Treetop Adventures

By Francis Skalicky | June 2, 2001
From Missouri Conservationist: Jun 2001

For Noel Boyer and Danny Beasley, trees are both a career and a sport.

Most weeks of the year, the two Greene County residents can be found somewhere high in the trees above Springfield. Boyer, a tree climber for Springfield-based T-N-T Tree Service Inc., and Beasley, a clearance tree trimmer for City Utilities of Springfield, spend much of their days pruning branches, inspecting damaged limbs and performing a variety of other tasks associated with the tree care profession.

Their jobs keep them busy but, for one weekend each June, their work becomes a game. Boyer, Beasley and others in the tree care industry from Missouri and seven other states gather in St. Louis to match skills in the International Society of Arboriculture's (ISA) Midwestern Chapter Regional Tree Climbing Championship. The winner advances to international competition.

The name "Tree Climbing Championship" is a misnomer of sorts because the six-event competition encompasses more than just climbing. It's a modern equivalent of old-time lumberjack contests, except without the log-rolling or tree-sawing events. For Boyer, Beasley and other participants, the contest is a chance to use their work skills competitively. From a broader perspective, the ISA competition is an opportunity to show the public that there is much more to tree pruning than scaling a trunk and yanking a chainsaw cord.

"You have to know a broad range of things," said Beasley, a Republic resident who has finished as high as second in the regional competition. "You have to know the characteristics of different hardwoods or softwoods-how sturdy they are, where they break, how they're going to break. You also have to know roping, rigging and other mechanical things."

Speed factors into the scoring, but the contest isn't merely a series of races. In the five preliminary events and the final Masters' Challenge, climbers earn, or lose, points for safety. This may sound like a lot of skills to master, but they're essential skills for an arborist.

Arborists are tree care experts who devote their attention to individual trees rather than tracts of timber. To an arborist, rope work, safety practices and knowledge of various tree species must become second nature because broken limbs, paralysis or death are never more than one bad decision away.

"Everything we do in the competition is based on what we do every day," said Boyer, a Springfield resident who won the 1998 regional contest and finished 22nd in the world championship in Birmingham, England. "I don't practice for this. I consider the work I do is good enough practice."

That may be true, but the ISA competition isn't just another day at the office. For starters, athleticism is as important as skill. That's evident in the first two preliminary events, the belayed speed climb and footlock. The belayed speed climb is sort of like a reverse ski slalom in which the climber follows a rope that winds 60 feet up a tree. The footlock is a 40-foot speed climb straight up a rope. Arborists use these skills everyday, but you need to be in good shape to make the quick, strong pulls and lunges required to win.

The next preliminary event is the "throw line." This accuracy contest requires participants to throw a weighted line at targets placed at 40-, 50- and 60-foot heights in trees. Beasley says this is the easiest event, if you can call hitting a 3-foot-by-5-foot target at these distances easy.

Next comes the "aerial rescue." This is a simulated rescue of a dummy from 25 to 30 feet up in a tree. The event is timed, but contestants are also graded on safety. The fifth preliminary event is the "work climb," which simulates how a trimmer works a tree.

The five participants with the top cumulative scores from the preliminaries advance to the Master's Challenge. This final event requires climbers to employ all the skills they demonstrated in the preliminaries in one climb. Experience is as important as athleticism in this event. Once again, the judges aren't looking for who's the quickest at doing the tasks in the master's challenge-they're looking for who does them best.

Although the arborists come to the ISA contest to compete, the event isn't merely a test of tree skills. It's also a trade show for showcasing new equipment and a forum for arborists from different states to talk shop and swap ideas.

"I enjoy competing at these events," Beasley said, "but also, by going to these competitions, you see and hear about new equipment and new skills that might not be used in your area. The ISA competition is a chance to learn new techniques and new methods."

"One reason we have the competition is to show our organization off to the public," said Jim Skiera, the ISA's associate executive director. "The other is to let climbers learn about new techniques."

Boyer and Beasley began working on their tree techniques long before they turned them into a career. Boyer's kindled his forestry flame during his childhood days on his family's farm near Fair Grove. Tree climbing and tree houses were simply part of being a kid on the heavily timbered acreage. Beasley's grandfather, Ernest, manned the first fire tower in Texas County and began operating a tree farm in the 1930s. Danny's father, Verlin, has continued the family tree farm operation and was named the Missouri Department of Conservation's state tree farmer in 1982.

"The whole family's just rich in conservation history," said Conservation Department district forester Gary Smith, who has helped the Beasleys on many projects. "Verlin has worked with every forester that has been assigned to Texas County."

"I've known Danny since he was a little kid," he added, "and I remember him being around whenever we did things. He had an interest in all their farming enterprises, and trees were a big part of their farm."

At 6-foot-6, Beasley isn't so little any more, but he hasn't outgrown his interest in tree work.

"It's physically strenuous work and mentally strenuous, too, but it's very interesting," he said. "Things are never dull."

Boyer agrees.

"The part I like about this job most is its variety," he explained. "I don't sit behind a desk. There's something different every day. It's still exciting to get up in a tree and be hanging on that rope. That little bit of nervousness you're feeling is half the fun." However, he knows this type of fun can't last forever.

"Tree climbing is hard on your body," he added. "It's not something I can see myself doing for the rest of my life. In the future, I would like to get more into the consulting side of tree work."

Consultation may not be an event in the ISA competition, but it's an important part of an arborist's job. It's becoming increasingly important in urban areas where homeowners are more interested in caring for the trees in their front yards than the timber on their "back 40." That, in a nutshell, is the difference between arboriculture and forestry.

"Arboriculture deals more with individual tree care, whereas the term 'forestry' usually refers to the management of a collection of trees," said Lisa Allen, the forestry field programs supervisor for the Conservation Department. "In the past, most forestry efforts were geared more toward rural forest issues, and arborists worked in urban areas. Now, however, more and more emphasis is being placed on urban forestry.

"Events like the ISA Arboriculture Competition helps spread appreciation of trees," Allen said. "The more publicity these events get, the more the general public realizes that trees are resources that need to be managed."

"At this time, the Conservation Department has five foresters on staff that are ISA-certified arborists," she continued. "The Department's link with ISA has been professional, and it's been a good relationship."

Arborists and foresters both have the same mission-to promote good tree care. Regardless of whether they're involved in day-to-day work or once-a-year competition, that purpose doesn't change.

Like the ISA competition, this mission can be a tough climb.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer