Out on a Limb

The 2014 Tree Climbing Championship
Photograph By
Cheryl Corson, RLA, ASLA

Arborists in the treetop.

Washington, DC is home to many sub-cultures, and last month at the U.S. National Arboretum one of them, competitive tree climbing, was out in force. Each spring, the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) gathers in a regional public garden with large trees. A small group of seasoned arborists selects the trees in advance to be sure they’re safe, pruning as needed before the event. This year, the competition was held at the National Arboretum in a stand of 70 foot tall oaks on a hilltop overlooking the capitol dome. 

Yellow caution tape circled the ground around each tree’s outermost branches and simple signs indicated event names: aerial rescue, belayed speed climb, work climb, foot lock speed climb, and throwline. Competitors wore helmets, safety glasses, ear protection, gloves, saddles, straps, ropes, carabiners and more. Judges wearing neon vests looked upward. These are the men who work for our local tree companies, like event sponsors Bartlett Tree Experts, Davey Tree, and The Care of Trees. 

They are certified arborists, a voluntary ISA program meaning that they are trained and tested in soils, tree biology, safe work practices, tree risk management, diagnosis, treatment, urban forestry and more. These are the people you want to work on your own trees. To find one, see www.goodtreecare.com. 

Men in the treetops belay with ropes from branch to branch performing tasks like tossing sticks into the center of a tire on the ground from 50 feet, first calling “clear?” to a judge who calls back “all clear!,” then moving way out on a limb to ring a bell. They are being timed. When they’ve done all the tasks they carefully belay back to the ground to the applause of a small group of observers, mostly colleagues and family members. There is no announcer. You have to know what you’re looking at or stay long enough to get the idea. The 2014 competition results are at: http://www.mac-isa.org/images/2014_TCCResults.pdf. 

Nearby food trucks sell barbeque, smoothies and pho. Vendors distribute brochures on tree health, and sell books, safety goggles, and other gear. The District Department of the Environment, Casey Trees, DC Wildlife, and others are there. Some curious arboretum dog walkers and bikers come across the event and stay awhile. The small crowd breaks up mid-afternoon and walks back downhill to the parking area where volunteers direct traffic. You leave with more respect for the skill and training involved in tree care. And you’ve had a glimpse into a small fraternity of those who do dangerous work for a living.

Getting Paid to Climb Trees

Someone recently told me she became a mid-wife so she’d always have work. Being an arborist is like that. That work can’t be shipped offshore and few are good at it. One could ask if kids aren’t allowed to climb trees at the U.S. National Arboretum and elsewhere, and if they are constantly glued to one screen or another, where will the next generation of arborists come from? How will young people discover this career which has so much to offer college and non-college bound practitioners alike? 

Fortunately, an organization called the Tree Fund is working on that. They seek to keep the tree care workforce educated and safe, and to engage the next generation in caring for the environment. They fund research grants between $10,000 and $50,000, and a $100,000 fellowship for doctoral research projects. They also offer undergraduate scholarships to arboriculture and urban forestry students.  

Grants for K-12 Schools 

Of particular interest to Capitol Hill parents and teachers are the Tree Fund’s Arboriculture Education Grants of up to $5,000 to support K-12 education projects. Search their online archives for examples of past grant projects. One was for a Detroit project called Our “LAND” (Learn, Admire, Nurture, Dream) targeting fifth and sixth graders in ten schools. Urban kids seasonally visited the area’s largest park (1,184 acres). A uniformed Forest Service educator visited classrooms, and they were all provided take-home activities to share with their families. For more on this project, which could so easily be replicated on the Hill, see: http://www.treefund.org/archives/6674. 

Another project helped Kansas City Rotary Youth Camp’s special needs campers safely experience the tree canopy teaming with arborists using ropes and saddles to take them high above the ground. These kids built confidence while learning more about trees and appreciating them in an unforgettable way. See: http://www.treefund.org/archives/6582. 

With the National Arboretum so close to Capitol Hill, I can imagine all sorts of grant projects for our youth, perhaps mixing younger elementary school kids with Eastern High School kids. We are fortunate to have Casey Trees and many nationally known tree care firms right in town. The application process is not difficult and letters of intent are due by March 1, meaning there is plenty of time to brainstorm ideas in time for the next grant cycle. See: http://www.treefund.org/grants/education-program-grants/arboriculture. 

Getting Certified

If you have three years in an environmental field you are eligible to become an ISA certified arborist. Courses and exams (225 multiple choice questions) are  offered locally three times a year. Even if you have no intention of becoming a climber, landscape architects and designers I know say they have learned a lot from the extra training. Meanwhile, the ISA catalogue is fun to read (www.isa-arbor.com) and carries everything from temporary “Trees Are Good” tattoos to the proceedings of the third International Workshop on Tree Root Development in Urban Soils. The award winning book, “Up By Roots,” by Annapolis landscape architect and tree root expert Jim Urban is also offered. 

A Ten Dollar Tree in a Hundred Dollar Hole

This great expression gets the point across. Planting a tree is like painting a room in that preparation is most of the work. ISA and Trees Are Good publish a series of tree care brochures intended for the lay public. Some Capitol Hill residents are lucky to have mature trees in their backyards and may wish to learn more about their care. Others may be planting new trees, possibly with support from DC’s RiverSmart Homes (http://ddoe.dc.gov/riversmarthomes) or Casey Trees (http://caseytrees.org/programs/planting/). 

One ISA brochure called “New Tree Planting” is the best I’ve seen on the subject. It outlines nine steps in tree planting that are not overly simplified, yet not too technical and is available online: http://treesaregood.org/treecare/resources/New_TreePlanting.pdf and for sale on the ISA web site. 

In nine simple steps you will find the most current thinking on this subject. The first is crucial: identify the root flare. This is the point where the straight trunk flares out at the base of the tree. Many growers will bury the root flare with soil or mulch, so you sometimes have to scrape away a bit of soil to find it. Plant your tree with the root flare exposed, not buried. This will prevent the tree’s bark from rotting due to soil moisture, exposing it to pathogens and insects. The roots themselves can and should be covered. 

Whether you appreciate trees from the ground or up in the air, there is always more to learn about these magnificent living things. 

Cheryl Corson is a licensed landscape architect in private practice serving Capitol Hill clients since 1998. www.cherylcorson.com

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