[How I Work] Sowing the seeds of a better city

Sowing the seeds The Sacramento Tree Foundation is an environmental action group that works to improve the ecological health and livability of California’s capital city and its surroundings. Since 2005, California native Zarah Wyly has served in a variety of roles, a natural extension of her “free-range childhood” in the mountains north of Santa Cruz and the work she put in as an Environmental Horticulture and Urban Forestry student at UC Davis.

My role, the short version: As the Restoration Ecologist, I work with the Urban Ecology team designing, implementing, and monitoring native tree-focused planting and oak woodland reforestation projects in the greater Sacramento region.

My role, the long version: My aim is to maximize project impact by looking at specific project site characteristics like soils, hydrology, wildlife impact and habitat use, appropriate plant palettes, and much more. I also manage specific projects such as our annual acorn harvest, and grant-funded projects such as the Bear River Habitat Trail. I’m very active in winter and spring with tree-planting events and tree-care activities; in the summer, I focus on designing new project sites, performing biological monitoring for partner agencies, and planning for nursery activities and tree-growing needs. All year round I serve as the organization’s oak tree expert, field calls from the public about local ordinances and other concerns (such as the summer influx of jumping galls, which frequently freaks out community members), and give presentations about native trees and local issues.

How I got here: A combination of hard work, appropriate education, and luck. While pursuing my degree, I worked for the student-run transit system as a bus driver, bus driver trainer, dispatcher, and eventually as a training program supervisor. Though not directly applicable, the experience and references I gained were a great help once I was ready to find that first post-college job: a field worker position with the Sacramento Tree Foundation.

Despite my initial doubts about starting at the very bottom, I am very thankful for the two years I spent in that position, which taught me the practical side of planting and reforestation. My degree studies were critical to the next step, when my supervisor left and I moved into the program manager position. I learned a huge amount about budgeting, accounting practices, and employee management, and was elevated to the program director level.

After five years in that position, including the recession years, I got rather burned out. I started to think about other positions, getting a Masters, and starting a family. The final part of this multi-pronged approach came to fruition first; before taking time off to care for my newborn, I recruited a fill-in who wouldn’t want my job full-time. When I was ready to come back, we worked together to create a job-share situation, breaking up the duties I had managed alone as program director.

What the job requires: Local experience, knowledge about theories and best management practices, creativity, flexibility, and an adaptive-management mindset. I must be thoughtful about what I do and do not know, and ready to pick up new information and skills on my own. It also requires open, friendly communication with everyone – volunteers and community members, donors and grantors – especially when things go wrong. A sense of humor helps, too!

What keeps me up at night: How to convince people that the little things they do to improve their communities and the local environment is a big deal, and ultimately will help save us. There is a great amount of research on the reasons that trees, forests, and green spaces are critical for making cities healthy places to live, and provide huge climate benefits; it is challenging for me to understand why more local governments aren’t fully behind this cheap, green, and beautiful multi-benefit solution.

One big surprise from this job: How much I had to learn about organizing my time, communicating with people of various communication styles, and what to say “no” to in order to use my time efficiently and effectively. I am still working on these surprises!

The most fun I’ve had in this role: I love working with the community at tree plantings and educational days. I am an introvert by nature, so I didn’t realize these events would be so much fun: I get to share what I know with amazing people, and I always learn something new. I am constantly impressed by the young people who come to events – they are smart, friendly, articulate, curious, and give me hope for our future.

What I’m working on right now: Connecting our work with the most up-to-date science and innovation. I see many opportunities to better use technology, to reflect recent research in our on-the-ground programs, and marry best management practices with specific components of our work.

Advice I wish I’d gotten before entering the sector: Don’t worry too much about what your job description says. Get your work done, but also allow yourself to see what can be done better, and try to find where your passion lies. If you can connect these things, and even better, find funding to make it happen, you will be very successful within the nonprofit realm.

One way new employees impress me: I am always impressed by individuals who take the initiative to identify what they don’t know and take active steps to learn it. Especially within the nonprofit sector, there isn’t always going to be a great mentor right at hand, or a thoughtfully designed training program to support each position.

With a range of educational, advocacy, and hands-on programs, the Sacramento Tree Foundation works to build healthy, livable communities in the Sacramento region by growing the best urban forest in the nation. You can learn more by visiting their website, or following them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube.

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