Katherine Sutalo, F.C.’s Newest Arborist, Likes Lights on Trees

NEW CITY OF FALLS CHURCH arborist Katherine Sutalo (right) helps raise the level of a tree’s roots during a sight visit at Dominion Jewelers on West Broad Street Tuesday morning. (Photo: News-Press)

Katherine Sutalo, the City of Falls Church’s newest arborist, said she’s in favor of residents and businesses of the Little City interacting with trees in a positive manner. Unlike her predecessors in the job, she’s okay with holiday lights on trees, sculpting severely damaged trees into statues and building tree houses. That’s because, she said in a interview with the News-Press, the more people interact with trees in a positive manner, the more they’ll care about the fate of the trees.

She has first hand experience with that phenomenon. Even though she only started as the Little City’s arborist on June 2 of this year, her work with trees started when she was child growing up in Seattle.

“I would go out into the woods and I would collect baby trees and I would bring them back and try to put them into my mother’s garden,” Sutalo said. “And I would say 100 percent of them failed, but I did learn something about trees doing it.”

Sutalo’s early arboreal lessons included the importance of not disturbing a tree’s root structure and the importance of keeping a tree in its native environment. As she got older she learned more about trees – she took college courses in botany, forestry and landscape maintenance. Eventually, she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in urban forestry from the University of Washington and was the first graduate from the school’s urban forestry program.

Now, 25 years after Sutalo started working in forestry, she’s landed in the Little City, which has been a Tree City USA town for 36 years – the longest of any Virginia municipality. She spoke with the News-Press about her relationship with trees, how society interacts with trees and her goals for maintaining the tree population in Falls Church City.

News-Press: What’s your favorite thing about trees and why?

Sutalo: They have that awesome factor; they’re bigger than people and they live longer than people. Also, trees impact the light, color and air around us. So they have such a big influence on our surroundings and they’re just peacefully there. There’s also a lot of variety. I really like the subtle variations – not like the difference between a palm tree and a maple tree, but what I like is the subtle difference between one magnolia and another. That can make trees really interesting.

N-P: Why did you become an arborist?

Sutalo: I started talking to people who were arborists and who were in the tree care industry. I found them to be really interesting and the things they talked about were really interesting and I wanted to know more about it and I was just lucky. Tree care was just something that struck me as interesting and I’m lucky to be able to make my living doing it.

N-P: What does a city arborist do?

Sutalo: It varies a little bit from jurisdiction to jurisdiction but here in Falls Church what I do is check building plans for houses and commercial structures to make sure their landscaping complies with city code. I also check on existing street trees to see if they’re okay, but I share that responsibility with the green space manager. Also, in Falls Church we require tree services to be licensed by the City of Falls Church, so people will call me if they suspect an unlicensed tree service is operating.

N-P: Why does a city need an arborist?

Sutalo: There are a couple of reasons. One thing is safety – street trees or private trees that could effect the public, somebody needs to make sure that they’re safe because in storms trees do fall and if we don’t keep an eye on them, if we don’t take care of them, they could fall when there’s not even a storm. Another thing is that Falls Church has a particular character. It’s kind of a tree-lined city and there’s city code intended to preserve that tree canopy. So you need somebody that understands trees to make sure that code is implemented properly to preserve the character of Falls Church.

N-P: What are some of the policies you’d like to enact as Falls Church’s new arborist?

Sutalo: One of the jobs I’d like to get done in the first year here is to build a new tree inventory system so that we have a constant picture of what we have and what condition it’s in and what needs work and what doesn’t. In Tacoma I developed an inventory and it was updated daily so that we can always know what trees have problems, what trees are of great value and what trees are specimen trees. All of those things can come out of the same database if you’ve got one built. And then checking on Falls Church’s code and policies regarding public trees and updating those if that’s necessary. That’s something I’d like to do with the Tree Commission.

N-P: The City of Falls Church is the oldest Tree City USA city in the State of Virginia. What does that mean to you?

Sutalo: It reinforces that Falls Church has a certain character related to being a well-treed city, to having a decent amount of canopy cover. It speaks to the fact that Falls Church thinks that’s important. So an important part of my job is protect that, which is why studying the city’s canopy cover is vital. It means what I can do for the City of Falls Church is important and I need to be sure to do it well.

N-P: What is canopy cover?

Sutalo: Canopy coverage is used as a stand-in for the environmental benefits of trees. To describe it, if you’re looking at an aerial photo straight down at a piece of land, how much of what you see looks like green foliage and how much can you see other things. So canopy cover refers to how much trees block your view of the ground from the air.

N-P: What are some of the biggest threats to trees in Falls Church that are specific to the city or region?

Sutalo: From my perspective the biggest problem for the tree canopy in Falls Church is a number of houses that are being redeveloped. When a house gets torn down and a bigger house gets put in its place, they usually clear the lot, so we’re actually losing a lot of trees to that. But don’t take that to mean that I think that should stop, because politically there’s two sides to everything. So if we make that stop, then we don’t allow anyone to build bigger houses anymore and they might just not live in Falls Church anymore. So what we want to do is try to work together. How can we allow people to build what they want to build while protecting our trees?

N-P: How do you see balancing a strong desire for the business community and the city to continue developing the city with preserving the tree population in Falls Church?

Sutalo: The trend across America – and I see it in Falls Church as well – is to concentrate density in certain areas. Like on Broad Street and Washington Street, there’s a lot of mixed use development is going in. What that does is help to prevent urban sprawl, so instead of a lot of houses with little tiny yards, you can have a lot of houses in one building and nice, large green spaces around. And so the idea is to look at the city as a whole and look at how does the dense development and the single family development fit into a matrix of green.

N-P: In the past, arborist in Falls Church City have been opposed to the decoration of trees in business districts with festive lights during Christmas. What’s your take on that issue?

Sutalo: I am absolutely in favor of lighting trees. I think that people all over America do it and there specifications for doing it in ways that don’t damage the trees. Because to me, making the trees part of people’s environment that they use means it’s part of their care about and part of their environment that they care for. We don’t want people to hate trees. The trees are not our enemy. The trees are part of our everyday world and if we touch them going by, if we climb them when we’re children, if we light them up at Christmas time, I think it’s great. I don’t like people nailing things into trees or tying things to them permanently because they’ll strangle. But I love the idea of decorating trees. I think it’s a great way to involve people in the care and appreciation of their surroundings.