Ildar Sagdejev
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The Evolution of Utility Arboriculture

Feb. 11, 2014
It was some time back in the 1980s that the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) set about bringing professionalism to arboriculture via a certification program.

As I watched from the sidelines, it was clear there was a lot of energy for it, but it brought to mind that Stephen Leacock line “He flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.” It was a grand idea but this nascent idea soon veered toward the ditch.

It was some time back in the 1980s that the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) set about bringing professionalism to arboriculture via a certification program. With the need to develop course material, there were soon arguments over pruning terms like heading back, heading and thinning cuts, drop crotching and flush cuts. From my perspective, it looked like the whole process might be mired in arguments for years. It was also infuriating that these same volunteer pioneers were simultaneously casting aspersions upon all previous pruning practitioners.

My degree in horticulture and work in horticultural research informed me that we already had definitions for these terms. The demonizing of flush cuts still gets my dander up. It was understood in horticultural circles that the intent was to make cuts just outside the branch collar. Flush cuts was the term that happened to be applied to communicate this. When you place the term in the context of time, it was not wrong.

In the winter of 1965 and from there onward to 1969, when I was away at university I spent every winter weekend cutting out dead wood and pruning fruit trees. Back in those days chainsaws were considered both too big and expensive for this work. We used pruners and Swede saws. If you lay the head of the pruner against the main branch to make a thinning cut, the thickness of the pruner head resulted in the cut being made just outside the branch collar. Take the Swede saw and try to cut inside the branch collar. Your knuckles will quickly be so bloodied that you will learn cutting outside the branch collar gives just enough room for your knuckles to clear the main branch.

From this shaky argumentative beginning, however, arose something that has greatly improved tree care. The ISA certification has been a resounding success. Not only has it increased professionalism in the tree care industry but these professionals have greatly enhanced the education of the public through communication of proper tree care practices.

For a long time my focus has been on utility pruning. Back in 1980 to see good utility pruning was rare. I’d estimate it at less than 10%. It was common to see round-overs. That was the customer -friendly utilities. There was a third group and it formed a large component of the utility industry. Their pruning really couldn’t or shouldn’t have been called pruning. It consisted of topping, hedging, etc., in other words, random internodal cuts leaving long stubs and non-viable trees. The odd thing was that as utilities began shifting to good pruning practice they came under heavy media fire as tree butchers, accusations being levied by an uninformed public and media. Fortunately, they stuck with it. By the late 1990s the industry was so much improved that if you randomly happened upon a utility, chances were somewhere in the 50-70% range that you would see good and proper pruning being practiced. Now the movement started back in the 1980s is close to complete. It is rare to see poor utility pruning. I would currently estimate it at 5% or less.

So a shout out to the ISA, the Utility Arborist Association, the many academics who supported the development of the certification process and the people, the contractors, who do the actual pruning work. You have transformed an industry. You have achieved your goal of bringing professionalism to the industry. Well done.

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