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Arborist Ray Moritz sees the forest for the trees
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Ray Moritz grew up in a prairie town in Illinois. He always loved trees, and in the second grade he took an aptitude test that concluded, "You should be a forester."
"I ignored that all the way through the first portion of college," Moritz says. "I wanted to go into biopsychology - the study of brain function. But then I started doing docent work at an arboretum on weekends and I thought, 'Wait a minute, this is what I want to do.' "
Moritz, 67, hasn't looked back. An arborist specializing in fire-prevention assessment and urban forestry consultation, he alternately calls himself a tree detective, a tree whisperer and a forensic forester. He's worked 36 years in his field
"I love what I do," Moritz says in the San Rafael office of his consulting firm, Urban Forestry Associates. "I can't imagine doing anything in retirement I would prefer to this. They'll have to carry me out of the woods feet first."
Fifty percent of his work is private consultation: advising homeowners on which trees to plant, how to treat diseased or pest-ridden trees, when trees should be left alone and when they're a safety hazard and need to be felled.
Another 25 percent of Moritz's work is fire-management consultation and the remaining 25 percent is forensics: investigating cases where someone poisons a neighbor's tree, for example, or determining how a tree or its limb crashed onto a person, house or car and who, if anyone, is at fault. He's often hired as an expert witness on tree-related disputes at civil trials.
Poisoning a neighbor's tree? Moritz says it happens all the time, "simply because they find the tree a nuisance. You'll hear people say, 'I don't like trees because they're dirty.' In most cases they are people who grew up in highly urbanized areas, then moved to the country and aren't used to having leaves and twigs around."
From 2004 to 2009, Moritz wrote a twice-monthly column, Ask the Arborist, for The Chronicle. "It was a lot of fun, but after each column, I would come into the office with great dread because when I opened my e-mail, there would be a lot of questions about trees. It was consuming a big portion of my time, and people would get upset if I didn't answer them."
The passion felt for our trees can lead to bad decisions. "Trees have great psychological meaning to people," Moritz says, "and one of the commonly mistaken notions is that trees are eternal. There are some trees that are awfully long-lived and, generally speaking, trees have longer life expectancies than people. But there are many trees that don't."
In the Bay Area, "there was a lot of grazing land when people first settled here. They wanted trees for shade and enjoyment and they wanted them fast. So they went out and got what I call the 'punk rockers' of the tree world: eucalyptus, Monterey pine, Monterey cypress, poplars. The live-fast, die-young, be-a-beautiful-corpse trees."
The people who planted those trees in the early 20th century are long deceased, Moritz says, "and the current homeowners and cities are dealing with the decay and decline of those trees. In the past two years, I've had more wrongful-death cases caused by tree failures than in my entire prior career of over 30 years."
Moritz says that people get attached to trees, they dread their loss, and that when a tree is gone, they mourn it like a beloved friend. "When the tree has to go altogether, when I've made a hazard assessment and I recommend immediate removal, some people are reluctant and don't remove it. I make it clear to them that, once I have notified them of this high risk of failure, their liability changes should that tree damage someone else or their property."
Usually, people respond to an imminent hazard. "Yesterday, a homeowner noticed some cracks in the soils around a couple of Monterey pines. While the trees were not a particular threat to her house, they were on a steep slope, and they actually targeted her neighbor's house across the street.
"So I went out there and probed the soils and realized that the root plate of the tree was lifting up. That tree was essentially in the process of failure. I believe that tree is being taken out today."
3 simple rules
"Trees got along fine for millennia before there were arborists," says Ray Moritz. Although special care is needed in urban settings with the stresses of pavement, home construction and pollutants, he says that in general "there's much more work done on trees than necessary." Here are his three simple mistakes to avoid:
1. Don't overwater: The most common problem I encounter when I inspect trees is excessive irrigation - which is surprising in Marin County, where water costs practically as much as Chardonnay. The symptoms on a tree of inadequate water are very similar to the symptoms of too much water. So, people see a tree starting to die back, the leaves changing color and browning, and they'll think, "It needs more water." They put more water on it and the tree declines that much faster.
2. Don't overspray: Trees are well adapted to most native pathogens and insects. And those pests have natural enemies - typically other insects - that maintain a balance in the forest. If you consistently and abundantly use broad-spectrum pesticides, spraying the whole canopy repeatedly, you kill off the predators. You're actually making the problem worse.
3. Don't top your trees: Topping takes out the physiologically most productive portion of the canopy. You can reduce the extent and height of the canopy through crown reduction, where you take a branch back to a secondary branch that can ultimately take over as the leader. But, if you cut that branch off arbitrarily, it produces sprout growth. As the sprouts get large, becoming branches, they're easily torn away from the tree by wind or simply fail under their own weight.