Finding a Balance for Trees and Profits

Josh Morin

Recently, I was able to take a trip to some parts of the country I hadn’t seen before, including the coasts of Northern California and Oregon and back through Yellowstone National Park, most of which is in northwest Wyoming. We hiked through and camped in some wonderful forests, among massive trees and understories that were filled with ferns and all sorts of shrub species, and dark forests thick with fallen, decaying trees being reborn into new life.

Walking past massive old stumps that had been cut off 10 and 12 feet high more than 100 years ago, I couldn’t help but contemplate the human work required to transform a giant fallen tree into many small pieces of lumber, or to split it into railroad ties and fence rails by hand. Some of these stumps were now being overgrown and consumed by a new tree growing from the parent root system, new growth and decay occurring simultaneously. Each massive tree seemed to contain a world unto itself, each with its own ecosystem. Slowing down to look closely at these trees, it was mesmerizing to contemplate the life they contained and supported.

The planet we live on contains such amazing rhythms and patterns. I can’t help but feel we are wired to be moved by the beauty and the life all around us. The unique role each organism plays in a community shapes the greater ecosystem. An abundance of food causes a population to flourish and expand, and fosters subsequent growth of other interdependent species. That same abundance for one group of organisms can sometimes mean scarcity for others. It also can mean that the entire ecosystem expands and continues to grow.

Earlier in my career as an arborist, I remember attending a talk by Mike Raupp, Ph.D., presenting on some research about pest issues and healthy landscapes. He was sharing the correlation between plant-species diversity on a property and pest issues, especially as it relates to non-native ornamental landscape plants. The data showed that the fewer species present on a property, the higher the likelihood of pest issues requiring intervention and treatment. The properties that had been planted with just a couple of ornamental species required the most care to keep those plants healthy and free from pest issues. The lack of diverse plants prevented a healthy ecosystem from being established with healthy populations of insects and other biological activity.

Much of the work we were doing as tree care companies to treat these properties was in response to a problem that was created through design. The aesthetics that favored a homogeneous appearance were preventing a healthy ecosystem. By simply planting a more diverse pallet of plants that included native species, a healthier ecosystem was able to establish that self-regulated and required fewer inputs and fewer treatments.

A trend in our industry is to focus on renewable services. Accountants love these services, because they bring predictability and are easily used to forecast growth and value. In our economy, we tend to identify budgets and often create habits of treating the same problems year after year. It’s really easy to click a button and repeat a systemic treatment or preventive spray. It’s almost like printing money.

In my experience, the practices that lay the foundation for healthy plants don’t always correlate to more billable services or higher profits within our industry. The remedies that generate the greatest long-term benefits are often not perceived to be as valuable in the moment by clients. It often seems that people are willing to pay more for a short-term, one-time fix than a more holistic or less-invasive approach. I’m curious about the opportunity we have as industry professionals to shift this relationship. Can the interventions that shift the ecosystems toward a healthier state also be the ones that bring companies into alignment with their revenue and profit goals?

This theme repeats itself in many professions. The health-care industry struggles with these same relationships. For example, surgeries can be highly profitable and bring in a lot of revenue for hospitals and doctors. It’s easy to prescribe certain treatments. Are these treatments in the best interest of the patients and the overall population? I’m curious, as we look into the future, how we can help bring the best plant-health-care practices into alignment with business and profit goals and the ecosystems on clients’ properties.

Josh Morin, Board Certified Master Arborist and Certified Treecare Safety Professional, is owner of We Love Trees, a TCIA member company based in Niwot, Colorado. He also is a member of TCIA’s Board of Directors.

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