Photo above: City of Salem tree crews crush roots, remove tons of irreplaceable biomatter from Englewood Park, May 23, 2017

 

When arborist Brian French visited Salem to present a workshop on tree care at the Englewood Forest Festival in July, he saw something that dismayed him. In the weeks prior, City of Salem tree crews had passed through Englewood Park, where the festival was held, and to provide public safety, had pruned every piece of dead wood on the Oregon white oak and Douglas fir in the park.

Certified Arborist Brian French climbs high up in a tree

The city says it took the measure to protect the crowd that was expected to attend the festival. But French cites recent research and studies that show that dead trees and limbs are not necessarily more likely to fall than live trees or limbs.

In fact, he says, “living parts of trees may be more likely to fail than dead branches, especially in oak trees,” he says.

In the course of his talk to festival attendees, French asked listeners to recall a branch that might have fallen in their yard in recent years. He then asked whether the limb was dead or alive. People acknowledged with surprise that the fallen limbs were more often alive than dead.

“Arborists mostly prune in parks for the purpose of public safety,” French says, “and dead branches are often the main targeted parts to prune. But they might not be the most dangerous because “it depends on each tree’s structure, species, environment, history and other factors.” Meanwhile, dead wood is essential for many kinds of wildlife.

French and other community members question the City of Salem’s absence of certified arborists and its lack of a Parks Department manager with horticulture experience. They even wonder if the way Parks and Recreation is placed within the city government hierarchy may have a detrimental impact on Salem’s trees.

Kenny Larson, Communications & Community Engagement Manager for the City of Salem, says that the city’s pruning in Englewood Park made sense. “Our tree crew is aware that live limbs do fail due to hidden defects or ‘spontaneous limb drop,’” Larson says. But “given that live limb failure is difficult, if not often impossible, to predict, deadwood is an obvious choice to remove hazardous exposure to the public.”

The ability to correctly evaluate the subtleties of live and dead parts of trees, French and others argue, requires extensive knowledge and ongoing training that most City of Salem tree workers lack. French is particularly concerned that Salem has no certified arborist on staff. “In this day in age,” he says, cities “should require certified arborists to conduct our pruning and urban forest management… the City of Salem should lead by example and require their tree care staff to hold this credential at minimum.”

Salem has carried the “Tree City USA” title, conferred by the Arbor Day Foundation for cities that meet standards of sound urban forestry management, for 41 years, longer than any other city in Oregon.

Unlike Salem, the Cities of Eugene, Beaverton and Corvallis – also Tree City USAs- hire exclusively certified arborists as full-time urban foresters.

To obtain certified arborist certification with the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), an individual must generally have worked three or more years in arboriculture or have a degree in a related subject area from an accredited educational institution, and must pass an exam. To maintain certification, he or she must meet continuing education or training requirements at conferences, seminars or colleges.

Scott Altenhoff, Urban Forestry Management Analyst for the City of Eugene

Scott Altenhoff, Urban Forestry Management Analyst for the City of Eugene, with 10 certified arborists in its Urban Forestry department, says the department is “very proud” of that fact. Fifteen years ago only a handful on the Urban Forestry payroll were certified, but many in the community – and within the Parks and Open Spaces division where Altenhoff works – advocated for the change.

“Having everyone certified is a way to improve the quality of work we do,” Altenhoff says. “It ensures we’re all on the same page and shows we’re following best management practices.”

Jon Pywell, Urban Forester for the City of Corvallis, says all three of the city’s full time tree staff are certified, arborists. “It is always beneficial to have continuing education for people who work with trees,” he says.

Jon Pywell, Urban Forester and Board Certified Master Arborist for City of Corvallis Parks and Recreation, loading milled lumber in 2016

The problem for Salem is that the city has judged it can’t afford the cost of hiring and maintaining certified arborists, Larson says. Salem’s Urban Forester, Jan Staszewski, has held the certified arborist certification in the past, “but for budgetary reasons, the City no longer pays for him to maintain the certification,” Larson says.

Without a doubt, a certified arborist costs a municipality more. Pat Hoff, Lead Arborist for the City of Beaverton – where all Urban Forestry staff are required to be certified arborists – says, “You pay more, but you get a better employee. More well rounded and educated.” Hoff estimates non-certified tree workers draw about $3/hour less than certified arborists do.

In Corvallis, Pywell isn’t sure the City pays a higher hourly wage for its certified arborists, but says the city does “generally pay the costs for conferences and other continuing education requirements needed to maintain certification.”

All arborists Salem Weekly spoke with reflected enthusiastically on the experience of attending ISA conferences or otherwise continuing their learning. “You get top notch training there,” Hoff says. “People around the world attend and share ideas on the mechanics of trees, the biology of trees, the stress of trees and what make a tree fail.”

Salem’s lack of accredited staff devoted to its trees is a concern of others beyond French. “Salem had an excellent parks department,” says Ellen Stevens, member of the South Central Association of Neighbors (SCAN) Historic Preservation, Parks & Gardens Committee. “It would be wonderful if the city would [again] hire parks staff with horticultural experience and invest in its employees so they could maintain and upgrade their skills.”

Gretchen Carnaby, Project Coordinator for Friends of Bush Gardens, was recently concerned by the appointment of Jennifer Kellar to be Parks Operations Manager for the City of Salem when she had no training in horticulture-related fields.

“It is counterintuitive to me that the head of parks management would not have any training in parks maintenance or horticulture experience,” Carnaby says. “Yes, that person can rely on existing parks staff for guidance within the ‘department’, but how does that person advocate for parks across the aisle within Public Works or at higher levels of government?”

City of Salem mowing practices wound Oregon white oaks in Bush’s Pasture Park, 2017

In recent months, SCAN members have expressed concern about the violent way City staff mows the grass at Bush’s Pasture Park, creating gashes in the trunks that impede the translocation of nutrients and promote disease. The group also reacted with alarm to the invasive manner that City of Salem staff working on pathways earlier this year tore roots and compressed the critical root zones of Oregon white oaks.

“All of Salem’s parks are currently under-maintained,” Carnaby believes.  “This is a city management issue, and they’ve chosen to provide a level of care that does not meet the needs of the parks.”

City crews tear roots, violate tree space, impact soil improperly in Bush Pasture Park, 2017

Currently, Salem’s Public Works Department, the same entity that constructs and maintains roads and utilities, manages the departments who work with city trees. Some advocate restoring an independent Parks & Recreation Department, which was lost in reorganization by a past City Council.

“The city needs to create a Parks Department,” says Stevens. “It’s too much to ask our Public Works Department to management all the hard assets such as streets, bridges, sidewalks – and also care for living things.”

Tree advocate Kathleen Moynahan agrees. “The City of Salem needs a better tree department or commission to follow through on what’s happening with our trees,” says Moynahan, who objects to the recent cutting of trees on Liberty. “The city likes to take down trees. But they don’t seem interested in monitoring or preserving their growth when they’re alive. I don’t know how we’re still a ‘Tree City,’ frankly.”

For the city to emphasize best tree practices with pruning, mowing and other tree care and for it to pay urban foresters and department leaders to acquire and maintain their certification – requires funding and will. The undermaintainance of Salem’s parks and trees has evolved “in part because we, as taxpayers, are underfunding parks,” Carnaby says. “The city’s primary focus is not excellence in our parks but on managing limited dollars across a large park system.  They aren’t going to change until the public tells them otherwise.”

Carnaby believes the expense would be worth it. “All of our parks are critically important to the wellbeing of our community,” she says. “They provide places to seek solitude and inspiration; a place to experience the healing effect of coming in contact with nature… We owe it to ourselves to ask for a better level of care for these public gems in the heart of Oregon’s capital city.”