Steve Harris at the Syracuse Parks Department’s annual community tree planting event involving approximately 100 trees and 100 volunteers. The event is organized in partnership with local partners Cornell Cooperative Extension-Onondaga County and Onondaga Earth Corps. “It is always the highlight of the year,” Steve says. Photo Courtesy Onondaga Earth Corps

Steve Harris has been Syracuse City Arborist since 2010. He has served several terms on the Council Board and is now its Vice President. Steve is also active with the Society of Municipal Arborists, excelling in conference program planning.    

Can you tell us about your educational trajectory?
Steve Harris: When I was 9 or 10, my Dad gave me an atlas of the United States for my birthday. I studied it often and knew all the states and capitols before that was taught in school, which might be the reason I studied Urban Geography at Ohio State. In 1990, at the end of my senior year of college, one of my friends told me they’d enrolled in the Peace Corps. The idea of getting that kind of experience resonated with me, so I applied and was sent to The Gambia in West Africa to be a forest extension agent.

Upon my return to the States, I worked in an unrelated field for a couple of years before realizing that forestry was the career path for me. I attended Paul Smith’s College to get an Associate’s Degree in Pre-Professional Forestry then to SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry to get a Master’s Degree in Forestry. In both cases, my focus was forest management.

What has been your career trajectory?
SH: After completing my Master’s, my job search initially focused on traditional forestry jobs but then I interviewed at our local extension office for an urban forestry educator position. Right away I knew that was the job for me. The job was about trees but even more, it was about people and was similar to the work I loved while in The Gambia, only this time in my own community. After five years as an extension educator, I left to be sales manager for a start-up native tree nursery near Ithaca, then the City Arborist position in Syracuse opened up and I got the job.

Please tell us about your position now. What do you enjoy doing most?  
SH: I oversee the Forestry Bureau, which is in the Parks Department. We manage 35,000 street trees and 8,500 park trees. It is a small bureau (seven people) in a small city (144,000 people) which means I get to work in every aspect of urban forestry from tree and planting site inspection to design review and overseeing tree pit expansions and forest restoration projects. Besides having a great and highly skilled in-house forestry crew, what makes the job fun is working with my colleagues in other departments to achieve shared goals. For example, I have to frequently consult with our transportation planner to ensure we optimize pedestrian and bike travel with above- and below-ground space for trees along new developments. That has led to a growth in our program and good collaboration across departments.

Steve with Onondaga Earth Corps crew members and staff. Photo Courtesy OEC

A watershed event for our program will be the imminent release of our urban forest master plan and first-ever design standards for trees. We intend to follow this up with the most important action of all—the first-ever update to our tree ordinance. This kind of incremental improvement keeps me going. However, the thing I enjoy most is working with our local conservation corps (Onondaga Earth Corps) and county extension office. Together, they plant hundreds and prune over a thousand young trees for us annually and are the heart and soul of our urban and community forestry program.

What do you like to do in your free time?
SH: I go to the indoor climbing gym as much as I can and when time allows, I love going rock climbing, especially in my favorite spot, the Shawangunks in New York’s Hudson Valley. I met my wife, Kristine, through rock climbing in college and after graduating we traveled out west for three months … that was the best! Both our boys climb and one works at a climbing gym. It is a great life-sport! Our family camps every year and absent those activities, my wife and I take each other out on lots of walks. It should be no surprise that I spend too much time looking up and get stopped frequently by neighbors about their tree. Of course I love this. I also love to cook. Everyone in our family has pretty adventurous taste buds and likes spicy food.