Planting one Chuck Taylor shoe against the red oak, Ally Beard tightened her grip and pulled, throwing her hips skyward until she was horizontal a few feet off the ground.
Then it was all hard work — finding the right pull, step, pull, step, pull, step rhythm until she reached the first checkpoint: a branch about 8 feet off the ground.
From there, it was relatively smooth sailing as Beard grabbed hold of higher branches to reposition herself before pull-stepping again all the way into the tree’s canopy.
Assisting Beard on the ground below, Mark Noark, a manager of recruiting and training at The Davey Tree Expert Company and a judge of international tree climbing competitions, told the sophomore from Gretna to stop for a minute and look around.
"Doesn't it give you a different perspective up there at 15 or 20 feet?” Noark called up to Beard. "Just wait until you get to 80, 110 or 140 feet in the air. It gets really, really interesting when you get up over 200 feet."
Back on the ground, Beard said using a rope system to climb the East Campus tree the way an arborist or ecologist might “was way different” than her experiences rock climbing.
“You have to coordinate your arms and feet to pull your body up,” she said. “It’s not a natural way of climbing.”
The demonstration was a peek into a program currently unavailable at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, even as it exists as a land grant university with an expansive Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources in the state where Arbor Day was founded.
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Eric North, an assistant professor of practice within the School of Natural Resources, has been tasked with creating a regional and community forestry program, capable of training everyone from urban arborists to conservationists to scale trees safely and efficiently.
“I’m trying to coin the term ‘Treehuskers,’” he said. “This was the tree planting state, so we’re trying to bring that back.”
North, who is working in a position funded through the U.S. Forest Service, as well as the School of Natural Resources, said faculty are busy designing courses and curriculum to create the degree program.
Wednesday’s exercise was designed in part to introduce students, most of them fishery and wildlife majors, to the possibilities of the new program, as well as to the careers available for those who master the ropes.
Nebraska will need trained arborists as the emerald ash borer continues to spread across the state, North said, while Lincoln and Omaha seek experienced arborists or consultants to help them manage the hundreds of thousands of trees maintained by those cities.
North said his former students have also gone on to careers with the U.S. Forestry Service, or at construction firms that seek to build projects with minimal impact on existing trees and landscapes.
Noark, who was a longtime foreman for the Ohio-based Davey Tree Expert Company, told the class of roughly 20 students his work took him all over the U.S. to complete projects that regularly topped six figures in cost.
The hands-on experiences will continue next semester as UNL students learn planting, pruning and diagnosing tree problems on an East Campus grove that will double as a learning lab — as well as a recruiting tool.
“If we could just name the major, it would be ‘People in trees,’” North said. “That’s really what urban forestry and horticulture is about, the human-tree interaction and teaching people how to work with both.”