leaning more heavily on data, geographic information systems (GIS) and iTree to make more informed decisions. There is no doubt this community is finding every way to be efficient and effective in creating healthy and thriving urban forests while also managing utility line performance.

4. Sustainability is Top of Mind.
Many of the conversations and sessions revolved around how vegetation management and forest management work could help advance sustainability. Cutting and pruning are part of the work, but so is helping create healthier, more sustainable communities and forests. It was inspiring to hear how enthusiastic and thoughtful these professionals were about the importance of biodiversity and carbon sequestration as well.

5. Aerial Satellite Tools Are a Must Have.
During the sessions and on the exhibit floor, aerial satellite tools and imagery for vegetation management were in the spotlight. Many companies are opting to use real-time vegetation management intelligence to help learn about the species growing near power lines, how to help manage those species and prevent power outages as well as wildfires. Many agreed this technology improves effectiveness, reduces risk and cuts down on costs. 

6. Proper Tree Placement is Essential for Energy Savings.
Planting the right tree in the right place is the best way to save energy. In a breakout about working with community tree groups, attendees learned how the collaboration between utilities and community tree groups can work together for the greater good. For example, the Energy Saving Trees (EST) program offers collaborations between utilities and tree groups in a streamlined, efficient way. Distributing trees to utility customers leads to shaded homes and energy savings. The EST program also helps educate homeowners on planting the right tree in the right place by using a portal showing an aerial view of the homeowner’s yard. It then guides them away from utility lines to the most strategic location on their property to plant a tree.

7. Sincerity is at the Heart of it.
It was clear that this community was excited to be back together in person again. These professionals learn and challenge one another thoughtfully to be the best in the communities they serve. They are honest in their approach to managing both trees and utilities, not one or the other. They not only address their work with sophistication in technology and top-of-the-line safety measures, but also with sincerity and thoughtfulness which in return benefits their customers and the environment at large. 

These takeaways are only a sliver of the learnings gleaned from this year’s Trees & Utilities Conference and does not include the litany of connections made across the three-day event. Attendees also left with Continuing Education Units earned to maintain Utility Specialist credential from the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) and the Certified Treecare Safety Professional (CTSP) credential from the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA). 

During the Expo, the exhibitors showcased products and services including vegetation management equipment, clothing, safety supplies, technology with drones and satellite imagery, consulting and much more. Each exhibitor was prepared to talk with utility companies and forestry contacts about how they can help with utility vegetation management strategies. 

There has never been a more important time to find meaningful solutions to the problems these professionals face. Dan Lambe, president of the Arbor Day Foundation, reiterated throughout the conference how vegetation managers and urban forestry professionals can make a difference in creating a healthy, thriving and vibrant urban forest while also providing safe, reliable utility services. Lambe also mentioned how he respected the honest approach these professionals take to manage trees “and” utilities, not just trees “or” utilities. And when these things coexist effectively and progress is made, we can celebrate the great things happening.

Communities deserve a rich tree canopy to decrease the heat island effect, purify air and water and increase property values, but those benefits cannot be enjoyed unless professionals are able to effectively manage and maintain urban trees around infrastructure like utility lines. The Trees & Utilities Conference was the perfect opportunity to learn how trees and utilities can co-exist by the best in the industry. Now is the time to put what was learned to good use.

Editor’s Note: If you missed this year’s Trees & Utilities Conference, save the date for next year’s event from September 20-22, 2022, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

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