Local is part of award-winning environmental project

Barbara Lawlor, Peak to Peak.   David Walker’s grandmother was born in Black Hawk in 1898, his great grandfather was a miner, and David became a rock climber. His family was known for its grit, and recently, Walker’s ability to climb has made him part of a team which the Energy Institute of London has awarded the Environmental Award for Innovation in the Energy Industry for 2015.

The team, Walsh Ecuador and Petroamazonas, along with Walker Tree Care has been working for the past couple of years, on a project in the Amazon jungle of Ecuador, building artificial canopy bridges to mitigate habitat fragmentation due to construction of oil roadways and pipelines.

This project is the first of its kind in South America. The bridges were designed to be used primarily by monkeys, who will not cross the open spaces made by road and oil line construction on the ground, interrupting their natural migration routes.

david walkers

Walker’s expertise in climbing trees led him to be chosen as the guy who would scramble to where the bridge needed to be placed on the tree, often hundreds of feet in the air, but height wasn’t the issue. Bugs became the bane of his tree climbing existence.

How did he get from rock climbing in Colorado to perching on the tops of trees in Ecuador? By doing what he loves.

After graduation from Englewood High School in 1978, he continued his outdoor activities, rock climbing and skiing, and becoming the Chairman of the Denver Junior Group of the Colorado Mountain club. He had become interested in geology as a teen and never really left that path. He attended the Colorado School of Mines and finished his degree in geology at CU in 1983. He then moved to Gilpin County.

At that time, he moved to New York and became a carpenter’s helper. One day he was painting a building, which he hated doing, and watched a tree crew take a broken branch off a large maple tree. He talked to one of the workers, who talked him into becoming an arborist.

Returning to Colorado, to Gilpin County, in 1987, Walker earned a master’s degree in geo-chemistry and went to work for Walsh Environmental as an environmental consultant. After 12 years, in 2001, he left Walsh and decided to return to trees, opening his own business, Walker Tree Care in the spring of 2002. He had found the job he loved. He ran the business by himself, hiring jobs to subcontractors. There was no lack of work in Boulder, the home of many large, old trees.

As he worked, he continued learning, becoming a certified arborist and a qualified tree risk assessor.

david with bridge on tree

“If I see a tree that’ll last a year, I come back in a year, I don’t just take it down. In the past year, the elm trees have been in bad shape because of the horrible polar vortex that caused a 70 degree drop of temperature. We started seeing the results in the spring.”

When Walker worked for Walsh, he had become friends with Mark Thurber, who first got the contract with Petroamazonas to install the artificial  canopy bridges, but he didn’t know how, so he contacted Walker.

“He said he needed an environmental scientist who can climb trees. The tree climbing part attracted me; it looked like fun. “Climbing tall trees is a managed risk, says Walker. “I fall out of trees all the time, I just never hit the ground.”

Walker was sent pictures of the work plan and how to make the bridges. When trees have been cut down in such a way that their canopies no longer touch, the primates are not able to migrate normally. It is too dangerous for the monkeys to travel by ground because of predators. Fourteen years ago, Thurber was aware of the issue, and when he worked on a similar oil company project they left the canopy intact. Thurber received the same environmental award at that time.

This new project, however, needed the artificial bridge. Walker knew how to attach the bridges to the trees without hurting them. Drilling one hole straight into the tree hurts them less than wrapping the outside and cutting off the circulation.

The project began on paper in January of 2013. Walker made his first trip to Ecuador in March of 2013.

“It was in a rain forest/jungle in the middle of nowhere, about 30 miles from the border of Peru on the Rio Aguarico. The only way to get there was by boat or helicopter. Equipment was run in on barges. There were roads to each developed site, but no roads out of the jungle to the world. When a site was completed, the road was plowed up and replanted.”

A major danger in the area were the Warani natives, who have been known to kill. Some of them were civilized, and some were not. When the Warani were seen near a worksite, the workers were called back to camp for their safety. The workers were protected by armed guards at all times.

It was hot and humid, and Walker was plagued by bugs. “They were awful, annoying, you have to sit still if you are in a tree and they crawled all over me. I was dressed like I was on an arctic expedition with no exposed skin but they still got into my ears and eyes and were hard to get rid of. They were after the salt of my sweat, and the ants in the trees bite. The working conditions were horrible but the job is important and allows me to do something that makes the planet better.”

In the first year, Walker traveled to Ecuador three times and completed 11 bridges which had motion sensor cameras. It took over a year before the monkeys hesitantly began to use the bridge, the younger, more curious monkeys, trying it first. The white-faced monkey and the wooly monkey are the prevalent species. The longest bridge spanned 120 feet from tree to tree.

The project members found out they were nominated for the environmental award last October, and two weeks ago they were notified that they had won it. “The award was presented to Walsh and Petroamazonas and I was the field guy for the project. It was a great honor.”

david bridge in air

Walker plans to make two more trips to Ecuador and train some of the natives who live there to maintain and complete the project. Even as he returns to caring for trees in the Boulder area, he will always remember doing his part to make sure that the monkeys of South America can follow their natural high trails from tree to tree.

“The work is ongoing, and I hope to continue to be involved.  I feel that oil production is inevitable, but this is one way that I can help to minimize the environmental impacts.”

Barbara Lawlor

Barbara is a reporter for The Mountain-Ear.