ISAO Conference 2013 Coverage From Niagara Falls

March-April 2013

Wow, it was a long three days. Where do I start? This was the first conference I’ve attended as a writer versus an arborist, so I’ll begin with the basics, general ISAO Chapter business. We have a new president, Rory Quigley, taking over the reins from Linda Hawkins. Congratulations Rory and a huge thank-you to Linda for her guidance and work behind the scenes for the past two years. The board welcomed three new members: Ken Gillies, consultant and Humber College arboriculture program instructor; Stephen McQuigge, Forestry Operations Coordinator for the Grand River Conservation Authority; and Arthur Beauregard, City of Toronto, Urban Forestry Division. I’m confident all three will be terrific assets. I know both Stephen and Ken personally. I have worked with Stephen in the past and Ken has been a mentor of mine since I took Humber College’s arboriculture program four years ago. I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Arthur, but his extensive resume speaks for itself. Many thanks to Colleen MacDonald and Jake Zink, who have stepped down, and to past president Steve Mann. Steve is going to relax and watch from the outside for awhile. He is taking a well-deserved rest from his long commitment to the ISAO board.

As this was my second time at an ISAO conference in Niagara Falls, I’ll take a few minutes to cover the host city. No surprise, as one of Ontario’s top tourism spots, it boasts a beautiful backdrop and a welcoming feeling. On Wednesday morning, Mayor Diodati greeted us. He discussed the importance of Niagara’s trees, as they are often points of reference when talking about the War of 1812. You can still see some of the trees that were damaged by gun or cannon fire and how they have grown from the wounds. There are many well-known trees of historical interest, in areas of battles, and subjects of interesting war stories – something as a tourist you may not notice or think about but should definitely investigate next time you’re in town. 

Now, escape the winter blues and fast-forward to summer for a quick minute. Later this year, the International Tree Climbing Championship (as part of the international conference) will be held on Toronto Island. Chair Paul Kobold is actively looking for volunteers to get involved in both the conference and competition. This year’s participants will be Jennifer Carroll for the women and Sean Hoondert for the men. We may also see Krista Strating, depending on how well she does at the North American Tree Climbing Championship. If she wins in New Jersey, she will represent North America, while Jennifer will represent Ontario. This may be yet another feather in the cap for female arborists in the Ontario industry. 

Legal Eagle Julian Dunster
The main speaker on Wednesday was Julian Dunster, covering ethics and professionalism within the industry. Even if you don’t get to see the inside of a courtroom in your career, Julian’s sessions were very informative. If on the other hand you do get the nod for this, Julian stressed that even the smallest piece of evidence or the smallest issue surrounding the trees in question has to be documented. Use your imagination when collecting evidence. Think outside the box. Pictures are worth a thousand words, so back up your knowledge with lots of them. With today’s technology in digital cameras and smart phones, there is no reason not to take a multitude of pictures for evidence. And don’t forget the basics. You need to know how to take a good picture, how to use your camera (like what resolution it’s set at) and the computer programs that go along with the devices. 

Quoting Julian: “Know what you know and know what you don’t know.” Trees are living, breathing entities. In this industry, there are going to be situations that may be undetectable, overlooked, or simply something that you are not familiar with. Thus, diagnostic laboratories can be a very useful resource. Don’t be afraid to say that you are uncertain as to what you are looking at.

He may have been viewed as preaching to the converted for some of his presentation as conference attendees tend to be well-trained and conscientious people. It is the fly-by-nighters and guys running around with the “have chainsaw will cut anything” attitude that need this kind of talk. Unfortunately, they won’t be attending ISA conferences any time soon. Professionalism and ethics don’t enter into the equation for these guys – it’s all about the money. But now I’m preaching to the choir…. 

Safety First
Ian Neve from Petzl was on site for two sessions to voice concerns for the safety of workers in our industry. Ian explained the need for better care and inspection of gear – make sure all your gear is what it is supposed to be. There has to be some regulatory body, be it CSA, ULC or ANSI, that has guaranteed its strength and usefulness. Be wary of gear advertised on Ebay or by offshore suppliers as uncontrolled knock-offs have been found in North America. The old adage, “you get what you pay for” really has to be a concern when your life depends on the gear you are using. As with any industry where life supporting safety gear is used, check, check and double-check your gear before and after use. Get into a regular routine of checking gear and do not be afraid to retire gear. Companies must remember that it is far cheaper to deal with buying new gear then it is to deal with injured workers. 

The unfortunate thing about Ian’s sessions is that he may not have had enough time to adequately cover his topic. Although advertised as different, both presentations were basically the same. Ian did explain that the material he was covering comprised a two-day workshop and that he had to squeeze it into a one-hour overview. I would have preferred a more hands-on demonstration. We had a number of arboriculture students at the conference on Thursday and I think time may have been better spent on a more personal approach – give participants a chance to examine defected gear and go over proper procedures on a daily gear check schedule. 

Students are just entering the industry, kind of green so to speak. They need to actually see what to look for, get their hands on gear that has been retired, and learn how to deal with employers on gear safety and responsibilities. I admit, it’s a lot to ask for in an hour-long presentation. Ian did explain that on the Petzl website,, “You will find descriptions of the standards and valuable information for checking items of Personal Protective Equipment yourself.” The site offers inspection sheets and recommendations for inspections for all kinds of gear.

Here’s your final take-home point – and you may want to send small children out of the room for this one. Our gear is certified to a load bearing 22 Kn, but the body will break at 8 to 10 Kn. In the right direction, organs will actually leave the body through orifices not designed for reassembly. Definitely something to think about when there is a little too much slack in your climbing gear or you’re not wearing a lanyard as a second tie-in during a cut. 

An Outsider’s Inside Perspective
Adriana Bardekjian is an urban forest researcher completing her Ph.D. in social profiles in arboriculture at York University. Basically, she’s taking an outsider’s look at what we do – peering in through the trees so to speak. She wanted to update us on what she is doing and how far along she is with her studies. Adriana reaffirmed what I see in this industry. It is not well understood by the general public and it is not well understood by regulating bodies. Arborists are perceived as glorified landscapers, lumberjacks, skinners (a new term for me!), hackers and thrill seekers – not exactly how we want to be viewed. 

Adrina also asked for our opinions. This tugged at the heartstrings a bit. Interviews and conversations told the story of a tightly knit industry. We all seem to know each other or at least know somebody who knows somebody else. There is a kind of camaraderie within the industry that is second to none. We work for competing companies, but we work for an industry as a whole with a common goal. We meet a couple times a year at a conference, competition, school or workshop, and we treat each other as close friends. We all seem to have a deep respect for each other because of the type of work we do. We look after the safety of others and the protection of trees while doing our best not to injure or be injured on the job. It is a dangerous career, but it is something we love to do. Keep an eye open for the completion of this study – the full results should be interesting if not illuminating. There will be a full documentary released when all is said and done.

Stepping Back in Time
University of Ottawa prof Joanna Dean talked about tools of the trade and how trees have been affected since the Second World War. Arboriculture continues to be an ever-changing industry. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and as our needs change, so do the tools that we require. In the City of Toronto, a 100 year-old tree has had to endure many attacks on its life – especially if you consider that 100 years ago much of the city was either under-developed or plain undeveloped. A tree that has stood for 100 years has most likely been under attack through pests, diseases and worst of all, humans. We have cut its roots to put in roads, sidewalks and buildings, drained away its water resources, polluted its air, reduced its source of light, and introduced competition for water and food. Trees have survived a multitude of pruning and care techniques. 

Much the same way we have treated our trees, we have changed the way we do things. From climbing trees without ropes and harnesses to using natural fibre ropes and rope harnesses to using synthetic ropes and hugely advanced harnesses. Arboriculture tools and techniques are constantly evolving. And using that 100-year benchmark again, everything we have done over the past century has been advanced through the injury and death of workers or because of industry-led necessity. 

Speaking of leaders, our industry has seen its share: John Davey, Bill Gardiner, Ian Bruce, Francis Bartlett and Alex Shigo, to name just a few. All have contributed to major advancements in technology and techniques. We have cranes, bucket trucks, scientific knowledge – all enabling the safe removal and the better preservation of trees. One can only ask the question, what’s next?

Measuring Up
Alice Casselman from ACER, the Association for Canadian Educational Resources, spoke on the work that they are doing to measure the effects of climate change on our trees. They have been measuring tree growth in the advent of climate change for a long time and are in need of more citizen scientists for further and wider spread studies. They will teach volunteers how and when to measure trees. They also have a number of events planned over the next year to bring awareness and help fundraise for the program. Check out their website for further details:  

Acts, Penalties & The Environment
Brett Woodman gave us an overview on the Migratory Bird Convention Act (MBCA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The MBCA was developed in 1917 to protect traditionally hunted waterfowl nesting sites. The ESA protects all those species of wildlife that are threatened, endangered, extirpated and of concern from further losses. The ESA tries to outline the protection of the species as well as the protection of their habitats, guards against habitat threats, and points out the overall objectives to enhance and preserve existing populations. 

As I’m sure you’re well aware from all the recent media coverage, current threats to the ESA are multiple. There will be a review of these acts in the near future, which can be good or bad. Stiffer penalties, stronger legislation and the need for more people to assess the species involved will hopefully be included. And this would be good news for the Province of Ontario. We have one of the most diverse ecosystems with the most species in all of Canada. With this also comes the distinction of having one of the longest lists of endangered species in the country. 

This is a subject close to my heart. Before becoming an arborist, I was an environmental advocate involved with organizing the monitoring and enhancement of our environment here in the GTA. To hear that the acts are going to be revisited can mean two things. When they open these legislative acts to changes, they allow both sides of the coin to comment. This means the lobbyists who are against stiffer penalties and for more relaxed rules voice their opinions along with those of us who look for tougher rules with more meat behind them. Sometimes these well-intended reviews can become so bogged down with red tape and arguments that a better piece of legislation is never reached. 

We also have another problem – who is going to administer the protections and penalties of these acts? We have seen major cuts to the Ministry of Natural Resources over the past 20 years; these are the people who are supposed to be the regulatory body and they have become stretched to the max. Some inspectors have to cover such vast areas of Ontario that they are nearly ineffective. We are about to see another round of cuts. Will this make MNR completely ineffective, leaving the job to residents, municipalities and conservation authorities to watch and protect the threatened species of Ontario?   

The Pesky Little Critter Who Could
Jim Zwack, Director of Technical Services for the Davey Institute, was on hand to discuss the continuing progress of the emerald ash borer (EAB), an incredibly successful invasive in case you haven’t yet heard! We have made some inroads on how to control EAB but it is still far from enough. Jim explained that EAB might be the toughest pest of our generation. Most of us have seen what EAB can do to an area. We have to plan for the preservation of some of our ash as well as for the removals of those affected. 

Jim also pointed out that no one plan is going to work here. Each area is going to need its own set of plans and objectives. It has to be a “what works for you” strategy and here are some key questions:

When do you start treatments?

When do you just give up?

Do you focus on the healthy trees and let the stressed out and weaker trees go?

Have many tools in your toolbox?

What are your expectations?

Jim’s presentation pointed out that there is going to a huge financial cost, not only to local municipalities, but also to all levels of government down to individual property owners. No one has yet to predict what the total economic costs are going to be for this little green pest. In my neck of the woods, I just have to look out my front door at the dead ash across the street and wonder what will happen and when. In the eastern Toronto area, we are losing ash trees daily. 

There was no general consensus on how to handle EAB. Do we fight back or do we watch what it will do, simply letting the ash trees go and plan for better days? Are the green and white ash going to be listed under the Endangered Species Act, or like the elm, will we still be dealing with this problem two or three generations from now? If we decide to fight back, what will the residual effects be on the landscape? Will the pesticides we use affect other species? Can we safely remove all the dead ash trees? What will the fallout be? What kind of physical damage will be attributed to EAB? The questions just keep on going. Who’s going to provide all the answers?

Continuing on The Invasive Track
Natalie Iwanycki from the Royal Botanical Gardens came in to explain their efforts to save the endangered red mulberry (Morus rubra). This species has been reduced through crossbreeding with the invasive white mulberry (Morus alba). Natalie explained how easy this is for the two trees and how fast we can lose the true red mulberry to a less desirable crossbreed or pink mulberry. The mulberry is a monoecious plant so cross-fertilization can happen quite easily if both the white and the red are in close proximity to one another. The Botanical Gardens have been identifying whites and removing them wherever possible and doing genetic testing on reds to make sure they have true reds on hand. They have also been collecting pollen to propagate true reds within the gardens – a daunting task for all involved.

Forest Versus Landscape Conifers
Sharon Douglas, Connecticut Agricultural Experimental Station, came to talk about the key diseases of conifers. They have discovered that there is a big difference in diseases between forest grown and landscape conifers. A conifer can become stressed right from the minute it is planted in a landscaped area. Poor planting techniques, competition for water and minerals, abiotic and biotic diseases and stressors can affect conifers very early in their lives. Proper identification of signs and symptoms will lead to proper diagnosis and care. Some of the diseases are as follows:

Needle Cast in Conifers

  • Rhabdocline needle cast affects Douglas firs
  • Swiss needle cast also affects Douglas fir
  • Canavirgella needle cast affects white pine
  • Rizosphaera needle cast can affect numerous conifers
  • Autoecious spruce needle rust

Blight & Canker Within Conifers

  • Diplodia seen in pines, cedar, fir ands, especially Austrian pines. 
  • Cytospora canker affects spruce, hemlock and fir

Vascular Diseases

  • Nematodes brought by Sawyer beetle
  • Pine wilt

Root Diseases
Note: usually hard to diagnose and almost always fatal.

  • Armillaria root rot, all conifers
  • Phytophthora root rot, all conifers

Best management practices to guard against these diseases are proper planting, maintaining vigor, increasing air flow throughout multiple trees and choosing resistant species. You can get more information from the website of the Connecticut Government at

Fast & Convenient CEUs
Wesley Kocher, ISA Technical Resource Manager, discussed available online educational tools and continuing education unit (CEU) resources. All you have to do is go online and you can earn CEUs for free. I feel I need to add a qualifier here as I am covering our conference. Online learning is a great addition to your toolbox (and quick and easy to access when needed), but it can’t replace an annual educational networking event. Back to Wesley’s talk: through “Arborist News Quizzes Online” you can create an account, log in and take a free online quiz. As long as you score over 80%, you will obtain CEUs. They also have online testing that can be done at home for a cost to both members and non-members. Checkout the ISA website through the “Education and Research” heading.

Questioning the Detective
Guy Meilleur, also known as Detective Dendro, was on the docket for three talks. What can you say about the well-read Detective Dendro? He has done his homework and tried different techniques when it comes to pruning of both the canopy and the roots of a tree. One only has to read his articles in past editions of the Arborist News to find out more about his experiences. He is also one for discussion – and some of his techniques and ideas can really pique your interest. I’ll be honest. There were some frank talks around the water cooler about some of Guy’s comments.

He explained that, where possible, creating habitat while pruning should be an objective when planning your jobs. Do you leave cavities for the little critters that live in the trees? Can you leave cut limbs or brush in a tree for habitat opportunities? Some in the audience had concerns: where does habitat end and liabilities begin? Guy also pointed out that wound wood around cavities has more strength in it than regular wood. Thus, there should be reduced concerns when leaving cavities in a tree. Thoughts in the room were generally against this type of thinking. The wound wood may have more strength, but the cavity has no strength. Leaving cavities in the lower canopy and climbing or rigging past these cavities can have deadly outcomes. The tree’s reaction to wind and leaf load will also be different. Reaction wood may not build fast enough to counteract the extra twisting limbs that a cavity will encounter. I have always been told: “If it has more than 60% normal wood around a cavity you are good to climb past, but look for another area to rig out of.” A delicate balance is the concern here. Guy admitted openly that safety was not something he spent much time contemplating – a very big no-no in our industry.

Guy’s session on report writing was another area that raised some red flags. He warned about making recommendations to clients about their trees that may put you in a precarious position. You should never tell a client what to do with their tree. Make suggestions and let the client make the call on what to do. Do not take on the liability of a tree. Some would say that is what we do. It is part of the job. This is what the client is looking for. We are hired to make recommendations to clients about what to do with their trees. The inherent result is having liabilities. Arborists and clients are reminded that trees are living breathing organisms. They are earth’s largest species, they do not have engineered points of strength, and the possibility of failure is always there. You can also walk down the street and get hit by a bus… you just never know. As trained and experienced arborists, we make recommendations to the best of our abilities and have to live with those recommendations.

Guy also reminded arborists to keep updated on the ANSI Standards. They are up for review in the near future and those who wish can submit recommendations to the review committee. Check the website for updates. Stay current with Guy’s experiences in future publications of the Arborist News. My last words on his sessions: it’s always good to discuss and debate ideas, it can only make for a better industry.

Sorry, I Missed the Bus
There was a bus tour along the Niagara Gorge to the Botanical Gardens both Thursday morning and afternoon. It was unfortunate that I missed this opportunity. I did however discuss it with a few of my fellow conference attendees. They explained that it was cold, but well worth the trip. They got out into the fresh air, stretched their legs and were shown some of the trials and tribulations of looking after Niagara’s natural environment. Troubles with finding enough volunteers to do the required work and to keep up with the invasion of unwanted species has proven to be quite the undertaking. Similar to other areas of southern Ontario, invasive species, red tape and funding shortfalls have been the largest obstacles to overcome when looking after nature reserves. 

Wrapping Up
By the end of the three days, I was ready to go home. I sat and listened and received some valuable education from the experiences of others who have been in this industry a lot longer than me. I would like to suggest some ideas for the next conference, relay some constructive criticism. First, I should apologize for my fidgeting as the days wore on (Did you notice?). When you take a group of people who are as active as we are, sitting all day long can take its toll on certain body parts. After three days of information overload, I found myself struggling to stay on task. I looked around and knew I was not alone. Heavy eyelids and uncomfortable sitting can really play on a guy. Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes and the countless hours that the committee and volunteers put into the making of a successful conference. Food was terrific, accommodations were great, and everything was well organized. I just believe a little more interactive activities should be on the schedule. Something to get us up and actively participating in the instruction or conversation would make the time indoors more enjoyable. And maybe that’s the key – the choice of at least one outdoor or hands-on interactive indoor session per day would be welcomed.

All of this said, good times were had during the breaks and after hours with attendees. Pick a seat with anybody at the tables and an instant friendly conversation or discussion would start. It’s like sitting around the dinner table at home with the family and discussing the day’s events. New acquaintance were formed, old friendships were renewed. The Ontario Commercial Arborist Association (OCAA) organized a dinner on Wednesday at Antica Pizzeria. Good Italian food and great service provided the opportunity to press shoulders with some of the best arborists in the industry. 

Equipment and job site discussions continued Thursday night at the Conference Gala. The setting was a little more formal, but we arborists still managed casual conversation. The silent auction was a success; articles donated from familiar suppliers and individuals raised some much needed funding for the Canadian TREE Fund. Comedian Bill Carr provided the night’s entertainment. Bill has a way of making those everyday concerns and stresses become a little easier to take so you can sleep at night. He also played auctioneer for a painting donated by presenter Julian Dunster. The painting depicted a tree going through the changing seasons. Dale Menken of Diamond Tree Care brought the auction to a close with a generous donation to the Canadian TREE Fund. Dale will have the proud distinction of hanging the painting in his office for one year. You will have an opportunity to hang the same picture in your office at next year’s conference – for the right price.   

I want to thank ISAO for providing the opportunity to write about and present this report. I hope I have done justice to the task and properly acknowledged those who gave their time to present their experiences and knowledge. For those who attended the conference, we ask that you also pass on your comments on the ISAO office or a board member. This will help ensure you get the best conference every year. If you want a formal evaluation form, please request one from the office or download it online under the “Annual Conference” link.  

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