Nine weeks into his new position as Palo Alto's first city urban forester, Walter Passmore eschewed a stuffy City Hall office interview and instead chose his number-one place to hang out: amid the trees.
"I can talk about trees all day long," he said, grinning.
Passmore began his $107,869-a-year job on May 15. He will coordinate all city departments dealing with trees and tree management, and he will oversee the city's Urban Forest Management Master Plan program, which involves trees located in parks, public rights-of-way and on private properties.
Trees have been Passmore's passion since his Boy Scout days. And trees were his first paying job at age 16 when he taught nature and forestry merit badges lessons at a Scouts camp, he said.
"I've always felt pretty connected to nature -- perhaps in part because of my Native American heritage," he said.
He studied natural resources and forestry at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and has worked professionally with trees for 20 years: as a researcher for the U.S. Forest Service in the Sierra National Forest in California and in Starkville, Miss.; as the city urban forester in Dallas; and the urban forester for Austin, Texas, where he managed the city's 300,000 trees.
"Trees are the most visible part of the landscape. That's the part of the landscape that has the most impact on how people interact with nature," he said.
Among his responsibilities, Passmore, who was selected over eight other candidates, will act as a liaison between the city and the community.
The city has had communication gaffes that have outraged residents, most notoriously in 2009 when the California Avenue business district's trees were cut down with little public notification. The forester position is necessary to manage communications and proper maintenance and care of the trees, Public Works officials stated in the city's 2013 annual operating budget.
Passmore said he is a strong believer in community involvement and keeping people in the loop. He's also big on public education. In Austin and Dallas he created neighborhood-based programs that included an urban-forest stewardship program and basic biology and tree-care classes.
"He is the reason we planted 115 trees in our park," Austin resident Emily Wilson said by phone on Wednesday. "It's Austin's loss and y'all's gain. He was our best friend."
In Texas, where summers are very hot, having a tree to sit under means the difference between being outside or not, she said. In 2011, Austin had two months of temperatures exceeding 100 degrees.
"We estimate we lost 10 percent of our trees," she said.
As in Palo Alto, many of Austin's 1950s-era trees are reaching the end of their lives. When residents in the Brentwood neighborhood decided to adopt their local park, the Friends of Brentwood Park approached Austin parks officials with the idea of planting more trees. But they were stonewalled, Wilson said.
Department managers wouldn't pay for water, and they wouldn't approve the project unless the residents could prove they had a plan to maintain the trees on their own for two years.
"It looked like we would never do it," she said.
But then someone suggested the group contact Walter Passmore.
"Walter said, 'Yes -- absolutely. This is what we do,'" Wilson said.
Passmore worked on the project from beginning to end. The group continued to contact him whenever they had forestry issues, she added.
"He's knowledgeable. He's hard working. He loves trees, and he likes to do projects," she said.
Passmore said he wants to improve notification when trees must be removed in Palo Alto, and he values additional public involvement in crafting the city's urban-forest plan, he said.
"We need a vision for the future. The urban forest is owned by the people of Palo Alto, so we want as many people as possible to be involved in the process," he said.
Passmore also wants to create a citizen-forester program modeled after the UC Cooperative Extension master-gardener program. And he wants to work with the schools to create internships for students.
On this point, he became elated.
"We have huge potential with the student population. The sky's the limit on what we can get from young, excited students that want to make the world a better place," he said.
Passmore said he also sees great new partnerships with Canopy, the Palo Alto tree-education and urban-forest development nonprofit organization.
"We're working with them to bring an open-source tree map to Palo Alto," he said, where residents can input their own data about their property trees. "It has a huge potential to get people connected at the level they want to be involved, and it allows us as a city to get ... a better picture of what the city's whole urban forest looks like," he said.
Looking around Mitchell Park with its broad expanses of lawn and evenly spaced groupings of trees, Passmore considered ways to balance the growing needs of people with enhancing the habitat of trees and creatures.
"The future is not so much about trees as it is about urban-ecosystem management," he said.
That includes water use and conservation, the role of trees and plants in climate management, shade production, habitat enhancement for urban wildlife and the addition of complementary understory plants to make trees healthier.
Sometimes, trees in Palo Alto's aging forest will have to be removed -- a sensitive topic. Passmore said he will work on ways to replace the old, dying forest with new trees in a timely way so the lush canopy will remain.
Besides trees, there are always the human considerations in Passmore's urban-forest design.
"The fun part about urban forestry is how to connect people with nature," he said.
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