Arborists keep Sacramento connected to nature

By Brandon Darnell
Sacramento, CA (July 30, 2010)- Maintaining Sacramento’s 100,000 trees is no small task, and with seven positions likely to be cut next week, the Urban Forestry tree maintenance staff will be stretched even thinner.

“We’ve gone from about 58 full-time-equivalent employees to 28 since 2005,” said Urban Forestry Manager Joe Benassini. Those 28 positions are currently filled, with another eight technically on the books but not staffed. Benassini said the department has not been filling positions vacated through attrition in anticipation of the budget problems and has yet to lay off any employees. But unless an agreement with unions is made by Aug. 5, some staffers will be let go.
Residents at the July 19 Area 1 Neighborhood Advisory Group raised concerns that tree maintenance staff was being unfairly targeted while pruning staff was being kept on the job. Benassini said Thursday that in the attrition the department has seen over the past five years, more pruning staff has been lost than maintenance staff, and the department needs to keep a balance.
“The truth is that the skill sets don’t translate both ways,” Benassini said. “I can take a pruner and have them plant trees and do basic maintenance work, but I can’t take an arborist and teach them how to rig and climb and prune trees. It’s much heavier, more-skilled work.” Benassini was quick to add, however, that arborists are essential to the city, and he hopes the current situation is not permanent.
So what, exactly, is an arborist? The city currently has two positions classified as arborists, but there are many on staff who are certified as arborists, according to Benassini. That certification means employees have passed a test to ensure they have the level of expertise to properly maintain a tree. “It’s not as thorough as a college degree in botany, but it means they are qualified,” Benassini said. “Our arborists really deal with trees on a tree-by-tree basis,” Benassini said, comparing them to having the same job in Urban Forestry as a surgeon has in a hospital.
When arborists are dispatched to deal with a particular tree, Benassini said that nine times out of 10, it is to water the tree. Pointing to an English Elm tree near City Hall Thursday, Benassini said that when the tree was planted sometime in the late 1800s, the streets were dirt and the trees were largely maintained by residents. “People had a better understanding of how things grew,” Benassini said. “They knew how to garden and they understood the soil. It’s not as common today.”
Linda Tucker, spokeswoman for the Sacramento Department of Transportation, which includes Urban Forestry, said the city may be seeing the need for a paradigm shift in which residents take a more active part in caring for the trees, as arborists can’t fill the need for all 100,000 of them. Having residents help with the watering would allow the arborists to focus on the more specialized parts of their jobs, including root pruning, inspections of trees, helping developers determine the proper amount of trees and their placement and putting the right tree in the right place.
To help with their work, arborists now have aerial maps of all of Sacramento’s trees and computer records of the status of their health and other information. That was all brought in over the past two years, Benassini said. But will residents actually take the time to water the trees around their properties? Tucker said she thinks so. “Even tenants (renting from absentee landlords) should see the trees right outside their houses,” she said. “It doesn’t take much to bring out a hose and water a tree once in a while.”
Pamela Frickmann, a community forester with the nonprofit Sacramento Tree Foundation, agreed.
“I think they would be willing,” Frickmann said. “I think that they are unaware that it is becoming more their responsibility. They’re not aware that maybe the city can’t come out as often as they would like, but everyone would be willing to do that, I would think.” Tucker said the city will still be able to maintain trees even if no agreement is made with labor unions, but calls for service will be answered within a couple of weeks instead of a couple of days. Tucker and Benassini agreed that the trees are a critically important part of Sacramento. “It’s what makes Sacramento livable and not a sea of rooftops,” Benassini said. “It’s our connection to nature.”

Related Resource:

Sacramento Press- Arborists keep Sacramento connected to nature