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By Sam Levin
A day before the competition, a team of climbers scaled the oak to trim hundreds of small boughs of deadwood from its branches. Lying on his belly at the end of one limb, staring straight down at the ground 75 feet below, Abram Zies, an arborist from Dallas, clipped a branch with a handsaw, watched it float to the ground and yelled to no one in particular, "This tree is awesome!
"It's a good one," he added. "I won't forget it anytime soon."
A jogger stopped to behold the scene. "Oh, my goodness, he's high," she murmured, slack-jawed.
"Some people are very comfortable at their desk in their office," notes Jim Bassett, a contest judge. "That's the way these people are in a tree. That's their work environment: They're putting their lives on a piece of string."
There are just two trees outside the global headquarters for the International Society of Arboriculture: a tiny pair of alders perched next to the parking lot of the flat-roofed, single-story building. Inside, the artifacts on ISA executive director Jim Skiera's wall more appropriately reflect the nature of the organization: a rusted band saw, a coil of old-fashioned climbing ropes and a Wisconsin license plate that says "MR TREE."
Seated behind his desk, Skiera, short, with a head of silver hair and the powerful shoulders of an ex-climber, recounts a recent trip he took to China to meet with that nation's arborists.
"The population density is so high that they're pushing to improve living conditions by literally planting billions of trees," Skiera says. "From our perspective that's great that they're planting them, but you have to care for them or it becomes a liability."
Skiera goes on to explain that the organization is encountering similar problems in cities around the world. Leaders who want to appear environmentally friendly are quick to approve funds to plant new trees but loath to allocate enough money to care for those same trees ten years later. "We're trying to get cities to understand you don't just throw it in the ground and walk away from it."
To combat the problem, the ISA partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to develop a computer program called i-Tree that places a dollar value on the benefits a town's trees provide each year. Among other things, i-Tree calculates how much shade a tree affords.
"If pavement is shaded, it lasts two to three times as long," says Skiera. "That's a huge savings for the city. At that rate a $4 million budget for tree maintenance makes sense. In the past, $4 million for trees would be wacko."
Greg Hays, St. Louis' forestry commissioner, says the city doesn't have the i-Tree program, but he has no trouble totting up the benefits of an urban tree canopy: "Our trees provide oxygen, soak up carbon, reduce storm-water runoff, reduce utility costs, beautify the streets and add to property values."
According to Hays, who's a certified arborist himself, the city's forestry budget is approximately $7 million. In addition to paying for the removal of weeds and debris from parks, that money goes toward maintaining the 120,000 or so trees that line St. Louis' streets and fill its parks. Hays says the city plants more than 3,000 trees annually and removes nearly the same number.
In a testament to the strength of the city's urban forest, the National Arbor Day Foundation has named St. Louis a "Tree City USA" for 27 consecutive years in acknowledgment of its arboreal commitment.
Hays says city workers do very little climbing; most maintenance is performed from trucks equipped with hydraulic bucket lifts. Still, he says with obvious pride, "Anybody that inspects a tree in the city is a certified arborist."
By Jim Skiera's count, there are more than 21,000 ISA-certified arborists worldwide. That number represents only a fraction of the estimated 300,000 people who work in the tree-care industry.
The organization is expanding rapidly, particularly abroad. The ISA receives more than 4,000 applications each year from tree workers hoping to become certified arborists. In addition to passing an entrance exam, the ISA requires a minimum of three years of in-the-tree experience before a person can apply for certification.
The climbers at the International Tree Climbing Championships do not use spiked boots. Spikes damage the tree, the very thought of which makes arborists cringe. They are so emphatic about preserving the health of the trees that climbers are docked points for breaking (or in some cases even bending) limbs. Most of the time climbers don't even touch the tree until they are 60 feet into the air, having scaled a rope dangled from the upper limbs.
In order to get the rope into the tree, climbers use what's called a "throwline": a thin, lightweight string weighted on one end with a pouchful of BBs. With the weight dangling at his side from about yard of string, the climber throws his hand straight up, sending the line up and over the limb and back down to the ground.
In competition, throwline skill is tested by having contestants toss the string through forks in limbs about the size of a lunch pail at distances between 40 and 60 feet above the ground. Competitors have six minutes to set two throwlines, with lines through higher targets earning more points.