Washington State Parks' arbor crew goes out on a limb for trees

State Parks’ professional arbor crew blends science, technology, philosophy and good old-fashioned tree work to ensure public safety and service parks’ oldest, most vulnerable residents

“What is your earliest tree memory?” Washington State Parks Arborist Mik Miazio asked a group of visitors at Millersylvania State Park.

Most of those park-goers recalled climbing or planting trees and eating fruit from neighboring orchards. Grandparents’ houses and parents’ backyards were common themes.

Trees and forest ecosystems are among Washington’s icons and treasures. Washington State Parks owns 120,000 acres of land, much of it forested. More than 35 million visitors enjoy 125 state parks every year, and many travelers equate state park vacations with camping in the woods.

Washington State Parks’ six-person arbor crew serves the parks’ oldest and quietest residents, the trees and shrubs that make parks extraordinary. In doing so, the team provides visitors with a safe, healthy environment, and it preserves natural spaces for future generations.

Despite Miazio’s question to the Millersylvania campers, most park users don’t interact with the Arbor Crew. But the public does see signs of this crew’s work: rustic wood fences around old-growth trees, re-plantings after fires, well-pruned hedges and wood chips or mulch at the bases of trees.

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A wide scope of work

The State Parks Arbor Program is split into two teams of three. One trio handles eastern Washington; the other manages the west side. The two units tackle bigger jobs as one team. Both crews travel hundreds of miles a month. They are responsible for a diversity of arboriculture that ranges from the yew and madrone trees of the San Juan Islands to the Ponderosa pines and Engelmann spruces of the Blue Mountains.

With a small group and a vast territory, the Arbor Crew concentrates on improving safety in state parks. They assess trees for disease, defects, damage and other dangers, and they remove trees deemed high-risk.

The east side crew thins trees and branches that might otherwise act as fuel for wildfires; they use a chipper or “masticator” (chewer) to make mulch and woodchips of the downed limbs. They also prune for preventative maintenance and beautification, and they replant trees and shrubs in the first or second spring after a fire.

The west side crew deals mainly with tall, old-growth trees in densely forested parks. In winter and spring, they remove fallen trees after storms.

In addition to work in the parks, the crew takes jobs for Washington State Department of Transportation, Department of Fish and Wildlife, Department of Natural Resources and other state agencies. These departments have different missions than that of State Parks, so the arborists may be asked to remove healthy trees that threaten power lines or obstruct a highway widening project. One of the six arborist positions is funded by these contracts.

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A dangerous and dirty job

The State Parks arborists possess tremendous knowledge and skill. Crew members are certified by the International Society of Aboriculture, which requires a baseline of work experience, examination and continuing education credits. Their training covers such topics as mycology, botany, climbing and use of machinery. The team members all have commercial driver’s licenses, certification that allows them to drive trucks and tow heavy equipment.

Two eastside members, team lead Ryan Smart and his colleague James Gouldin, have years of power line clearance experience. Joe Phelan of the west side and Sam Neukom of the east worked at national parks (Mount Rainier and North Cascades, respectively). Miazio and Neukom did educational programs with local and national conservation groups. Phelan and west side team leader Brian Barberg studied chemistry and biology in college; Phelan also studied physics, a bonus for the team when it comes to rigging and climbing.

According to Parks Arbor Program Director Rob Fimbel, the risks the group takes to maintain state parks should not be underestimated. “These guys are the best in the field, but it is one of the highest-risk positions at Parks,” said Fimbel. (A 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics report listed tree work as the deadliest job in America.)

Barberg agreed. “People don’t realize a stick a few inches around can knock your teeth out,” he said. He listed falls, falling branches and equipment failures among the dangers faced by tree workers. “A lot of accidents happen late in the day when people are hot, tired and dehydrated,” he said.

The work itself is grubby. After a hot day cutting, moving and chipping tree limbs at Maryhill State Park, Smart’s face was caked with dirt. “Sometimes our work environment smells like fresh cut wood, and sometimes it smells like a mill,” said Smart. “It’s dirty, sweaty physical labor.”

Their 10-hour workdays can turn into 12 and the east side drives get blazing hot or cold and snowy, while west siders deal with rain and traffic snares. They also may be on the road for an entire work week.

“We have very tolerant families,” said Phelan.

Though they rib about car time and grime, they enjoy geeking out about tree species, life spans (a bristlecone pine can live 4,000 years), clone trees and photosynthesis. The crew also praises technology as a time saver and risk reducer.

“Technology is an assist,” said Barberg, demonstrating a new spider compact crawler, a narrow machine with a basket that extends 90 feet in all directions.

The crews use laser rangefinders to measure tree height from the ground, and resistographs, which drill tiny holes in trees to detect hollow spots. They also operate bucket trucks, skid steers and chainsaws.

“It’s great to be part of an organization that invests in this type of equipment and training,” said Miazio.

The right philosophy

Aside from the nerd factor and the agency’s investment in training, certification and continuing education, Gouldin appreciates the philosophy behind the arbor program.

“The work is not as production-oriented as some private-sector jobs,” he said. “We are not trying to make money for a company; we are making parks safe and taking care of trees.”

Barberg wishes his crew could do more to improve the health of existing trees. He’d like to use grafting techniques to repair and preserve historic orchard trees. He’d like to hire additional teammates, but he understands budget constraints, and he looks on the bright side.

“It says something about Washington State Parks that we have an arbor crew,” he said. “It says something about the state itself.”

Tree memories

As the day wound down at Maryhill State Park, Smart shared his earliest tree memory, a foretelling of his profession. When he was 6, his father handed him a saw and told him to trim the spruce trees in the backyard. The young Smart ended up cutting off most of the lower branches. “He didn’t give me much direction,” he chuckled. “So we had palm trees.”

Phelan’s early experience led to a life in the outdoors. His father took an outdoor adventure class, practiced rope setup and climbing in a backyard tree and taught his son what he knew. The young Phelan later climbed rock, ice, caves and bigger trees.

Miazio recalled a specific pocket of New York, where he grew up. “You know you’re in a poor neighborhood when you don’t see trees,” he said. The realization empowered him to find his path. “People need to see trees,” he said.

Gouldin and Barberg weren’t so lucky in their youthful arbor adventures.

Gouldin: “I jumped out of a tree and landed on my stomach. I thought I was dying,” he said.

Barberg: “I was 10 years old playing Tarzan, swinging from a tree in my yard. I woke up on the ground and my collar bone was sticking out,” he recalled.

Barberg laughs about it now. “Trees teach us a lot,” he said. “That was a good lesson in gravity.”