A union arborist, root and branch


“I’ve climbed trees since I was three,” says Jayne Lacey, “but I didn’t get paid to do it until I was 21.” 

Lacey, 47, is an arborist at Portland Parks and Recreation and a member of Laborers Local 483. 

On the job, she battles enemies less than an inch tall, like the bronze birch borer, bane of birch trees, and the emerald ash borer, an invasive metallic-green beetle that could end up wiping out Oregon ash. Through years of experience, Lacey has become expert at spotting clues that a bronze birch borer infestation has begun— like dead limbs in a tree’s canopy and telltale D-shaped exit marks on the trunk.  

Roving across Portland Parks and Rec’s eight zones, she also prunes fire lanes in Forest Park, plants pollinator gardens, and plants trees. Her job classification is Arborist III, a role that requires extensive knowledge of plant health care, pruning, and tree removal, but also the ability to operate aerial lifts, harnesses and ropes, and all manner of power tools. 

Lacey’s love for trees started at age 3 with a Yellow Cedar in her grandpa’s front yard.  

“After dinner, when all of the old people would be boring, I would go outside and climb these trees that had low limbs—you could climb up the limbs like a ladder,” she recalls.

She kept at it.

“I was a tomboy,” she says.  

As a sixth grader, she’d frighten her mom climbing a maple. 

“My mom would go: ‘Get out of this tree! We don’t have health insurance!’” she remembers with a laugh.

But it wasn’t until she took a class at Clark College from horticulture director Herb Orange that she knew that arboriculture would be her calling. 

“He’s my number one mentor,” Lacey said. Orange told her about the International Society of Arboriculture and encouraged her to take the test to become a certified master arborist. Learning by heart his photocopied study guide, she passed the test and became a board certified master arborist in 2001. 

“It’s the highest credential you can have, being a tree nerd,” Lacey says. To pass the test you must be able to identify tree and shrub diseases, evaluate the hazards of urban trees, and be fluent in the art and science of rigging—among other things. Fewer than 2% of all ISA Certified Arborists have the master arborist certification.

In October 2003, Lacey went to work for the City of Portland as a high climber. The job required Lacey to remove tree hazards during storms, which often meant scaling tall trees with either a rope and saddle or aerial lift. She was also on 24-7 “emergency tree response,” removing trees that might fall and block streets. 

“When I got the job, my dad acted like I was getting married, he near cried he was so excited,” she recalls. She thinks her dad, a diesel mechanic who was never in a union, was happy for her because he saw success in stability. 

At the time, Lacey was the only female arborist in the city’s Urban Forestry division. When she became pregnant in 2008, her co-workers—all men—didn’t feel comfortable seeing her climbing. 

“They had never had a pregnant high climber,” she says. “I was 31 and I thought that when you’re pregnant you keep doing what you did until you can’t do it anymore.”

That’s when the union went to bat for her, Lacey says. Local 483 got management to modify her job to more administrative tasks so she could continue working while pregnant. 

After 12 weeks of maternity leave, she returned to Urban Forestry with a new challenge: finding a private place to pump breast milk for her infant daughter. 

“I had to pump in the bathroom, and the boys would fight to get in there, because it was the only bathroom with a heater,” she says. That’s when she got her own work vehicle — so she could have some privacy to pump during her lunch break. 

Local 483 has been important to Lacey ever since. 

“I’m a very proud union member and I come from a strong union background,” she says. Her mom was a member of the teachers’ union in Washington. 

When the most recent contract negotiations got under way in 2022, she joined the contract action team (CAT) — keeping coworkers up to date about bargaining, and encouraging turnout at union actions to show the City of Portland that Local 483 members stand behind their union bargaining team.

In February 2023, the negotiations broke down, and Lacey and 600 other Local 483 members went on strike all over the city. On the strike picket line, Lacey brought reinforcements: her husband, her 15-year-old daughter, and her St. Bernard. 

“If I don’t make a family wage job trying to support myself in the current economy, my family suffers,” Lacey says. “You have to show community and camaraderie and fight for what you believe in.”

Her daughter Ruby loved being on the picket line with her “aunties” (Lacey’s coworkers), and the dog was a big hit as a picket line mascot. 

Because of the three-day strike, Lacey says, Laborers’ Local 483 won a great union contract, with immediate wage increases of 8% to 21.5% retroactive to July 1, 2022. Local 483 also got a contract for seasonal park maintenance employees for the first time.  

In 2022, coworkers asked her to become a union shop steward at the Mount Tabor Maintenance Yard, and she agreed. As a shop steward, she answers members’ questions and guides them with grievances. She also reminds coworkers of monthly meetings and updates them about the union.

Lacey leaves home in Washougal, Washington, at 5:40 a.m. five days a week, and after a 30-minute commute arrives at the Mount Tabor Maintenance Yard at 6437 SE Division St. Her shift starts at 6:30 when she meets with her work unit and gets the day’s assignments. For 10 minutes, she and her coworkers do dynamic stretching and exercises.

“The safety committee is trying to reduce workers comp injuries,” she explains. “My work unit is over top — they even play music.” 

Then Lacey and her coworkers get their tools and pile into a city truck with a work partner (or partners) to drive to their assigned locations. Work might include planting trees, hauling logs, building a split-rail fence, or running stewardship events in parks. She and her crew return to Mount Tabor between 2:45 and 3:30. 

When Lacey was first hired by the City in 2003, she replaced a man who fell to his death from a tree after having a heart attack. That memory has stayed with her. It’s one of the reasons she joined the safety committee six years ago. 

“I work in a very dangerous industry,” she says. “You can die very easily.” 

Not only do arborists work at great heights, where the wind is blowing fiercely, but they’ve also had run-ins with rabid raccoons … and car thieves. They regularly use power tools like chainsaws, power pruners (a chainsaw on a stick), hand saws, and loppers. For all these reasons, the safety committee insists that Parks employees work in pairs. The committee, with Lacey’s help, has also organized trainings in first aid, the use of Narcan to reverse opioid overdoses, and “verbal judo,” a form of de-escalation that teaches staff to talk compassionately to people who are flouting park rules—like openly drinking alcohol or allowing a dog to run off-leash.

One idea that Lacey contributed to the safety committee was having trauma kits in park workers’ vehicles. 

“When you do tree work, you could get chainsaw injuries and have severe blood loss,” she says. “I said, ‘Hey the police aren’t responding when we call them. I want a trauma kit in case we need to use that and no one is coming.’” 

Today, three vehicles in her work unit carry targeted first aid kits that contain blood stoppers and tourniquets.

Whether mentoring her coworkers or spotting tree diseases before it’s too late, Lacey has the instincts of a caretaker, bringing a public service ethos to her job.

“I was always taught to give back,” Lacey says. “Municipal work is the biggest form of philanthropy I can provide. So I want to encourage, teach, train, educate, and inspire others.” 

Jayne Lacey’s favorite tree: Cornus nuttallii (Pacific Dogwood) 

Why it’s her favorite: “My grandpa from Canada told me that it was the provincial flower of British Columbia. I have it tattooed on me because it reminds me of him.” 

The tallest tree she ever climbed: a 225-foot Coast redwood in Southwest Portland. 

What Portlanders should know about the city’s trees: “Right now our native trees—our western red cedars, our big leaf maples and Doug firs — are all struggling. Because the trees’ defense systems are reduced when they’re in drought, they send out these pheromones that tell beetles and insects, ‘Hey: I’m vulnerable, come drill in my wood and lay your eggs.’” 

Off the job: Lacey is an avid gardener who grows or raises as much of her own food as possible. On her family’s five-acre farm in Washougal, she raises hens (for eggs), Muscovy ducks, Emden geese, royal palm turkeys, pigs and goats. She’s also an ardent angler. 


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