Georgia arborists competition highlights industry skills, safety

Judges, competitors and spectators look up at the tree that hosts the final timed challenge of the weekend for the Georgia Arborist competition. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Whether they are inspecting trees in poor health or climbing to saw down a limb above a home, arborists are everywhere in Atlanta, a city with the highest percentage of overall urban tree canopy in the nation.

This month, the Georgia Arborist Association held its annual Trees Unite Us conference and tree climbing championship in Decatur. The conference and competition bring together arborists from all over the state and country to test their mettle against one another in challenges and promote training and professionalism within the industry. 

Georgia arborist Jon Carlson competed in the masters’ challenge, the contest’s final round that brings together all the skills tested during the weekend. He said the competition is also great for raising awareness about the industry because many people don’t know what arborists do or that there’s more than one type of arborist. 

A man in a red shirt and American-flag print pants hoists a red rope over a tree limb.
Competitor Jon Carlson foists a rope over a tree branch to set up his rope system for climbing. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

“There’s consulting arborists, who is someone that just comes out and checks the tree from the ground, does visual inspections, soil tests, and basically tells you what you need to do or what the tree needs,” Carlson said. “And then a climbing arborist is someone that comes in behind her and takes that work order and does the work throughout the tree or to the root system.” 

Arborist Jon Carlson searches for a way down to the last bell near the end of the time challenge. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

The weekend competition focused on climbing arborists. The events, Carlson said, are standardized and used at competitions internationally. He himself has traveled around the region with his wife in recent years competing, but some contestants have gone worldwide. 

An arborist stands, knees bent, atop a tree limb tossing a wooden block down to the ground.
In a test of aim, competitor Jhonny Lopez tosses a wooden block down to a bucket far away on the ground. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

“A lot of it is continuing education and just bettering ourselves,” Carlson said. “It’s just learning so we can take it back to Monday through Friday and be more productive and safer.” 

Fifty-two competitors were tested on five skills and rated based on completion and speed as well as safety and finesse. They test how quickly they can ascend a tree, set up ropes to climb — and perhaps the most challenging — rescue a 180-pound dummy from the treetop in a medical emergency scenario. 

An arborist wearing a helmet, glasses leans out on a branch toward a cow bell covered in colorful ribbons.
Competitor Jhonny Lopez reaches out to the end of a branch to tag a bell in one of the competition’s skills tasks. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Luis Vasquez, another arborist in Georgia, said the industry can be dangerous, making the rescue practice absolutely critical. 

A Man in a blue shirt embraces a man in a red shirt who is wearing a helmet, safety goggles, and a gear belt clipped into climbing ropes.
Competitor Jhonny Lopez embraces with another arborist after completing the Masters’ Challenge at the Georgia Arborist Association’s tree climbing contest on November 5, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

“There’s been a lot of accidents … it’s good to know, you don’t know when you’re going to need it so we keep practice, practice every year,” Vasquez said.

His company and the vast majority of reputable arborist companies host at least one or two of these types of safety trainings annually. Those that don’t, he said, need to. 

“We work to not do the actual rescue, but if we need to we have the training,” Vasquez said. 

The Georgia event acts as a qualifier: arborists can compete nationally and even internationally in these competitions.