Tree Warden Profile: Warren Spinner, Burlington & Essex Junction

“I’m always finding new trees, even today."

Quick Facts

Name: Warren Spinner
Profession: Burlington City Arborist
Town: Burlington & Essex Junction
Population: 38,889 & 18,626
Area: 15.48 & 39.4 square miles
Years serving as tree warden: 37 & 12
Favorite Tree: white oak (Quercus alba)
Advice for other tree wardens: “Don’t be too quick to respond, the worst thing is to give wrong advice.  Have a list of folks you can contact to help you out.  It [tree warden] is a great position to learn in.”

While most in the role of tree warden fit their responsibilities into limited free time, Warren Spinner has made a living of it. As the Burlington City Arborist, filling the position of tree warden comes with the job. For 37 years, Warren has been engrained in the care and management of trees throughout the city of Burlington. Apart from the years he spent at the University of Massachussetts receiving his degree in Arborculture and Park Management, Warren has lived his whole life in Chittenden County. A native of Essex, VT, Warren also fills the role of tree warden in Essex Junction. As far as he’s concerned, the more time spent with trees the better; so why not volunteer his time in Essex?

Warren instructs residents in proper tree care at the Burlington Community Tree Nursery.During his tenure as City Arborist, trees in Burlington have come to thrive and he now manages over 12,000 trees throughout the city. Recently, Warren and his crew completed a sweeping tree inventory whereby each tree has been catalogued through GPS tracking units, uploaded into ArcGIS mapping software, complete with descriptions of tree size, species, condition, and management needs. Through this database, Warren tells a story of the tree population in Burlington. He opens up a bar chart highlighting the distribution of tree diameter citywide. Tree size is an indication of tree age and he points out the lack of larger, older trees, when compared to the sizable populations of younger trees. This, he explains, is a lesson on the detrimental impact of planting monocultures. Through the mid-twentieth century, Burlington’s tree population consisted primarily of American elm; when Dutch Elm disease swept through the area, most trees were lost. The significantly larger population of younger trees demonstrates Warren’s work to increase plantings and encourage species diversification whenever possible. In parks, where space is less of an issue, he does his best to plant native tree species. 

While his work as tree warden is multi-faceted, Warren sees his main role as that of public safety. His main goal is ensure that the trees are as safe as possible. The GIS technology allows him to better track tree condition;  the first step in management is to understand what you are managing. But a large portion of Warren’s time is spent interacting with the public, the homeowners who are most familiar with their own trees. He enjoys this work, answering citizens' questions and giving diagnoses for insects or disease. But that doesn’t mean he and the public will always see eye-to-eye. As far as Warren is concerned, if a tree poses a significant hazard, then yes it should be removed. But if a resident has a complaint that tree sap is dripping on their car, the dense crown is blocking sunlight to a garden, or the roots are interfering with a septic system, he is likely to be less sympathetic. Ever professional, Warren is happy to inform homeowners of the proper course of action but he will stand by his assessment in tree disputes all the way up the mayor’s office.

While the majority of conflicts with the public arise when homeowners want to cut trees down, the scenario can be the complete opposite. People get emotional about trees and tree removal; for the most part people respect his work - they even want to help - but he has seen his share of protests. Burlington has a beautiful bike path which runs 8 miles along the waterfront. It is hardly surprising that in the building of this belt a few trees would have to come down. Despite holding multiple public meetings throughout the planning process, the reality of tree removals struck a cord with people. Protests erupted and one woman even chained herself to a tree. Ultimately, the tree did come down but it was a moment of insight into the disconnect between tree advocates, and people like Warren, educated in tree management. Loving trees doesn’t always mean protecting every last tree; often a more holistic view of a tree’s role in society is needed.

Warren and former Governor Peter Shumlin celebrate Burlington's 20th year as a designated Tree City USA community. Beyond his work in Essex and Burlington, Warren has worked at the state level. When the 1990 Farm Bill gave all states the direction to establish Urban and Community Forestry (UCF) programs, Warren was the first to chair Vermont's UCF council, overseeing the program from its first formation to where it is today. Despite proposed cuts in funding at the federal level, Warren believes the program is now in the best shape it has ever been - one of the best programs in the country. Through the program, many communities throughout the state have been able to establish and strengthen their own tree programs. Warren’s gratitude to the VT UCF program is clear; he sees the tremendous benefits that resources and professional knowledge available to Vermonters has had for the state. Leaving Warren’s office, the trees in Burlington look a little more special; still natural but intentional, cared for and well-placed. 

Thank you to Warren for sharing your experience as tree warden, your extensive knowledge and passion for trees is much appreciated! 

- Warren's tree warden profile was written by Greta Binzen, VT UCF 2017 summer intern

PLANT. LIVE. GROW.