Year round, I often notice Architect of the Capitol (AOC) employees perched high in the trees above. I love the large, beautiful trees across Capitol Hill—they are longest standing witnesses of the history of this campus, from the burning of the Capitol by the British to the sculpting of the current grounds in 1872 by Frederick Law Olmsted. I was concerned that the AOC was cutting this history down – so I did some investigating.
It turns out this crew is actually working to improve the health and prolong the life of these trees. In fact, their official job titles are tree surgeon, and this team, led by George Rollins, works to keep their patients alive for hundreds of years.
This team cares for more than 4,500 trees
that fill the Capitol Grounds
with shade and shelter for wildlife and that frame the Capitol as part of Olmsted’s master plan for the grounds. Rollins' title is tree surgeon supervisor, but he explained to me one day, “The new term is ‘arborist,’ which includes everything we do.”
I met with Rollins in his team’s small shop to learn more about what keeps the Architect of the Capitol arborists busy year-round. "Spring and summer are the busiest, because the trees are leafed out," said Rollins. This makes it easier to see which limbs are dead or weakened, which the arborists prune to maintain the health of the tree. "You have to go to each tree and take out any diseased limbs, broken limbs, limbs that are rubbing, so the tree will be healthier and safer and will grow to maturity."
I learned they also prune the trees all year is for the safety of the people and property under the trees. Said Rollins, “We prioritize sidewalks and streets, to keep everybody who’s walking or driving safe. Safety is always a concern." That's especially nice for me as I bike to work, and don't have to worry about fallen branches either blocking my way or getting caught up in my wheels—even nicer to know I don't have to worry about them falling on me, either.
That concern for safety extends to the arborists, who are often climbing through trees to get to their workplace. "We have a bucket truck, but it only reaches so far. It goes up 50 feet, but we’ve got trees that are 130 feet tall." As George and I talked, the arborists were filing in at the end of a shift, storing their chain saws and other tools, reminding me of the need for a heightened focus on safety.
The priority after safety, Rollins explained, "is caring for our oldest trees, which sit on Capitol Square."
"We check over the trees on the West Front twice a year when they set up the tents because they’re a problematic species that can break in storms. They're Ohio Buckeyes, and they have fruit that gets really big and heavy so it weighs the limbs down, and they also have big leaves and they’re soft wood," says Rollins. "They're beautiful trees; however, Olmsted never thought about holding big concerts right underneath of them."
All of us at the Architect of the Capitol keep preservation of the Capitol in the forefront of everything we do, and I was glad to hear from George that he and his team do all they can to keep this history alive as long as possible while protecting those of us who work here now.