Tree Warden Profile: Chris Zeoli, Middlebury

“If you like to breathe clean air then you have to think about the trees.”

Quick Facts

Name: Chris Zeoli
Profession: Professional arborist
Town: Middlebury
Population: 8,183
Area: 39.7 square miles
Years serving as tree warden: 4
Favorite Tree: sugar maple Acer saccharum)
Advice for other tree wardens: "Unless you’re a trained arborist take the Vermont Tree Stewards course and look into the other seminars offered by the state and get to know county forester."

Chris is an outdoorsman. He swims two miles every morning, hikes throughout New England and spends his days climbing trees. As a professional arborist, Chris has been in the business of tree care for 41 years; it’s safe to say he knows his way around trees. Perhaps more striking than his wealth of knowledge is the real joy Chris exhibits when talking about trees. Of the sugar maple, a favorite of Chris’s, he describes the pleasure in working and climbing the tree, the sturdiness in the branches, the sunset colors of leaves in the fall, the syrup in the spring and the cool shade throughout the warmer months. And that’s why Chris continues to pour energy and devotion into his work as tree warden, because he gets to support the tree population in a town he adores. 

Middlebury, where I met up with Chris, has a small-town charm and natural beauty. We sat outside at a local bakery; as pedestrians walked by, Chris pointed out the operations director of public works and introduced me to the town manager. While Chris does not describe himself as a people person, the stream of friends calling out greetings begs to differ. In his work as tree warden, Chris has a dependable group of people to support him. From teaching the road crew proper pruning practices to holding hearings regarding tree removal, Chris has embedded himself in Middlebury as a resource for all things trees. Working together with the members of the Middlebury Tree Committee, Chris has organized educational programs on tree plantings and pruning techniques, tree giveaways, a tree inventory, and is in the process establishing a routine tree maintenance program. 

Chris Zeoli (left) plants a tree for Middlebury's 2017 Arbor Day celebration.Chris’s training as an arborist is apparent in the practical manner with which he approaches tree care. He understands the details of tree care most of us ignore. While the goal is to get as many new trees in the ground as possible; the task has become increasingly difficult; trees must be salt and heat tolerant, resistant to diseases and pests and the right size so as not to interfere with overhead utilities. He knows to check the soil and to do a proper site assessment before planting a tree. These many components come as second nature to Chris, so it frustrates him to see improper tree planning. Chris showed me a small park that had recently been created in the town center. He points out a maple tree, and then points above it: powerlines. While this young tree may be small now, it will soon grow into the lines and have to come down - or be heavily pruned - as a result. An unnecessary situation when the town has a trained arborist on hand, volunteering his time to promote the local tree population. 

While Chris excels in tree care and maintenance, other parts of the position stray from his standard duties. For example, Chris recently found himself in a situation where he needed to hold a hearing for the cutting of a number of white pine trees to expand the local Middlebury airport. Despite the aesthetic and environmental benefits that the trees provide, for planes to land safely, removal of the trees would be necessary. Holding a hearing requires a judge, note-takers, and a great deal of legal jargon, none of which falls under Chris’s area of expertise. Situations like this have made Chris hope that in the future the Vermont Tree Warden Statutes can be updated, with clearer language and definitions.  He also hopes that tree wardens can get more support in legal matters.

Chris Zeoli (center) with the members of the Middlebury Tree CommitteeChris compares his position as tree warden to volunteering at an animal shelter. It’s better, he jokes, because while he might be inclined to bring needy cats and dogs home, he feels no need to bring home trees. Still, while his work as tree warden may not follow Chris home, it certainly follows him around town. He can’t help but to see municipal trees in need of pruning and frequently goes ahead and does the work himself for no cost. For example, one of Chris’s favorite trees in town, a beautiful white oak, at least 150 years old, stands in front of the congregational church. The tree was in need of maintenance but Chris did not want to go through the hassle of shutting down a main road in town. So, he got his crew up at 3 am to prune the tree. On top of that, town policy forbids the use of motorized equipment before 7 am so the team had to use handsaws. If that’s not a level of commitment I can’t imagine what is. 

Thank you to Chris Zeoli for devoting time and energy and always going that extra mile (or two) in your work as Middlebury tree warden, keep on making Vermont a little greener! 

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