On a Limb
Risks and rewards of tree work
WAY UP HIGH Arborists from John W. Field Tree Service hang high above the roofline in West Stockbridge.
Kieran Yaple can barely sit still for more than five minutes. The 24-year-old adjusts his hat and tugs at his thick beard. He is the polar opposite of his father, Ron, who sits next to him very still, hands resting on his knees while he speaks in a quiet voice. It is a study in contrasts but one that is happening throughout the region as the logging industry shifts from old-school forestry standards—mark ’em, cut ’em, sell ’em—to more future-focused arboriculture.
“I’ve seen both sides of the business,” says Ron, who began his 35-year career as a forestry consultant before transitioning in the mid-’80s to tree services and arboriculture. “We all tended to view trees more as a crop than as an amenity. But my frustration with loggers going in and banging up the woods really caused me to have a total change of consciousness.”
Ron saw the value of local timber decline as Siberian and Northern Canadian lumber infiltrated the market, which led to the closure of several sawmills in Berkshire County, including Gingras Lumber in Sheffield, Barbieri’s in Housatonic, and J.W. Kelly’s in Pittsfield. The downturn solidified his transition to more eco-friendly business practices. His company, Race Mountain Tree Services in Sheffield, employs four full-time arborists, each wielding a slew of certifications for safe pesticide application, tree-care safety, hoisting engineering (i.e., climbing), and tree-risk assessment, as well as memberships in the International Society of Arboriculture and various state arboriculture and tree-protection associations.
“I’m definitely more about the preservation side of this business,” says Kieran, who’s been climbing since he was ten. “Looking at the collateral damage of human impact, the living system of a forest takes years to come back.”
Still, there are profits to be made from traditional logging. Bob Tarasuk, a veteran forester and logger, has a degree in forestry and spends more time writing cutting plans than slinging a chainsaw these days. He says that timber harvesting is enjoying a rare, probably short-lived, upswing compared to previous decades of hardship in the local logging industry.
“China is buying our logs straight out of the log yards,” Tarasuk says with some amazement. “I haven’t seen prices like this ever in my life.”
According to reports from the last two years, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation’s forestry service received 180 cutting plans in Berkshire County. But, despite overseas markets clamoring for hardwood over bamboo, only 37 of those plans were for “short term” harvests, indicating that the days of clear-cutting have abruptly ended as the local demand for responsible property management and wildlife preservation trumps dollar signs on prime ash, oak, and cherry.
Tarasuk’s neighbor, Diego Ongaro, a film director who moved to Sandisfield eight years ago, became intrigued by his vocation and produced a dramatic, fictional account of a Berkshire logger, Bob and the Trees, which was presented at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and will be shown locally at the Berkshire International Film Festival in May. The story concerns a logger, Bob, played by Tarasuk. “I became friends with Bob and he took me out logging with him,” Ongaro says. “Seeing all of the knowledge and science and hard labor that the job required, the danger of the work in manipulating giant trees, I had a lot of compassion for him and for all loggers. I feel like I am witnessing the end of an era.”
The younger generation is avoiding logging in favor of being arborists, says Tom Ryan, the Southern Berkshires service forester for the state Bureau of Forestry. “I’m not seeing a ton of new loggers out there, no guys in their 30s who are itching to log. It’s a huge out-of-pocket investment in equipment and really hard labor with very little return.”
Tarasuk would love to see his 29-year-old son, Cole, who is a logger, turn away from the wedge and chainsaw and make inroads into forestry and land management, where the work is safer and not a daily struggle against the elements and the unforgiving consequences of human error. Jobs in the tree industry, particularly climbing and logging, are the most dangerous in the country according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. So Tarasuk has every right to be worried.
“It’s awful to be out there alone,” he says of his son. “I try and go out there a couple days a week. I’d love to have him get his [forestry] degree and take over the business one day.”
BOB AND THE TREES: Showing at BIFF in May, 2015 the movie was filmed in Sandisfield and is about a logger who is crippled by competition, invasive ants, and an unrelenting winter.
Many Berkshire public venues have been in winter hibernation. But some are reopening earlier this year. Here’s a roundup:
4 Williamsville Rd., Stockbridge. Saturday, May 2, open weekends for pre-arranged tours, then daily starting May 23 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
2 Plunkett St., Lenox. Friday, May 1, buildings and gardens open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
5 Prospect Hill Rd., Stockbridge. Sunday, May 24, house and garden open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Berkshire Botanical Garden
5 West Stockbridge Rd., Stockbridge. Friday, May 1, display gardens and visitor center open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Edna St. Vincent Millay Society at Steepletop
440 East Hill Rd., Austerlitz, N.Y. Friday, May 1, tours and exhibition gallery. millay.org
Hancock Shaker Village
April 11 through May 3 with the Baby Animals on the Shaker Farm. Open daily from 10-4 p.m. hancockshakervillage.org