In mid-May, Walter Passmore — currently the urban forester in Austin, Texas — will join the city's Public Works Department staff, heading up the department's Urban Forestry Program.
There has been no public announcement of his hiring thus far, but City Manager James Keene has informed City Council members of Passmore's selection by Public Works Director Mike Sartor and a staff team.
The search for the perfect person for the position has been intense and time-consuming.
"He was selected after two interview panels consisting of outside professional and state arborists. Canopy and senior staff interviewed nine highly qualified candidates, including two internal ones," Keene wrote last week in an email to council members from his iPod.
"Mr. Passmore was one of the two top candidates of both panels."
Passmore's initial challenge — among many he will face in tree-sensitive Palo Alto — will be "bringing the Urban Forest Master Plan into fruition," Keene wrote.
For those unfamiliar with that tome, it is available on the city's website, www.cityofpaloalto.org.
Passmore, despite being in Austin, knows the Bay Area and will bring more than 20 years of experience in the relatively young field of urban forestry. He grew up in San Francisco and is a certified arborist. He has a B.S. degree in Forestry/Natural Resource Management from California Polytechnic State University, and is currently completing a master's degree in public administration at Texas State University.
"While I typically don't take time to inform you of non-department head appointments I felt it important to tell you personally of this position that is of great community interest," Keene told the council members.
He said Sartor will be speaking personally with the two internal candidates, who were unnamed.
But a safe assumption is that at least one of the candidates would be one of the two certified arborists already on staff: Dave Dockter in the Planning Department, who in the latter 1990s spearheaded creation of the city's Tree Technical Manual, and Peter Jensen of Public Works, hired last year. Other staff members have been involved with Palo Alto's tree canopy, long known as its urban forest.
The Tree Technical Manual was a three-year effort and garnered several major national awards when it was published, and scores of other cities requested copies. It was left un-copyrighted so others could easily and freely reproduce or adapt it to specific communities.
The manual also complemented a city tree-preservation ordinance that limited removal of significant, or "heritage," trees on private property. The ordinance followed a time of wholesale removal of all trees on parcels being redeveloped in the early "McMansion" period. It was a battle to save both individual trees and Palo Alto's own forest.
I once tried to show a group of hikers in the foothills where Palo Alto was. Except for its mid-rise buildings sticking up, virtually all the houses and other structures are hidden by its trees. It quite literally looks like a forest, not a city.
The city's website also has an extensive "urban forestry" section. And there is a private website of the nonprofit organization, Canopy — the "watchdog" of the urban forest, from street trees to heritage trees on private properties.
But Canopy does much more in terms of education, participation and even an innovative "Healthy Trees, Healthy Kids!" program. It is "a multi-year initiative to plant 1,000 shade trees and fruit trees that engages children and volunteers in educational activities and the planting of hundreds of trees."
Planting sites "target school campuses and nearby open space areas in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park and neighboring communities," Canopy says. "Trees create better learning environments for students, bring much-needed shade to play areas, increase energy efficiency of school buildings, break up heat islands on campuses and even provide healthy snacks" — in addition to providing an overall healthier environment.
Not everyone likes trees, or likes them all the time, of course. In the fall their leaves are expensive nuisances, requiring regular street sweeping and causing neighborhood complaints about the sound of leaf blowers. And their roots tend to push up sidewalks and driveways, causing people to trip and making wheelchair maneuvering challenging. Injury claims for sidewalk-caused falls have been a significant headache for the city.
But birds and squirrels love them, and a former mayor once proposed creating a system of rope "SquirrelWays" when the city was beginning to put electric and phone lines underground several decades back. The ropes would enable the squirrels to get from tree to tree without encountering the hazards from cars, dogs and cats.
The new urban forester position will be in addition to the existing arborists, but the precise duties are still being worked out, or haven't been publicly announced yet. Salary details also are not immediately available.
But the real question is, "How has Palo Alto's urban forest managed to thrive all these years without this position?"
The answer lies in the thousands of residents, and earlier generations of residents, who value trees. People were planting ancestors of today's urban forest more than a century ago, supplanting or augmenting the native oaks that once dotted the grass-dominant landscape of the flatlands that became homesites, in some areas with dairy farms along the way leaving well-fertilized soil.
But it also lies in the dedication of city arborists, such as the pioneer George Hood, whom I mentioned in a column late last year.
Hood was especially known for his care of the city's "living landmark," El Palo Alto, a venerable redwood that came close to dying from neglect and pollution over the decades.
Yet he was also known widely for developing an especially colorful variety of liquidambar trees and introducing them as street trees, which other communities across the nation adopted.
Hood was followed by others who cared about and cared for trees, such as Gary Nauman and more recently Dockter.
The new urban forester will have large footprints to fill.