Tree-Mendous CEO Gerhard Komenda loves building adventure parks. But he might love trees even more. A “biodynamic forester” whose diverse background includes stints as an at-risk youth counselor, pilot, and ski instructor, Komenda views the interconnectivity of living things as an integral part of Tree-Mendous’ work creating aerial adventure parks, zip lines, canopy walks, tree houses, and other projects.
He recently sat down with API to discuss his “do well while doing good” philosophy, his work from the redwood forests of California to the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., and why he believes trees get just as much benefit from adventure parks as the people who enjoy them.
API: A lot of people come into this business with some sort of team-building background, but you’ve got a background as a youth at-risk counselor. You also worked in an alternative to violence program at a prison. Tell us a little bit about that and how it led you here.
Gerhard Komenda: I’m originally from Austria and grew up in Vienna in the worst part of town. I had the kind of childhood you don’t want to have. And that kind of always kept social interactions and social problems at the forefront of who I am.
I left Austria when I was 17, because the army wanted me and I didn’t want the army. I realized that the world is round, you can’t fall off. There’s work everywhere. So, I lived all over the world and did all kinds of jobs, from cleaning dishes to ship boy on the Red Sea to circus worker in Norway.
I like to say I have two trades: I’m one of three biodynamic foresters in the world, and I’m a social therapist. I saw an ad from a life-sharing community in upstate New York called Camp Hill that was looking for someone to help manage a 600-acre research forest with a special-needs population. I did that for eight years. It’s a very unusual place: It’s a whole village in an idyllic valley, almost completely self-sufficient. You live with your nuclear family, and you have five or six people with special needs sharing the house with you. There’re tons of workshops in the village, from a bakery to a wood shop to a glass shop and a big dairy farm, veggie garden, and healing herb garden. Nobody had to leave the village to work, but they had real jobs and they got training also.
API: What was the forestry part of the Camp Hill job?
Komenda: Biodynamics is a scientific methodology for gaining a deeper understanding on how things work. The idea [at Camp Hill]is that the whole place is almost like a self-contained organism. Whatever you do, you need to sustain it yourself.
API: How does that apply to forestry?
Komenda: Biodynamic agriculture was started by an Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner. He only said a couple of things about trees. When I was still very young, I met a Doctor of Agriculture who said if we don’t learn more about trees, and the interaction of trees and man and agriculture, we’re going to be pretty screwed, because they’re so important to our ecosystem.
If a tree is sick, where does the sickness come from? To what does this tree really respond? We can study the minerals and we can study other substances that are in a tree and how photosynthesis works, but what’s really going on behind the scenes?
We know that trees communicate with each other, that they also really care about each other. There is a type of neural network in the ground, and trees connect to it. At Camp Hill, for example, we covered a tree with a black tarp so that it was deprived of photosynthesis. Within three days, the other trees started funneling sugars and starch to that tree to keep it alive. At Glacier National Park, they introduced a pathogen and within a week, the trees on the other side of the park started producing chemicals that fend it off. So, they’re really a family.
Tree hugging actually works. You’re really communicating when your bare hands touch a tree. Your intentions will have a different effect. If you go to a tree with feelings of hate, that tree will get sick. Ask some adventure park owners and operators, and they will tell you that their trees are doing pretty damn well despite the fact that they’re built in and walked on. That should cause a lot of root compression and disturbance, but actually, those trees are happier than other ones around the park. They enjoy human interaction, especially when there are a lot of kids and there’s a lot of positive feelings.
Two years ago, we built a canopy walk in old-growth redwoods in northern California. These were 18-foot diameter redwoods, and we built at heights of 120 to 140 feet with 100- to 250-foot-long bridges. We had to develop a special method to do it. I needed to make sure that the trees didn’t get hurt. I couldn’t live with myself if any one of those trees got sick and died. And, boy, they’re the happiest trees on the planet.
As an Austrian forester, you become a shepherd of the trees, if you will.
API: So like a Tree Herder—an Ent? There’s some Tolkien going on here.
Komenda: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Tolkien absolutely had it down with his description of Treebeard [a giant walking, talking tree called an Ent], and believe it or not there actually are walking trees in Costa Rica. Google it. Not very fast walking. But they do move.
When I first came to the U.S., I didn’t know much about American trees. So, I went to Cornell. I couldn’t believe it [when he learned about high grading]. It was like a bad movie. I mean, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that high grading—taking all the big straight, healthy, strong trees [out of the forest], and leaving scraggly junk behind—is not sustainable. No wonder the woods are getting sicker and sicker and sicker. It wouldn’t work with humans; it wouldn’t work with animals.
API: Because you’re breeding from the weakest, not the strongest.
API: It’s kind of a leap between being a forester and building ropes courses. Where did your construction knowledge come from?
Komenda: When I left Austria, I did all kinds of things, including construction work. So, the leap wasn’t that far.
I’m a problem solver. Tree-Mendous is working for big companies in Manhattan on urban things because we’re known for problem solving where architects and engineers fall flat on their faces. We developed a net, for example, that safeguards people in case they do something very stupid when they’re at a high elevation. It had to be cut-resistant, it had to be extremely light. We developed it with a couple of German companies that work for the European Space Agency.
API: Tell us how you build challenge into your courses.
Komenda: If you want to learn, you need to get out of your comfort zone. It needs to be uncomfortable. That’s how you learn to become a stronger person and develop your willpower. And even if the going gets rough, you know how to get through it.
The courses all need a progression, for a couple of reasons. As much as I’m an idealist, I also need to make money. So I want people to come back and not just go once and be done with it. When you first come, you maybe only manage the real easy part, just like at a ski resort when you go from the green trails to the black diamonds.
The real skill in designing a park is to find the right blend of exertion: Some parts of the course require upper body strength, some other elements need core strength, some others need lower body strength.
API: You’re up there building structures in trees and using wood. How do you find the balance between the way you care about the trees and the fact that you in some ways have to exploit them to build these courses?
Komenda: I take issue with the word exploit. I would rather call it teamwork. By bringing people into the woods, I increase their respect for trees.
We’re a green company, we don’t use any pressure-treated wood. Instead, there’s a species of wood that is extremely rot resistant called black locust; we use it a lot. It’s a crazy tree. You never can find a straight stick. It has bends all over the place. There is no commercial value in it. It’s so crooked that a mill can’t really get a decent amount of boards out of it. But it’s the most rot resistant tree within the Northern Hemisphere.
API: You build in what almost looks like a National Park style.
Komenda: My philosophy is that it has to feel like it belongs there. It has to flow. It has to be very Tolkienesque. Sometimes, I just sit there for an hour taking in the land and taking in the trees, and just try to feel out what wants to be here.
API: How do you build in ways that don’t harm the trees?
Komenda: We typically use friction locks, we basically clamp the trees, which is a compromise. We take four by fours as the base material, hold them in place with bungee cords, and then drill through the four by fours out away from the tree, and put the threaded rod through there and clamp them together.
The issue is that trees grow, and all trees are fractals—they don’t heal the same way we do when they have a wound. They actually encapsulate, so if you put a nail into a tree at, let’s say, three-foot height, and you come back in 10 or 100 years, you will not see the nail. The tree swallowed that nail, but it’s still going to be there at that height.
We always tell owners that in a few years, they will have to take the decking boards off and release the pressure and move the foundation for the decks either a little bit up or a little bit down. If you do that, you can keep on going for the next 20 years, 100 years, whatever. If you don’t, you’re weakening the tree, because the tree will literally swallow that foundation and that will be a weak spot in the tree. (See “Using Metal in Trees,” p. 58, for more.)
Clamping doesn’t work in all situations, though. When we went to the redwoods, it was very clear that a friction lock was not going to work, because the trees are so big.
Also, since redwoods protect themselves from forest fires with the thickness of their bark, I had to go 16 inches in before I could do anything structural. So, we used tree taps that are disinfected and made from surgical steel—it’s like a dental implant. We also made a hollow core tree tap, where you can screw the head out, so the tree can grow as long as it wants with my structure in it.
Our platform design is adjustable, too, it can grow with the tree. All I need to do is loosen a few bolts, and eventually change some decking boards. In sum, this approach saves the trees and also saves money in the long run.
API: Any other work that you are particularly proud of?
Komenda: One that is really near and dear to my heart is Ramblewild in northwestern Massachusetts, near the Jimmy Peak ski resort. I can’t really take full credit for it. It’s just simply an amazing piece of land, a hemlock ravine in a real wild area. And in the middle of the park, there’s a stream with waterfalls, and we built a 270-foot suspension bridge, six feet wide, across it. It’s just the most magical place on earth. (See “How to Fund a Forest,” adventureparkinsider.com)
API: What are you working on next? What are you excited about?
Komenda: The Detroit Zoo project is really exciting, because it is part of redoing six acres of the zoo with a bigger focus on kids, nature, and education.
The other thing that is signed is the National Arboretum, which was a real surprise, because everybody told us, there’s no way you’re gonna build at the Arboretum—this is the feds, there’s so much red tape, you’re touching their trees, they’re not gonna let you do that.
Well, the contract is signed. I’m working with them to include things that are a little bit more out of the box. Besides a traditional adventure park, we’re going to include a netted attraction, basically a big gathering net that can be used for bouncing, it can be used for a space for talks and lectures or just hanging out. The whole project will help advance the Arboretum’s educational mission, and that makes it gratifying.