What is it about ‘independent experts’?

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I think it’s time we said what we mean in life. ‘Independent experts’ aren’t independent, are they? In the tree area they are usually council-appointed which means they are not  independent. We need to start calling them Council-appointed consulting arborists. They rely on repeat work from councils, they have a huge responsibility and are likely to be risk averse, obviously with good reason, and are unlikely to want to be controversial. 

I talked to an arborist once about a street tree issue in a country town and he described the report of an ‘ independent’ arborist as ‘very client-focussed’. This is not necessarily dishonest or conscious but is something that needs to be taken into account. 

I was reading some entries on savingourtrees and I came across a story about a 100-year-old lemon-scented gum in Sydney that is to be chopped down this coming Monday,18th January, much to the sadness of half of the council there and many people in the community. Other media outlets have followed the same story. It led me to look up more information about this tree and I found that one writer was grateful to the council for appointing an ‘independent expert’ to assess the tree.  

Jane Goldsmith interviewing Michael Osborne and yours truly - experts on what the community wants

Their independent expert was Mr Marsden, the extremely experienced arborist who assessed Laman Street’s trees.  

His assessment (and I have only found the briefest reference to it)- guess what – didn’t allow council to save the tree even though they said to the community they wanted to.  

Slightly off the point, Marrickville Council considered using radar but said they couldn’t access the area:  

‘We have considered the possibility of conducting ground penetrating radar to locate the roots from the tree and we have obtained a quotation which shows that this testing can be carried out at a reasonable cost where access to the site is possible. However, in this case it is not possible to gain access to conduct such testing because of the various improvements, including paths, edges and shrubs in the front yard of the property. In any event, the expert advice is clear that the roots of a tree of this species and size will extend to the dwelling [in question].  

quoted in Marrickville council Street Tree Management  

Signs to convince residents not to go out in Pasha Bulker-type storms just in case they were tempted

   

   

    

As a lay person who is seriously ignorant when it comes to tree root radar (but not for too much longer, I hope), it surprises me that paths and shrubs would interfere with the examination. It seems a shame that the council didn’t use it, but if they’re anything like our council they may not have believed the findings or they may have disregarded the findings anyway (see earlier post).  

  

Another reference to Mr Marsden’s work was a case where a  resident wanted to remove a tree but council rejected the resident’s request. Council asked Mr Marsden to assess the tree and his opinion was in agreement with council’s ie retain the tree.  

Another report I have found written by him supported chopping down a fig probably planted in 1865 in Lavender Bay in Sydney. Obviously a tree of this age may well be nearing the end of its life but I still worry about the language used in reports like this:’trees that have failed in the past tend to do so again’ which is a quote from Matheny and Clark (often-quoted, US experts, known to all arborists) and  

‘…this highlights one of the problems with assessing trees of declining vigour. Mechanical signs only go so far in the foreseeability of failure; biological signs of low vigour may not be apparent until after the event. (p 59)  

In other words – you can’t tell whether a tree is going to fail so if it has a history of branch failure, assume it’s no good and get rid of it.  

My issue is never with individuals. Mr Marsden’s reputation is rightly impeccable.

However, the problem with the ‘independent expert’ exists in all fields.  

Cooks hill eucalypts

I read some articles about ASIC’s approach to the problem of the independent expert’s report. It’s their opinion that such reports in the financial and investment field tend not to be believed as there is the perception throughout the community that the expert will express an opinion defined by whoever commissioned the report.  

In the first article, written in 2005, Margot Saville wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald,   

‘The regulator is responding to a perception that these reports never disagree with those who have paid for them…  

Things apparently didn’t improve in this area because a 2009 article  said that  

‘These perceptions are not helped by the fact that it has been unusual to see an expert prepared to provide an opinion which differs from the position advocated by the company obtaining the opinion. ‘ 

I take heart from a lovely arborist with an interest in tree preservation who wrote to me and said  

 ‘This all sounds very familiar, however don’t let that depress you!… Be assured that there are a very large number of people across the globe that share your feelings of concern and dissatisfaction with management decisions that ignore all of the huge values encapsulated in trees like the figs along Laman Street.  

More often than not it is not a conspiracy despite the fact that it often seems that way…rather it is a failure to comprehend the biology and ecology of veteran trees.’ 

Edited by CR 20 1 10

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One Response to “What is it about ‘independent experts’?”

  1. Caity Raschke Says:

    Obviously, saying I’m an expert on what the community wants is tongue in cheek

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