Mark Herkert, owner of Madison Park Tree, works on a tree while suspended high in the air. Photo courtesy of Eric H. Johnson
Mark Herkert, owner of Madison Park Tree, works on a tree while suspended high in the air. Photo courtesy of Eric H. Johnson

Madison Park Tree owner Mark Herkert has been scaling and cutting trees in Madison Park for the last 15 years.

Herkert, who has a bachelor’s degree in German from Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Columbia University in social work, wanted something more outdoorsy and active. He had worked in social work in public schools and in substance-abuse treatment centers in Alaska for about 10 years.

But “there were people who could do it a lot better than I could,” he said.

That’s why he started Madison Park Tree. Even though the name isn’t very creative, he said, he wanted to name his company after the neighborhood and serve the local community.

Herkert tries to stay very local, within about five miles of Madison Park. Arborists don’t get paid to do bids, which is a large part of his work, so it made more sense in terms of efficiency.

“By focusing locally, I can concentrate my work and I can be a local resource — someone in the community that people can find easily and count on,” he explained.

There’s a stereotype with “tree guys” that they’re really good with the technical stuff but not so great with the interpersonal interactions. Herkert uses his degrees to communicate with his clients about their needs.

“I call myself the tree whisperer,” Herkert said.

A passion for the outdoors

Herkert estimates he’s worked on 5,000 to 10,000 trees in the last decade. An average job typically takes a half-day or a little more, and he does about six or seven jobs per week. About 60 percent of his customers are repeat customers. Herkert likes to tell his customers, if he and his crew have done their job right, “we shouldn’t be back anytime soon.”

During his storied past, Herkert also was an Outward Bound instructor for about 15 years. There, he fell in love with being outside and teaching others about the floral and the fauna. He’s able to do the same thing now as he educates homeowners, which is his favorite part of the job.

With a background in mountaineering, the transition to climbing trees for work wasn’t unusual. The highest local arborists go is about 50 feet up in the trees, Herkert estimates. He’s used to the heights but does have still have a healthy fear.

“You’re hanging by a half-inch rope with a chainsaw that can cut through it in a heartbeat,” he said. “Whether you’re 50 feet or 500 feet [up], the result’s probably the same [if you fall].”

In recent years, Herkert has cut back on the time he spends in the trees and has hired a crew. Now, he’s taken on more of a management position, going from job-to-job, buying supplies and estimating bids.

His tree work has earned him some interesting stories. He’s been called to do a few cat rescues: “When you’re dealing with a stressed-out cat 30 feet up in the tree, that’s fun,” he said.

And he’s also made interesting connections, like connecting with a Hurricane Katrina refugee while doing a job at a community center. That refugee went to live with Herkert for a few months before returning to New Orleans.

Saving the ‘view’

Trimming hedges pays a lot of the bills, Herkert said, “but they’re not our favorite thing to do” because they’re difficult to cut and maintain.

In Seattle, there is a huge variety of trees. Some trees are more complicated, like deciduous elms, which have really long lateral limbs. Others are more popular, like the wide varieties of maple trees in Seattle.

“In terms of diversity, there’s no better place to do tree work than in Seattle,” Herkert said. “It’s just the best place in North America to do tree work, I’m convinced.

Herkert and his crew do small to medium-sized tree removals, but more often than not, he’ll try to talk the owner into their speciality: pruning and saving the tree. He’s even taken that passion to his volunteer work: Herkert has been on the Heritage Tree Committee for about 10 years and has chaired it for a while.

The Seattle Heritage Tree Program is a joint venture between Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and Plant Amnesty. The program was started to provide legal protection for trees in Seattle, according to the Plant Amnesty website.

A heritage tree can be nominated by a homeowner or group can nominate a tree for “heritage” status, which means it must be an exceptional specimen, have historic value, be a landmark or be part of a “notable grove,” according to SDOT. When a heritage tree is identified, the tree owner receives a plaque and instructions for tree care.

The group goes out every three month to identify and recognize outstanding trees. The trees would be protected as “exceptional” trees by the city. Plant Amnesty educates the public on plant maintenance and connects residents with certified arborists.

Herkert loves clients who come from Plant Amnesty because “they’re speaking the same language as you are.”

Often, Herkert works as a liaison between the homeowner and the city, walking the resident through the process of applying for permits to trim trees in parking strips or environmentally critical areas. Most people aren’t aware about what trees can be trimmed and when, and the rules can be controversial, Herkert said.

“Most people think, ‘I’m the king of my castle, and therefore, I should be able to do whatever I want within my property line,’” he said.

It’s important to think about things from a community perspective, where trees improve the air quality, provide animal habitat and improve the neighborhood’s aesthetics.

“The trees are the view,” Herkert said.

Herkert likes the niche he’s in and doesn’t have any desire to grow his business. He likes the flexibility to pick up his daughters from school and have the freedom to run his own life.

“I’m pretty content staying small and manageable,” he said.

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