A personal reflection on how Urban Forestry has grown over the last 20 years

When I first began studying arboriculture at Virginia Tech, in many ways the Urban Forestry industry was still in its infancy.  For example, I took the first Urban Forestry course the School of Forestry had to offer in 1992.   It was an “experimental” course, taught by Dr. P.P. Feret, who became for a short period (until his untimely and tragically unfair passing), a mentor of mine.  Up to that point, most of the classes (other than the standard tree identification (dendrology), physiology, general tree biology, fire class, wood properties etc.,) and indeed the general curriculum itself was geared towards industrial forestry;  large scale pulp and paper production.   As the forest products industry funded the school, and it was the dominant industry of the time, that was what was available, what was promoted and what most of us majored in. 

Now there is even a separate Urban Forestry program at Virginia Tech, under the Department of Forest Resources and ‘Environmental Conservation’.   I wish there was more conservation minded options for young people when I was enrolled, but the green movement had very little influence over my industry at the time, and these options were not available to us.  We, for the most part either went with industry or government, and even urban forestry was a possibility that was not widely promoted there (although it existed and had been around for some time via companies like Asplundh, Bartlett and Davey Tree).  Now, with global climate change, population explosions, new diseases and pollution, we have to be more forward thinking if we want to help to solve the challenges we face both at home and abroad.

I personally, was hired for an internship for ITT Rayonier while at Virginia Tech, which was and still is an excellent and very successful forest products company based in Fernandina Beach (Northern Florida, east coast) that at the time owned several million acres of forest in Georgia and Northern Florida.  I spent my time there cruising timber stands, taking plots and using statistics to predict timber volume as the pulp or paper stands were measured every 5 years to predict future growth, keep track of current growth, and monitor how fertilizer and mechanical factors and site factors (site index) affected the growth rate of each stand of pine trees.  Additionally, I spent time at the research center learning how the genetic factors are promoted using fast growing trees to propagate even faster growing trees in research plots used for seed production.

I also spent some time as a worker bee in the main office, helping the company move from mylar maps of forest stands, which were used to keep track of stand acreage and other data, and trace and move these maps into a highly detailed (GIS) computer database, the obvious progression for data management of these vast and highly variable and dynamic stands of sand pine, loblolly and slash pine.  

As interesting as all this is, and as lucrative, after spending several off-semesters (I would do one semester at school, one semester at ITT), living in a cabin in the woods, dodging rattlesnakes in snake chaps and smashing through dense gall berry bushes and saw-toothed palmetto bushes, soaked to the skin and covered in a million mosquitoes and in complete solitude most of the time, I came to the realization that this life is probably not for me.  It did not excite me the way that Urban Forestry did.  I wanted to be around trees but also around people.  I was also sick of small pine trees.  And having lived in several foreign countries growing up, and having gone to Jr High and High School on the West coast, I knew that this was not the only option for a budding young arborist.  I imagined working with, preserving and maintaining large, interesting and important trees.

That said, many of my counterparts loved the forest products industry, and have had successful careers working for large companies like Weyerhauser or Canal.  For me, I wanted to be in areas where there was rich local culture, and really enjoyed an urban setting.  So, I moved back to Florida after college and as so many young urban foresters do, I worked as a consultant for a utility company after graduation.  I started out working with Gainesville Regional utilities in Northern Florida, which area I was intimately familiar with from my time at  ITT, and soon transferred to Northern California and was contracting with PG and E.  

As soon as I gained the knowledge of the local Northern California trees, I applied for a job with Bartlett Tree Experts.  I passed the arborist certification, which at the time was a fairly new certification, and moved on to co-run the Bartlett office in San Jose.  I cut my teeth diagnosing tree diseases and prescribing treatments and selling and monitoring pruning and removals in Northern California, managing tree crews and interacting with customers.  Although Bartlett has been around since 1907, and has blazed a trail in scientific tree care since inception, there were a lot of rising new issues that as young West Coast arborists we were faced with on a daily basis:  New diseases such as Asian longhorn beetle, shot hole borers, Pine bark beetles, sudden oak death, etc. caused by introduced pests, climate change, construction damage, etc.  Also the new paradigm shift towards IPM, or Integrated Pest Management.  I learned the basic skills I still use today, with the mentorship of local arborists and the support of the Bartlett research labs and the amazing researchers who work there.

New forms of internal disease treatments for trees were, at the time considered cutting edge and we were very slow to use these products at Bartlett due to negative phytotoxic problems (leaves burning off the trees) caused by a chemical interaction with sunlight.  Growth regulators were banned fairly quickly in Northern California, making use of them prohibited before I had a chance to experience their effects to slow down tree growth, stop fruit production, etc.  Most all of our treatments were targeted sprays and deep root fertilizations, with the occasional fungicide injections for Dutch elm disease.  Micorrhizal root inoculations were used when the product first came out, but generally phased out once research proved little to no positive results, and the product was expensive!

Nowadays, the industry seems to be shifting more and more towards internal injection treatments for all species of trees.  The injectable chemical lines are quite vast, it is quick and easy to deliver the chemicals, they are highly effective, and the chemicals are contained within the injection systems and the trees vascular system, where there is no liability due to winds and exposure from chemical drift.  Also, the treatments are often long-lasting, and in many cases the residual effects of the treatments may be up to two years.  The drawbacks of course, is that the treatments are more expensive than foliar sprays, and the ability for treating large numbers of trees is cost prohibitive compared to large scale foliar spraying which is faster and cheaper.  

One of the largest changes I personally have seen in the industry, is how knowledge of the benefits of professional tree care has moved through the general population.  As the urban forestry industry has expanded, people seem to have a better general understanding of the benefits and importance of pruning and overall tree maintenance.  For example, as a young arborist in the mid 1990’s, even in a highly educated and fairly cutting edge area like Silicon Valley, I was constantly asked to top trees.  Granted, this was often the older generation, but I was always faced with re-educating people of all ages with the tragic consequences of “topping” a tree as a pruning practice.  Occasionally, I would have to walk away from jobs because people were so convinced that it was the only way to “manage height and make the tree safe, because it is too tall”, and I of course, after numerous attempts at re-education, refused to do it.  It was at times exhausting.

Nowadays, and for some time now, I have no longer been faced with this dilemma.  Overall, everyone is better educated, and people tend to educate themselves (I am sure the internet has a lot to do with it) and I no longer have to bring up the detrimental effects of topping trees.  Occasionally I do still see certain hacks (uneducated and untrained tree choppers) topping and/or lion tailing trees, but it is becoming rare and I am seeing it less and less.  Individual regulation of local tree care companies by city municipalities can reduce this problem, and Austin needs to follow San Antonio’s lead and regulate tree care companies through licensing and city led continued education programs.  Once Austin sets the example, other surrounding cities will undoubtedly follow such as Cedar Park, Round Rock, Georgetown etc.

Now I find myself attending (when I can swing it) international and national seminars at trade and management conferences from Canada to Mexico, to the Pacific Northwest.  I have had the privilege of interacting with arborists and fascinating industry professionals, consultants and small business owners from South Africa to South America and Europe, and I am constantly amazed by the conservation and passion inspired by Urban Foresters.  Also by researchers and even larger companies that supply and support the industry at every level.  It is constantly changing in a positive way, moving even into China and developing nations to manage their urban forests, create green jobs and manage renewable resources properly and effectively, and I am glad to do my part.  I still love my job, and enjoy teaching and mentoring my employees and slowly growing my business.