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Merging Forestry and Landscape Architecture – Meet Michael Vorhies

Landscape Designer, Michael Vorhies, recently joined the team at Urban Systems, bringing with him a unique background in Forestry and Landscape Design, as well as his ISA Certified Arborist designation to the team. We chatted with him about his life, his background and what he’s focused on now.

Early Days

Michael grew up in Portland, Oregon. He was one of those kids who always wanted to be outside, playing in nature or involved in a sport. He played soccer and was in an active boy scout troop, regularly camping, hiking and planning week long backpacking trips each summer. There, he says he learned to climb and do “all the outdoor things.”

Dual citizenship and an acceptance into the School of Forestry at UBC are what initially drew him to Canada, and he admits proximity to Whistler for skiing was a big factor, too. Majoring in Forest Resource Management, Michael took on a variety of summer jobs, assisting in windthrow research in Clayoquot Sound, silviculture work in Gold River, and forest engineering on the Sunshine Coast. “Those were some valuable experiences – connecting what I was studying in school to what I was seeing operationally and ecologically in the forest. I met some pretty interesting characters too,” he says.

Leaving Forestry

After graduating, Michael worked in the forestry industry for about a year, but decided it wasn’t quite the fit he was looking for; “I wanted more room to play, to be more creatively involved with ecological and social systems, and to influence how people interact with the forest and landscape,” he explains.

He applied to the UBC Masters in Landscape Architecture Program and then took the winter to work at a ski resort in Utah. It was on a two-week post-ski season camping trip when Michael fell in love with the landscape of Southern Utah. During the three-year masters program, he returned to Utah to work summers for Outward Bound doing logistics and intern instructing out of their Moab base. “I wanted to work outside and this was such a fabulous program,” Michael remembers. “I saw the changes it made in students—that was so powerful. It taught me a lot about leadership, people, and handling all kinds of situations.”

Michael then travelled to South America for four months before coming back to BC to work with a firm called Connect Landscape Architecture. His first project was a huge one involving work on the Port Mann Highway 1 project. He worked with Connect for six and a half years before coming to Urban Systems, after a friend recommended it to him.

Becoming a Certified Arborist

Recently Michael received his arborist certification. He says it meshes well with his forestry background. “Now I can get more involved in urban forestry aspects, tree inventories, arborist reports, and protecting trees during construction. I’m fresh at this and actively trying to learn and gain experience.”

Michael has done a few arborist reports so far, and is looking forward to doing more. He says he’s always interested for his colleagues to send him other arborist reports they’ve received from other sources so he can examine them. We asked him for a bit more detail on what different types of arborists do.

“The International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) certification, which I have, signifies a broad range of knowledge in all aspects of arboriculture. It allows for flexibility and specialization in the profession, and for me that starts with things like going to a development site to identify and inventory trees, then writing an arborist report that comments on how a planned project might impact those trees. With some construction activities, there’s no way to save a tree, but in some cases, with care and attention, a tree can be retained adding significant value to a project. There are several other arborist credentials and specializations that exist with further training and experience, such as: Tree Risk Assessment Qualification (TRAQ), ISA Board Certified Master Arborist, Registered Consulting Arborist (RCA), Utility Specialist, Municipal Specialist, Tree Worker Climber Specialist, and Aerial Lift Specialist. A TRAQ would allow that person to assess a tree’s risk to public safety, a significant concern in urban forests and high-use parks.”

Outside of Work

When he isn’t working, Michael loves skiing, gardening (no surprise!) and cooking. He and his girlfriend live in Mount Pleasant in East Vancouver, where they maintain a community garden plot. They’re both into experimenting with food preservation techniques and brewing beer. Michael is a dedicated biker who commutes regularly, and confesses that as “the new guy” he’s always curious when leaving his bike in the Urban System’s bike room, wondering who all the other bikes belong to!

When asked what his favourite tree is, Michael laughs and pauses for a minute. “That’s a tough one… but maybe the Sitka spruce. Or the alpine larch, a deciduous conifer. They become the most striking shade of yellow when the frost hits. My favourite hike is at Manning Park, where you can really see them when the colors change each fall.”

Welcome Michael, we’re sure you’ll be a great addition to the Urban team.

P.S. Want to learn more about local trees? Michael recommends the book Trees in Canada – a great book for identifying trees across Canada. He also recommends Vancouver Trees, an app put out by the University of British Columbia with an extensive tree database. There is a basic and pro version. The basic version is impressive, however, with the pro version you can view thousands of mapped trees in the City.

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