SMA offers educational opportunities

Lisa Olson took in scenes such as this while visiting Slovenia.

Are you tired of studying arboriculture manuals on your own? A bit weary of online tools? There are other ways to expand your skills and try out new ideas.

One way is to work hand-in-hand with other arborists, but not just your colleagues or members of your professional association. You can work directly with someone whose locale and expertise complement your own—anywhere in the world. Best of all, you don’t have to save your pennies for decades to take part in this unique learning opportunity.

Learning from peers

A few years ago, members of the Society of Municipal Arborists (SMA, set out to make this type of peer-to-peer learning a reality. They envisioned a program through which one arborist struggling to battle sudden oak death, for example, could work with someone, on-site, who’d won that war. Since 2004, 22 arborists have participated in the SMA exchange program. Some are one-way exchanges, while other matches include a visit to both arborists’ home cities. Typically, the experience lasts one week.

“We wanted a way to spend additional time with fellow city arborists, to see in person what our colleagues were doing and how their operations worked,” says Doug Still, a Providence, R.I., city forester who coordinates the program. “Person-to-person learning has much more long-lasting impact than lectures and articles, although, of course, these are very valuable, as well.”

Matthew Wells found this to be one of L.A.’s more unusual trees.

An organizing committee selects annual participants from an applicant pool on a best-match basis. The goal is to match arborists with the skills and experience sought by applicants. Candidates must be SMA members who have been employed within the urban forestry profession, preferably as a municipal arborist, for at least two years. Co-applicants proposing two-way exchanges receive priority consideration, but the organization does plan to sponsor more one-way visits. Information and deadlines are published on the SMA Web site.

Round-trip transportation and most expenses are covered, thanks to fundraising and corporate sponsorships, and participants continue on their regular salary during the exchange. SMA conducts a silent auction during its annual meetings to help underwrite the program. Davey Resource Group was the 2009 sponsor, with Wane3000 Tree

Systems on board for next year. The number of trips granted varies each year, depending upon available funds and requested
destinations. Most participants have been Americans who’ve visited international locations including Canada, England, New Zealand and South Africa, and most stay in the home of the hosting arborist, sometimes leading to friendships and future visits.

During his 2007 exchange in Los Angeles, Matthew Wells, program manager for Trees and Sidewalks in New York City’s department of parks and recreation, was impressed with the quality of tree stock.

Still says SMA’s goals include participants having a unique opportunity to learn arboriculture problem solving and operational skills to share with their home cities
and colleagues. In addition, the time away from daily duties allows arborists to reflect on their own

“We often do not take adequate time to reflect on what works and what doesn’t, to think of better ways of doing things,” he adds. “The arborist exchange is a perfect time to do just that.”

From Wyoming to Slovenia

Although she has more than a quarter-century of experience in arboriculture, Lisa Olson, Cheyenne, Wyo., director of urban forestry, was eager to pursue an exchange opportunity. During the summer of 2008 she traveled to the tiny country of Slovenia in central Europe. She was hosted by Dr. Lena Marion of the private arborist firm TISA d.o.o., which cares for trees in the capital city of Ljubljana on a contract basis.

That’s because the nation doesn’t hire city foresters or municipal arborists. Outside the capital, state foresters, concerned professionals from the private sector, nature conservatory agencies and volunteers handle the work. Until 2006, the capital didn’t have a long-term care plan and had no requirements that contracted firms have professional credentials. Thus, if a less-qualified company outbid an outstanding one, the city’s trees could suffer significant damage from year to year.

Olson found that Ljubljana has problems similar to Cheyenne and other cities worldwide. Often, construction of buildings, roads and sidewalks leads to damage to tree trunks and roots. In addition, she says that many cities take their urban forestry programs for

granted. The larger municipalities in Slovenia have state foresters, natural resource personnel and arborists who recognize the need for a community tree management plan, as well as a point person to lead the way in tree care. Communities without formal programs face the loss of a valuable resource, the opportunity to continue planting and making positive decisions about trees for the future.

“In today’s world, with the fiscal constraints that cities are facing, my concern is cities with urban forestry programs might lose personnel or even their programs, thus putting stress on existing community trees,” Olson adds. “Those of us with programs have come a long way and we do not want to go backwards.”

Lack of arboriculture educational materials in the Slovenian language is another challenge. Olson hopes that Marion, who later visited Cheyenne and speaks English, can have U.S. best practices documents translated into her country’s language.

Matthew Wells had the opportunity to obser ve L.A.’s urban forestry team during his visit with George Gonzalez, the city’s chief forester.

Olson says the experience strengthened her understanding of the many similarities between countries and tree care around the globe. “The practices that we use day to day not only influence our programs, but have worldwide effects. The trees we plant, the water we use and the chemicals that are applied to the trees affect everyone and influence our climate,” she adds.

Olson picked up practical tips, as well. She hopes to implement the Slovenian practice of not using curbs around trees in parking medians and using pavers instead of asphalt or cement in other tree areas. She also admires their reduced use of chemicals and water on lawns as methods of reducing both costs and pollution.

“After the exchange, you bring back positive energy for what you do,” Olson says. “This energy and enthusiasm is then shared among your employees and your co-workers. You have a renewed realization that what you do day to day is so important worldwide.”

Going to California

In 2005, Canadian John McNeil spent a week working with Walt Warriner in Santa Monica, Calif. He’d met the municipal community forester when Warriner spoke at a workshop for the town of Oakville, Ont., where McNeil is a certified arborist. Impressed with Warriner’s accomplishments, particularly his “plan, check, review process” to mitigate construction damage to trees, he jumped upon the opportunity to learn more through an exchange.

Located near Toronto, Oakville has 165,000 residents, making it a bit larger than Santa Monica, home to 95,000, but a large number of certified arborists do business in Santa Monica, while McNeil’s hometown only has six. This, as in Slovenia, is partly due to educational and governmental differences; requiring certification for municipal contracts is more common in the U.S. In addition, Canadian urban forestry has no governmental support beyond the city level. There are no agencies comparable to the USDA Forest Service and related groups. McNeil found that his host city has far less open space.

John McNeil received valuable pruning cycle information, especially for palms, while in Santa Monica.

He was impressed with Warriner’s street tree management plan, especially the two to four-year pruning cycle for palms. Although his town has a three-year plan for line clearance, the remaining trees are managed on a reactive basis. McNeil welcomed input on the application of structural soil to improve tree habitat in commercial zones. He saw a site on which the city created an irrigated tree well design (with about 9 cubic yards of structural soil volume) that is successfully supporting the growth of Koelreuteria bipinnata (Chinese flame tree).

“Both Walt and I put a lot of care into our communities’ urban forests,” McNeil says. “We

recognize that to be successful, we can’t operate in isolation, and have to go out of our way to reach out to other departments within our municipal structures.”

Olson and McNeil agree that their exchanges are among their most valuable professional development opportunities and encourage others to consider participating.

“It is a unique experience that is magically inspiring,” Olson adds. “It makes me want to learn more about other practices in other places both close and far.”

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.