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Safety has a competitive edge at regional tree climbing competition

George Welles craned his neck to look at the figures in the tree canopy above.

“This is the definition of a bad day,” he said, pointing out the climber that was carefully lowering a dangling dummy — named Rescue Randy, complete with a fake leg wound — to the ground.

Randy was rescued dozens of times throughout the annual Minnesota Society of Arboriculture (MSA) Tree Climbing Competition, held this year high above the ground at Round Lake Park. Welles is a co-chair of MSA and helped organize the event space — a clearing behind the Round Lake playground — in the two days before it opened to competitors on Saturday, May 4.

Arborists clad in magenta shirts competed throughout the weekend, winning points in five events: ascent, or climbing a 50-foot free-hanging rope; belayed speed climb, clambering up a series of branches attached to a trunk; aerial rescue, simulating the response to a workplace accident; work climb, maneuvering through a canopy to a target; and throwline, hurling ropes into the canopy to prepare for a climb.

“All the things we do every day, we just turned it into a contest,” Welles explained.

Minnesota is just one region in among 56 chapters and associate organizations of the International Arborist Society. Tree climbing competitions began in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1976, according to the ISA’s website. The goal is to promote safe working practices, share and discover new equipment and allow professional networking, the website says. Two winners from each region — which can encompass whole countries, like Brazil and Norway, or single states like Kentucky and Minnesota — move onto the international competition. This year, Danielle Ringle of Northeast Tree Care in Minneapolis and Rob Juetten of Hayden’s Ridge Tree in St. Paul won the women’s and men’s masters events and will represent Minnesota in the international competition, held this year in Tennessee on Aug. 9-11.

Rob Knight owns Timberland Tree Service in Manitoba, Canada, and drove six hours to take part in the competition. In other years, he’s attended regional Canadian competitions, but they rotate locations annually and Minnesota’s was a shorter drive for him this time.

While a visit to the Mall of America was the highlight for his wife and 8- and 15-year-old children, the competition’s learning opportunities made the trip worth it for Knight. As he waited his turn to compete in the ascent event, he took note of another climber’s technique.

“It’s more fun than worrying about how I’m going to do,” he laughed.

The competition’s friendly spirit coexists with a more serious function: To share safety techniques and strategies in what Welles called a largely unregulated industry. While the work of climbing and caring for trees isn’t the most hazardous, a lack of standard regulations for arborists puts professionals at risk, he said, and when salaries in the field top out at around $60,000, it can be difficult to attract top talent or buy expensive new equipment.

In 2006, Tree Care Industry Association petitioned OSHA to create a safety standard for tree care workers, according to the CDC’s website. The CDC published a report on work-related fatalities in 2008, but it removed the item from its regulatory agenda in 2010 due to “insufficient resources,” according to Safety and Health Magazine. In the fall of 2017, the topic was labeled as a “long-term action” agenda item, according to the magazine.

Eden Prairie doesn’t license businesses for tree work, but it does recommend residents use contractors with at least one certified arborist on staff, city Communications Manager Joyce Lorenz told Eden Prairie News. Certifications can come from groups like the International Society of Arboriculture or local groups like the MSA.

“As an industry, the safety standards are there but they’re not necessarily adhered to,” said Ringle, who works with Welles at Northeast Tree Care and has competed for three years.

Welles put it simply: “Consumers are just happy if you show up, nobody dies, nothing gets broken,” he said.

Although the events are modeled after an arborist’s daily work, there’s more caution and care when you’re on the job, Ringle added.

“It’s way different because the goal is showing control and being fast,” she explained. “At work I’m moving pretty slowly.”

Even so, her mother, Erin Ringle, who was among the many spectators who took in the competition from folding chairs or picnic blankets, said she’s seen Ringle’s technique and speed grow in the few years she’s competed.

“It’s really neat to see how they progress,” she said.

This was Ethan Breckner’s first year at the tree climbing competition and his second as an arborist at Davey Tree Service in South St. Paul. He’d never heard of arboriculture before he discovered the career after graduating with a degree in biology from Winona State University

“I didn’t even know this was a job,” he said. “I was afraid of heights before this job.”

Liam McClannahan has worked in urban forestry for 10 years and took note of the competition’s growth over the years. While he knew many of the roughly 80 competitors as friends or former co-workers, others were unfamiliar faces, fresh out of a forestry program or new to the field.

“There’s a lot of new people, a lot of younger people,” he said. “They have an interest in winning this thing.”