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Episode 16: The Evolution of the Utility Arborist Association w/ Dennis Fallon

Welcome to the 16th Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management!

Trees and Lines Podcast Transcript – Episode 16

A conversation with UAA Executive Director Dennis Fallon

Tejpal Singh, COO, and Dr. Phil Charlton, Principal Advisor, at Iapetus Infrastructure Services

Philip Charlton: Welcome to another episode of the Trees and Lines podcast. This week, Dennis Fallon joins us to talk about the Utility Arborist Association (UAA), its new initiatives, and their certification program. Have a listen. Hope you enjoy.

Introduction

Welcome Dennis. Appreciate you joining us today. Why don’t you take a minute and tell us a little bit about your background, and we’ll get started.

Dennis Fallon: Thanks for having me. I appreciate being able to come out here, speak with you guys today, and meet Tej for the first time.

I started out in municipal forestry. I have a degree in urban and community forestry. That was initially where I was headed. And one summer, I ended up at a job with Northern States Power, an investor-owned company that is now known as Xcel Energy. I started as a contract utility forester there and worked my way up. By the time I left 24 years later, I was managing two operating companies’ comprehensive IVM/UVM programs, both T&D, and helping out other departments, generation and legal, and all the other areas that might need vegetation input.

Along the way, I picked up a master’s degree in forestry, as well. Did my master’s work in dysfunctional root systems. Trees that prematurely fail obviously are of interest to folks who are in the utility space. And in August of 2021, I had an opportunity to move over to the Utility Arborist Association.

Philip Charlton: Tej, have you ever heard of dysfunctional root systems before?

Tej Singh: I haven’t. Now I know that I have them in my yard, I think, because I can’t get certain things to grow, but joking, of course. No, I haven’t, but that’s pretty crazy. Dennis, as we’ve been chatting with people and I’m getting familiar with others in the industry, I’m always fascinated with not only people who have degrees in the subject matter, but also go on to get advanced degrees.

Did you always know this was a passion for you? Like early on as a kid you’re like, “Hey, I’m interested in the outdoors, I’m interested in the environment, I’m interested in impact.” What was driving your passion into this space?

Dennis Fallon: I always had a passion for the outdoors. We’re an outdoor family. We spent some time on family property up near the Canadian border, northern Minnesota, where it’s water access only.

You have to motor across, or boat across, to get to this place. And I credit my mother for forestry. There were six trees on the shoreline as you came up to the dock and she used to quiz us all. She was a nurse; she was just passionate about the outdoors. And she used to quiz us all about these six trees with six different species. That was probably my first exposure to, wait a minute, not all trees are the same. And in the scouts, we were a scouting family and I’m an Eagle Scout. We did a lot of camping, spent a lot of time outside. When I went to college, I lived in Europe for a little bit.

I was going to be a German major and become a German teacher. Then I realized that I was inside way too much. When that fell through, I poked my head around and found a forestry program and thought, “wait, that sounds like a lot of fun.” I haven’t looked back since. I’ve enjoyed it all the way.

Tej Singh: Why German? Just curious.

Dennis Fallon: I had lived in Austria for just under a year and toured all around Europe. It would’ve been 1987–88, in that wheelhouse. The eastern block was starting to be westernized, but the wall was still in place. I spent some time in East Germany and in what was Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia at the time.

Learning about the arboriculture industry

Philip Charlton: So, you got out of school. Like many of us, did you fall into the industry? Did you know anything about utility arboriculture?  

Dennis Fallon: No. Negative, not at all. The professor we had was pretty good about bringing in guest speakers and folks from around the community.

To this day, I still go down to see some professor emeritus, and speak at the University of Minnesota. I just spoke there last week about utility arboriculture with the local investor-owned utility folks. We had a little bit of exposure.

I had some preconceived notions that later, once I was in the industry, I completely blew out of the water. Different perspectives. No, Phil, I didn’t have much knowledge in the first place going into it.

UAA industry videos

Philip Charlton: I sent Tej the latest UAA news update with a link to the video. The last one was done out in the Pacific Northwest. Great video. So tell us, why is the UAA doing those videos?

Dennis Fallon: We’re really excited about these videos. We have three episodes that came out together. The one in the Pacific Northwest: keep the power flowing. The whole idea was to try to bring awareness to the industry.

You mentioned a lot of us have fallen into this industry, weren’t aware of it, and by happenstance became aware of it. This is an intentional goal to try to draw external awareness in some of the mediums that are being used right now, on social media, and the way folks are consuming information through video and through video products.

The goal was to have these last less than 180 seconds. It was not designed to be super informative or super in depth. You’re going to understand this process when you get done watching this video. It was more just to say, “Hey, look what’s going on out here!” Draw awareness and then hopefully people will find more content later or keep searching for more content.

That particular video you mentioned, the Pacific Northwest. We thought, how do you tell the story of utility arboriculture? There are so many avenues, so many niches, and so many things going on all the time. How can you hold it under 180 seconds? So, we decided to tell the tale about how to go out and look for high-risk trees on your system. How does that process work? In that video, you see the system foresters go up in the helicopter and they’re all scouting trees. Once they identify something from the air, they have to go down and validate, is this in fact a risk to our system? If so, does it need to be mitigated? How will it be mitigated?

And it goes through that process of identifying the tree all the way to mitigating the risk along the system,

Arboriculture Industry Commonalties

Tej Singh: Dennis. So again, as I’ve talked to people and gotten more familiar with what I would call more pioneers and leaders in this space, like yourself, I feel like everyone has a philosophy, right? Based on their body of work, their approach to arboriculture, utility arboriculture, overall risk management, and the preservation of species. If you had to define your philosophy in a statement as it relates to this whole space and your approach to things, what would it be?

Dennis Fallon: That’s an interesting thought. If I had to define it, what immediately comes to mind is there’s more common ground that people recognize. A lot of times, as I came up in the industry, it was fairly divisive. When I first came in, everybody was in their own silos. The wildlife folks weren’t talking to the foresters. The foresters weren’t talking to the engineers. And if you had to cross paths, it was their way or the highway, or our way or the highway. It’s exciting because I don’t know that we’re in that space anymore. People are recognizing that we need all these components to be interactive. They need each other. They’re interdependent.

Having the ability to work across these different silos, and different work groups, and understand where people are, that’s power. There’s power there. That really is the future for all of us: to begin to understand these different stakeholders and draw different stakeholders in early.

Having that openness, finding that common ground, determining what needs to be done, what are our options to do it, and how we want to do it, that’s where the value comes in. That’s how I would define it.

Overview of the UAA

Tej Singh: That’s very interesting. Yeah, that also points to the overall evolution of the space, and development of the program. So tell us a little bit about the UAA, your role, and some of your plans.

Dennis Fallon: Happy to. That’s one exciting thing about the UAA. That segue from the philosophy piece goes really well because the UAA is one of those organizations that transcends the industry. It finds those things that transcend competitive bounds and different spaces and tries to pull them together to help people make decisions, get the education, access the information that is out there.

We’ve got 5,000 members (individuals are members versus over a company membership). Over 5,000 folks come from 24 different countries, but predominantly North America. However, we’re growing outside the North American footprint. The board took a strategic move last year and eliminated the geographic boundaries from the vision statement.

The UAA is going to be the leader in integrative vegetation management as the organization’s drive. We put committees together and these committees are the powerhouse of the organization. They are the engine of the organization. It’s the volunteers who come in, work on complex issues, and try to figure out how do we best raise the bar. What are best management practices? What are the correct standards? How do we define things? We need to define how we work through complex problems. And what opportunities are out there? What support is out there? It’s an exciting group to be a part of.

There’s a lot going on behind the curtain, a tremendous amount of stuff going on. So, it’s a lot of fun, Dennis.

UAA Board Nominations

Philip Charlton: I’m always amazed at how many leaders of the industry step up, whether it’s on the committees or the board. People who have no more time than anyone else, but they commit the time. I saw where you have the nominations for board open. Tell us a little bit about what you’re looking for.

Dennis Fallon: Nominations opened on May 1st. We have two board director slots available, and the vice president role is also available. We’re always looking for diverse people, a diverse school of thought, to broaden our bench and get more people involved.

We’ll try to draw in some good candidates and the nomination committee will put together a ballot for the organization. We’ll look at some gap analysis and do some review for the board to figure out how to best serve the membership. We’ll then invite those folks in and put it out to the members to vote on who they want to have represent themselves.

Folks are interested. Now is a great time to get out there and get yourself involved. Find a role where you can come in, help out, and bring your passion to the table. There are a lot of passionate industry leaders.

The other thing that’s open right now are awards nominations for the UAA awards that’ll be awarded at Trees and Utilities this year. That’s always a great thing. We mentioned all those volunteers. If you know somebody who’s been working hard and putting in a lot of effort, nominate them for an award.

Tej Singh: That’s great. Phil, we’re going to have to go through our list and figure out who to nominate.

UAA Credential Program

Philip Charlton: Dennis, the UAA credential program that’s tied to the UW—Stevens Point program that’s being offered. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Dennis Fallon: There’s a pro-UVM, professional utility vegetation management, certification out there that’s predicated off a certificate program at the University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point. There are two certificates in that program: the fundamentals of utility vegetation management and the utility vegetation management professional certificate. Those are broken into five college-level courses: two courses in the first certificate and three in the second certificate. After completion of those two certificates, the Board of Governors will review candidates and put them up for the pro-UVM certification.

What’s unique about that program at Stevens Point is, not only is it college level, it has lots of project management, lots about the system and how the grid works, and stakeholders, engagement, and safety: all the key things that someone’s going to need to be able to run a whole vegetation program. The outcome is, the folks who are coming through this program are really demonstrating the ability to run an entire program, stem to stern, across whatever territory or program they’re going to have. The skillset is outstanding.

It’s an asynchronistic program, so you can attend at any time. You don’t have to call in at three o’clock on Tuesday to be at a lecture. And it runs based on cohorts. The cohort is a group of individuals working together through the class and they learn from each other.

What’s really unique is the fact that you’ve got people from all over the US and Canada who work with each other and learn from each other. It’s a professional development opportunity as well, in a huge way, because you’re learning from different perspectives, from people outside your own bubble who are dealing with the same challenges you’re dealing with and may have different perspectives or different ways to go about that.

You get a lot more information from a peer-to-peer learning opportunity, which is pretty powerful.

Philip Charlton: We’re growing so fast. Where do you find managers to take these leadership roles when they’re entry level? This whole program, the structure, was to give them the equivalent of what they’d get from, maybe 12 or 15 years on-the-job training and different capacities. It’s a great program.

Dennis Fallon: Absolutely. It’s exciting. We’re still looking for more folks to go through. We’re starting to see contractors add this as a role: somebody with this credential can come in and offer services for a utility. We’re seeing utilities use it for professional development.

It’s about a two-year commitment. It’s no cakewalk. It’s not an easy thing to pull together. It’s been described as an MBA in utility vegetation management. To my knowledge, it’s the first time anybody’s taken at a collegiate level, the UVM philosophies and laid them out in a structure where you can go through and learn it learn it directly in that capacity.

Dennis Fallon’s Career Path

Tej Singh: We talked a little bit about your academic experience and where you cut your teeth at Xcel Energy. Maybe you can just give us a quick professional snapshot of your journey, the different roles that you took in the sector, and your path to a leadership role in the UAA and what really drove that.

Dennis Fallon: I came in fresh out of college as an urban and community forester, familiar with municipal forestry, and was hired by a contracting company. I came in as a contract utility forester. Brought in specifically at the time to run customer tickets, help set up construction jobs, any system improvements that involve trees, do some work with the tree crews, try to set crews up for observation, do crew observations and those kinds of things. I spent a few years doing that. The more that you learn, the more they advance the skill sets.

The construction jobs were big drivers. Understanding the equipment, understanding how construction and design came into play. An opportunity came around. When the contracts changed, a group of us got hired on by the utility directly as utility foresters. When that role expanded again, opportunity and geography continued to expand.

I went from a handful of municipalities to, suddenly, a major portion of the Minnesota Metro area in the Twin Cities (i.e., Minneapolis, St. Paul area), which eventually grew. I continued to grow. My responsibility went from strictly distribution into some other areas like mergers and acquisitions.

My title changed half a dozen times. Along the way I, continued to pick up territories. Went from a metro area into two states. I was covering Wisconsin and Upper Peninsula Michigan while living in Minnesota. I operated in two states and lived in the third.

I spent about 600 miles a week behind the wheel of a pickup truck going out to see crews, pickup transmission operations along the way in IVM, that morphed into a manager’s role in a five-state area and continued to add on responsibilities.

Then the UAA Executive Director position popped up. Like any utility arborist who sees something that looks like an insurmountable challenge, I thought, I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell at this job, but why not? I’m going to throw a ring at it, throw a marker out there, and see what happens.

The rest is history. It’s been a great learning experience. It was an opportunity to expand into one of my passion areas, which is helping others. Trying to help other people and figuring out what people need. So that’s what the UAA, in my mind, really does, is help people find that information they need. Find a network and find resources. It’s exciting.

Philip Charlton: So many of our people come in as contract foresters like you did, and they’re wanting to someday follow your track. Maybe they don’t have a realistic perception of time. How long did it take you to go from contract forester to the manager of five states?

Dennis Fallon: That was a course of probably 12 to 15 years or better in that wheelhouse. That said, though, I went from contract forester to hired by the utility in two to three years, and then for that utility forester role into what was at the time called a coordinator role (which would be equivalent to a program manager role today). I think those are the current titles they use out there or system forester role in covering the multiple geographies.

That was only matter of five to seven years. Then, like I said, merger and acquisition. It went from Northern States Power to doing business as Xcel Energy and the different operating companies merged. That always comes with reorganization. I survived a couple of reorgs and continued to learn as I went.

So that was the goal for me. I’m always eager to learn more. And if I were to give any contract forester advice about where they want to go or how they want advance, if their interest is to move up: continue to learn, look for opportunities to do something you’re not doing right now, whether that’s different transmission or distribution, different areas of the operation, construction, capital work, all of these things. Learning about budgets, learning safety, the more you can expand. I used to have a peer in the industry who said he didn’t really care what his job title was. Just call me an essential employee.

Tej Singh: Oh man, I really like that. Dennis, just going back to something: the UAA has representation from 24 countries you said, right?

Dennis Fallon: Correct.

UAA Partners and Global Thought Leadership

Tej Singh: Globally, do you feel that the UAA is the most advanced organization that touches arboriculture, UVM, all the core things or are there sister or brother organizations that you partner with and that you are also grabbing thought leadership and ideas from.  Who else is out there globally doing something that has impressed you.

Dennis Fallon: From an arboriculture standpoint, globally is the International Society of Arboriculture, probably one of the key groups that are out there. The Society of Municipal Arborists is another big group. From an IVM or a UVM space, you’ve got the UAAA, the Utility Arborist Association of Australia, which includes New Zealand and that footprint.

The Utility Vegetation Management Association in Canada is another group we work closely with for professional UVM in Canada, as well. There are other affiliates we’re working with. When you describe it as working with thought leadership, that’s really what we’re trying to do. Expand out and understand those areas.

I’m no diplomat by any means. At the same time, I spent a little bit of time bouncing around the world and live close enough to Canada. One of the things we’re working on: we don’t understand these areas. We need to understand our culture well enough before we start to try to integrate or move into those spaces.

One of the things we’ve got going at the UAA right now is a Canadian task force. It’s a group of Canadians who are active in the UAA, but also active in UVMA and these other organizations to try to identify for us: are there opportunities where we can help strengthen and broaden the field and work together out there? What are the things we?

We need to know. As you mentioned, Tej, you’re a Canadian. A lot of folks don’t realize that Canada’s not just another state. It’s a completely different country and it really is. It’d be easy to access a different culture with different rules and different regulatory pieces.

You have to be respectful. Understand and find a way to work together in these spaces. I think that’s the strength. That philosophy, and I’m not the only one who’s had it, a predecessor had it as well. I think that’s why we’re seeing expansion into other countries. We’re recognizing that, and here’s how we’re doing it.

We want to share. We also want to learn and be able to expand everybody’s knowledge.

Tej Singh: You bring up something that I find very fascinating as even as you move throughout the United States, from state to state, across the utility footprint. I’ve been so amazed by how the philosophies vary. The constraints are different. The approaches are so varied, and so I just see a lot of opportunity for your organization to continue to bring people in this industry together. I also feel, even in the short amount of time that I’ve been touching the space, I see a shift and a desire by more people, even in that period to be curious about what a peer utility might be doing. From the Midwest to the East coast or to the West Coast, they’re like, “Oh, that’s pretty interesting. Why would you guys do that? Under what conditions were you thinking about that?” Because there are so many variables. There’s capital, right? You need money to support these programs. We’ve seen an expansion of budgets focused specifically on UVM, right? Within the utility portfolio. Those are all indications to me that executive leadership at various organizations is starting to prioritize. This industry, what has been historically a very niche industry, is coming front and center and is getting its due attention.

It’s an exciting time. While you’re at the helm of this organization, it’s really great to see all of us start to synthesize together. It’s just going to be pretty cool to watch that continued evolution.

UAA Regional Meetings

Dennis Fallon: I absolutely agree. That’s one of the things that we’re really successful with right now is regional meetings and putting those regional meetings together.

We got three safety summits coming on this year alone. Those safety summits are in regional areas with regional concerns drawing in larger folks—to be able to come in with other perspectives and share with each other. Got a handful of regional meetings that are on the East coast, the West coast, and the center of the country to draw in folks locally, especially folks that can’t travel to the national meetings.

And then we’ve got the national meetings as well, Trees and Utilities. The pinnacle of the UVM experience. The show floor is almost sold out. I’m excited.

Tej Singh: Oh yeah, I attended my first one in Milwaukee. It was awesome. It was such a great time. You get to meet a lot of interesting people among the attendees as well as the organization like you who are setting it up and leading the whole thing. It comes together very nicely. It’s one of the best industry events I’ve ever attended.

Dennis Fallon: Thanks for that. You mentioned it’s an exciting time and that’s the best way to characterize it. There’s an open-mindedness out there now that is better than it’s been in a long time. It’s just continuing to grow and folks are really looking to learn from each other. It’s not as divisive as it used to be around these concepts.

It’s okay. That is how we got here, what got us here, but now how do we go where we want to go and how do we keep taking it up a notch. There’s a utility arborist in every community, sometimes more than one, and not a lot of people know that. So it’s a great time.

UAA New Members and Collaboration

Philip Charlton: As we close, Dennis, you have 5,000 members and a lot of people in the industry who should be members. Anything you want to leave them with?

Dennis Fallon: We always welcome new members. Bring people in. One of the areas right now (as you talk about expanding out into new areas), we’re looking at other linear management, or folks who manage other linear corridors (e.g., pipeline roadways). There are a lot of similarities and a lot of information we can share. Municipalities are the soapbox I keep getting up and down from often, and you’ll hear me do it (probably has roots back to the fact that I cut my teeth in the municipal side) but there isn’t an urban and community forest canopy out there that doesn’t have a utility forest canopy within it.

So it’s about time that we started working together. We’re making a lot of strides working with the ISA and Arbor Day and these other groups while trying to broaden our horizons and get into those spaces. I would encourage folks from what we have historically been perceived as outside the industry to come in and see what we’ve got going on.

The barrier to entry are dues which are ridiculously low at $40 a year. The magazine is worth more than that. Come on in, check it out, see what’s going on. The other thing I throw out there, Phil, about 10% of our membership are students. We’re gaining students from all over the place.

I’ll let you in on a not-so-well-kept secret, one that’s not recognized very well, is it’s free for students. When you sign up and prove that you’re in a post-secondary enrollment course in the natural resources space, we’ll give you a free membership that includes access to the UAA Newsline and the networks and all those other things. At a minimum, it’s a free opportunity to get in and network with potential employers.

Safety II

Philip Charlton: That last Newsline was 50 some pages on safety and man, it was a good production. Good job.

Dennis Fallon: Thank you. Yeah, that’s another exciting piece. Where’s safety? The whole Safety II concept that we’re headed into. The mindset. That’s another exciting opportunity for this industry and UVM space is adopting it extremely quickly coming out of some other industries.

And we’re leaps and bounds ahead of a lot of other industries. You start to look at Safety I versus Safety II, and you’re going to need both. But that mindset of moving forward to where, if you have an incident, it used to be “What did the employee do that caused the incident?” Now we’re looking more about, “Did the system fail the employee?”

Did we fail the employee? What do we need to do? When we look at the workforce and the dwindling workforce number, globally headcount is down. We look at birth rates. There are fewer of us out there over the next 18 years.

So we’re going to need to treat our people correctly and we’re going to need to draw them in. This Safety II mindset gets us to that next step and is going to drive safety to a whole another level which is really exciting. Again, there’s a whole lot of topic here!

Conclusion

Tej Singh: This is wonderful, Dennis. Thank you so much for making time today. Yes, we are going to bother you for 2.0: a second episode to dig into some of these other things that you mentioned.

Philip Charlton: I’ve written a whole list of things we’d like to talk to you about.

Tej Singh: We could do this for days with you. Thank you again for making time. Really exciting things ahead.

Dennis Fallon: Thanks again for having me. It was really a lot of fun.

Philip Charlton: That’s it for this episode of the Trees and Lines podcast brought to you by Iapetus Infrastructure Services. If you like the show, please give us a rating of five stars on Apple or Spotify. If you have any questions or comments on any of our episodes, or ideas for topics or guests in the future, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us at Treesandlines@iapetusllc.com. We’ll chat with you soon.

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