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Community Forester, Western PA Conservancy

Brian Crooks is a Community Forester for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in Pittsburgh, PA. The major aspect of his job is to implement tree planting projects for the Pittsburgh component of TreeVitalize, which is a statewide program funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to increase tree canopy in urban areas. Brian works with foresters from the city and TreePittsburgh to review applications, collect and manage data, select and source plant material, conduct tree planting site preparation, and orchestrate volunteer tree plantings. He also supports other community forestry projects, which currently include strip mine reclamation within Allegheny County, ecological inventories of the county parks, street tree inventories for other municipalities, and parking lot rain gardens.

Degree Earned

B.S. Forest Science, 2014

Q: What was your educational path to Penn State?

I chose to attend Penn State due to its superior meteorology program, my original major. I quickly changed to forestry as I developed a stronger interest in global climate change and how it affects our environment and the ways we manage it. I no longer wanted to just tell people to take their raincoat or not, but rather study how to better manage ecosystems in a changing climate.

Q: Additional training or education?

I am now an ISA Certified Arborist and I will soon be a licensed pesticide applicator.

Q: What were some of your activities as a student?

I worked in Dr. Matthew Hurteau’s Earth Systems Ecology Lab, studying the effects of climate change on forest soil carbon dynamics. Through this research, I was able to gain experience quantifying how carbon is stored as a result of differing forest treatments and fire regimes. I was fortunate to spend a summer field season at the Teakettle Experimental Forest in California where these data are collected. I then spent the next field season in Spain assisting ecologists with various research projects and fieldwork through a grant funded by Dr. Margot Kaye.

During my three years at University Park, I competed on the Penn State Equestrian Team and I now own a seven-year-old American quarter horse.

Q: What is an average day on the job?

For me, it involves one, or several, of the following:

  • Locate places where trees can be planted
  • Determine what species are best suited for each site and source the plant material
  • Determine what site preparation is needed prior to tree planting and manage all contracted work
  • Conduct tree plantings with large groups of volunteers

I use GIS daily! Nothing too fancy, but we hold a ton of data. There is a point for every tree we plant, which is now well over 25,000. From simple data queries, to creating and editing points, to making maps for presentations, a proficiency in basic to intermediate GIS skills is mandatory for any urban forestry position like mine.

There is always a high degree of unpredictability. This is a large city, with many people. I’ve learned to not be surprised at what happens to our trees. I’ll just sit down to input a folder of data, or just be getting ready to go assess some potential planting sites, when I get a call about a dead tree, a pest to look at, window washers who hacked up our trees to have more space, you name it.

Q: What skills are necessary to do your job well?

  • Tree identification. In the city, what’s planted is all fair game. Sure – red maple, honey locust, and pear are everywhere. But how about Carolina silverbell, ponderosa pine, giant sequoia, Persian parrotia, katsura tree, and monkey puzzletree? Not to mention all the cultivars. And then know what type of site for which they are best suited.  I’ve learned quite a few trees in the first few months that I didn’t even know existed.
  • GIS.  Seriously, the only days I have not used GIS were my vacation days. I use it at the computer at my desk, or on an iPad or iPhone in the field.
  • People.  This is the most important. If you say “I went into forestry because I don’t like people and just want to be in the woods” then this is not for you. I work with people every day, and very few of them understand or even like trees. You have to present the benefits of trees to elected officials, conduct tree care downtown, and be diplomatic when people abuse trees.  There is always something new that makes my palm go to my face. Remember, I don’t manage trees as a commodity, I manage trees to return benefits to society.

Q: What do you like most about your job?

I’m in one of the county parks, planting a white pine with three sixth graders. One looks at me and asks, “So you do this every day, this is how you make a living?”

I say yes.

“Hmm, that’s pretty cool.”

Yeah it’s cool; it’s awesome!

Not every day is like that, but I genuinely love that I work with trees as a service, not a commodity. I don’t exist to make people money. I exist to manage an urban forest so that we spend less money on cooling costs, drive slower on tree-lined streets, heal faster in hospitals with views of trees from windows, lessen our stormwater runoff, and many, many other reasons. To the inner-city kids, the suits and ties, the gunners in rush hour, I may be their only interaction with the natural world.

Q: What advice to you give current student?

I am considering going to grad school at some point and completing a master’s degree. It will not be in forestry or any related field. That’s fine if you want to teach or do research as your career. I’m looking at something in policy, sociology, anthropology, etc. A community forester manages people as much as he or she manages trees. And a community forester works for the community. To do your best work, you must understand that community in which you serve. There are many studies about how gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and political affiliation impact how a person perceives an environment, and what benefits will appeal to them most. I can yell at someone for not treating my tree appropriately. Or I can understand why they acted that way and adjust my processes to better suit their lifestyle. I’m the voice for the trees, and if people like me, they’re more inclined to respect my trees, too.