Doug Johnson, owner of Organic Tree Services, Inc., Asheville, North Carolina, grew up climbing trees. His father and uncle still harvest the family’s sustainable 2,000-acre lumber operations in northern Idaho. “When I realized how my dad was able to keep replenishing the land with new growth, I decided to apply his methods to the tree service business and help protect one of our country’s greatest assets,” Johnson says.

He admits he’s got a long way to grow. “We have four employees and two arborists other than myself and one bucket truck, an ’89 Hi Ranger 466 diesel with a 58-foot boom. It gets plenty of use. When we need something bigger, we lease it,” he says. “When the derecho [straight-line damaging winds and rain] hit in June, causing all the power outages, we rented a crane and did some amazing work. Limbs weighing 7,000 to 10,000 pounds were torn from the trunks of trees and crushed two nearby cars. One car was purchased the day before and its roof was flattened to the frame. Luckily, no one was hurt.”

Before picture of 104-year-old honey locust with 4-inch thorns (this is rare as this trait has been bred out of the species), lots of dead wood. Photo: Organic Tree Services

One of the single biggest differences between Organic Tree Services and other companies in the area is how they disposed of those gigantic tree limbs. “We take all salvageable wood to the lumber mill for processing. Just this week, we’ve taken a white oak, cherry and hemlock for processing. We try to re-use what has been taken and not run everything through a chipper. It’s one of the important qualities of an organic tree company,” he says.

The 104-year-old honey locust after Organic Tree Services removed the dead wood. Photo: Organic Tree Services

Johnson’s holistic methods go further than recycling the trees that he harvests. “Our manifesto is pretty simple: We dedicate ourselves to mechanical removal of bugs when possible. We do not chip diseased detritus on the property; we physically remove it. We do not use chemicals; we even stray from organic products such as horticultural oils. We do not inject systemic treatments. We work with a tree’s own healing properties, and alter trees for the sun and shade factor each species prefers,” he explains. “If a young tree has an excurrent growth pattern [single main trunk] we prune it to eliminate a possible secondary trunk. For example, if the mature tree height is 30 feet, a single trunk should dominate to at least 20 feet. If the tree has a decurrent frame [several large scaffold appendages], we will trim the tree at about two-thirds the way up and take the appropriate steps to complete the proper pruning process. Again, if the tree is excurrent, we will begin by pruning the lowest branch. If it is decurrent, we start the process at the first flight of scaffold branches.”

This massive poplar in Asheville, N.C., was hit by lightning during the 100-year storm in May 2012. Photo: Organic Tree Services

Johnson is not prudish about his company’s organic operations and realizes that most tree service companies offer quality services that are effective and, in most cases, improve the environment.

“We don’t condemn any other tree companies for any action, and have seen the systemic treatments alleviate hemlock woolly adelgid, sprays work on mites, etc. We just don’t want such chemicals on our property, and don’t want to impose it on others,” he notes.

Johnson says, “If we can free up space for the sun and rain and soil to work together naturally, then the tree’s immune system can solve many disease and pest problems.”

Limbs from a poplar hit by lightning, some weighing up to 8,000 pounds, crushed two cars. Photo: Organic Tree Services

Organic Tree Services provides removal, pruning, brush clearing and tree thinning. “About 40 percent of our business is in tree removal and another 40 percent in trimming. Our niche market is upper income residential communities, where more and more people are becoming aware of environmental issues and have the disposable income to affect changes that will help save their trees. If a tree is pruned properly early on, there is a good likelihood that it will grow straight and limbs will not go askew. We can save a good many trees if we get to them early enough,” says Johnson.

The company does take on larger jobs. “We also did a state job, dismantling 91,000 juniper and pinion. The purpose of the job was to make room for competing browse species such as magnolia, Mormon Tea, cheat grass and others that the elk and deer like to eat. This project was performed on a strategic 600-acre plot of land to prevent animals from roaming across a series of freeways,” he explains.

Johnson will travel far and wide to meet his passion for saving and recycling trees. “We went out to Salt Lake City to help restore an historic 106-year-old honey locust. This tree was grown before scientists developed honey locust without its natural barbs, so it was really rare. The tree had never been trimmed, so we took out cross branches and dead wood. Hopefully the honey locust will live another 25 years,” he says.

Limbs from a poplar hit by lightning, some weighing up to 8,000 pounds, crushed two cars. Photo: Organic Tree Services

“When I worked in the family business, I traveled out to Washington State University, kind of incognito, to clear out some Douglas fir and ponderosa pine; the pine had been infected by pine beetle. A demonstration started at Kamiak Butte Park, which is recognized as a National Nature Landmark. When we arrived, the college kids were protesting the removal of their beloved forest. It was a small farm of aspen, about 140 acres, and the students were convinced that we were doing the forest harm. Nothing could have been further from the truth; we were removing brush and beetles that had infected the competing pine and Douglas fir trees. We were there to help save the aspens,” he explains. “Anyway, we didn’t want to make an international event out of it, so we left. We returned a week later and the kids were gone, so we got busy and completed the job. We had to take down about 10 percent of the trees. A week after that some kids showed up to protest the upcoming dismantling of their forest not knowing that we had already been there and did what we had to do. A television reporter compared film of the forest when the protesters were there the week before with film of how the forest looked in its present condition and realized what had happened. When they reported the news, the students left quietly. It was really pretty funny; I doubt that they will be protesting arborists in the future. And, of course, our company is well known for the work we’ve been doing over the past five years out in Utah with the aspen population. I’m very proud of the mark we’ve left there.”

Johnson continues to climb trees and will for the foreseeable future. “In North Carolina, when you hire a new tree service worker, 38 cents of every dollar you pay is in workmans’ compensation. That tends to keep tree service companies in the area pretty small.” A 20-year veteran of the tree service industry, Johnson learned his craft in the mountain west areas of the country. The ISA-certified arborist and TCIA member is gratified that his methods have been so broadly accepted in North Carolina. “Our objective is kind of like the one in the Hippocratic Oath, ‘first do no harm.’ And then we try to figure out the best way to handle that particular job safely, organically and quickly. Most trees have a natural healing element in their DNA. We try to work with the tree’s natural healing ability to produce a healthy and beautiful outcome,” he says.

“I tend to utilize Ushba Mountain Works ascenders. They provide me a sense of security, are lightweight and incredibly strong,” notes Johnson. “And our guys use the single-rope technique [SRT] on most job sites, of course, each job has its own particularities.”

The company is now in its seventh year. “We like our position in the community. The work we do is important to us. We offer quality maintenance services, and in cases of diseased trees or lightning and storm damage we remove trees that are unsafe and use that lumber to create something needed,” says Johnson. “Slowly, we are beginning to make our mark and are educating the public on the practical methods of organically treating trees.”

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in September 2012 and has been updated.