Defining WHO does WHAT for Tree Care

by Matt Banchero

Everyone knows that when you need a tree pruned or removed you call a tree service right?  But, who do you call? There are lots of tree services with different specialties and there are lots of professional certifications for managing trees and forests. Management activities can include pruning trees, planting trees, removing hazardous trees, thinning the forest for disease control or fire protection and harvesting timber. The entire industry is riddled with grey areas and overlapping responsibilities, but I hope this will provide some clarification. There are Certified Arborists, Licensed Contractors, Licensed Timber Operators and Professional Licensed Foresters.  Most legitimate tree services will have one or more of these certifications in addition to appropriate General Liability Insurance and workman’s compensation.  We’ll look at each of these certifications one at a time.

Certified Arborist is someone who professionally prunes, removes or works with trees. The term arborist can be used by just about anyone who owns a climbing harness and a chainsaw.  However, a Certified Arborist is someone who is registered with the International Society of Arboriculture or ISA. To become a Certified Arborist one has to have three years of experience, pass a written test and maintain their certification by attending classes to get continuing education credits every year.  Certified arborists are also supposed to abide by a Code of Ethics, the most important is they DO NOT TOP TREES!!!  If you are hiring a certified arborist, you know that the person has gone through some level of training and education and the certification can be easily verified. It is not a legal requirement that a tree service have a Certified arborist on staff to work in California but some cities may require a Certified Arborist to submit tree removal permits or to do work in heritage trees.  Every city has different regulations.  Many tree services will have a certified arborist on staff but it may not be the person who is actually in the tree. Ask questions to determine who will be carrying out the work.

Licensed Tree Service Contractor is a business owner who has a “D29” contractors license for pruning trees, removing trees, chipping brush and grinding stumps. (Planting trees requires a Landscapers Contractors License) A contractors license is required by law to write contracts for more than $600 and the business must maintain a Contractors Bond, General Liability Insurance and workman’s comp (if they have a crew) to stay in good standing with the California Contractors Licensing Board. The Contractors Licensing Board has a website that allows homeowners to easily check the status of the Contractors License and applicable insurance. Some homeowners have been burned by hiring a tree service that had General Liability Insurance but wasn’t a Licensed Contractor.  Insurance companies can deny claims for property damage done by tree services that did not have appropriate Licensing to contract for more than $600.

Class A Licensed Timber Operator or “LTO” is a person who is licensed to cut, haul and sell merchantable timber to a mill. (In the West Sonoma county area merchantable timber is limited to Redwood and some Douglas fir.) An LTO has to have 3000 hours of experience and pass a written test to be licensed. They also have to maintain some very expensive insurance specific to timber operations above and beyond traditional General Liability Insurance for pruning trees. An LTO is only required if the logs generated by the project are going to be sold to a mill. The LTO is required to know and follow all applicable laws with regard to cut limits, erosion control, fish and game regulations, hazardous materials handling etc. An LTO is not required if the material is going to be retained on site for firewood, milled onsite with a portable saw mill for home use or if the tree is not going to be sold, bartered or exchanged. This license is appropriate for “timberland activities” away from homes, wires, septic systems etc. but if the job involves rigging down a redwood tree over your house for example, the business will also require a Tree Service Contractors License.

Professional Licensed Forester is a person who has gone to school specifically for Forestry and has received a license to draft and review timber harvest plans and forest management plans.  Foresters need to know plant and animal biology, engineering for building and maintaining roads, hydrology and water shed management, understand applicable laws and regulations and have field experience. It takes many years to become a forester in California. In general, Professional Licensed Foresters do not carry out timber harvests but instead work for the landowners to make sure forest activities are carried out within the law and will all proper permits. Historically, Professional Licensed Foresters were hired out of school by timber companies to write timber harvest plans and to navigate regulations. These days most Professional Licensed Foresters are hired by state agencies to plan restoration work.

Who you decide to hire depends on the scope of your project.
In general, arborists and tree service contractors make their money from performing careful, specialized labor, while LTO’s make their money from the sale of the material harvested and Professional Licensed Foresters ensure the work is done legally and with a plan. If you have some specimen fruit trees or oaks that you would like pruned, there are some fantastic Certified Arborists who can do the work for you and likely do a good job, because you know they’ve at least read the text book and have some years experience. Sometimes you just need to know why your tree isn’t looking as vigorous as it used to or you are concerned about the impact of a construction project to your favorite tree.  In this case you would look for a consulting arborist to answer your questions.  By hiring a consulting arborist, separate from an LTO or contractor, you know that they will give you an accurate assessment of your tree and they won’t be motivated to recommend removal just to generate work for themselves. A quick visit to can help you find a local certified arborist. If the project is large in scale, higher dollar value and higher liability, like a large tree removal with targets around it, you should find a Licensed Contractor to carry out the work.  You should get a certificate of insurance and check their license number on the California Contractors Licensing Board website.

If you want to take down a redwood and sell your logs to a mill you will need to find a tree service that has a current LTO license and appropriate insurance.  You would also be wise to make your own phone call to Cal-Fire to make sure all of the permits have been filed correctly. The wood from a tree rarely covers the cost of the rigging, cutting, processing and hauling. Be suspicious if someone offers to take down more trees to cover the cost of the project. Getting several bids and opinions will help you avoid making a costly mistake. If you want to draft a formalized plan for managing your forest or you have questions on the regulations around removing trees you call a Professional Licensed Forester. A great resource is the California Forest Stewardship Hotline at 1-800-738-TREE for free advice for forest landowners.

There is also grant money available to help manage your forest, repair roads and culverts, reduce wild fire risk, plant trees etc. Good tree work is unavoidably expensive. The ropes, chainsaws, chain, bar oil, chippers, trucks, fuel, personal safety gear, training, licensing, liability insurance and workman’s compensation all add up. But, a good tree service will give you value for your dollar and security that a fly by night company cannot. It is inadvisable to try to save money upfront by hiring the guy next door with a chainsaw and pickup truck just because he’s cheap. A good rule of thumb is to get at least three apple to apple bids from professional tree services so you get a sense of how much the job should cost. You should factor into your decision how well the bidder can describe the process of doing the work, describe the equipment to be used, anticipated impacts to the property and how responsive and clear the tree service is in their communications.

Matthew Banchero’s Tree ServiceCont. Lic. 913093707-921-9217

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