President's Perspective - Winter 2019-2020

By Molly Sinnott on Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Remaining relevant and competitive

Our industry is ever changing and adapting to new markets, trends, technological developments, realities, other pressures, or opportunities. My point being, is that if you’re not on top of things, you could find that you’re no longer competitive. In the past few years, the western states have been racked by wildfire and fire scientists have been trying to determine the causes, and to develop strategies to reduce the threat of wildfires in urban areas, set within or adjacent to forests, woodlands, or other densely vegetated habitats. The number and magnitude of wildfires has escalated over the last decade, due, in large measure, to past management practices, particularly fire suppression, which has resulted in dense, stagnating stands of trees. Climate change which has significantly lengthened the growing season has also been implicated. Trees are subjected to dry conditions for a longer period than in the past. The recent long-term drought has precipitated widespread mortality throughout western forests, greatly increasing fuel-loads. For most us, this is something new we need to consider.

Like our fire fighters, we are on a fast learning curve, because things are changing quickly. When I worked for the Nevada Division of Forestry in the 80s and 90s, I was an Insect and Disease Specialist, and spent much of my time working in the Lake Tahoe Basin interacting with other state, county, and municipal agencies, the local tree service companies, and the public. My role was to provide information regarding best management practices for a number of forest health issues, such as construction near trees, bark beetle outbreaks, and several root diseases. I also participated in fighting wildfires, providing education to prevent fires, doing reforestation work after fires, and overseeing fire-prevention efforts. After leaving state employment, my focus turned to consulting with respect to forest insect and disease problems on residential and commercial properties in the Lake Tahoe area.

Most ecologist report the health of western forests appear to be in decline, perhaps due to longer, hotter summers, and past management practices. Despite heavy rainfall last year, and the prospect of another wet year, our forests are still suffering from the effects of the long and severe drought that ended last year. That triggered major bark beetle infestations throughout western forests.

In the 1980’s, I trained with experienced USFS Forest Pest Management entomologists and plant pathologists, and learned that natural, low level tree mortality was beneficial and resulted in thinning crowded forest stands, improving the health of the remaining trees. Certainly, at times, there were bark beetle outbreaks, but they didn’t last too long and the forests quickly recovered. The impacts of climate change on forest ecology are becoming more and more apparent.

The risk of wildfires throughout western states has increased due to widespread tree mortality over the last few years, the result of a multi-year drought, and a longer growing season. Bark beetle populations increased to outbreak levels due to an abundance of susceptible trees. Crowded forest stands with heavy fuel loading, e.g., standing dead trees, dry brush, and heavy accumulations of dead plant material, particularly toward the end of the summer, when moisture content is extremely low, greatly increase the chances of intense fires. When strong winds are added to that formula, you have the conditions that contributed to the recent spate of extremely fast-moving and destructive fires in and around urban centers, as well as natural forestlands. In light of this more recent trend, there is a growing demand for arborists to perform site assessments, provide tree appraisal, do site restoration work, or provide advice following these fires. There is also a need for implementing defensible space and installing or replacing landscapes using fire resistant plant material, reducing fuel load or altering spacing and arrangement of vegetation.

To remain competitive, arborists must keep up with trends and look for opportunities in the industry, such as the ones I’ve just discussed or in some other specialty. The problem is that most arborists lack the training and or experience to wade in. Arborists, though, have access to specialized training classes like the new TPAQ (Tree and Plant Appraisal Qualification) domain, designed to assist them when using the new 10th edition of the Guide for Plant Appraisal. There are also classes and a TRAQ (Tree Risk Assessment Qualification) that can help you become proficient when doing risk assessments. There are many sources of education: regional meetings, the WCISA and ISA annual conferences, ASCA ( American Society of Consulting Arborists) and TCIA (Tree Care Industry of America) seminars, and, of course, a number of publications, podcasts, CEU articles, for professional growth.

What’s next on our professional horizon? What do we see in the near future that could affect trees in urban areas or those in the urban-rural (intermix). It’s important to keep a broad perspective when determining what subjects are likely to be of value or relevant to you. And it’s also important to continue developing the skills most relevant to your work or specialty.

Be observant, consult with industry partners to see what they’re doing, what they’ve learned, or get their perspective on how things are evolving. A fellow arborist recently said to me “We don’t live in a vacuum and don’t have to contend with the same issues year-after-year?things change”. For example, there has been a parade of new insect and disease problems affecting urban and woodland trees within the 4-state region, and the strategies for managing our ‘old favorites’, changes from year-to-year. Arborists also have to keep abreast of updates to the ANSI A300 Standards for Tree Care and ISA Best Management Practices. Furthermore, we have to keep our eyes open for new developments and research findings that can change how we deal with issues or the advice we provide. Connect with your colleagues and industry partners. Look into what is happing elsewhere. It can provide useful insight. It pays to be aware, so read the literature. Even the older papers can provide some useful insights.

I quickly searched the Internet and found there are well over a 100 websites devoted to fire management and understanding the factors involved in the recent fires in the western United States. This is a new focus for arborists. If you are not learning about how fire affects trees or investigating the role arborists can play, you may be missing an opportunity. There is cleanup work, tree removals or pruning to mitigate fire damage, but beyond that there are opportunities to provide other relevant services. Sometimes it’s necessary to put together teams of arborists who experience assessing damage. Some of these teams are contracted for months-on-end. Some teams evaluate fire damaged trees on residential, commercial or municipal properties or larger sites providing recommendations to the local communities or possibly FEMA. These can be stressful jobs and require working long hours, and often under hazardous conditions.

Understanding how trees respond to different levels of fire damage (heat injury or actual charring) to the trunk and crown is critical to offering prudent advice. I’ve found, from site to site, trees vary in terms of damage, with some charred and already dead or soon to be, while others will likely recover. Some trees suffer only minor damage and need little or no follow up care. Monitoring is needed in cases where survival is uncertain. It’s important to know that charred trees don’t necessarily need to be removed. That’s what careful assessment can help with. Knowing what to look for, such as species tolerance to charring and other damage, and how they respond is vital to providing accurate recommendations. This will take some effort and time on the ground. If you lack the experience, try to work with someone who is experienced in that type of work. It’s also important to take notes and photos while you’re learning. If this is something that appeals to you, now is the time to get involved.

Molly Sinnott