Last April, former Council President, current Grants Committee Chair, and longtime Council Board Member Andy Hillman retired from a decade (to the day) of work as a business developer for Davey Resource Group. Prior to that, he was Ithaca’s longtime city forester, and prior to that he worked for the City of Oswego in public works and urban forestry. Prior to that he was a United States Naval Reserve Commissioned Officer and Student Naval Aviator.

What have been some peak moments in your career that you want to share?
Andy Hillman: In 1987, I was working as the supervisor of tree care for Oswego, when I joined the Society of Municipal Arborists (SMA). I attended the 1988 SMA Conference in Detroit and met two people who changed my career and from whom I learned so much: Al Shigo and Nina Bassuk. Meeting them was a hugely fortuitous moment and a career peak. When I became the first book club administrator for SMA, I remember calling up Al, asking for more signed copies of his tree pruning book for me to send to Society members. He would sign them “Touch Trees, Al Shigo.”

Partnering with Nina Bassuk on urban forest research began when I was still working in Oswego, when she came up to investigate suffering, chlorotic pin oaks that the City had planted in concrete cutouts. She and her technician at the time, BZ, were working on ways to alleviate high-soil-pH related chlorosis in street trees. I became the assistant commissioner of public works for Oswego, but found I wasn’t having as much fun anymore, so when the Ithaca city forester position opened up, I jumped on it. Nina’s support as well of that of [Council Co-founder] Nancy Wolf made a big difference in my getting the job.

With Nina—who then and still directs Cornell’s Urban Horticulture Institute, we used the whole city of Ithaca as a lab. Nina’s B&B vs. bare root study with grad student Michelle Sutton (formerly, Buckstrup)—that study became a model for Nina and me going forward, of using city-as-lab. It was a very exciting time. Another student of Nina’s, Jamie Blackburn, did his research on woody deciduous groundcovers on sites in Ithaca; Nina and Jason Grabosky did installations of CU-Structural Soil all around Ithaca; and so on. We planted hundreds of trees in CU-Soil to find out what worked and what didn’t, to the point that engineers would call us up and say, “Is this is a suitable place for structural soil?”

Stills from one of the instructional videos Andy Hillman and Nina Bassuk made together in the late 1990s, “Support Your Local Tree.” 

Another cool part of what Nina and I did was to take J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. trial packs of new cultivars, and plant them on campus, in Ithaca, and in our own test gardens. I was testing out ‘Royal Raindrops’ crabapple (Malus) long before it came on the market! I also feel very proud of the videos we made together, about the Bare Root Method, Structural Soil, Site Assessment, and Citizen Pruners. Some have sequels, even. They all hold up so well and we had a lot of fun making them.

Both out of plain scientific curiosity and a drive to anticipate climate change, Nina and I would take chances, like the time about two decades ago when we bought 20 southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), most of which made it and are thriving and blooming prolifically to this day. Finding spots for them and for other species not consider hardy in central New York was all about microclimates. For instance, we planted the magnolias in the banana belt of Ithaca, Fall Creek, near the creek bottom of the bowl, which was protected from north wind and had southern exposure. We planted the trees on the north side of the street on east-west running streets. The success of the magnolias emboldened us to try more of these uncommon microclimate matches.

Andy passing the Council President Torch to David Moore at SUNY ESF in 2015.

What are some peak NYSUFC moments?
AH: Working with Brian Skinner on the grants committee on grants that helped communities get started on their Tree City USA paths was a real highlight for me. After Brian passed, I took over as chair of the committee, and working with President Karen Emmerich on grants has been really gratifying. We expanded the grants program to the point where, last year, we had more new Tree City USA communities than any state in the country. Unfortunately, a lot of states had a net loss of Tree City USA communities in 2020 because of the pandemic, but in New York State we kept momentum going and actually gained numbers. We also developed the Tree City USA Reward Grant with unrestricted Council funds.

Working on our scholarship program has been a big highlight, too. We’ve deepened our leadership in a really cool way by investing in members. For instance, the past four Council presidents have been MFI grads, and Council Board Member and Region 3 ReLeaf Committee Chair Jean Zimmerman is an MFI grad.

It’s been meaningful and heartening to see the Council become what it is today, from an all-volunteer organization to one with an executive secretary, editor and social media coordinator, website manager, and now an equity, justice, and inclusion coordinator.

In what ways do you plan to stay involved in the UCF community?
AH: I’m on SMA’s planning committee for MFI and am looking forward to being on the teaching cadre for this fall’s iteration of MFI in Bowling Green, Ohio. I chair the Council’s grant committee for a little while longer, then would like to stay on as a committee member, since I have such a long history with the grants. I’m on the tree advisory board for the City of Oswego and I chair the tree advisory committee for the Town of Ulysses, where I live. Ulysses is going to become a Tree City USA for the first time this year!

Andy with MFI graduates Sophia Rodbell (left) and Jean Zimmerman in February 2020 at Gulf Shores, Alabama. Photo courtesy Sophia Rodbell

Will you continue to mentor young/new professionals?
AH: Part of my job description—my favorite part—with Davey Resource Group (DRG) was  being a mentor for young and new professionals with DRG, like Liz McKinley in Massachusetts and Andrew Ullman in Brooklyn. I also went to a lot of conferences as exhibitor and sponsor for DRG, and those conferences became like family reunions, especially the Massachusetts Tree Wardens and New Jersey Shade Tree Federation conferences. I’ll keep going to those, and to SMA and Partners in Community Forestry, and to NY ReLeaf, of course.

In addition to Nina Bassuk, are there certain important mentors or collaborators you want to shout out?
AH: Brian Skinner was an important collaborator for me; it’s funny because we butted heads sometimes, too. He was a utility arborist and I a municipal arborist, so we had different vantage points, but some years ago we jointly held a very productive summit with SMA and the UAA (Utility Arborists Association). We worked out many points of agreement around things like ANSI A300 and Z133 tree pruning standards, the role of certification programs, and so many things—and worked out a Memorandum of Understanding. I also really miss beloved longtime Council stalwart Pat Tobin, who was always encouraging of me. We were buddies, and she was an incredible champion for urban forestry all throughout her long retirement. She had a way of making people feel welcome that was like no other.

Council Co-founder Nancy Wolf has been an important mentor to me, too. She’s the one who got me connected to NY ReLeaf and the Council in the late 80s/early 90s. We hosted a tree care workshop together in Oswego at the old naval militia building down on the Lake Ontario shore. Nancy and I stayed close and were able to secure Small Business Administration grants to Oswego to create urban forestry jobs. It was the first real good grant program that we were able to tap into for getting trees in the ground in New York State.

I also became close friends with A. Carl Leopold, Sand County Almanac author Aldo Leopold’s son, who lived in Ithaca and founded the Finger Lakes Land Trust. We served on another nonprofit board together and we walked in the forest together; I feel very lucky to have known him.

Andy at the NY ReLeaf Conference Friday night picnic in Rochester (2018). Photo by Michelle Sutton

What excites you most about the present and future of UCF?
AH: It’s the widespread recognition of how important UCF is to cities, where most of us live now. When we first started in this field, municipal forestry was the first thing to get cut when budgets were tight. It was often housed in Beautification and not taken as seriously as is now, when we know and can quantify the many ecosystem benefits of the urban forest. Today we know how trees can mitigate the urban heat island and cool the air and provide significant health benefits, both physically and psychologically. That change over the three-and-a-half decades I’ve been doing this … it’s been amazing and welcome. I think that UCF has arrived!

What do you see as the biggest challenge that UCF faces?
AH: It is, of course, how to adapt our urban forestry practices to changing climate. For a long time I was doing these talks to fellow northerners about taking hardy cultivars of southern species and moving them north into cities, the way Nina and I did with those southern magnolias in Ithaca. I would start out by saying, “You should be planting the state trees of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.” Those state trees are bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), southern magnolia, and hardy pecan (Carya illinoinensis), respectively, and we planted them all in microclimates in Ithaca. For instance, we planted bald cypress and pond cypress (T. ascendens) all over Ithaca in wet places, places with low oxygen exchange where we could not grow other trees. Not all were successes; we planted willow oaks (Quercus phellos), and if it wasn’t for the high-pH soils, they would be doing better (some of them look pretty good, but most look chlorotic).

Andy with USFS National Program Lead for Urban Sustainability Research Phil Rodbell at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 2019, the year SMA and Partners in Community Forestry conferences convened there.

How do you keep your eyes on the road when you’re driving through Ithaca?
AH: I either drive really slowly, or ask my wife Suzanne to drive really slowly so I can check everything out. It’s like seeing old friends. There is a block on Cayuga Street that had no trees on it; now there are swamp white oak (Q. bicolor) and hybrid elms like Danada Charm (Ulmus ‘Morton Red Tip’) that are huge! I mean the trunks are a couple feet in diameter.

What do you and Suzanne want to do more of in your retirement?
AH: We want to travel around—literally, around—the Great Lakes, to the Thousand Islands then head west into Canada and go around Lake Superior and back. Ideally, we will time the trip for the best migratory birdwatching. We will be glad to have more time to hang out with our son Erik and his wife, Joanna, who live in Ithaca. They come over for bonfires and hangouts.

Over the years, we have increased the number of Baltimore orioles in our area, and the number of woodpecker species. We are on a quest to see the red-headed woodpecker for the first time. We go to Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge frequently to bird. We bought a two-person inflatable kayak and want to go fishing on Cayuga Lake.

What’s two or three things your NYSUFC colleagues might not know about you, even after all this time?
AH: Fresh out of college where I studied Marine Biology, I was a pilot for the Navy! I was into scuba diving and thought I was going to train in underwater cutting and welding, but when they saw how good my eyesight was, they steered me toward flying. I landed two different types of jets on the USS Lexington; I’ve soloed in five different kinds of planes, logged nearly 500 hours on turbine engines, and got to do formation aerobatics. It was a huge part of my identity for a long stretch; I even flew with Ithaca’s East Hill Flying Club.

Do you have a favorite quotation or philosophy?
AH: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” —John Muir