Patience, Rigor and Care: The Challenges and Opportunities of Tree Research

Note: This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of ARBORIST NEWS, a publication of International Society of Arboriculture. This content is reprinted with full permission of the publisher.

In our day-to-day professional lives or as decision-makers in green industry businesses, we have the opportunity to sell research-based, scientific knowledge to our customers and clients, separating ourselves as skilled and trained professionals from those who may take a more “I have a hunch” or “We’ve always done it that way” approach to tree care. Our counsel can result in better decision-making by customers and clients regarding their trees, and at a very pragmatic level, our knowledge can also make our businesses more profitable, our workers safer, and our services more marketable, now and in the future.

The macro returns on investment from scientific tree research are becoming ever clearer as our collective body of knowledge grows slowly over time in incremental steps. In recent years, cutting-edge research has demonstrated a host of benefits to be gleaned from a healthy urban canopy, some of the benefits perhaps intuitive, but some of them frankly sublime and surprising, e.g. increased birth weights, increased retail sales, accelerated patient healing, enhanced student learning, increased urban immigration (including skilled workers and new industries), decreased violent crime, decreased ultraviolet radiation exposure, and increased sense of common ownership for public spaces.

Because trees are long-lived organisms, today’s tree care decisions will shape their health and impacts for many generations. ~80% of the U.S. population now lives in developed areas and that number is expected to increase to ~90% by 2050, mirroring global trends in urbanization. Since thriving urban forests are proven to be highly beneficial to community health and prosperity, investments in scientific tree research have and will continue to directly drive positive changes in the aggregate health of cities and suburbs. Scientifically quantifying the benefits of trees to the economy and environment makes it easier for governments, businesses and private citizens to justify and project their return on tree care investment.

Tree Research and Education Endowment (TREE) Fund was founded in 1976 as the International Society of Arboriculture Research Trust. In 2002, the Trust and the National Arborists Foundation merged, reincorporating as TREE Fund. (Note: I have been President and CEO of TREE Fund since 2015). Governed by a national board of trustees, we now fund work globally from our office in Naperville, Illinois. TREE Fund has awarded ~$3.3 million in grants since 2002, of which ~90% have directly supported primary basic and applied research initiatives. These funds have been highly leveraged and multiplied as tree care, urban planning, landscape design, construction and civil engineering professionals implement our findings and educate their constituents on the ever-evolving state of tree science.

As TREE Fund celebrates its 15th anniversary this year as an independent charitable trust, we find it valuable to pause and reflect for a moment on why our work matters — and why the demand for our grant-making programs continues to grow apace. To anchor such a reflection, it is crucial to actively think about what we mean when we discuss and market “research,” especially in an era when global communication networks make it effortless for individuals to access nearly infinite amounts of information of varying or unknown degrees of accuracy and currency.

At bottom line, TREE Fund approaches and values “research” as a set of investigative tools and protocols used to unearth and interpret new facts, revise accepted wisdom in the light of such new facts, and develop practical methods for implementing new or revised understandings in our areas of professional endeavor. Research tools and protocols must be anchored in intellectual and procedural rigor, a willingness to fairly consider alternative explanations for observations, an ability to compile and analyze data using generally accepted statistical and scientific methods, a willingness and ability to replicate findings, and the production of public reports that can be independently affirmed, cited and implemented by subject experts in the field of study, and trained professionals in applied settings.

There’s a whole lot more there, obviously, than the “Wikipedia says” or “a colleague told me that” or “I’ve got a secret method for” or “my gut instincts are” approaches that lay people and professionals alike often cite as “research.” And because of that, these tools and protocols cost a whole lot more — in dollars, time, training, and a host of other scarce resources — than casual, unscientific approaches to answering questions and responding to observations.  This, then, raises a related set of questions based on the returns on investment accrued from committing such scarce resources: how much should I myself, my business, my municipality, my school, and a host of other stakeholders invest in research, and what do we all get out of it at the end of the day?

While the slow growth and long lives of trees makes research and dissemination in our field quite time-consuming, often obscuring short-term return from research investments, we know that TREE Fund and related efforts over the years have directly contributed to:

  • Defining strategies for enhancing tree disease suppression and insect resistance;
  • Developing production, planting, fertilizing and soil amendment strategies to enhance tree growth and long-term survival;
  • Developing more environmentally-sensitive methods of plant management;
  • Producing genetically superior trees that can withstand the stress of urban environments;
  • Improving the quality of nursery grown trees and overall tree survival;
  • Combating diseases and pests without increasing pesticide use through the evolution of integrated pest management programs; and
  • Enhancing public and workforce safety through greater knowledge of why and how trees fail.

In an effort to further quantify the full reach of our work, TREE Fund recently awarded a grant to Drs. Andrew Koeser (University of Florida Gulf Coast’s Center for Landscape Conservation and Ecology) and Richard Hauer (University of Wisconsin Stevens Point’s College of Natural Resources) to evaluate the outcomes, outputs, and impacts of 15 years’ worth of primary basic and applied tree research. The results of this study should be available in early 2019. We also are undertaking an initiative in 2018 to create a more readily searchable, indexed database of research to be freely available on our website (treefund.org), to facilitate access to findings as they come through the academic publication cycle. Finally, we intend to conduct a new research needs evaluation in 2019 to ensure our grant lines are evolving with community needs.

We remain grateful to the faculty members, consultants, field researchers and students who have undertaken the often grueling work associated with tree research over the past 15 years, and for the supporters who have empowered their efforts.  Their work has made, and continues to make, a difference directly to all of us over time — even if our long-lived research subjects require us to watch them patiently and carefully with sharp eyes and careful measurements to ascertain steady, incremental advancement and improvement.

Notes: You may support our work by contributing to endowment or operating funds at the TREE Fund website, here. Thanks to Ward Peterson for his invaluable assistance with this article. Photos taken by J. Eric Smith at Urban Forest Nursery, Mt. Vernon, Washington

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