Marty Mullarkey: I grew up in the Bronx in an apartment house. I remember looking out the window across the street to a vacant lot where the only tree in the vicinity grew. Later, when I was 11 or 12, my friends and I found a lot further away with many trees on it, and we built a tree hut to hang out in. But mostly I was studying, working part-time jobs, and playing stickball in the streets. I do remember a day as a young man that was one of the happiest of my life, wandering through The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. I couldn’t believe how beautiful that place was, and I think that day had a big influence on me.
For high school and college, I first went to a seminary to become a priest. After two years of failing Latin, my spiritual advisor said, “Maybe the Good Lord has something else in mind for you.” He was right; I had realized that I really wanted to have a family life like my parents. I switched to studying engineering at community college and then City College of New York, and met my wife Judy, who was gorgeous and also serious about her math studies. Judy graduated from Fordham University with majors in mathematics and education and received her masters in special education from Long Island University and had a great career teaching special education. She was extremely supportive of my work, travels, and late meetings on environmental committees. We are now retired except for volunteer work and have new careers as Nanny and Grandpa. We have been married 50 years.
For a time I worked as a technician for a defense contractor, and then I worked my way up to lead engineer at a nuclear power plant. I was sent out on debates to talk about nuclear power; at some point I realized that I agreed with my opponents that solar and other forms of green energy made more sense on Long Island.
I had different engineering and management positions over the years and eventually I was Manager of Line Clearance. In the process I started to learn about trees. When we bought our house I planted all kinds of trees on the property. I eventually went to SUNY Farmingdale to take classes in arboriculture and tree ID, and I became a certified arborist when that program came about. I read everything I could and signed up for every workshop and conference that I could. The person who really educated me the most was Larry Ferrandiz, one of my professors at SUNY Farmingdale.
Citizens were rightly furious with the utility for topping trees. I became very focused on the need for right tree, right place thinking when it came to trees under utility wires, so that topping would not be necessary. It was much easier to work with people on managing the trees in the urban forest than it was to convince them they needed another nuclear plant in their backyard. Most people, if you listen to them and their concerns and you use your knowledge to educate them, it changes them, whereas arguing with people gets you nowhere. Over time, as our practices and educational outreach got better, we were no longer called “tree butchers.”
I started writing some papers and giving talks to try to educate the people who worked for me and the major contractors about right tree, right place. Then I heard about the Arbor Day Foundation Tree Line USA program and awards. I told the company VP that I was going to win an award for our utility for being the best in tree care in the state and I predicted there would one day be a Tree Line USA flag hanging in front of our building. He thought I was crazy, but we did it—we became the first NYS utility to win a Tree Line USA award.
I started work on a wire-friendly tree program which Larry Ferrandiz had started and did many presentations on the topic. One of my avocations is photography, so I took pictures for my talks. I arranged for wire-friendly trees to be planted on school grounds, for the school’s sake but also so we could demo the trees to all sorts of people.
I really spent a lot of happy years working with people who loved trees. I would go to town board meetings and give a rebate check to the villages for planting the right trees for under wires. I had done an estimate of how much money it cost to trim trees around wires—at that time it was $40 per tree, and that expense was recurring— well, instead we would give a one-time $25 rebate to the village for each tree that was planted appropriately. (LIPA still does that, but now pays $50 a tree). It’s been a very successful program. Larry Ferrandiz was very helpful in developing the literature we used for the municipalities.
We planted trees all over and then the Long Island ReLeaf (I got involved with Releaf in the mid-90s) came up with a school spruce-up program, which really was the idea of DEC Forester Wes Gehres. He wanted schools to plant right tree, right place. I used wire-friendly tree program money to purchase trees to demo on the school grounds, for the purpose of educating the larger community. It was a great collaboration. We brought parents and community members in to learn about right tree but also about using trees strategically on their properties for energy savings.
Eventually Long Island ReLeaf got into bare root planting a big way. It’s so much cheaper and easier (see the bare root brochure) and the trees we planted have grown wonderfully. People still don’t know much about bare root planting; I feel that should be something we should push more. Here’s a technique that allows a couple of kids can to carry and plant a tree … everyone can participate. We planted thousands of trees that way.
In the early 90s I was hearing about this group that was forming—what was to become the NYSUFC, and I got to know the Council Executive Director Nancy Wolf. She was and is a very impressive, inspirational person to me. She organized lobbying meetings with politicians and just really knew politics and how to get attention paid to urban forestry. She did a herculean job of getting us established and moving. Then when we reorganized in 1999, moving from having an ED to having an elected president and an executive secretary, Nancy was flexible, gracious, and cooperative. The new structure is more sustainable, in my opinion.
Andy Pleninger was our first elected president and he did a lot of good things—most notable to me was the survey of needs of the municipalities that he shepherded. That needs study was terrific, it put us on the map, because we could take that data to our lawmakers and show them numbers like how much was being spent on urban forestry and how much was needed. There is nothing like looking at numbers to sway lawmakers and while there, we would explain how urban forestry benefits their constituents. I think the needs study should be repeated and used again for lobbying purposes.[NYS DEC UCF Coordinator] Mary Kramarchyk is a real friend, a terrific person, very positive. I put her right up there with the people I admire most in arboriculture. Andy Hillman, I met at a Tree Line USA conference in Nebraska. We just liked each other right away.
I didn’t achieve everything I wanted before I retired; for instance, I still think all utilities should pay incentives for people to plant trees strategically on their properties in order to cut down on energy demand. But I had a wonderful career with LIPA. One highlight from my career was when LIPA Chairman Richard Kessel, who was very keen on environmental causes, invited me to speak to the board of directors. I’d prepared a presentation of pictures I took of wire-friendly trees, but I also prepared slides of my grandchildren. I explained about the bad practices we were getting away from and told them about the Tree Line USA award I expected we would be given.
“But that’s not the reason we do this,” I said. I showed my youngest granddaughter Marley Page as a tiny baby, being held up into the tree canopy by her father. I showed her big brother Tyler on a swing hanging from a London plane tree, and then another slide of Tyler covered in ice cream. I said, “If you’re going to support planting right tree, right place, Tyler will invite you to his next birthday party.” At one point I got really impassioned about how the old ways of planting trees that want to grow 80 feet tall under wires led to such a sad downward spiral, and the board burst into applause! A reporter from our major newspaper was in the audience and arranged for the paper to print a feature article about the need for proper Line Clearance and Planting the Right Tree in the Right Place. It was a big help in getting the message out.
I am excited that there is now designated money in the state budget for urban forestry, and hopefully there will be more soon. Also I can see that more people know the term and concept of urban forestry now; indeed, the budget is proof of that. I say to the Council, keep the ball rolling! Keep educating people, and update the needs study we did—I think that is major.
As you get on in years, you start to think about your legacy. I’m most proud of my years in the arboriculture field. I’m lucky to have children and grandchildren and I think they will benefit from our efforts at having a better urban and community forest. After all, the Adirondacks are great, but the urban forest is what we come in contact with daily, and that’s what’s important.
I encourage everyone in the Council to keep boosting their professionalism by becoming certified arborists. It’s important to have those credentials when you’re dealing with government officials. Also I recommend joining your regional arborists’ association and the New York State Arborist Association. ♦