A few years ago, Emily Fisher didn’t know that tree care was even a profession.
Fast forward to today, and she’s an accomplished competitive climber and a certified arborist who’s running her own company, Missoula Tree Preservation. While her progression in the field has been rapid, none of it happened by accident: Rather, it was a commitment to gaining experience and education.
Graduation and beginnings
After graduating from the University of Michigan with degrees in environmental science and anthropology, Fisher took a somewhat unusual first job — working on Hotshot firefighting crews with the U.S. Forest Service. In retrospect, it proved a valuable experience.
“I learned to fell trees, and become really comfortable with a chain saw,” Fisher explains.
In graduate school, where she earned a master’s degree in forestry from the University of Montana, Fisher happened to join some friends on a project removing branches from a ponderosa pine. Apart from Fisher’s expertise with a chain saw, the group was inexperienced but nevertheless up for the challenge. It was in looking through a SherrillTree catalog for climbing spikes and other equipment for that job when she first realized that tree care “was an actual job.”
“I was kind of like a dog with a bone at that point; I just couldn’t let go of the idea,” says Fisher.
She made a decision from the get-go that she wanted to get into the profession, and took a job for a couple of years working with a tree care company in Missoula, Montana, and during that time quickly went to work pursuing International Society of Arboriculture certification.
“I bought books and started studying. It was a challenge, because I ended up with a lot of book smarts, but I hadn’t spent too much time in the field,” Fisher says.
Four years ago, after becoming certified, Fisher moved to Seattle, where there were greater opportunities to find employment and gain experience.
“It helped me immensely to be able to say that I had chain saw experience and that I was a certified arborist. I got a job in less than one day,” she recalls. “I was fortunate to get hooked up with a great company, Out on a Limb Tree Co.“
Working at Out on a Limb also provided Fisher a chance to learn from Kathy Holzer, whom she describes as a great mentor: “She took me under her wing and taught me a whole bunch — Kathy is all about doing good tree care for the long run.”
Over several years, Fisher learned the science of tree care and the art of climbing — and got some practical experience on how the business itself works.
She also got a chance to try her hand at competitive tree climbing. There was an international climbing competition in Portland, Oregon, and Fisher joined Holzer, a former world champion climber, as a volunteer at the event.
“I was standing around and they asked me to trial run the work climb tree, which was very funny because it’s a technical event and you really have to know what you’re doing,” Fisher recalls. “I was very nervous to climb in front of people. … Everyone involved was so supportive.”
Her local ISA chapter’s competition was one month later, and Fisher decided to enter. “I ended up doing pretty well,” she says. Fisher went on to twice represent the Pacific Northwest chapter at both the North American Tree Climbing Championship and the International Tree Climbing Championship.
Becoming her own boss
After several years of working in Seattle, Fisher began to contemplate her next step in the tree care industry. Ultimately, she decided that she wanted to move back to Montana and start her own company.
“I wasn’t sure at first that I wanted to have my own business,” she recalls. “But a friend asked me why I didn’t have my own company, and I realized that I couldn’t think of a good reason not to.”
Once she was ready to get Missoula Tree Preservation off the ground in 2014, things happened quickly.
“On my drive from Seattle back to Montana, I literally had people calling me and asking for estimates,” she says. “I still laugh when the phone rings, because I’ve never done any marketing or advertising. Missoula is a small town, so word of mouth really spreads.”
Fisher has chosen to start small; she is a one-woman operation with a single truck and trailer. “My gear is pretty minimal (including three top-handle Husqvarna climbing saws and a larger STIHL MS460),” she says. “People often ask if I have a bucket truck, or where my chipper is going to park. I tell them that I’m sort of like a tree ninja — I show up with my truck and trailer, and you might not even know I’m there until I fire up my chain saw.”
While additional equipment may come in the future, at the moment she is focusing mainly on smaller-scale pruning jobs and has managed to get by with what she has.
“I’ve gotten really good at loading a lot of wood into the back of my truck and trailer,” she jokes.
There is one aspect of Missoula Tree Preservation that Fisher hopes will soon evolve: “I don’t have any groundies; I recognize that that’s really unsafe and I certainly don’t advocate doing it, but I don’t have the money right now to pay for the worker’s comp for them,” she explains. “So I work by myself, and I know that’s a risk I take every day. I try to manage it as best I can; for example, always keeping my phone in my pocket. Over time, I would definitely like to add employees.”
Fisher says her experience as a woman in a heavily male profession has been very positive, and encourages other women to consider getting into tree care. “Physically, women can obviously do the job,” she notes. And the possibilities are wide open, depending on a person’s interests. “There are so many ways to be an arborist.”
For Fisher, it’s climbing that first attracted her to arboriculture, and she says that’s what continues to most appeal to her: “Climbing is what I really love about the job — I like to be outside, and I have a lot of energy, so my mind tends to wander and bounce around. But when I get up in a tree with a chain saw, everything else goes silent, and I’m just totally focused on what’s in front of me: the tree, and getting the job done safely and efficiently.”