The Utility Arborist Research Fund: Advancing Industry Research

By Randall H. Miller, Director of Research, Development an Industry Intelligence, CNUC


In the late 2000s, when I was on the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Journal of Arboriculture and Urban Forestry Editorial Board (now referred to Associate Editors), ISA sought International Organization for Standardization (ISO) accreditation for the journal. The application failed largely because too many articles did not meet ISO standards. Utility contributions were specifically identified as culprits, including some from researchers we held in high regard. The failure was an embarrassment for ISA, more so for the UAA, and awkward for me, as I had reviewed and approved some of the articles that were specifically criticized as scientifically deficient.

The message to the Editorial Board was clear: we had inadequately fulfilled our responsibility to ensure scientific rigor and had allowed publication of too many substandard articles for a periodical of the quality that the Journal of Arboriculture and Urban Forestry aspired to be. The board responded with steadfast focus on scientific methodology and statistical analysis. Rightly or wrongly, utility articles were particularly scrutinized. It became difficult for utility research to earn approval, as reviewers looked closely for flaws in methodology, analysis, and conclusions. Several utility research articles from prominent investigators were rejected, even though they resulted in solid recommendations we apply today. Consequently, utility researchers grew discouraged from submitting articles to the publication entirely. In fact, from 2010 to 2015, no utility-related research was published in the Journal of Arboriculture and Urban Forestry. That doesn’t mean utility research stopped, it just wasn’t printed in our profession’s scientific periodical.

The Utility Arborist Research Fund (UARF) holds promise to dramatically improve matters. As a past president of the UAA and former Chair of the TREE Fund Board of Trustees, I see clearly that the partnership between the two organizations is a strength of the UARF. TREE Fund is an ally of the UAA, and its board has a strong utility presence, with Will Nutter from Wright Tree Service, Dave Krause of Asplundh Tree Experts, and Tom Wolf of Davey. Progress toward and final achievement of the fund’s $1.0 million activation goal was monitored closely and celebrated at TREE Fund. The UAA and TREE Fund both have fundraising capabilities. The UAA can identify research topics, promote those of greatest benefit and recruit investigators. At the same time, TREE Fund is adept at managing endowed funds, prioritizing the highest quality projects, awarding the best among them grants, and publishing the results.

That doesn’t diminish the importance of strict adherence to scientific principles. TREE Fund’s Research Committee is committed to vetting research proposals, and will not award grants to projects they do not consider publishable. Utility investigators would benefit from collaborating with partners at full-time research institutions. After all, they are experts who understand how to design research that distinguishes significant results from those due only to chance. Approval from the TREE Fund Research Committee can assure us and the investigators that UARF projects are high-quality science, they will be published, and they will be successful.

Research has already been approved. The first UARF grants (2012 to 2014 ) supported John Goodfellow’s work to develop and prove a quantitative approach to determining optimal vegetation management (VM) spending and cycle times. The project Development of a Business Case for Scheduling Utility Vegetation Management (UVM) on a Preventive vs. Corrective Maintenance Basis was successful in constructing and validating a risk-based model that can support informed decisions on the tradeoffs between vegetation maintenance expense and tree-initiated risk to overhead distribution systems. The project report was issued in late 2015, and demonstrated that without consideration of the indirect cost impact of outages on customers, it may be difficult to establish a basis for preventive maintenance. A 2016 UARF grant to Christopher M. Halle, PhD (Sonoma State University) and Co-Investigator Claudia Luke, PhD (Sonoma State University) in cooperation with Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) Corporation compares the efficacy of mechanical-only versus mechanical-plus herbicide treatment in establishing low-growing native plant communities in a range of western ecosystems in the project called Integrated Vegetation Management (IVM) On Powerline Rights of Ways: Effects Of Vegetation Treatment On Plant Communities and Wildlife Diversity. The effects on local animals and pollinators will also be studied.

These projects are only the start. Beginning in 2018, TREE Fund, in consultation with the UAA, will award one to five UARF grants totaling $50,000 annually (minimum award of $10,000). There is no end to potential projects—determining optimal cycle lengths, the efficacy of separate approaches to single and three phase lines, wire-border zone investigations outside of Pennsylvania and California, whether “ground-to-sky” pruning negatively affects mass damping, how to improve public perception of utility arboriculture, etc.

The UARF has the potential to take us into a golden age of utility arboricultural research. By the UAA and TREE Fund working together with academic collaborators, we will position ourselves to dramatically improve our understanding of UVM, and better serve the companies for which we work as well as our customers, and ultimately our profession.


This article is courtesy of UAA Newsline Jan/Feb 2018. Content is reprinted with full permission of the publisher.