Caring for the Trees in our 427 County Parks

Staff in Park Authority's forestry operations.

Responsible for tree care in all 427 county parks, the Park Authority’s Forestry Operations has a unique role in our county. “Ideally, the job would be a mixture of pruning, tree health management, specialized young tree care and tree removals,” explains Scott Diffenderfer, the Park Authority’s urban forestry manager. “Sadly, tree removal accounts for 99 percent of our work.”


Challenges: Pests and Weather 

The emerald ash borer, which attacks ash trees, accounts for many of the removals. Since the start of 2015, Forestry has taken down nearly 1,000 ash trees and the work has only just begun. “This number will likely increase to upwards of 3,000 over the next three to four years,” predicts Diffenderfer. In addition to the ash trees, Forestry took down approximately 2,900 more trees. More than 1,000 were oaks.

Ice on trees in a county park.

Harsh weather conditions impact the health of  trees in our parks.

Weather conditions, especially high summer temperatures and extreme drought have a big impact on a tree’s health. In the spring of 2016, the area had a late frost, and it is likely this frost took place at the same time as oak bud break began. “Many trees were not able to overcome the effects of that frost damage because of stress from the previous drought and temperature extremes. As a result, the weaker trees had higher mortality rates,” says Diffenderfer.


How the Work Gets Done
“I think our team is doing the work they were born to do and it is to the great benefit of Fairfax County’s residents and visitors that they do what they do and care so deeply about their work.”Scott Diffenderfer, Park Authority urban forestry manager

Tree chippers, dump trucks, stump grinders, aerial lift, a variety of chainsaws and numerous hand tools, ropes and hardware are the tools of the trade for the staff, which can vary from four to eight due to seasonal employee changes. They work from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., primarily doing tree removals. Other jobs can include trail clearing, tree pruning and storm response.

Work is scheduled based on priority. Priority 1 usually indicates a high-risk tree or limb that needs to be removed.  “We have a bucket crew and a ground crew and they are assigned accordingly.  Big jobs we will schedule both crews on the same job and we also use a contractor for much of our work,” says Diffenderfer. Spring through July are typically the busiest times for crews.

Training, and in many cases certification, is required for most of the work. There are multiple Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations to adhere to, safety standards, risk management policies and industry standards of practice.  Arborists must maintain their certification by obtaining continuing education credits each year.

As expected, safety is an important component of the work. “We have weekly safety training and at times a special training event like a recent chainsaw safety training,” notes Diffenderfer.

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