What’s right vs. what’s profitable

When Vic Foerster received a request for a tree risk assessment from a valued client, he never imagined it would be one of the toughest evaluations he ever did. For a certified arborist with years of experience at West Michigan Tree Services, it seemed like a routine, straightforward job.

The homeowner asked if the large American beech situated close to his vacation home was safe. Foerster used an IML Resistograph to perform the assessment. The test revealed a tree trunk with a shell of only 3 to 5 inches of sound wood surrounding a central cavity roughly 30 inches in diameter. That left Foerster with the question of just how much wood was needed to support the tree. In addition, the tree was leaning, albeit away from the home, and had a large hole at the trunk’s base.

Interestingly, the trunk opening may be one reason that Foerster didn’t immediately declare the tree unsafe, as other professionals suggested. That aperture, large enough to be entered, was a treasured play spot for the homeowner’s children, who later shared it with their own kids. The whole family had picnicked under the tree; it was a part of the family. They wanted to save it, if possible, and Foerster understood that.

After researching the strength of beech wood and consulting with other arborists, he told the client that the tree was on the borderline of being considered safe. Given that news, the homeowner hired Foerster to remove the tree.

“I have never wrestled over the fate of a tree as much as I did [with that one],” Foerster said. That’s because the situation meshed ethical, legal, best practices and even emotional, considerations.

Arborists’ obligations

As Foerster learned, the “right” answer isn’t always clear, and every answer may lead to more questions. So, how is an arborist to conduct business?

Certainly, there are OSHA regulations, ANSI guidelines and local ordinances that dictate laundry lists of dos and don’ts. While they sometimes are burdensome and expensive, most are necessary to protect tree care workers, the public and trees.

“What’s the alternative?” Foerster said. “It is a pleasant fiction to think that we are good enough to police ourselves.”

Government and industry standards are pretty clear. However, with the ethical questions, things get a lot trickier. Sometimes, a legal act is an unethical one.

“It’s not against the law to misdiagnose a tree problem in order to recommend more expensive tree care services,” Foerster pointed out. However, if the client realizes what’s been done, that’s one client down the drain, along with the 10 people he tells about the incident.

He said his top ethical obligations are to be accurate with diagnosis and service recommendations; provide a safe working environment for employees; and perform professional, quality tree work. Brandon King, an extension assistant with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, added knowledge of, and adherence to, regulations, along with accepting responsibility for any violations, to the list.

Keeping it straight

Part of King’s work helps the North Carolina tree care industry and related fields stay apprised of current ordinances. King said the ordinance project was initiated as more and more issues affected the industry and the public. He cited a situation in Raleigh, N.C., in which a landowner was fined substantial sums for having trees cleared in what turned out to be part of the city of Raleigh’s Highway Overlay District.  The total was so large that the property owner ended up donating the land to a state park. The consulting forester involved claimed not to have known about the regulations.

To assist with such difficulties, King and others developed a database of applicable regulations, down to the county and city level (www.ces.ncsu.edu/nreos/forest/ordinance/index.html). Other states, including South Carolina and Georgia, offer similar services. Check with your cooperative extension service or forestry service for local resources.

Other tools for staying current include electronic and print communications from appropriate organizations, trade association meetings and government meetings. Local information can be obtained from zoning or planning departments.

“Remember not to act based only on what you read or heard from someone regarding an ordinance. Get your guidance in writing to protect you and your client down the road,” King advised.

Running an ethical firm

It isn’t difficult for arborists to slip up despite their best intentions. After a day of seeing several cases of apple scab, an arborist could easily miss the correct diagnosis of fire blight on the next job. Some consumers fail to make the effort to engage a qualified firm that is properly insured and follows industry standards.

Sometimes, though, more than oversight is involved. What happens when the regulations, ethical standards and best practices just don’t mix?  Foerster faced that situation while working with a university.

The school has a large number of ash trees infested with emerald ash borer. As the trees are an integral part of the campus, officials are interested in saving them. Research is showing that a new experimental insecticide gives close to 100 percent control, but it hasn’t received federal approval. However, Foerster can’t delay treatment until the new product is approved.

“Do we use a less effective product? Our answer to this is yes,but it’s tempting to circumvent the law on this one,” Foerster said.

He’s also encountered circumstances in which meeting a customer’s request just isn’t a good idea or simply will not be effective. For example, a client may want trees pruned enough to allow grass to grow beneath, but an arborist knows that the situation is such that no amount of trimming will allow that.

“Part of being an arborist is telling people what they can realistically expect from trees and leave the decisions up to the customer,” he said.

Ponder this: do ethical standards change over time? According to Foerster, they do.

“We once thought that the only good bug was a dead bug. Thirty years ago, we would blanket landscapes with a combination of insecticides and fungicides to ‘protect’ their trees. We know better now,” he said.

Exploring ethics isn’t just a philosophical pursuit; it has practical sides as well.

“If we want to upgrade the reputation of the tree service industry, then we need to pre-think through difficult or sticky tree/people/ethics questions,” Foerster said.

The author is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C.