BARC-ing up the right tree

May 2, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

JP’s Tree-Climbers

A group of adventurers who climb trees the way some people climb mountains—founded by a Jamaica Plain nature expert—has been going out on a limb, making apparently illicit climbs in such areas as Jamaica Pond Park.

But Boston Area Recreational Tree Climbers (BARC) is becoming more visible, beginning with a web site that went active late last year (Bostontreeclimbers.ning.com). BARC’s founder, 52-year-old JP resident Andrew Joslin, is in early talks with the Franklin Park Coalition (FPC) about organizing tree-climbs for kids, and has a BARC-related art exhibit coming up at South Street’s JP Art Market.

And while tree-climbing is generally banned in Boston parks, BARC may have little cause to worry: its 53-person membership roll includes Greg Mosman, the top arborist for the Boston Parks and Recreation Department.

Joslin was unavailable for a Gazette interview, and Mosman did not return a Gazette phone call for this article.

On the web site, BARC describes itself as “a tree climbing club promoting safe recreational tree climbing using rope and harness technique. We climb for fun, for exercise, to renew our spirits, and to deepen our knowledge and respect for trees and nature.”

This is not the tree-climbing you might remember from childhood. BARC climbers wear helmets and use ropes to haul themselves high into treetops and back down again. They can even swing tree-to-tree. Padding is used to prevent the ropes from harming branches.

Arborists—professional tree-care experts—have been climbing this way for decades. In recent years, it has become an increasingly popular sport for nature fans. Expert tree-climbing has also played a role in recent groundbreaking nature books about trees, such as James Balog’s photography book “Tree.”

Joslin, a professional illustrator, had a hand in one of those books. He illustrated last year’s “The Wild Trees,” a book about amateur explorers of California’s giant redwood trees written by Richard Preston, best-selling author of “The Hot Zone.”

Joslin began organizing tree climbs about two years ago. They haven’t exactly been secret, though they have been low-profile and stealthy. In 2006, the Boston Globe’s travel section wrote about Joslin’s climbs, discretely failing to mention exactly where they were held.

BARC continues to show some hesitation about publicity. Its web site includes photos of a March 10 climb described as happening “near Jamaica Pond.” Even that location was removed from the site’s description shortly after the Gazette contacted Joslin.

That may be because tree-climbing in public parks is banned under city code, with a maximum punishment of $50 fine per offense, according to the Parks Department’s rules and regulations.

A Parks Department employee indicated to the Gazette that the department is aware of BARC. But official Parks Department spokesperson Mary Hines did not respond to two requests for comment for this article.

BARC’s membership also includes JP resident Joseph Porcelli, the executive director of the popular local organization Neighbors for Neighbors and the Boston Police Department’s crime watch coordinator. Porcelli told the Gazette he helped set up the BARC web site as part of Neighbors for Neighbors outreach.

Porcelli said he hasn’t done any climbing—“I’m about a hundred pounds away from it,” he joked—and said he was under the impression BARC’s climbs were safe and legal. If they aren’t, he added, Neighbors for Neighbors would no longer help promote them.

Richard Schulhof, deputy director of Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum on the Arborway, told the Gazette that tree-climbing is banned there because of dangers to trees and climbers.

“Each tree is very unique and really a treasure,” Schulhof said. “That’s why we don’t allow tree-climbing. We’re really a museum of trees.”

In 1995, a 120-year-old Arboretum tree was killed by a group of children climbing on it.

“It’s a risk to people doing it,” Schulhof added. “Tree-climbing’s a tricky thing.”

He said he was not aware of BARC, but is familiar with recreational tree-climbing in general.

But professional arborists—including those at Arnold Arboretum—have occasionally offered recreational tree-climbs, especially as part of youth programs, according to FPC Executive Director Christine Poff.

Poff said that FPC has organized a few such climbs for kids, and is interested in working with Joslin and BARC to do more.

“Any more exposure we can give kids to the outdoors, we want to do,” she said, noting the added benefits of exercise and even a possible career path. “Tree-climbing is an important part of the work for tree care or landscaping companies,” she said.

Poff recently met with Joslin for very preliminary discussions, she said. “It was reassuring to me it doesn’t hurt the trees at all,” she said.

She said that the ropes can also be arranged so that just about anyone, even those without much arm strength, can pull themselves into the treetops.

Poff said she even once joined in a climb herself at an arboretum program. How was it? “Incredibly challenging,” she said with a laugh.

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