Meet the Washington State Parks Arbor Crew

This team blends science, technology and good old-fashioned tree work to ensure public safety and to take care of parks’ oldest residents — trees

Eastern Washington Team Leader Ryan Smart welcomes the end of a hot, dirty day cutting trees at Maryhill State Park. (Washington State Parks photo)

Trees and forests are among Washington’s icons and treasures, and Washington State Parks has a team dedicated to caring for them.

A combined 35 million visitors enjoy the state’s 125 public parks each year, and although they don’t often run into the state’s Arbor Crew, they do see signs of its work: rustic wood fences around old-growth trees, replantings after fires, well-pruned hedges and wood chips or mulch at the bases of trees.

By caring for parks’ oldest and quietest residents — the trees and shrubs that make parks extraordinary — this crew provides visitors with a safe, healthy environment and preserves natural spaces for future generations. While these crew members face long hours and sometimes dangerous work, they also share a commitment to safety and conservation.

“It says something about Washington State Parks that we have an arbor crew,” Arbor Crew member Brian Barberg said. “It says something about the state itself.”

A wide scope of work

The six-person Arbor Crew has a lot of ground to cover: Washington State Parks owns 120,000 acres of land, much of it forested. Although the crew will team up on bigger jobs, it is typically split into two teams of three — one handling Eastern Washington and the other managing the west side of the state.

Both crews travel hundreds of miles a month. They are responsible for a diversity of arboriculture that ranges from the yew and madrone trees of the San Juan Islands to the Ponderosa pines and Engelmann spruces of the Blue Mountains in southeast Washington.

With a small group and a vast territory, the Arbor Crew concentrates on improving safety in state parks. It assesses trees for disease, defects, damage and other dangers. Members remove trees deemed high-risk.

The Eastern Washington team thins trees and branches that might otherwise act as fuel for wildfires; it uses a chipper to make mulch and chips of the downed limbs. It also prunes for preventive maintenance and beautification and replants trees and shrubs in the first or second spring after a fire.

The Western Washington team deals mainly with tall, old-growth trees in densely forested parks. In winter and spring, fallen trees are removed after storms.

In addition to work in the parks, the crew takes jobs for the Washington State Department of Transportation, Department of Fish and Wildlife, Department of Natural Resources and other state agencies. These departments have different missions than that of State Parks, so the arborists may be asked to remove healthy trees that threaten power lines or obstruct a highway-widening project.

The full Washington State Parks Arbor Crew poses with their Arbor Master certificates. From left: Mik Miazio, Brian Barberg, Joe Phelan, Kevin Roe (on-call arborist), Ryan Smart, James Gouldin and Sam Neukom. (Washington State Parks photo)

A dangerous and dirty job

The State Parks arborists possess tremendous knowledge and skill. Crew members are certified by the International Society of Arboriculture, which requires a baseline of work experience, written examination and continuing education credits. Their training covers such topics as mycology, botany, climbing and use of machinery. The team members all have commercial driver’s licenses, a certification that allows them to drive trucks and tow heavy equipment.

Two Eastern Washington members, team leader Ryan Smart and his colleague, James Gouldin, have years of power line clearance experience.

Joe Phelan of the Western Washington team and Sam Neukom of the Eastern Washington team have worked at national parks (Mount Rainier and North Cascades, respectively).

Mik Miazio of Western Washington and Neukom completed educational programs with local and national conservation groups.

Phelan and Western Washington Team Leader Barberg studied chemistry and biology in college; Phelan also studied physics, a bonus for the crew when it comes to rigging and climbing.

Washington State Parks Arbor Program Director Rob Fimbel said the risks the group takes to maintain state parks should not be underestimated. A 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics report listed tree work as the deadliest job in America.

“These guys are the best in the field, (and) it is one of the highest-risk positions at Parks,” Fimbel said.

Barberg agreed.

“People don’t realize a stick a few inches around can knock your teeth out,” he said, listing falls, falling branches and equipment failures among the dangers. “A lot of accidents happen late in the day when people are hot, tired and dehydrated,” he said.

The work itself is grubby. After a hot day cutting, moving and chipping tree limbs recently at Maryhill State Park, Smart’s face was caked with dirt.

“Sometimes our work environment smells like fresh-cut wood and sometimes it smells like a mill,” Smart said. “It’s dirty, sweaty physical labor.”

Ten-hour workdays can turn into 12; the eastside drives get blazing hot or cold and snowy, while west-side crew members deal with rain and traffic snares. Crews may be on the road for an entire workweek.

“We have very tolerant families,” Phelan said.

Though they rib about car time and grime, crew members enjoy geeking out about tree species, life spans (a bristlecone pine can live 4,000 years), clone trees and photosynthesis.

The crew praises technology as a timesaver and risk reducer.

“Technology is an assist,” said Barberg, demonstrating a new spider compact crawler, a narrow machine with a basket that extends 90 feet in all directions.

The crews use laser range finders to measure tree height from the ground and resistographs, which drill tiny holes in trees to detect hollow spots. They also operate bucket trucks, skid steers and chainsaws.

“It’s great to be part of an organization that invests in this type of equipment and training,” Miazio said.

Gouldin said he also appreciates the philosophy behind the arbor program.

“The work is not as production-oriented as some private-sector jobs,” he said. “We are not trying to make money for a company; we are making parks safe and taking care of trees.”

Mik Miazio uses a self-rigged climbing setup to prune a honey locust tree near a campsite at Maryhill State Park. (Washington State Parks photo)

Tree memories

On a recent trip to Millersylvania State Park, Miazio asked a group of visitors about their earliest tree memory. Most of the park-goers recalled climbing or planting trees and eating fruit from neighboring orchards. Grandparents’ houses and parents’ backyards were common themes.

Smart shared his earliest tree memory, a foretelling of his profession. When he was 6, his father handed him a saw and told him to trim the spruce trees in the backyard. The young Smart ended up cutting off most of the lower branches.

“He didn’t give me much direction,” he said with a laugh. “So we had palm trees.”

Phelan’s early experience led to a life in the outdoors. His father took an outdoor adventure class, practiced rope setup and climbing in a backyard tree and taught his son what he knew. The young Phelan later climbed rock, ice, caves and bigger trees.

Miazio recalled a specific pocket of New York, where he grew up.

“You know you’re in a poor neighborhood when you don’t see trees,” he said, adding that the realization empowered him to find his path. “People need to see trees.”

A version of this article was originally published on the Washington State Parks website.