Peek behind-the-scenes with a Pittsburgh arborist this Arbor Day

Ben Adams is an arborist in Pittsburgh who spends his days climbing, examining, and protecting our local trees. The Marshall-Shadeland resident gave us a peek behind the scenes of the job, plus some cool tree facts you can show off this Arbor Day.

What’s daily life like as an arborist in Pittsburgh? What are the different things you do at your job?

Every day is different, which I love. Our company, Elevated Tree Care, offers a variety of services from tree pruning to root collar excavations (a process that removes excess soil and mulch from the base of tree trunks, may help save your trees). For the last several years, I was mainly working in plant health care, where I diagnosed and treated trees and shrubs.

My favorite thing to do at work is climb. I’m still a novice climber so I leave the big scary stuff for Alex Kasprzak (the owner of Elevated Tree Care), but climbing is so physically and mentally stimulating that it’s hard not to feel satisfaction after climbing and pruning a tree.

Our work is also partially dictated by season. Because of some common tree diseases, we only prune elm and oak trees in the winter when the trees and pests are dormant.

What made you want to become an arborist? What fascinates you about arboriculture?

I really became interested in arboriculture when I worked for Western PA Conservancy as a member of the Gardens and Greenspaces staff. One of our responsibilities was to help with spring and fall neighborhood tree plantings run by TreeVitalize (a program housed within the Community Forestry department at WPC). This quickly became my favorite part of the job, and after a few years I had the opportunity to attend an arborist short course which is designed to prepare you to take the International Society of Arboriculture exam.

So after a few years of planting trees and teaching volunteers how to plant trees, I became an ISA Certified Arborist. Overall, I think I really wanted to become more specialized and becoming an arborist would allow me to focus on one, albeit expansive, part of the environment.

Would you mind sharing some Western PA tree knowledge with our readers?

Our state tree is the Eastern Hemlock. Unfortunately, the Eastern Hemlock has a prolific pest called the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid which is invasive and from Asia. It’s easily identified by the bright white fluffy egg sacs on the needles.

Since a study was done by National Geographic in 2014, which revealed that Pittsburgh had 42% tree cover, the city’s urban tree cover has been dropping. Can you tell us more about why that is?

So there have been some pretty in depth tree surveys done in the area which point to a variety of reasons as to why we’re losing canopy. I believe pests, disease, and development are the biggest factors.

Unfortunately, trees can often be thought of as a nuisance. Trees block views, drop leaf litter and fruit, buckle concrete sidewalks and “get in the way” at golf courses. Because of this trend, our company really focuses on tree preservation to enhance, maintain, and grow Pittsburgh’s urban tree cover.

Of course we know that trees help to combat air pollution, but can you explain more about how our urban forests contribute to the health of our city?

There are lots of different studies out there that document the many ways in which trees benefit our cities both environmentally and economically. Trees increase curb appeal and therefore property values. Trees create shade, which can drastically cut down on heating and cooling costs. Trees mitigate storm water runoff which reduces soil erosion and flooding.

Those are just a few examples and I would encourage everyone to check out a really great tool that estimates the benefits of any given tree at the Arbor Day Foundation’s website.

As an expert, what can you tell us (admirers of trees) about how to assess the health of a particular tree or wooded area?

Pay attention! Does your tree look as healthy as it did last year? There are lots of indicators that hint at the health of a tree and the more information you can relay to an arborist the better. Normally, when we are called to look at someone’s sick or declining tree, it’s an issue that has been going on for a number of years and then are expected to figure out what’s going on with it after only seeing it for a few minutes.

Also, keep in mind what’s happening underground. Trees have extensive root systems that when damaged can be a death sentence. I would say one of the biggest issues we see is that the trees weren’t planted properly, which then leads to a whole slew of issues down the road.

What will you be doing this Arbor Day?

Working! With COVID-19 still being a thing we aren’t attending any sort of event, but we will certainly be working with trees. I believe we have some pruning on the schedule for Arbor Day.

How do you think Pittsburghers should recognize this day?

I think taking the time to enjoy the trees on their streets and in their neighborhoods is a great way to recognize the day. In non-COVID-19 times, there are most definitely going to be events throughout the city doing tree plantings, tree giveaways, and tree education open to the public.

Do you have a favorite tree?

I do! My favorite tree is the Bald Cypress. It’s a deciduous conifer which means it looks like an evergreen but actually loses its needles every winter like broadleaf species do. It looks very similar to a Dawn Redwood but can grow very distinctive “knees” or roots that stick out of the ground around the base of the tree (an adaptation allowing them to live in very wet and swampy areas). My wife and I are hoping to take a trip down to Congaree National Park in South Carolina where, apparently, they have some of the largest Bald Cypress trees in the country.

What do you love about working among the trunks and canopies?

I think the most enjoyable part of working with trees is that each one is different. Our work is very technical and dangerous and because each and every tree we work with is physically different and in a unique location our work is almost like a puzzle.