Protecting Portland’s Urban Canopy

Protecting Portland’s Urban Canopy

  Jeremy Wagener is quite familiar with Stihl equipment. He and his team rely on an arsenal of their chain saws to tackle whatever Oregon’s weather blows their way. 

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For Jeremy Wagener, protecting the trees of the city of Portland, Oregon, begins with — and is all part of caring for — those in its residential neighborhoods. 

“We want people to think of their trees as part of a bigger picture, part of the giant canopy of big, beautiful trees and abundant greenery that comprise the city of Portland,” says Wagener, the president and founder of Urban Timber Tree Service and an arborist for 18 years. “Every tree in Portland plays a valuable role in the health and longevity of our urban canopy.” 

Urban Timber has grown to a crew of eight arborists and four office staff who all work primarily with residential customers in and around the city. From pruning to yard waste removal to tree care and cleanup, they handle everything related to trees, so when a big storm blows through the area, they get busy.

“I’m blessed with the crew I have,” says Wagener. “The office manager has been with me for seven years, and the longest man on the crew for five. We form a solid group.”

Their days begin early with a meeting at 6:45 a.m. Work orders are distributed, and crews determined. From about five calls a day normally, to about 100 daily contacts when a storm hits, the team is ready for anything. One crew may head out to see about an uprooted tree while another may visit a residential neighborhood where someone has reported a tree hanging over a house. An equipment list is drafted, and a plan outlined. The crew member in charge of each assignment makes the ultimate call in assessing their situation.

“If anything major has changed when the crew gets to the site, we may need to change the initial plan,” says Wagener. “This happens especially with storm work, and when trees fail [come down]. The number of men on each job may be three or four, sometimes more, depending on the labor that’s required.”

Not for everyone

Wagener has been an arborist for a long time, and stresses that there is more to the title than many may think. 

After earning a degree, the arborist is certified through the International Society of Arborists, which ensures they are educated about tree knowledge, biology, pruning practices and how to set rigging in trees and climb safely.

Half of the job is plant health care; knowing how to care for trees and how to help them fit in urban settings where they face a lot of stressors such as concrete, buildings, power lines and compaction. They facilitate a balance between healthy trees and those under stress. 

The other half of the job is hazard mitigation — split or dead trees, or compromised trees, those hanging over houses in precarious positions, which they remove safely and efficiently. That training especially comes in handy when dealing with storm debris.

Business as usual

“In a normal workweek, typically, we are pruning and removing dead or nuisance trees. When there is a major structural defect in a tree with a potential to fail, we do cabling, where we install specially designed tree cables,” says Wagener.

Cabling is more than tying a rope between two trunks, and he adds that there are mixed feelings about cabling in the industry; if done incorrectly to a healthy [but misshapen] tree, it can eventually damage or kill it. “But I’ve seen cables save trees and save lives,” he says. “Sometimes we just buy time until we can get there to take it down, like a band aid until we can get a crew there. The cable allows a tree to stretch and move, but not beyond parameters where it will fail.” 

Urban Timber handles large jobs as well as smaller, and it’s all about having the right equipment, which they do. In an average year, most of their work involves tree maintenance, including pruning and treatments as well as hazard removal. In the winter, they may devote up to 50% of their efforts to storm work.

According to Wagener, in January 2024, Portland was hit with a massive storm that began with a lot of rain over a couple of weeks, followed by high winds in sub-freezing temperatures, then ice, snow, ice, more wind, and finally, more rain. 

“During that storm, we had a client with seven large trees come down on her home. All in all, 12 trees came down on her small property, which is less than a quarter acre. This involved three of her neighbors, including the ongoing construction project of one of those neighbors,” Wagener explains. “We had to assess from each side and access the area with our crane. There were a lot of moving parts to this job.”

Urban Timber works with local Portland crane companies, and with this particular job, they called in a large tele-handler — a four-wheel drive forklift with a long boom that is used frequently on construction sites. Capable and versatile, this lift can pick up 12,500 pounds and is handy for hard-to-reach places such as the muddy hillside of this property. 

Wagener says there were 100,000 pounds of wood in precarious positions or lying around the property which was removed and dumped; some of it was taken out in a log truck that delivered logs to the mill, recouping some money for the client. 

“No two trees are the same and no two job sites are the same,” says Wagener. “We own a lot of equipment and rent what we need on top of that.” (See sidebar for equipment list.)

Urban Timber counts the prestigious Portland Art Museum as an annual client, pruning its trees that line two city blocks. The 30 or so trees include Norway maple, Bradford pear, white ash, elm and hornbeam. The company also works regularly with a film production company that shoots in Portland. “We prune trees to open up a view for a scene, for example,” says Wagener. “This commercial work is not a huge part of our business right now, but I’d like to expand into colleges, golf courses, graveyards, that type of place. We’re working to increase that.”

Wagener and his crew also work with clients to educate them about plant health care. The area can see heat blooms where the temperatures rise so high the trees are “literally cooking,” he says, adding they are investigating the use of deep root fertilizers and other materials to aid the trees. “So, as we build our client base, we’re also building out residual services to both residential and commercial clients.” 

In addition, when storms hit, the city refers callers looking for help to Urban Timber. And commercial clients, including several property management companies, also call on the company for assistance when disasters strike. 

Answering the call

According to Wagener, the gravity of some of the storms Portland has endured the last few years is hard to comprehend. He and his team created crisis protocols — triaging the incoming calls and ensuring the supply of workers and equipment is sufficient to handle the major influx of clients they get during a storm. He says the process has been working well. 

“During the storm of Jan. 9, we had torrential rain, then wind, then ice, then more wind. This is the worst combination for the shallow-rooted fir trees. We had 60 mph wind gusts. Add a saturated root system and the weight of ice, … and we’re on clay, where roots don’t penetrate … trees were toppling left and right.” 

Wagener lives on a hill in a forested area, which offers a good gauge of what the area is experiencing. He says if he can get up his driveway without putting his truck into four-wheel drive, then he can better weigh what will be needed.

“I usually drive around the city looking at the devastation, but I couldn’t even leave my own house for a time. A giant tree was down on one side and three power lines on the other. I had to cut my way out of my neighborhood, which was just the tip of the iceberg,” he adds.

When a storm like the January 2024 behemoth comes through, knocking out up to one-third of the city’s trees, all other trees are subject to wind throw, Wagener says. “They are normally protected by the trees that came down, so we examine the remaining trees, do corrective pruning and weight reduction and back that up with deep root fertilizer (a blend of nitrogen, sulfate and phosphate) injected under the tree’s root system strengthening them and aiding their overall health,” he says. 

In addition, Wagener regularly brings in an OSHA trainer to review safety techniques especially around advanced rigging techniques and aerial rescue. If a tree climber can’t get down for whatever reason, no one else can get him down except another arborist. 

Top-notch equipment

Urban Timber owns an array of specialized equipment that Wagener says is top-of-the-line.

“We have an array of Stihl chain saws, blowers and drills and more,” he says. “We have specialized rigging equipment like GRCS large to small rigging blocks and thousands of feet of ropes in a range of sizes.”

Their personal protective equipment includes Kask helmets fitted with communications equipment, Arbortech chain saw pants, glasses, atlas gloves and lightweight boots. He explains that climbing equipment differs from climber to climber, and his includes a tree motion saddle climbing harness, 200 feet of Tango Poison Ivy 11 mm rope, ART SpiderJack III ascender, Gecko spurs, Silky Zubat hand saw.

Urban Timber also relies on an extensive lineup of machinery including a 2021 Avant 640 loader with an array of Avant attachments including a screw cone log splitter, root grapple, timber grab grapple and a stump grinder. For a skid-steer and attachments, they are set up with a 2016 Vermeer S725TX with quick attach forks, log grapple, bucket and stump grinder.

The team always has brush and debris to get rid of and for that they use multiple models of Bandit Intimidator wood chippers. To get crew members safely into high locations, they utilize an All Access 83HD Arbor Pro spider lift.

Well-equipped and well-trained means an efficient crew serving the Portland area that’s dedicated to sustaining the health of the local canopy and picking up the pieces that severe weather events leave behind.

“We aren’t just about cutting trees down,” Wagener says. “We are preventive and like to save them. It’s easy to call an arborist when you have a dangerous tree hanging over your house, but I’ve seen so many of the trees we care for survive storms time and time again because of our use of deep root fertilizer and pruning judiciously. They’re standing strong when others around them are coming down.”


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