Web of Life and Systems Thinking All Bound Up in Soil, Roots, Limbs, Canopies

Inland Northwest's tree experts rate the state of the region's urban forests

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.

― John Muir

Tree Dialogues

Talking trees with the typical Spokane (Washington)  “tree surgeon/arboriculturalist” is like speaking to a philosopher/doctor/medicine man/geek all in one breath. These men and women have a passion for trees because they see each community’s health, resilience and psychological well being tied to robust and plentiful trees.

Emblematic of how a community or even family should thrive, a city’s vast mosaic of trees and runs of forests turns our ecosystem into a fully connected biological living history – past, present and future.

Some sentiments can be dry – urban forests are part of the green infrastructure of a community and therefore raise the value of land, homes, buildings.

Then there are global projects tied to bringing connected forests, parks and greenways back to urban places, called biophilic cities – literally “more full of nature” – which is greater than antidote to climate change and keeping cities cooler in the summer. Trees literally change the soul and soothe high blood pressure and anxiety.

As both modern and ancient visionaries say, it’s easier to create a desert than a forest.

Bending with the Wind

It’s both fortunate and unfortunate that the wind storm of 2015 has put Spokane’s urban forest on the front burner with the few trees that made the news after hitting homes. This is not where we should be as a community allowing this new baseline shift write future policies with the added fear of trees crashing down on homes, cars, and infrastructure, the dozen tree people tapped for this story profess.

One of the area’s foremost tree experts who started the city of Spokane’s urban forestry almost 20 years ago, Jim Flott, has some strong passions around the state of not only this city’s urban canopy but many cities’ flagging programs since he is now a consultant who works in the Pacific Northwest hired on by government agencies in counties and city halls, as well as golf courses, private homes, cemeteries and parks to inventory and assess current trees, and plan for more:

“The primary problem Spokane faces is the unnecessary removal of healthy trees. Ponderosa pines. Purely for not wanting to deal with the liter – pine cones and needles. This attitude is fostered by unscrupulous tree people who prey on fear,” the 60-year-old Flott said.

As a kid Flott accompanied his father throughout Omaha’s vast park system because his father was a professional arborist. Like the more than 20 arborists and tree experts Flott contacted for this article, Jim got interested in horticulture and trees when he was young. He went on to receive a master’s from the University of Arizona in forest pathology.

Tree Surgeon or Pathologist?

The tree doctoring field has advanced over the decades. “It’s not this guy with a pick-up truck and chainsaw anymore. Now, sophisticated processes and equipment are used to diagnose diseases and insect problems.” Flott likens the work to what a diagnostician for human medicine does.

The former City Urban Forester made a call out to professionals in the field and received responses to my questions from around a dozen, ranging from arborists identifying themselves as “someone who prunes and studies trees,” to urban forestry coordinator, forestry program manager, division manager, consulting/commercial arborist, and several commercial tree men, using their heads, tools and consulting along with that pick-up and chainsaw. These fellows and women use sophisticated mountain climbing gear to hoist themselves and equipment up 120 foot tall trees.

Ironically, all those who responded wanted their answers to remain anonymous, for various reasons, but mainly because many are critical of Spokane’s weak, lacking and sometimes inane urban forest policies and practices.

As is true of so many important policies and projects begging to be implemented, political and business forces can’t see the forest for the trees, so chronic under-funding of urban forestry projects and just missing the mark on the cost benefits of planting trees throughout a city, wherever they can be sited, is the norm.

Flott worked for the City from 1994 to 2005, and then embarked on his own, starting up Community Forestry Consultants, Inc. which, according to its commercial blurb, “provides arboriculture, community forestry, and horticulture consulting services for residential properties, attorneys, insurance corporations, universities, golf courses, utilities, counties, municipalities, and state government agencies throughout the US and Canada.”

In 1994, he was hired to manage Manito Park, but pitched the idea of taking on the role of urban forester. He helped rejuvenate the urban forestry council, started in 1979 by well known arborist (more like guru and sensei) Rich Baker and WSU professor Tonie Fitzgerald.

Flott secured funding for an urban forest inventory, counting the city’s trees in the summer of 1996. Ironically, Ice Storm 1996 devastated some of those trees, but the detailed inventory gave the city raw data which in turn garnered the city some mitigation funding from FEMA. Count that as $5 million from the federal emergency management agency for tree removal, clean up, and planting. All because of hard data.

“Our storm was so significant that FEMA discontinued the planting funding stream across the US.” Again, this is illustrative of the short-sighted thinking of politicians of every stripe.

Holistic Thinking Around Living Organisms

What makes a good tree man/woman? One of the experts responded with aplomb.

A good arborist is one that cares about individual trees as well as a whole neighborhood’s. Someone who can be invested in the long term health of a forest and its community. Someone with vision, who can see trees within a whole living ecosystem and help it to thrive. Someone who’s main objective is doing quality work before making a bunch of money.

On the flip side, hands down, the group of respondents agreed that poor arborists don’t further their knowledge because they don’t ask questions believing there’s nothing else to learn. Tellingly, this poor example of a tree surgeon doesn’t associate with other tree industry professionals or have a mentor. The same person who responded above added: “A poor arborist is someone who disrespects a tree’s history and beauty by making poor maintenance decisions.”

A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.

― Franklin D. Roosevelt

As all botanists and ecologists know, everything is connected, and an urban forest gives so much back to the community beside the aesthetics of impressive tree-lined streets and huge canopied parks and greenways.

We are talking about cooling and wind breaking services, added to the bigger benefits of erosion control, water filtration, and carbon capturing to mitigate climate change. The industry has some incredible professional organizations such as the International Society of Arboriculture tied to metropolitan and regional planning to make cities greener and healthier. “Trees Are Good” is a link to all those resources and professional and scientific tools to inventory an urban forest and to measure how effective those natural services an entire urban forest are in making a community healthy.

The biggest problems trees face are humans, Flott says. Big issues are poor planting, soils, pruning and way too much concrete and pavement hemming in trees’ natural course of root growth and other mechanisms.

Spokane is way behind the ball, according to the professionals surveyed. Spending money up front for planting trees in as many places as possible has incredible payoffs, and the value of that healthy urban forest is incalculable to the mental and cultural well being of the community.

“I see pines removed needlessly out of fear and the mess in a neighborhood,” Flott told me. “It’s the height of arrogance to remove one hundred year old species because you have a personal view and desires.”

Fear = Ignorance = Chainsaws

The 2015 wind storm was a linchpin to discussion with the arborists and tree pruners. Yes, wind speeds of 70 mph took out healthy trees and sick ones. The issue for Flott is more unscrupulous companies putting the fear of mother nature into people who might opt for cutting down healthy trees. Additionally, Flott likened the true percentage of downed trees to a real fine, small number: “Nobody knows how many we lost in the county, both public and private trees.” He stated that, for instance, if a million trees are in the county, say 10,000 trees were lost in the windstorm. “That’s .01 percent, a very small number.”

“The trees fared fairly well. These trees are generally safe,” Flott reiterated. “There’s no arborist in the world who can go up to a tree and state it’s safe.” However, with proper pruning, pest control and feeding and watering, trees in the Inland Northwest do well.

Tree Whisperer

The art of tree knowledge and urban forestry involves science, boots on the ground and outreach. Peeling back the urban forestry onion more, I spoke with retired WSU extension agent, Tonie Fitzgerald, whose roots spread back to Northampton, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, but who ended up in Pullman working on a graduate degree in plant pathology and horticulture. “I didn’t want to do hard core research or work in a nursery or tree plant. I was more interested in a systems approach to horticulture.”

That was 1978, and she ended up marrying Gary Ingram from Moscow and working in the field as an extension agent for Spokane County. “Spokane at that time did not have an urban forestry program or certified arborists.” She says she enjoyed the relationships and educational outreach she developed practicing her skills as extension agent with working people.

Ironically, the term, “urban forest,” is oxymoronic – cities-pavement-buildings go hand in hand with urban, and forest is about mountains, streams and green spaces, Fitzgerald stated. What the 61-year-old horticulturalist also brought to Spokane and the region was a conference, held annually, called the Inland NW Ornaments Conference the first two years, then changing to WSU Inland Turf and Landscape Conference and then, finally, WSU Turf, Tree, and Landscape Conference.

“We needed to increase the number of certified arborists, because so many companies did tree topping, tree removal and pesticide spraying.” Fitzgerald is proud of increasing both awareness within the profession and amongst the public with the common goal of placing value on trees — “Getting people to see trees as living organisms rather than structures to nail signs into.”

Flott, Baker and Fitzgerald worked tirelessly to have progressive policies put in place to grow the urban forests, to replace aging trees and to give the right species the appropriate growing conditions and care to increase the vibrancy of our street trees (another oxymoron, street and tree, Tonie Fitzgerald points out).

The East Coast native now calls this place home, but Fitzgerald discusses how New England was the first to institute urban forestry, in reaction to the Dutch Elm disease that wiped out many states’ street trees. Out west, the elm was not utilized for such purposes. She also states that in the Inland Northwest, it’s at first difficult to wrap one’s head around urban tree management when we have so much wild forest around us and on the edge of cities and towns.

Her biggest regret was not “marrying the science in my field with policy and politics.” Funding is the biggest issue now, as are so many other pressing needs of society – education, mental health, special education, policing and fire – Urban forestry funding takes a back seat to them all.

Fitzgerald likes to use maxims to illustrate her passion for education and for trees: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Then, as is true of most ecologists’ and horticulturists’ way of thinking, “You pull a carrot up and find it’s attached to the world.”

The Roots Speak to the Leafs

Climate, soil conditions, native inventories (species) and wider spaces for which to plant trees are important factors in a city cultivating robust and significant green spaces, both Flott and Fitzgerald agree. Knowing drought tolerant species, which native shrubs, grasses and perennials to use, and how landscape, rocks and soil dynamics can offset flooding and pooling toxins also play a huge role in what we call the city’s “green space.”

Fitzgerald gives Jim Flott high marks for taking the city of Spokane into a research-based and informed operating system tied to the urban forest. There are more certified arborists in the city, and more people are becoming aware of the dangers of topping trees and unscrupulous tree service operators advocating for unnecessary tree removal.

“There’s so much research now around the benefits of trees providing air and water filtering, shading, cooling. So much more research on the benefits of our green spaces than when I first started as the extension agent,” said Fitzgerald, pointing out she, her husband, Gary, and their dog, Fern, spend countless hours hiking the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, bordered by Gospel-Hump Wilderness to the northwest and Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to the North.

Flott, the other arborists who answered my questions and Fitzgerald all herald the truly responsive and keen arborists in our region.

One of the standouts Fitzgerald met 20 years ago as a young guy was Joe Zubaly.

He lives in Post Falls where his office is located. Great guy. His oldest son is named Forest! Joe was working for a Spokane tree company when we met, but in not too many years, he went on to establish his own company, Northwest Plant Healthcare, which remains one of the finest Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and tree care companies in the area. Joe is a champion of arboriculture and IPM principles.

There’s no argument from any of the arborists, horticulturists, and tree guys/gals when bringing up a very old Chinese Proverb to define their philosophical mettle: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Younger people, Jim Flott said, would be satisfied with a career in arboriculture because it has the best of all worlds – entrepreneurship, science, plants, face-to-face relationships, computer-based design, the outdoors, and the entire web of life and community appreciation.

Note: First appeared in Spokane Living Magazine, March 2016

Paul Kirk Haeder has been a journalist since 1977. He's covered police, environment, planning and zoning, county and city politics, as well as working in true small town/community journalism situations in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and beyond. He's been a part-time faculty since 1983, and as such has worked in prisons, gang-influenced programs, universities, colleges, alternative high schools, language schools, as a private contractor-writing instructor for US military in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Washington. He organized Part-time faulty in Washington State. His book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his autobiography, weekly or bi-weekly musings and hard hitting work in chapter installments, at LA Progressive. He blogs from Otis, Oregon. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.