Environmental Studies Internship
October 22, 2004
Parks Department Tree Internship
Summary of the internship: The original goal of the internship was to update the walking guide to the big trees of Walla Walla . The guide is a short pamphlet containing two tours of large and notable trees. While one of these tours takes place on Whitman's campus, the longer and more popular one is of Pioneer Park . The park, as I learned from Shirley Muse (one of the city's principal tree advocates), has long been an important space for the residents of Walla Walla . According to the walking guide, the park was founded in 1901 and the first trees were planted in it shortly thereafter. Many of the original trees are alive today and on the walking tour. In the guide, each tree is named and numbered. In theory, the same information can be found on a raised plaque at the base of the tree. The parks department, however, has received a number of complaints to the effect that the information in the guide does not correspond to that on the plaques. A number of theories have been put forward to explain this. The most likely two were that vandals had switched the plaques and that the Parks Department had failed to communicate adequately with the publishers of the walking guide.
According to Jim Dumont of the Parks Department, my job was twofold. First, I had to ascertain whether any of the trees listed on the walking tour had fallen down. Second, I had to make sure that the guide was in agreement with the plaques on the trees and that those plaques accurately described the species they marked. Shirley Muse volunteered to walk me through the tour. Together we found that tour was complete and that not a single tree had been lost in the time since the publishing of the walking guide. Some of the plaques were missing, but those that remained were correct in their taxonomy. Numbering was a problem. Nearly every plaque carried a number different than the one suggested in the guide. These findings indicate that the discrepancy between the guide and the plaques is due to miscommunication between the city and the publishers of the guide rather than vandalism. Four plaques were missing, and one was damaged to the point of illegibility.
I brought these findings back to the Parks Department, specifically to a woman named Deanna Walker. Deanna is a secretary at the department and proved to be an extremely helpful contact. She asked me to research a better system of signage for the trees at Pioneer Park . We agreed that the best sort of sign would be an etched metal plaque set into a concrete slab at ground level. These plaques would be resistant to vandalism and allow the park's maintenance staff to mow and edge close to the trunks of the trees.
I researched signage and eventually found my way to the Walla Walla Foundry. Foundry personnel referred me to a Portland based metal and glass working company named Ostrom Glass. Before contacting the company, I met again with Deanna and the director of park maintenance, a woman named Joan. Joan redirected me significantly, asking that I do some tree identification and mapping on city property before continuing on the plaque project.
The Mountain View cemetery and Fort Walla Walla Natural Area both contained a number of state champion trees when a census was last taken (1993). Joan asked me to find out if any of these trees had been lost and to document and map those trees that remained. This work was important as the city was contemplating removing trees in these areas and wanted to avoid felling champion trees.
The cemetery contained a Western Chokecherry and a Northern White Cedar. I found both and photographed them with a Canon AE-1. I also recorded their locations on a map of the cemetery. There were hundreds of trees at the cemetery, and it was difficult to single out the champions. I found the Northern White Cedar by using the Audobon Guide to North American Trees, but had to ask the help of the cemetery staff to find the Western Chokecherry.
On November first, just after I had completed my work in the cemetery, I presented my findings to the Urban Forestry Commission. This is a body composed of parks department personnel and concerned citizens. They act as a sort of watchdog and advisory committee for tree related issues in the city of Walla Walla . They deal principally with ensuring that local tree installations and removals are compliant with city code.
To this group I presented my findings at the cemetery as well as my research on the accuracy of the guide and options for signage. The best option I had found for labeling the trees was employing Ostrom Glass, a Portland based etching and engraving company. I had spoken with a representative from Ostrom glass and received an estimate on the price of plaques. Their offer amounted to about $30 for each 3''x 5” stainless steel plaque. The committee was very happy with this solution and expressed a willingness to go ahead with the plan pending further research. Concerns were expressed about anchoring the plaques. Some members favored a cement block while others advocated welding the plaques to a large piece of rebar hammered into the ground. I resolved to research anchoring methods before the next committee meeting.
After the meeting, I sought out the trees in the Fort Walla Walla Natural Area. At the last census, four state champion trees were identified. Their species were White Alder, Box Elder, Western Chokecherry and Blue Elder. I armed myself with a tree identification book and tramped all over the Natural Area. I found a number of likely trees, but, by virtue of the high number of large trees in the Area, was unable to come to a conclusion about which were champions. Frozen solid, I gave up for the day and sought the help of Shirley Muse. She, as always, was incredibly helpful. Not only did she know the trees I needed to photograph, she drew me a precise map of their location and suggested different angles from which to take photographs.
I returned to the Natural Area and photographed the trees. They, especially the White Alder, were in poor condition. I am almost certain that the damage to the White Alder will or already has killed it. No foliage was visible and major limbs were cracked and hanging. I would also hazard a guess that the lost wood reduces the tree in size to the point where it no longer qualifies as a state record tree. The other three specimens weren't pictures of health, but seemed to have more than a few years left in them.
Having completed the location and labeling of the at risk champion trees that were my charge, I returned to the issue of signage, specifically that of how to anchor the signs. The first thing I established was that the rebar idea was the worst of the three. It is less secure and less visible, as well as less aesthetically pleasing. It seemed that concrete was the only way to go until I had an epiphany. I came to the conclusion that basalt would be the ideal anchor material. It would provide all the same benefits as concrete, but could be had for free from a county quarry. Basalt is also more natural and aesthetically pleasing than any of the other options.
I pitched this suggestion, along with a possible layout for the plaques, to the next meeting of the Urban Forestry Commission. At this meeting, which was effectively the culmination of my internship, the commission accepted all my recommendations and has resolved to appropriate money for resigning Pioneer Park . The signs will be 4 by 6 bronze plaques with raised lettering. They will be mounted, as per my suggestion, on chunks of basalt rock.
Words of advice for those who would follow in my footsteps: When working for the parks department or any government organization, it is wise to remember that you have a slew of bosses. Sometimes it can be difficult to understand which people are really in charge of directing and assisting you. This can, and often does, lead to confusion in defining priorities and projects. Over the course of my internship, I worked on three distinct projects at the request of three different individuals. The first was examining the trees on the walking guide to Pioneer Park and noting any discrepancies between the published guide and the reality of the park. I did this at the request of Jim Dumont, the parks and recreation Director. Once the discrepancies were recorded, I received new direction from Deena Muse, the parks department administrative secretary. While it would have seemed logical to me to continue working on the Pioneer Park project and rectify all discrepancies between the guide and the labeling of trees, I was directed to begin another project. Deena set me to seeking out and photographing champion trees on city property. Although the two jobs were closely related, I was disheartened at having to abandon my original project before completing it. Although I was later able to continue it in the form of designing replacement plaques, the interruption made it difficult to remain goal oriented and productive. If I could offer advice to a future intern, it would be as follows: When you begin a project, make it your own. I believe that I could have been more forceful in expressing my desire to see the initial project through to its end. At the time, I felt that the switch of directive was necessary based on the relative importance of the two jobs. Since the department was going to remove some trees in the areas in question, I was eager to locate to champions to ensure that they were not mistakenly removed. Perhaps I was correct in this conviction. Still, I am not the only one who could have done the job. Furthermore, I consider the resulting hiatus to have slowed my progress in the task that was the original basis for the internship. Because of this I wish that I had been able to own my task a bit more and see it through without interruption.
Throughout this experience, I was impressed by the demeanor of parks department personnel. They were consistently kind and well informed. They, especially Deena Walker, were very flexible and accommodated my scholastic requirements very well. I did not have a single bad experience with any of them and have a profound respect for their jobs and characters.
All this and more could be said of Shirley Muse. She is the one who really made my work possible and productive. Shirley is a font of knowledge and should be and inspiration to anyone who wants to be involved in positively effecting the natural world. If I could give a single piece of advice to the next student to take this internship or a similar one, it would be to correspond closely with Shirley and respect her vast knowledge of Walla Walla 's trees. Now on to…
What I learned : The most useful skill I will take away from this experience is the ability to identify certain types of tree. Over the course of the internship, I dealt with many different species of tree and have become familiar enough with some of them that I can recognize them in my daily walks across campus and around Walla Walla . I believe this skill will serve me well in life. I also learned how to solicit information and the estimates from companies. This is a very important skill for someone who is likely to go into a career, such as environmental advocacy, where funds are often limited. I also learned about the structure and capabilities of a government organization. What struck me most in this regard was the plurality of authority that I mentioned earlier. Lastly, I learned how to make a poster using Powerpoint and how to print said poster on a giant machine.