Here we learn about Brian’s background, his work in NYC, and his experience at MFI, for which he received partial support from the NYSUFC and NYSDEC.
Can you tell us about your job background and education?
Brian Widener: Before I was a forester, I worked at a couple of interesting hotels, including the Giant Forest Lodge in Sequoia National Park (no longer in existence) and the hotels on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, then I worked a few years in dark, sometimes windowless corporate offices.
After volunteering in Prospect Park in Brooklyn for a year, I decided to go back to school and graduate with a Forestry degree from Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff. I always tell everyone that I learned about two trees at NAU, ponderosa pine and Gambel oak. That’s it, haha! And only a few urban tree species were planted on the streets of this 7,000-foot-elevation town (Siberian elm and honeylocust, mostly). We hiked to the higher elevations of Arizona to study Douglas-fir, bristlecone pine, Colorado spruce, etc. and I learned a lot about native grasses, scrubby oaks, and cactuses at lower elevations.
I started working with the New Jersey Forest Service Community Forestry Program the summer before I graduated, locating urban forest inventory plots, part of a U.S. Forest Service program at the time. I continued to work for the State of New Jersey as a community forester for several years before leaving for New York City Parks and Recreation. I was a natural resource associate for the Staten Island Greenbelt before moving on to the forester position with Brooklyn for a few years.
Last year, I took classes towards getting my certificate in GIS at Hunter College, and I am planning on finishing the program in 2016. I think the GIS mapping will be important not only for program communication but for strategizing the greatest needs.
What is your current position title and responsibilities?
BW: I now manage the NYC Parks Trees and Sidewalks program. We repair the City’s sidewalks around tree roots to ensure the protection of street trees and to design/build longer lasting sidewalks that will provide safe and legal clearance for the City’s pedestrians.
There are more than 70 urban foresters in New York City Parks. There are teams of foresters in each NYC borough and there is a central office in Flushing Meadows, Queens. Tree protection, inspections, and tree risk assessments are addressed from the borough forestry offices, while the central forestry office is mostly devoted to tree planting and related projects. However, a small group of us at the central forestry office fall under the tree preservation team, including the trees and sidewalks program. I am often engaging in other projects to help protect, maintain, and enhance the City’s tree resource.
How did you get turned on to MFI?
BW: NYC Department of Parks and Recreation is a big supporter of MFI, and has sent people every year for the past three or four years. Given that I had just stepped into the new role as the senior forester for trees and sidewalks, we thought it was a good opportunity to take time now to think about advancing and improving the program. Coincidentally, my grandma, who I hadn’t seen in several years, was only a half hour away from the host resort, The Oregon Garden in Silverton, Oregon. I had a very nice visit with her and my aunt after the conference. The Oregon Garden was a fantastic location: an arboretum, botanical garden, Douglas-fir stand with demonstration mill, and maybe the most impressive ornamental conifer collection in the country. Among the highlighted specimens were tall, weeping giant sequoia trees.
What was the most surprising thing to you about MFI?
BW: The most surprising thing was how many small communities had an arborist or city forester or other representative at MFI. Small towns like Sheridan, Wyoming; Sitka, Alaska; and La Grande, Oregon were all represented at MFI, and these towns have fewer than 30,000 people. It’s great knowing that some communities/states realize the importance of having a certified arborist on their staff to manage their community’s tree resources. I was also scratching my head often; how do these communities afford to have an arborist on staff? I sat next to Teresa one day and she was discussing with me the deer problem her small community was experiencing in La Grande, OR. I think she was a bit surprised to find out that New York City is also experiencing an explosive deer population problem in our outer boroughs.
What was your biggest a-ha moment?
BW: I learned I don’t have to be at the top of the ladder to be able to lead within the program. I can still contribute valuable ideas from the sidelines in order to contribute to our entire program. I am hoping to contribute more to the City tree protection and maintenance efforts throughout the City by using some lateral leadership tools. I just joined our tree preservation task force. I can build my small program into a small pocket of greatness, and I hope to have a valuable tree preservation program that is a part of the City’s overall tree protection and maintenance efforts.
What is one thing you learned that you are going to apply in practice back in your job?
BW: The concept of having a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) was highlighted on one of the very first days of MFI. In other words, have a couple of goals each year in which you shoot for the stars! Come up with a couple of nearly impossible goals for your program or community, etc. I already had some big ideas for the program I just came into last fall, but the MFI experience framed it in such a way that large, over-the-top goals are not just daydreams, but are acceptable and necessary in moving a program forward. My newly revised BHAGs include: improving the trees and sidewalks program logistics by using GIS and remote sensing to locate sidewalk damage throughout the City, designing and creating a new database to store and effectively report data, and mapping out the trees and sidewalks program data through GIS.
What would you say to people who are thinking about attending MFI?
BW: This is a weeklong training designed for people working at all levels who want to improve their strategic thinking and leadership skills. The networking among my peers was fantastic. I met professionals from small communities and professionals from large communities that are dealing with different problems than what I have experienced in NYC. As arborists, one of our key duties is to interact with the public, other municipal agencies, and confidently deal with limited resources. Jennifer from North Carolina seemed to have similar homeowner challenges that I had faced over the years in relation to tree roots and sidewalks here in NYC. Part of the MFI experience is connecting with professionals outside your community and your region to discuss and share ideas not just during MFI, but afterwards. Networking sites have been thoughtfully set up by MFI so that my new set of colleagues can keep sharing ideas with each other.
Thanks to the support of the Deputy Chief of Forestry and my agency, as well as the support of the NYS Urban Forestry Council and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, I had a rewarding experience at this year’s 2015 MFI.