One of the major figures in West Australian arboriculture, Michael Byrne talks through his career and enduring passion for the industry.
Sometimes you must endure a bit of misery to work out what you really want to do with your life. For Michael Byrne, it was electroplating in a factory. “I’d look out the door and if it was nice weather I’d constantly wish to be outside and not dealing with all these chemicals,” he explained. Located in the beautiful Eastern Hills of Perth, WA, this bush location lent itself to working with the environment. Some 26 years later, he’s still up a tree every day.
“I started my business before I was qualified, just with a panel van and a ladder,” he said. “I’d be pruning cotton palms and it was a bit sketchy as I didn’t have a harness or any safety gear. I put myself through an arboriculture course at TAFE to get qualified, and the more I learnt the more I knew this was the job for me. My passion grew, and I can thank having good teachers for that.”
Michael’s given plenty back over the years, becoming a competition climber, lecturer, mentor, arbor camp host, workshop trainer and served in several roles within the Tree Guild of WA. He has been the TGWA representative on the Agrifoods Technical Reference Group assisting in the review of the Arboriculture training package, as well as a member of the Industry Advisory group for the Food Fibre and Timber Industry training council (FFTITC) and the Green Space Alliance. He was director for the WA Tree Climbing Championships over many years, and was on the committee organising the Asia Pacific Tree Climbing Championships when it was held in Perth a few years ago. Currently, Michael is a member of the Practising Arborist committee working on the Minimum Industry Standards series. Clearly, his passion remains strong for his industry.
He runs his business – CPD Tree Services – alongside his wife Sandra, who has a degree in environmental biology. “She’s the brains,” Michael said, “and we’re a small crew of us and just two others.” It’s a family business priding itself on the personal touch, with services including pruning, removals, clearing power lines, tree risk assessments, tree surveys and vegetation mapping. “We practice sustainable principles such as milling,” he said. “Whenever we encounter a decent log, we’ll slab it to get value added by-products. We usually make slabs for table tops or other furniture; it’s a good hobby.”
He said pruning and dead wooding were the most satisfying aspects of his job. “It may take you longer than a removal or dismantle, but every time you drive past a tree you’ve dead wooded, see how well it’s doing, you take pride in that. You can admire your handiwork.”
With over a quarter of a century on the job and with much competition climbing experience, Michael’s regarded as one of WA’s most competent climbers. He’s only recently retired from comp climbing, but credits it with vastly improving his skills and the correct use of equipment, and compels others in the industry to do likewise.
“When I started we really just used the English Prusik, which was fine for about 15 years and I’d do alright in the national competitions,” he explained. “My epiphany was watching a YouTube video of Joe Harris’ Spiderjackery, as I saw how easily he was climbing through the tree canopy on a spiderjack. Using social media, YouTube or whatever, has helped me learn what equipment is most relevant for what tree and when to use it. Identifying the specific tool for a job is so important.”
Michael said he went to the National Tree Climbing Championships in Adelaide around 2003 and saw how its format led to fantastic competition and skills development. He helped instigate the same sort of format for WA competitions thereafter, and champions how inclusive the tree climbing family is. “The camaraderie is so good,” he said. “Everyone’s very inclusive and helpful, and it’s invaluable to see the skills others have developed. Arborists should continue their learnings through whatever facility: TAFE, doing tree risk assessments or cross training like rock climbing, but definitely give the climbing comps a go.”
Michael’s training a staff member at the moment, particularly in the aerial rescue discipline as it’s most relevant to their work. “Without question, competency in aerial rescue ensures a better level of safety in the workplace,” he explained. Michael also believes some employers aren’t fostering the development of tree climbing. “I believe they’re fostering the development of getting their EWP (Elevated Work Platforms) in,” he said. Arborist training in WA has also been left behind somewhat, Michael explained. TAFE was the only option until very recently, but two new WA training facilities have started this year, pointing to good signs for the future. “It’s good to have a bit of competition to remove complacency,” he correctly stated.
“With over a quarter of a century on the job and with much competition climbing experience, Michael’s regarded as one of WA’s most competent climbers.”
Showing how right he was to escape factory life, Michael’s career has seen him tackle some fascinating assignments. For the last three years he and his crew have been working on the trees at Perth’s Parliament House – a grand 1904 building set in magnificent grounds – and has been doing a lot of local black cockatoo survey work. “That’s very satisfying,” Michael said. “I go up into the canopy, trying to identify what might be suitable habitat, and investigating if anything’s there.” A varied job that never gets boring it seems.
The profession has been good to Michael, and of all the things he values in his career, it’s the working environment – both the location and the people – he still enjoys. “If you’re in the right crew and all working hard together you develop a better bond,” he said. “Your safety is sometimes in somebody else’s hands, and that adds to it all. I never got that bond working in any other job.”