Mass Tree Wardens Welcome

The MA Tree Wardens’ meeting on January 9-10, 2024 offered opportunities for learning, networking and fun. The state is different, some of the terminology is different, but New York and Massachusetts share most of the same concerns and have much to teach each other.

View to Sturbridge Host Hotel Pond

Occurring, as it happened, between the first two major winter storms of the year, the conference also provided an opportunity for reflection on the day-to-day demands of any job requiring tree cleanup.

First came the snow. Sturbridge Host Hotel, the long-time venue for the Conference, offered a picturesque view over the property’s pond.

Tom Brady

The TV news featured warnings about wind and rain that would descend the night between the conference’s two days of lectures and other activities. A certain tone was set by master of ceremonies Tom Brady, a special advisor to the Association, as attendees filtered into the ballroom where all the scheduled events would take place.

Brady held up his cell phone. “I know you all have one of these,” he told the group. “And I know that given the weather — anticipated wind events, the possibility of having to clear branches from roadways — yours may ring. Please silence your phone and leave the room if you need to take that call.”

Seeded through this write-up are the brief responses of attendees to two vital questions. First, What is your biggest satisfaction in your work with tree? Two, What is the greatest challenge you face? As much as tree people have in common, their answers reflect our diversity and independent spirit.

Abigail Phelps. Satisfaction: I like when you plant trees and a couple of years later you get a sense of what they’re going to look like. Challenge: Watering.

Abigail Phelps, Nothampton DPW, Brooke Reginier Northampton DPW
Arthur Goodhind, Past President, Tree Warden Association

Arthur Goodhind. Satisfaction: In DPW, when we do landscape and it’s readily available to the public, and people really appreciate it. Challenge: The ever-changing climate. It’s always something. You might plant the right tree in the right place, then someone runs over it. Weather always wins.

Founded in 1913 as a forum for municipal tree managers to share their concerns and to promote the preservation of public shade trees, the Massachusetts Tree Wardens’ and Foresters’ Association has since expanded its mission to encompass preservation of the entire urban and community forest. Its membership, reflected in the composition of the four hundred people registered for this 2024 conference, now includes not only “tree wardens” but city foresters, utility representatives, commercial arborists, education professionals and citizen tree advocates.

Some deeper history: since 1899, Massachusetts General Law has mandated that all cities and towns in the Commonwealth employ a tree warden who is responsible for trees on public property. The word “warden” was a common title for natural resource officials in the late 1800s, and it signified a unique legal responsibility: to guard public resources against destructive forces that might include persons, insects or diseases. To this day, the Tree Warden title remains unique to the six states of New England.

Some of the 400 in Attendance
Erica Holm, Urban Ecologist, Mass Audubon

Erica Holm. Satisfaction: When you do a project planting trees with kids. Challenge: Everybody working together successfully, happily – it’s not always easy to get everybody on the same page.

Francesco Ferrini

The audience heard an in-depth, intelligent keynote by Dr. Francesco Ferrini, “How Urban Green Can Help to Mitigate the Hazards and Risks of Climate Change Impacts.” Professor Ferrini, based in the Department of Agriculture, Food, Environment and Forestry at the University of Florence, explored the multifaceted benefits of urban greenery, and laid out a roadmap for building resilient cities — and, by extension, nations.

Nearly seventy percent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, said Ferrini, “so the future of humanity is urban.” We need to answer the question, “Who will the cities be for? I think they must be of the people, planned for the people, cared for by the people.” Our work on green issues must be SMART, he said: “Specific. Measurable. Achievable. Relevant. Time-based.”

A primary goal must be mitigating the heat island effect. “European heat waves killed more than 61,600 people in the summer of 2022.” Soil sealing with asphalt result in an increase in surface temperature, while more green infrastructure lowers urban heat. The answer, said Ferrini, ”is to plant more trees, strategically — but it’s not so simple.”

One arboreal phenomenon he critiqued was the practice of topping trees. “I hate topping,” he said. “Every single day I fight against topping.” Why? “Through research, we found out that plots with topped trees versus others had nine degrees difference in temperature.”

Christopher Olbrot. Satisfaction: Getting down a hazard before it happens. Challenge: Pleasing residents.

Christopher Olbrot, Town of Boxfod

Italy, Ferrini told the group, is the most polluted country in Europe. Covid rates rose in its three most populous cities mainly because peoples’ constitutions were weaker. The country’s premature death toll is also among the highest in the world. He pointed out that 43,000 deaths each year in Europe could be saved through added green initiatives.

“Plant blindness is crucial now in terms of increasing biodiversity,” he said, as is soil health, including that of urban soil. “Our life depends on the first six inches of soil, so when we cover it with concrete we decrease our life span.” He pointed out that ninety-nine percent of microbes protect us against the unhealthy one percent.

How to act to increase biodiversity? “Greening urban areas is not just planting trees,” he concluded. We need to determine which species are most protective of human health. In sum, Ferrini appealed to urban planners, policymakers and communities to champion the green city movement, emphasizing that the path to a resilient future is paved with trees, parks and sustainable urban landscapes.

Ferrini Presentation

Glenn Johnson. Satisfaction: Getting more people to use biodegradable products. Challenge: Awareness. That they know these products are even available.

Glenn Johnson, GoGreen Tree Care Products
Guy Shepard, PES

Guy Shepard. Satisfaction: Going and seeing communities that are proactive in terms of planting trees. Challenge: People not really wanting to do the planting.

Addressing local issues that were equally pressing for this audience, Julie Coop gave an update on current state program highlights, speaking from her vantage as the Urban & Community Forestry Coordinator at Massachusetts DCR (the equivalent of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation).

DCR programs parallel those in New York State, with some differences. Grants exist for inventories, community tree plantings and to secure professional staff, she said. The state also gives Tree City awards and has planted 40,000 trees this year through its Greening the Gateway Cities program. She noted that the state’s Legacy Tree Program honors “the big, cool, historic trees in your community.” She also suggested that people stop by the DCR table to pick up a nifty rain gauge “that can also serve as a pour measure” for the cocktail reception that would follow the day’s events.

Julie Coop
Elm Zig Zag Sawfly

On the technical side of the field, DCR Forest Health Director Nicole Keleher opened by saying, “It’s my job to focus on the bad stuff”: beech leaf disease, emerald ash borer, fire, frost and other “damage agents.” The newest invasive, she said, is the elm zigzag sawfly, “an all-female population — they don’t need males to reproduce.” First observed in Becket, MA in 2023, it is so far contained in forested areas.

Another outbreak is that of the southern pine beetle, native to the lower regions of the U.S. but moving northward as the climate warms. Other familiar pests include the emerald ash borer, spongy moth and the hemlock woolly adelgid. Keleher offered some good news about the Asian longhorned beetle: “We have not found one infested tree in either 2022 or 2023.”

Jen Werner, City of Northampton Urban Forestry Commission

Jen Werner. Satisfaction: Enormous impact on the environment. Challenge: Looking around and seeing poor mulching and improper planting.

Doak Marasco, Urban Forester, Davey

Doak Marasco. Satisfaction: Connecting communities to the benefits of trees. Challenge: We really need to communicate to people that there’s a science to tree care. Tree care should not be commodified. We need to hire qualified professionals.

Dawn Toon

Dawn Toon of the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards spoke about the risk of hearing loss in the tree field.

“If someone gets their finger cut off,” she pointed out, “it’s obvious. But hearing loss takes place gradually.”

She explained that noise is considered “hazardous” when it reaches 85 decibels, according to OSHA. Hazardous noise “can interfere with communication, cause fatigue or be distracting or irritating,” she said, and explained the proper use of ear plug or muffs.

Hearing Damage
Debbie Merriam

Debbie Merriam, director of the Mary May Binney Wakefield Arboretum in Milton, MA, gave a talk on “Citizen Science: An Effective Tool for Forest Management.” Merriam told the story of a tracking project in a wetland, when “ash trees fell due to emerald ash borer and invasive species took over.” Two hundred fifty volunteers contributed to the ten-month-long project by collecting data on phragmites, garlic mustard, buckthorn, multiflora rose, bittersweet, barberry, burning bush and Japanese knotweed. “I wanted to get people outside and understanding the relationship between different plants,” said Merriam. “Ninety-five percent had never been out in the field before.”

Ken Lacivita, Brookline

Ken Lacivita. Satisfaction: Getting younger people trained, keeping them safe and looking out for the people around them. Challenge: Teaching people that aren’t tree people.

Consultant Mark Dunteman spoke on “The Use of Logical Fallacies” — addressing why the task of conducting a risk assessment on a tree can have a significant amount of uncertainty and how professionals can anticipate certain arguments that might arise in any tree-related conflict. The owner of Natural Path Urban Forestry, Dunteman provides guidance on projects in North and South America, Asia and Europe, and serves as an expert witness in numerous tree-related litigation cases.

The logical fallacy, he explained, “is a statement of facts that contains error in reasoning. It’s a common tool for presenting a point of view or information in the hope that the opposite side does not see the truth.” For one example, he described a codominant stem of a maple failing and injuring a gardener, after which the plaintiff brought up over a dozen logical fallacies.

Dunteman described a few categories of logical fallacy. One basic argument, he said, is that “because a particular tree failed, it must have been a ‘hazard’.” In actuality, every single tree in the landscape has the potential to cause harm. Tree Risk Assessments are opinions about the likelihood of a trail failing. In most cases, counterintuitively, “when a tree fails the risk is actually low. They’re harder to discern.”

Another logical fallacy is “ bifurcation” — in other words, asserting that  there are only two possible outcomes, when really many exist. Risk, he said, is about uncertainty, and dozens of variables are always present and fluctuating. Another logical fallacy: “loaded words that are used to elicit a response.” For example, he said, the words “defect” or “hazard” which “actually exist on a spectrum that can range from benign to severe.”

Another fallacy — and one most everyone in the room could relate to — Dunteman called “argumentum ad nauseum.” The speaker summarized, “Saying it twelve times does not make it true. Prove it.” Why is it necessary to watch out for logical fallacies? “Unchallenged, logical fallacies become fact.”

Dunteman ended with a joke: “When a tree falls in the woods, does anyone hear it? Answer: The attorney always hears it.”

Mark Dunteman
Dunteman Presentation
Dean Charter, Retired Tree Warden, Acton

Dean Charter. Satisfaction: I planted a lot of trees when I started in 1970 – seeing trees that were 2 ½” DBH then and 30” now, that’s the biggest long-term impact. Challenge: Resource allocation – never enough time, never enough money and never enough people.

Ryan Hunt, Tree Warden, Acton

Ryan Hunt. Satisfaction: Being able to clean up and maintain the older trees. Challenge: Time. Money. Help.

One presentation focused on an extremely serious topic and was entertaining to boot.  Beth Brantley, a scientist with Bartlett Tree Research Laboratories, addressed the subject of beech leaf disease, introducing her lecture as “the joy of beech.” Current biological threats include phytophthora, beech bark disease, wood decay pathogens, foliar feeding arthropods and beech leaf disease. She covered all of them, speaking about current research and management strategies.

But first she focused on why we ought to care about the beech. She shared some of its history and culture: the species was a hallmark of Frederick Law Olmsted’s park designs, its wood is diffuse and porous so it burns well and is easy to split, and has many commercial uses, from cabinetry to flooring to wooden spoons. It is also critical to beer brewing. “What makes Budweiser special is that beech is used in the lagering process,” she told the group.

There is also the tree’s beauty. “They develop these amazing crowns,” she said, “and are so spectacular.” A beech, Brantley said, citing the childhood experience of Jane Goodall in her grandmother’s yard, “is a tree that is just begging to be climbed.”

Beth Brantley
Rich Parasiliti, City of Northampton

Rich Parasiliti. Satisfaction: Meeting new people and sharing my knowledge of tree planting and tree care, and watching their faces light up when you talk about the context of trees, how they operate sort of like the human body. Challenge: Actually getting the message out about how to take care of trees proactively.

She went on to summarize some of the enemies of the beech today. The woolly beech leaf aphid, a non-native, feeds primarily on European beech. Pathogens include armillaria, Ganoderma, and Kretzschmaria, which resembles “a great big blob of burnt stuff.” Unfortunately, Brantley said, “beech is not a strong compartmentalizer” and so is especially vulnerable to these phenomena.

She showed an image depicting one of her favorite bands, Rush, to the enjoyment of the audience, and the band’s pertinent lyric from “The Trees”: There is unrest in the Forest.

Which led to her discussion of beech leaf disease. “There is no other pathosystem like it in the world, caused by a nematode that attacks the buds and leaves, and we don’t have anything yet to combat these foliar nematodes.” One leaf, she emphasized, can be host to 10,000 nematodes. She shared images of “zebra striping” and said, “This is important. When these leaves unfurl they will have these symptoms, and these symptoms remain the same over the growing season.” With the next year comes distortion, leaf crinkling, dying buds and thick, hardened leaves.

Is there any workable plan to counter BLD? “Fluopyram is the golden ticket,” said Brantley. “It causes the nematodes to go into paralysis and then they die — What a great way to kill those things!” It might be possible to treat beech hedges and smaller specimens effectively; not so much large stands. She ended on a sorrowful note: “I fear for the influx of additional invasives in our forests as we lose our beeches.” Offering counsel to the tree people in attendance, Brantley concluded, “What to do? Mulch. Control the nematode. Focus on important trees. Plant a new tree now.”

Rush Lyric
Nat Cooney, Consulting Utility Forester, Kaila Marti-Woodson, Utility Forester

Nat Cooney. Satisfaction: There’s nothing that trees can’t do, so working with trees is a great way to help communities on small and big levels. Challenge: Public perception of what trees mean and how they affect things. The forest and the trees are different.

Dana Miller,Town of Brookline

Dana Miller. Satisfaction: If you look at it as being a tree custodian, the before and after. Challenge: Weathering attitudes.

Conference participants woke up on the meeting’s second morning to find that the predicted storm had been less severe than expected, and so while individuals’ basements had flooded, municipal emergency work was lighter than anticipated. The ballroom filled as it had the day before.

“We all know we’re in a dangerous profession,” master of ceremonies Tom Brady remarked to the room. “We were all ramped up for wind last night. And what did we get? Rain.” He expressed his satisfaction at the conference’s makeup. “I see much higher diversity in terms of age, gender race and background in our field than I’ve seen before,” he said, “and that makes me happy.” He requested that a group of high school students in attendance stand up. He asked for an audience show of hands: “Who here is hiring? There is opportunity for you in this field,” he told the kids. “Thanks for joining us today.”

As on the previous day, raffles rewarded attendees with pruners, hand saws, chainsaws, ball caps and sweatshirts.

High School Students
Squishy Souvenirs

And there were squishy souvenirs.

Barry Moser Wood Engraving

Presenters received beautiful wood engravings by artist Barry Moser.

Food for Thought

All left with food for thought.

Sabrina Leifert, Arborist, Sheffield

Sabrina Leifert. Satisfaction: We’re just taking care of them. We’re only here for a short time and trees just keep on going. Challenge: It’s physically exhausting at times.

When all was said and done, the Mass Wardens had put on a great conference.

There was, however, one minor disaster at the Host Hotel. Outside in the parking lot, the Sturbridge DPW cleared away a pile of branches from a fallen tree. Wind? Rain? No, a semi turning around had backed into the tree and felled it.

“Ironic,” said one conference goer.

“In front of four hundred arborists!” said his companion.

“It happens,” said Tom Brady.

It Happens
Scott Hathaway, Westfield City Tree Warden

Scott Hathaway. Satisfaction: A tree that I’ve pruned and see it years later and Wow, I knew what I was doing. Challenge: Lack of work force, pervasive at every level.


John Moran, Registered Consulting Arborist

John Moran. Satisfaction: Saving trees for people. Preserving trees for future generations. Challenge: Global warming. Our diversity of trees is going to have to change, and we have to look at what we’re going to plant in the future.