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Episode 33: Research & Development Inside UVM w/ Dr. Gregory Dahle

Episode 33: Research and Development inside Vegetation Management w/ Dr. Gregory Dahle

Welcome to the 33rd Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management​

Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 33

Join Iapetus Infrastructure Services (IIS) COO Tejpal Singh and Principal Advisor Dr. Phil Charlton for a conversation with Gregory Dahle, Professor of Arboriculture & Urban Forestry at West Virginia University.

This episode is part of a special series of episodes recorded from the floor of the 2023 Trees & Utilities conference in Pittsburgh, PA.

Episode 33 Transcript

Tej Singh: Welcome to another episode of Trees and Lines at the Trees and Utilities Conference. We’re thrilled to welcome Greg Dahle from West Virginia University. He has a very colorful background in industry and academia. We’re going to get to know him a little bit and what he’s up to. Greg, please tell us a little bit about yourself.

Greg Dahle: Well, thanks for inviting me here. It’s great to be here in Pittsburgh for the conference, Trees and Utilities. My name is Greg Dahle, as you said. I am teaching arboriculture and urban forestry at West Virginia University. My background, of course, I have an academic background, but I also came from industry as well. I was a practicing arborist out in California, both in the utility sector as well as in the commercial sector. I was involved with PG&E out in California doing some tree inventory and managing pool clearing projects to try to reduce fire loading on their circuits. Then I moved on into commercial sales, and I was selling down in the South Bay, Silicon Valley area, tree work for a local tree care company. I did both of those together for about seven years before I returned to graduate school for my master’s and Ph.D. That’s when I ended up here at West Virginia.

Tej Singh: This is your alma mater, right?

Greg Dahle: Yeah.

Philip Charlton: Yeah, West Virginia’s mine. You teach, and when people get out of West Virginia, do they know about utility arboriculture?

Greg Dahle: Yes. Well, first, we’re biased because we both are involved with West Virginia University, which has a strong history in utility arboriculture. When I teach my arboriculture class, I teach that in the fall. In the spring, I teach in urban forest management. I see that as tree care or large management. In my arboriculture class, we spend a few lectures talking about trees growing around proximity of power lines and how to prune them properly as best we can to keep the power lines on. I spend a little bit more time looking at how utility forestry is really part of urban forestry. As you know, we’re managing large swaths of land and trees that impact everybody every day long. We forget about the importance of utility forestry until the power goes out, and we don’t realize what our industry does until that time. I try to encourage my students that this is a good sector. About a third of our forestry students end up in arboriculture, and probably, I would say more than half of them into the utility industry. So I’m happy about that.

Philip Charlton: Why do you think West Virginia is one of the few? I mean, it just amazes me that we can’t get schools to recognize utility forestry.

Greg Dahle: There are a few. I mean, Wisconsin with Stevens Point used to, and still does, do a lot with that. I think it’s because long term, we haven’t seen utility given the respect that it deserves. As I said to you, it’s urban forestry. Nationwide, we’ve really incorporated urban forestry into all the ecosystem services and all the benefits that we get, and they don’t see utility a part of that. I think a lot of the academics themselves don’t see the interest in that and see the importance in that, and I think a lot of the students don’t feel that until they get in the industry and start realizing how much we love the land and how much we love the trees that we take care of.

Philip Charlton: It’s a great industry and the people do care. They just don’t hear about it until they get into it.

Greg Dahle: I didn’t. I really didn’t know about utility until I got the job out west. I can honestly say, a buddy that used to live here that I met out in California, about a month into it, I said I found my career. I was a wildlife student. I was going to do utility long enough to find that wildlife job. Nearly 30 years later, I’m still not looking for that wildlife job. I’m quite content where I’m at.

Philip Charlton: Yeah. Good.

Tej Singh: Like Phil, you’re a bit of an exception in this industry, in this sector because you do have higher degrees. You’re a Ph.D. in the space like Phil and which fascinates me that you’ve committed yourself to that level of continued education and research. What prompted you to want to leave industry and go back though into academia? Were you seeing things and feeling like, I’ve got to dig a little deeper because we’re operating at a more of a service level? What was the driving factor that sent you back to West Virginia?

Greg Dahle: To be honest, the driving factor was when I was in undergrad, I was a nontraditional undergrad. I didn’t get my degree till I was almost 30 because I’ve always been a nontraditional person as far as just figure out where I want to be, and I’m going to be there eventually. I love academic. I loved teaching. I really knew as an undergraduate, an older undergraduate, that I wanted to teach. And again, I want to do wildlife. That didn’t parlay out very well because there just aren’t very many jobs. As soon as I discovered utility and utility forestry, I knew where my passion was developing and where it was going to go.

As I had worked for about five years and knew I wanted to return to graduate school, I knew this is where I want to go. I was benefited that I had spent time doing some research projects when I was with the consulting company. I did some work for PG&E doing a couple of different research projects. That introduced research to me, so I knew that there was a lot more to learn. I see our research as the extension research in one respect, the extension component that a lot of universities have. Not only do we do the research, but we assemble everyone else’s research and try to get that information out to the public. I think that’s really what drew me towards the academic side, is trying to get information out to the practitioner to allow them to be better at their management.

Philip Charlton: That great because that’s one of the real challenges. So many of the research goes into a journal, and so many of our members don’t read journals. It’ll be years to get that information into the field.

Greg Dahle: That’s something we’ve been trying to do with the UAA. We’ve got a research committee with UAA, and we realized, I don’t know about you, but if I want to fall asleep, all I got to do is pull out a research journal or two, and I would fall asleep. It is a great cure for insomnia. I respect practitioners going, this is too heady. We have to write our research papers in a scientific manner in order to get it published. But it doesn’t make for good reading and a simple one pager or something like that. I realize, and so do a lot of people within the UAA and with our industry, we’ve got to find a way to summarize these information, these data sheets that are out there to try to get it into something that is meaningful to the practitioner; easy to read while you’re on your lunch hour or where you got a 20-minute break if you ever have that during the day.

Philip Charlton: Speaking of research, you got a grant this year from TREE Fund. Was that the Utility Arborist Research Fund?

Greg Dahle: I have received two Utility Arborist Research Fund grants the last two years. They were basically partnered with each other, so it’s a continuation of the one I got this year. What I’m trying to do is I am trying to look at utility outage reports, the tree-caused outage reports. What I’d like to do is collect as many triage reports that I can across the U.S. and even our partners up in Canada and try to build as large of a database as possible to try to the power of big data, machine learning, to try to understand why we have failures both within the right of way, and as we all know, a lot of times, those failures are outside the right of way. I’m trying to find out, trying to assemble that database to look at what are the leading causes and the reasons, whether topography or tree species, height, size, anything like that.

Philip Charlton: You’re going to the all the utilities. You want to go, I know you’re just starting. What’s your request? You got people listening.

Greg Dahle: My name is Greg Dahle at West Virginia University. My hope is that if I can reach out to you or you can reach out to me, I’m trying to collect any company, utility, any co-op, any tree care company, utility services that has databases that they can share with me. I’m hoping to compile these databases into one larger database so I can have a graduate student or a doctorate student look at that. My request is to contact me, and I’d be happy to work with you to make sure that the data is confidential, that I don’t share stuff that you don’t want. I can wash the data of the client information. You can wash it yourself. I don’t need to have the circuit name or anything like that. I’m happy to have that, so I can collect as large of a database from across the U.S. and into Canada, if possible, to help us as an industry really understand why we have outages.

Philip Charlton: This is a lot of utilities that do post-event investigations.

Greg Dahle: Yes, preferably by an arborist rather than a lineman, but even the lineman data is better than not.

Philip Charlton: A lot of people heard you, so hopefully we get some response.

Greg Dahle: Thank you.

Tej Singh: How do people find out about your program? Like the students, are they specifically looking for you? Do they typically fall into it from other majors? Tell me a little bit about that dynamic.

Greg Dahle: My program, Arboriculture and Urban Forestry is housed within the major forestry and natural resources. Many of the students who are already in the Forest Resource Management program, they’re finding out because my class is an elective. They’re taking the class, this sounds interesting, and maybe I’d get a chance to climb a tree, which always entices people. But we also find a lot of students that are coming in to the greater realm of school of ags or biology that are interested in something a little more hands on, and they hear about what we can do in forestry. They’re interested in wildlife or water studies or something like that, and they realize what a natural resource manager does, and then that’s how they really find our program, our major. But then with arboriculture, I think it’s happenstance, unfortunately. I think our universities don’t sell our profession nearly as well as they could.

Tej Singh: What would you say if someone like me who’s in industry and certainly I don’t come from the space, but there are things that I’m seeing that I would want to explore more from a depth of understanding, data, information. Do you partner with industry players where we can do these many research projects to try to solve a particular idea, problem or just get a deeper understanding? Is that something that the university allows you to do?

Greg Dahle: You can do that one or two ways, to be honest. Most universities with a research grant are more than happy. Give us some money, and we’ll partner with you and do a research. At the same token, we’re allowed to do some work that’s external to the university that fits within the realm of the university. We’re allowed to do some of that—call it consulting work—so that we can reach out and tackle a specific problem and either partner the university name with it or maybe lightly or strongly partner the name of the university along with it.

Tej Singh: Are you from West Virginia originally?

Greg Dahle: No, I’m not. While I was born out in California, I grew up in Indiana. We moved when I was four, so I’m a northeast Indiana Fort Wayne native. I moved around. I lived on the East Coast. I lived on the West Coast, did graduate studies on the East Coast. I landed in this wonderful state and feel that it’s a gorgeous state, which is an hour south of here. I’ve been here 12 years, and it’s just heaven. It’s love.

Tej Singh: That’s fantastic.

Philip Charlton: You’re looking around, what other research do you see down the road? What areas are you focusing on?

Greg Dahle: I didn’t talk about that in my background. My doctorate work and most of my post-doctoral work as a university faculty member have been looking at tree biomechanics. When I see this utility work that I’m doing looking at tree failures, it’s not looking specifically at, is that root strong enough? Is the trunk heavily decayed? But looking at the bigger picture, why are trees falling over? Is the soil stable? Is the tree stable itself? What I’m interested in most is: why are trees holding together throughout all of our storms? As we see more storms and an increase in the number of storms, why are trees able to stay together and not fall over? And therefore, the converse of that is, why are they falling over?

I’ve recently become a tree risk assessor trainer for ISA, and I’m really interested in seeing if we look at that likelihood of failure, likelihood of impact, consequences, and then looking at what John Goodfellow did with writing the UTRA, the Utility Tree Risk Assessment BMPs, how we can use that protocol to try to understand how to manage, whether it be the tree risk assessment of individual trees, which I’m still very interested in, or from the utility sector, looking at the whole circuit wire. I like how John uses the population approach, which is really urban forestry.

Philip Charlton: Yeah, that’s right.

Tej Singh: Have you been coming to this conference every year? Has this been part of your core visit?

Greg Dahle: I really don’t want to admit this; this is my first time. It always comes at a difficult time of the year for me. I teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and usually also sometimes on Wednesdays. As much as I enjoy coming to conferences, I’m employed at the university. The students pay my bill. I don’t know where my salary comes from, but I know a good portion of it is paid by the students. I feel that I owe them to be in the classroom. My failure to go to a classroom means they’re not getting my information, and they’re paying me to sit and not do their work or work with them. I’d love to be here more often. I took advantage of Pittsburgh being so close that I can come up.

Philip Charlton: Just in what, the first two weeks of school? Can’t be a good time.

Greg Dahle: Yeah, exactly. That’s always been the problem with the Trees and Utilities for me; it’s just it’s hard to get away from.

Philip Charlton: I’m surprised because I’ve seen you at conferences all the time. It never occurred to me, not this conference.

Tej Singh: When Phil and I first started working together, I was very interested in having Phil write white papers on things that are happening. When we fleshed it out, we realized that the paradigm of how people get their information has changed and how they digest information.

Philip Charlton: He read something I wrote.

Tej Singh: That’s what prompted us to start Trees and Lines actually and create digital content.

Greg Dahle: In conversations with Phil in the past, we’ve tried to figure out how we can get more students to something like this. It is a challenge to get students to travel to give up a whole day of classroom or two days of classes when there’s papers due and homework and test. Yesterday, I had my first test in my arboriculture class and a lot of professors are having tests. We’ve been in school a month now, actually. Then some university start at different time periods.

I think this podcast, other modern ways of getting communication out to the students that as a faculty, if I see podcasts that I can bring in and short blips that I can bring into the classroom, give that as homework assignments, watch this, and tell me what you’ve learned. I think that is another way that we can actually engage our student population and show them where career paths lie. I don’t know, Phil, when you were doing your undergraduate, did you have any clue that there was a field of urban forestry and arboriculture?

Philip Charlton: Certainly not urban forestry. I knew about utility forestry before I knew about urban forestry because I came through the Ken Carvell’s–

Greg Dahle: There you go. That explains it. Ken Carvell was a professor of silviculture and dendrology at West Virginia University and just passed away two years ago now, maybe three. But he really did a lot with the early entrance of academia into utility forestry.

Philip Charlton: Hundreds of the first people in the industry came through Ken Carvell.

Greg Dahle: When I was out working in the temporary positions out in PG&E in California, we hired a lot of people from WVU, and it was because of Ken, bless his soul. He was great.

Tej Singh: It would be great to moderate a panel with the two of you and John and maybe a couple of industry practitioners, and maybe let your students observe that dialog and that conversation and see the different ways everyone’s thinking about the same subject. That’d be quite interesting.

Greg Dahle: Another interesting person to bring to that would be Rich Hauer, who just left University of Wisconsin. But he has both the academic realm and now the industry realm, which would be another good mindset to bring in.

Tej Singh: We should definitely explore that. But I really appreciate you taking the time today and doing some great work at West Virginia and look forward to continuing to chat with you. Keep us posted.

Greg Dahle: Thank you very much.

Philip Charlton: And if you do post outage investigations, get ahold of Greg.

Greg Dahle: Yes, please. I would love to have a way to talk to you about receiving any data because I truly believe some of the utilities and some of the consulting companies have looked at small data sets. But when we compile a very large database, then we can use the power of big data and machine learning to actually maybe bring us forward in our industry. I think that would be great. So thank you much.

Philip Charlton: Very good. Well, best of luck.

Tej Singh: Greg, it was a pleasure. All right. Absolutely.

That’s it for this episode of Trees and Lines, brought to you by Iapetus Holdings. If you liked the show, please give us a five-star rating on Apple or Spotify. If you have any questions or comments on any of our episodes or ideas for topics or guests, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us at treesandlines@iapetusllc.com. We’ll chat with you soon.

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