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Training to Spot Tree Decay Is Urged for Parks Workers

Arborists and tree-care experts say that New York City could significantly improve public safety by ensuring that the workers who evaluate trees understand the warning signs of decay and failure.

With 2.5 million trees in its care, the city has a daunting task: both to preserve the green canopy that cools parks and streets, and to protect the public that passes under it. For street trees, the city generally relies on outside contractors, while for trees in parks, it dispatches in-house forestry crews. In recent years, budgets for both have shrunk.

A recent series of articles in The New York Times examined 10 lawsuits stemming from deaths or injuries caused by falling tree limbs in New York City, mostly in parks, that revealed a haphazard system of inspections. Three people were killed by falling branches, and others were severely injured, in the past 10 years. In some cases, failing trees were not discovered; in others, they were discovered but not trimmed quickly enough. The city has paid out millions in damage claims, with more likely to come.

In some of the depositions in the 10 suits, parks workers and supervisors testified that they were unprepared to assess trees for signs of decay or disease. In an interview, Liam Kavanagh, the first deputy commissioner for parks, said that park supervisors mainly looked for dead trees and branches, as well as low-hanging limbs and protruding stumps. “I can’t say we’ve given them a formal training program to look at more advanced things,” he said.

The city provides some classroom and field instruction to the 207 park supervisors, who oversee a staff of maintenance workers and who inspect busy parks and playgrounds every two weeks. But identifying tree hazards is just one of 16 items on a checklist, along with play equipment, benches, athletic fields, lawns, water bodies, sidewalks, litter, glass, graffiti and weeds. The training covers other duties as well, like supervising the staff and reporting incidents. Some of the supervisors are responsible for inspecting as many as 25 parks every two weeks.

But arborists and professors of forestry say that the system could be improved relatively easily by educating supervisors. In New York City and elsewhere, it is usually these supervisors and the maintenance workers who report to them — not arborists — who are responsible for inspecting trees; they summon a trained arborist only if a problem is spotted.

“Nationally, the first line of inspection is by the gardeners and maintenance workers who are in the parks most frequently, and those people are capable of seeing the big problems,” said James R. Clark, an arborist in California and co-author of “A Photographic Guide to the Evaluation of Hazard Trees in Urban Areas.”

“They’re the ones who bear the burden of asking, ‘Is this something I need to call an arborist on?’ ” he added. “This is a weak link because they don’t have formal training. They can only see the worst situations. The way to strengthen this approach is to train the people who are the eyes and ears. With a little training, their skill set would be greatly improved.”

Nina Bassuk, a professor of horticulture at Cornell University and program leader of its Urban Horticulture Institute, agreed. “If you see a limb hanging off, that’s pretty obvious,” she said. “But it’s a very skilled thing to look at tree hazard evaluation. It’s an educated and deliberate process. It would be a concerted effort to train people, but it would definitely be worthwhile.”

Professor Bassuk also suggested that the city prioritize its inspections by size and species of tree, since some trees like sycamores and silver maples are more likely to be hazardous.

In addition to dangling limbs and leafless branches, there can be other signs of trouble in a tree: mushrooms, water sprouts, cavities, cracks, pest infestations, conjoined trunks and dieback in the canopy. In recent years, a science of evaluating dangerous conditions has evolved among arborists, with formulas, checklists, rating scores and estimates of the number of people in the “target” areas.

The small forestry division of the city’s parks department consists of 40 employees with the title of forester, who report to a dozen forestry supervisors, as well as a forestry manager in each borough. According to Mr. Kavanagh, however, all but 15 of the 40 foresters are fully engaged in an ambitious city program to plant more trees. (Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has pledged to plant a million; the city is more than halfway toward its goal.)

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 1, 2012

An article in some editions on Thursday about an effort to urge increased training for workers in New York City who evaluate trees for signs of decay and failure misspelled, in some copies, the surname of the executive director of the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks. She is Holly M. Leicht, not Leight.


Written by vaphc

June 1, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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