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Keith Anderson: If a tree falls in the urban forest, does anybody hear?

Not everyone over the age of eight can say they climb trees for fun. Keith Anderson can, or at least he could, before a shoulder injury from which he is currently recuperating.
Keith Anderson

Not everyone over the age of eight can say they climb trees for fun. Keith Anderson can, or at least he could, before a shoulder injury from which he is currently recuperating. For the most part, only arborists admit to climbing trees for fun, and Anderson is one of three arborists in the Battlefords. "Tree guys," he calls them.

They don't climb trees just for the fun of it, Anderson explains. An arborist has to be able to climb trees safely for purposes of caring for or pruning trees, so practice is important.

"I have thousands of dollars worth of equipment for climbing trees," says Anderson. "It's for safety."

An arborist does more than climb trees, of course, and if you are Keith Anderson, that might include overseeing the building of a $58 million recreation complex.

Anderson is the former parks and recreation director for the City of North Battleford. It was during his time at the helm of his department that the four-venue CUplex was built. Anderson worked directly with the general contractor and project architect, and saw to the creation of necessary agreements and protocols in getting the project up and running.

"It proved to be a huge job," he says. "It was a job all by itself."

The final venue, the field house, opened in March and, in June, Anderson took some stress leave. Then he was sidelined with a shoulder injury. In the end, he didn't go back to work at City Hall and gave the mayor his resignation in December.

Anderson, who has barely reached his mid-50s, says he has no regrets, although it wasn't the way he'd planned to finish his career with the City.

"When I look back, I'm leaving with my head up," says Anderson. "It's not the way I envisioned completing that portion of my career, but I managed to increase the green space in the city with the help of the workers and everybody in the city, and planted a lot of trees through the river valley. And then," he added, "I had a major hand in the biggest project in the city's history. I was happy to be part of what I think was a pretty vibrant time in the city's history."

Anderson started with the City of North Battleford in 1990 as parks director, which was the position of assistant to then newly installed parks and recreation director, Bernie Albers. Albers' background was in recreation.

"I oversaw all the green stuff," says Anderson, "the turf and the trees and greenhouse."

When he began with the City, the urban forestry foreman was Henry Tkachuk. Tkachuk, says Anderson, can be credited with the diversity of plantings around the city perimeter along Territorial Drive, which include the silver-leaved Russian olive and burgundy-coloured Schubert chokecherry. He retired shortly after Anderson arrived, but not before he could share his knowledge with the newcomer.

"He was an excellent 'tree guy.' I learned lots from him."

So did another City employee, John Voght. Like Anderson, Voght is an arborist.

"I was really sad when John retired from the City,' says Anderson. "He knew trees and how to prune them, scientifically how to prune them properly, but also had the tree's best interest at heart. He's a good 'tree guy.'"

In 1998, Anderson become a certified arborist, as recognized by the International Society of Aboriculture. He and Voght are both members of the Prairie Chapter. Anderson is a past president of the chapter. (It's the ISA that holds annual tree climbing competitions. The male and female winners of each chapter go to the world competition. Anderson hasn't competed, but Voght has. In 1996 the City of North Battleford's parks and recreation department hosted the Prairie Chapter conference and the tree climbing competition took place at the Cameron McIntosh Airport.)

In 2011, Anderson was appointed director of parks and recreation for the City of North Battleford, having already spent two years as the acting director due to an illness in the department. The director is in charge of administering, guiding and overseeing the department's day-to-day department operations and activities including personnel management, recreational programming, operation and maintenance of all City buildings and recreational facilities, horticulture, parks and cemeteries. The director also compiles and manages the department's operational and capital budget, and provides and presents reports and recommendations to city council.

Of course, urban forestry, continued to be his responsibility. Over the years, Anderson reckons he has seen to the planting of tens of thousands of trees.

"For a while, I was doing a school program where we got students to work with the City crews planting seedlings from the Shand Greenhouse," says Anderson. "We would get two or three thousand every year, for at least 10 years."

Those trees are all taller than he is now, he adds.

Along the city streets, says Anderson, there are 14,000 trees, mostly American elm, green ash and Manitoba maple. Overall, he says, the city's inventory features about 15 main species of trees. He enjoyed working with the American elm.

"Dutch elm disease hit Ontario in the fifties and sixties and took out most of the elms. They were mammoth trees because the climate is a bit kinder," says Anderson. "Out here, we are still an island of Dutch elm disease free, so I like working with the elms because it's something I saw disappear in Ontario and that can still grow really nicely out here."

Arboriculture isn't just about planting trees. When it comes to the urban forest, it's also about monitoring the inventory for pests and pruning for deadwood and potential liabilities so it's safe for the people who live among them - or under them.

"You hope when a storm hits that you've pruned well enough to minimize storm breakage."

Monitoring for pests is also important, said Anderson.

"We always took the attitude that if there was something wrong with somebody's tree in their backyard, I would go check it out and identify what the problem was. We needed to know, for example, if it was Dutch elm disease," he says. "We have a lot of elm trees in the City's inventory."

He says, "The urban forest is not only publicly-owned trees but it's privately-owned as well when it comes to pest and disease management."

While Anderson has retired, the city does still have a certified arborist on staff in the person of Chris Gerstenhofer.

Anderson's interest in arboriculture began when he was a teenager, still living in his hometown of Toronto.

"It was the fallout of doing something totally against my parents' wishes, but worked out in the end."

Anderson says, "I was kind of the person in my family of origin that had to do things just a little bit different, so I quit high school, and the only job I could find was landscaping."

He was 17, and he loved landscaping right off the bat. That winter he went back to high school so he could graduate and take horticulture at the University of Guelph.

He had always enjoyed nature. His parents ran summer camps for kids with diabetes, and he took the youngsters on camping and canoeing trips.

"When we weren't out on canoe trips, we were doing nature lore … but I never thought of it as a living, until I worked as a landscaper."

While working on his horticulture diploma, he went to Olds College in Alberta on an exchange. That's where he met his future wife, Val, who had started in horticulture, then moved into agronomy.

Once Anderson finished his second semester back in Guelph in 1980, he hitchhiked back to Olds, at age 19, where he was to take on a job as the golf course superintendent. In 1983, he and Val married.

Anderson worked at the golf course until 1984, when he took on the responsibility of grounds manager at Olds College, caring for the 30-acre campus, 20 acres of demonstration plots, 30 acres of athletic fields, ball diamonds and parks, and 25 kilometres of windbreaks.

While working for the college, he earned the status of journeyman in the landscape gardener trade and also attended a management development course at the prestigious Banff Centre. He also taught horticulture students and landscape gardener apprentices.

When the Andersons moved to North Battleford in 1990, they lived first on Walker Drive, and then moved to the acreage where they now live.

"We are in the sand hills south of Battleford, so it's hard to get trees going," says Anderson. "I've been planting trees out there since 2001."

He has his own tree nursery. The family also grows their own vegetables.

"The biggest enemy is deer, and keeping things wet enough to actually have a crop," he says. "We use lots of soaker hoses."

The work with their sandy soil, never having brought any new soil in.

"We stick with the natural stuff."

Anderson and his wife are parents to six children ranging in age from 29 to 11. The oldest, Robin, is working on PhD in English at the University of Toronto, Ian is a campus missionary with Catholic Christian Outreach at the University of B.C., Miles lives at Lashburn and is the only one who is married. His two children make the Andersons grandparents.

Kellyn, Jake and Julie are still at home.

"They all like to sing and dance," he says.

He says Jake shows the most interest in landscaping and horticulture. He has been helping out with climbing, especially since his dad hurt his shoulder.

Val Anderson has been home schooling all their kids.

"It's a huge commitment for Val," says Anderson, but he believes it was the right decision for their family.

"We live in a society that's not that easy to live in with one income. When you're home schooling, the pay's not great," he laughs.

But, he adds, "It's worked out for us."

As a family they also enjoy camping and fishing. On those trips, Jake and Julie and their dad also climb trees.

Now that he's retired from the City of North Battleford, what's next for Keith Anderson?

He's looking at a few possibilities. He may take up a working position with the Prairie Chapter of the ISA.

He also sees a need throughout Saskatchewan's smaller cities and towns for a consulting arborist to come in, take an inventory of their trees, monitor for pests and identify hazards, and perhaps even tender out the work those communities need to have done.

"That expertise is few and far between in cities and towns smaller than North Battleford, he says.

When undertaking a pruning program, says Anderson, specific liability trees must be the first priority, and this is where an arborist's expertise is needed.

"Trees weigh thousands of pounds and they can cause a lot of damage if you don't catch the issues before the June or July storms come."

There's also a niche for expert witnesses when it comes to legal issues regarding trees. Anderson has been involved in such cases in the past. One out of Saskatoon saw him testifying in respect to a case where a spray plane's herbicide drifted over an acreage, ravaging the property owners' trees.

But, says Anderson, he may even want to try something completely different as full-time work and continue as an arborist on a part-time basis.

The decision isn't made yet.

Whatever his future turns out to be, there will always be trees.