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To The Next Level

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Dunedin Arborist Mark Roberts is an ISA Certified Arborist and Tree

Risk Assessment Qualification (TRAQ) trainer, as well as owner of Roberts Consulting Ltd. The 51-year-old has recently been named a True Professional of Arboriculture by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), and while he’s at the very pinnacle of his profession, chances are he’ll be the one to lift the perceptions and aspirations of that profession even further.

At 51, Mark Roberts could be said to have had an impressive career. He qualified as an arborist and began hands-on work in 1989 – most of that work in Australia and England – then returned to New Zealand and earned a science degree.

“At that stage I’d been climbing for about 15 years,” he remembered. “I started my degree because I was broke and thought I needed to do something.”

Just weeks after beginning the study, a local college phoned and asked if he could ‘do some tutoring’. Tutoring at the college needed particular qualifications, so, while continuing with the science degree, a Cert IV was knocked over – on the side.

“At the same time, I was working with ISA on their qualifications,” explained Roberts, “so I was a bit of a guinea pig for getting the Cert IV transferred into the ISA program.”

It must’ve been a hectic period for a bloke who ‘needed to do something’. Over about five years he became the program manager at Otago Polytechnic – the local college mentioned earlier – locked up his science degree, obtained a National Certificate in Arboriculture and became an ISA Certified Arborist. While all that was going on, he was elected to the board of the New Zealand Arboriculture Association, became its President and was the Kiwi member of the ISA’s Council of Representatives.

“Being awarded for what I’ve done is really nice, but for me, I need to carry on doing it at that level. What I’ve done is what I’ve done. It’s what I will do that’s important to me.”

Branching Out

The next interesting opportunity to present itself was an invitation to be involved in a private training organisation, Thoughtplanters, now also an RTO in Australia.

“What happened with Thoughtplanters was, there was a bunch of people, industry leaders running large companies, who weren’t getting what they wanted from industry training. They approached me as a trainer and asked me to join the Thoughtplanters group. It was a no-brainer. I leapt at the chance.

“Lots of people could teach climbing, chainsaws and all the practical aspects of arb, but there weren’t many arborists willing or able to teach the theory subjects like soils and botany and of those, there weren’t many who could make it interesting.”

As a director of the company Roberts embraced the challenge so he could deliver the training and do the work. “I actually discovered I quite liked it,” he pondered. “I found I quite liked learning and I kind of got excited about the science of arboriculture.”

Once that passion for learning and discovery had been ignited there was no looking back. He gained his Diploma in Teaching, spent six years working on the New Zealand government Approved Code of Practice for Safety and Health in Arboriculture and has been the document controller for the New Zealand Industry Best Practice Guide for Safety and Health in Arboriculture since its creation in 2005.

While this was going on, Roberts progressed from the ISA’s Council of Representatives to the ISA Board of Directors and became president of the ISA.

Over Time

With several decades of hands-on climbing and training behind him, we wondered what were the big changes Roberts had seen in arboriculture.

“Big advancements in safety and equipment,” he replied without hesitation, “and big advancements in the attitudes to qualified staff.”

A few reminiscences of his early days in the industry illustrated the thoughts.

“My first harness was fundamentally just a pole belt, something a linesman might use to climb a power pole. Harnesses have changed greatly since then, with back-support ergonomics and so forth.

“Advances in climbing have been huge, too. Climbing lines have changed, and theway we climb has changed dramatically.” Roberts also remembers a time when qualified people weren’t well accepted within the industry.

“I worked in Sydney when I was a newbie, and I was one of the few qualified climbers on staff. There was quite a bit of animosity toward anyone who’d been to college. There was an attitude that if you’d been to college you clearly weren’t a real arborist.

“Now it’s how qualified you are that makes you an arborist.”

He’s has also seen big changes in how we care for trees.

“How we pruned and what we pruned really didn’t change much right up into the early 2000s,” he explained. “It’s only recently, in the last four or five years, we’ve gone, ‘Actually, crown thinning can be bad, and deadwooding is not a necessary requirement’. Many things we used to do, and all the things I used to teach, aren’t necessarily considered the best practice any more.”

Still To Come

Having been named a True Professional of Arboriculture and with a truckload of qualifications and achievements to his name, it might be fair to think this New Zealander has set himself up for early retirement. Probably not.

He explained, “Being awarded for what I’ve done is really nice, but for me, I need to carry on doing it at that level. What I’ve done is what I’ve done. It’s what I will do that’s important to me. The industry doesn’t need more arborists talking about what used to be able to do.”

There weren’t many arborists willing or able to teach the theory subjects like soils and botany and of those, there weren’t many who could make it interesting.”

So what’s coming up for this industry icon? And for the industry in general?

“I’ve done a bit with the United Nations and I’ve become involved with an American group called the Arbor Day Foundation. Both entities are functioning on a global level. The pressure on land from urbanisation is only going to increase as more and more people move into our towns and cities. As arborists we’re going to have to rethink how we manage our trees.

“For years a fundamental premise of tree management was ‘the right tree in the right place’. I don’t believe that’s true anymore. A tree might live 70 or 80 years, but there’s no way we can assume the buildings and land use around that tree will stay the same. So the idea of the right tree in the right place is almost the wrong thinking. The ‘place’ a tree grows in will most likely change, so we have to adjust what happens to our trees to fit the place that happens around them. That’s what I think the industry needs to be aware of.”

For Mark Roberts within the industry? “I’ve been purely in consultancy for the last three years and I’m loving it,” he smiled. “I’m getting really interesting jobs and meeting really interesting people, and I’m in a position where I can pick and choose the jobs I do. I’m very grateful for that.”

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