Final Thoughts: An Interview with Jim Wentworth-Plato

Jim Wentworth-Plato is the faculty lead instructor for the Arboriculture Program at Clackamas Community College in Oregon City. It’s a two year associate's degree program that provides opportunities for new and practicing arborists to hone their skills and advance their knowledge in controlled settings.

How did you get started in this industry?

I was an ADHD kid before Xbox and spent days in the ‘pits’, hundreds of acres along the Connecticut river full of frog ponds, trails, and a patchwork forest of birch, maple, oak, and pines.

After graduating from the University of Vermont with a Forestry Management BS, I worked seasonally until a job on the Sandy River changed my life. I met my wife and the Pacific Northwest old growth forests. Growing up, I never thought I’d live anywhere but New England with its rock walls and fall color, but the PNW blew me away with trees 3-4 times bigger than the ones I knew, a relative lack of biting insects, and mild weather.

A few years on the Olympic peninsula passed; burning slash piles, studying tree growth, feeding bears, running chainsaws, and being thankful that my nostrils point down. We had over 100 inches of rain one year.

I feel lucky that my first job as an arborist was with Stephen Peacock, who cared about the trees even more than the clients, and was adamant that we follow proper pruning guidelines.

If you were not waking up caring for trees, what would you be doing?

Y’know I speak the truth when I say tree work ain’t easy. Long hours and high risk for less money than our skill set deserves leave you physically and sometimes emotionally drained. But even on the cold, dark, wet February mornings as I drank my coffee and pondered my decisions, there’s nothing I wanted more than to work in trees. In fact, there’s nothing else I could see myself doing and being happy, period. Age brings some relief from the adrenaline cravings, and again, I feel lucky. I’ve found my next calling. I spent the first 20 years of my life learning, the second 20+ doing, and now I get to wrap my experiences into a program where I can teach new arborists the ropes.

What type of work or projects are you currently engaged in?

Scaffolding, progression, and exposure. Exposure to different techniques, tools, and resources for different scenarios. Progression is the journey from your baseline to an advanced skill set that allows you to integrate the how and why of biological systems and treatments with your work. And scaffolding is the way we support students learning complex ideas and systems by focusing on one aspect of the task at a time. Students can learn concepts without the added pressures of the time clock, watchful clients, or the increased risk of using unfamiliar equipment.

What changes do you see coming in our industry?

In my career, the three big changes I’ve seen involve people, equipment, and knowledge. There seems to be fewer people in our hiring pool with the endurance and desire to work outdoors, perhaps because they grew up indoors on computers? Equipment keeps getting more specialized. Safer, but more expensive and complex, compounding user error. My $20 rope end climbing hitch has morphed to an array of clever mechanical devices running $300 and up. The third major change I’ve witnessed is the explosion of knowledge. I still have my PP Pirone book on the shelf, but next to it are 6 newer books on tree maintenance,  and a whole shelf of BMP’s, SOP’s, and ANSI, OSHA, and ODA guidelines. The sheer volume of things you CAN learn in arboriculture, combined with availability has changed the role of instructor to that of a guide.

Anything else you’d like to share with the membership?

I’m honored to be the lead faculty of a program that so many of us contributed time, money, and effort to create. The need for trees and arborists is only increasing as cities continue reducing canopy cover, invasive populations balloon and spread, and the environment changes faster than trees can react. What I need now are more students in class, to help feed the need. If you know folks who are as interested in doing as they are in learning, send them my way. About half my students are in the 2-year program, and half are taking classes to learn more about specific subjects. Most classes are only one day a week so there’s room in your schedule for a little learning too!  Feel free to contact me at (503) 594-6493 or email jimwp@clackamas.edu to learn more. Or check out the degree program at https://www.clackamas.edu/academics/departments-programs/landscape-management-aas-arboriculture-option