In the 1990s, Justina Kraus, now co-owner of Champion Tree Care, LLC, a TCIA member company based in Everett, Washington, began studying environmental horticulture at Lake Washington Technical College in Kirkland, Wash. “When I took the introductory class in urban forestry,” she says, “I realized I wanted to climb trees with a chain saw.”
Unfortunately, while Kraus was interning at a small tree-services company owned by the instructor of her urban forestry class, she was hit by a large tree branch. “I loved the work,” Kraus says, “but when I got hit by the branch, it changed my ability to do things.”
She went back to school again, this time to the University of Washington, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Conservation Forestry and Wildlife Science and her master’s in Urban Forest Ecology. Although tree care isn’t an industry that women traditionally enter, she doesn’t remember facing any obstacles.
While attending a tree conference, she says, “I met an amazing guy, Dan Kraus. He was an amazing climber.”
Justina and Dan married and started Champion Tree Care with one part-time employee in 2013. Justina is an ISA Certified Arborist, is ISA Tree Risk Assessment Qualified, and a consulting arborist. Dan is a Certified Arborist as well and has climbed trees around the world, doing hurricane restoration work in Louisiana and Mississippi, canopy research in Oregon and California, and hazard-reduction pruning in Hong Kong. Champion is a full-service tree care company specializing in fine pruning and low-impact tree removals. They serve residential, commercial, and industrial properties in North King County and all of Snohomish County.
“I love it when I get to preserve a tree,” she says. “The best part is going back year after year and seeing how it’s doing – and knowing it could outlive me.”
The company has five employees in the field. Justina and Dan have two children, and their foreperson and his wife recently had a baby. Kraus works part-time in the office and part-time in the field. She still climbs recreationally.
“My skills are used appropriately,” Kraus says. “For example, I wouldn’t be expected to pick up the biggest log, but I’m the cleverest. That’s especially useful in running the business; I’m an urban forester, and being intelligent helped me learn the business side of the company. And when it comes time to make a presentation for a municipality, I’m the one for the job.”
Frequently, she’s the only woman in a meeting, where she’s usually younger and in charge. “You have to create your own space,” she says.
When she’s bidding for a job, sometimes it seems that some people treat her differently because she’s a woman. People still seem to have the expectation that the estimator will be a man, she says, and often, women are the ones who are the most surprised to see her. A handful of times, clients have deferred to the male ground worker.
On the other hand, Kraus says, “That’s my perception of why people are behaving that way. I always give everyone the benefit of the doubt – and it’s getting better.”
Her worst experience was when she had to talk to a neighbor of a client about the neighbor’s overhanging tree, and the neighbor, an older man, was listening to porn.
“I’m a professional,” she says. “I downplayed how demeaning and awkward it was. I got the bid to take care of his tree and sent it to his wife, and I told my husband, the crew, and my client how creepy he was.”
There are times she wishes she had bear spray in her pocket, she says. “You go where the trees are. Sometimes I’m down in a gully with a stronger man who is a stranger. You may have to take precautions because you’re smaller and vulnerable.”
It takes inner strength to go on in an awkward situation, she says, and she speaks from a place of strength.
“I’m happy to be where I am in my industry,” she says. “I love trees. I speak on behalf of trees. I work for people and help them meet their goals.”
Kraus can talk to her male colleagues about issues she faces and they’re supportive, she says, but because women are such a minority, it’s hard to find another woman to collaborate and commiserate with about things they have in common.
“We have to make an effort to get together,” she says. “The Pacific Northwest is pretty good. There are some strong women here.”
She makes a big effort to connect with other women in tree care. She competes in events including the Seattle Regional Tree Climbing Competitions, which she also organizes, and the annual Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop in Seattle. She organizes other events, volunteers on conference-planning committees, attends conferences and classes, and networks as much as she can. She advises women thinking of getting into tree care to do the same.
“When you connect with someone at an event, you may be surprised where a comment or piece of advice can lead your career.”
Employing women – as well as other groups of people who traditionally don’t work in the industry – benefits tree care companies, Kraus says. “It’s the tide that raises all ships. Women are just part of it.”
To attract minorities and overcome the hurdles they face, there’s a need for more internships and trade programs, says Kraus. “The goal is to get it so someday talking about women in tree care will be so routine it won’t be a topic. For example, now I can find chain-saw protective pants designed for women, and there is more than one brand,” she says.
“I run my company and I happen to work with my husband,” she says. “I don’t feel different or special. I’m just a tree worker.”