Portland urban forester offers vision, leadership & a love of trees

Portland Urban Forester Jenn Cairo
Jenn Cairo directing then-Metro Council President David Bragdon at a 2010 FOT planting (Teri Ruch)

Though she earned her bachelor’s degree in International Policy, Law and Diplomacy, Portland’s new urban forester, Jenn Cairo, is committed to the local Portland community and its environment. She grows her own vegetables, serves on the board of the Alberta Co-op Grocery, and bicycles to work. She’s also been a Friends of Trees volunteer since she moved to Portland to become one of three region managers for Oregon Parks and Recreation four years ago.

At her first Friends of Trees planting, Jenn added tupelos to the planting strip in front of the house she was renting. She’s grateful that her neighbors continued to water the trees after she moved, and the trees are growing. Soon after her neighborhood’s planting, she became a crew leader in Friends of Trees’ Green Space Initiative program.

“I grew up in the woods,” she explained, “and enjoy planting on vast pieces of ground.” She also appreciates GSI Manager Logan Lauvray’s consideration for volunteers.

Jenn Cairo at a Friends of Trees Gift Tree Planting
Jenn Cairo crew leading at Friends of Trees' Gift Tree planting last December (Joanie Belden)

Raised “on the doorstep of the Mohonk Preserve” in New York state, Jenn was drawn to both environmental studies and foreign affairs. As an undergraduate, she chose to study foreign affairs at Georgetown University rather than environmental studies at Cornell because Georgetown offered her more scholarship money. After graduating, she lived in Central Europe but found that she missed the green spaces in the U.S.

When she returned to the states, Jenn pursued her interest in forestry, earning a Master of Science from the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York (SUNY) and Master of Public Administration from Syracuse University. After graduate school, she became the senior natural resource manager at the Department of Environmental Protection Bureau of Water Supply based in Kingston, ensuring that the Catskill watershed provided clean water for residents.

When one of her colleagues took a position in Oregon for a year and reported back that the state had huge trees and open spaces, she decided to shift gears and moved to Portland, which she’d heard was “green and progressive.”

May 17, 2012 Leadership Awards Luncheon
Friends of Trees Executive Director Scott Fogarty & Portland Urban Forester Jenn Cairo at FOT's May Leadership Awards Luncheon (Lucia DeLisa)

Jenn is enthusiastic about her new work at Portland Parks & Recreation.

“One of the perks of work is that the staff is very positive and experienced,” she said. “They want to do a good job and provide good customer service.” Already she’s received helpful suggestions from staff and initiated policies and procedures so the department is more efficient and effective.

“The city has a good Urban Forestry Management Plan,” she explained. “One of my jobs is to fulfill it and update it.” She’d especially like to see more proactive maintenance of the city’s trees.

“Portland is good at planting,” she says, “but maintenance is another ball of wax.”

When she isn’t implementing the city’s forestry plan and applying her MPA skills to managing the 23-member Urban Forestry team and overseeing the city’s Community Gardens and Horticultural Services programs, Jenn can be found gardening, making salsa from the tomatoes she harvests, backpacking, hanging out with her dogs, or doing yoga.

Travel is still on Jenn’s horizon. In addition to taking Spanish, she’s learning how to dive, with the goal of sailing in the Caribbean with her partner, Martin Vavra.

Meanwhile, she also signed up to be a crew leader at Friends of Trees again this year. She hopes to plant trees at least once a month.

“What a fabulous concept,” she said about Friends of Trees, noting that it’s gratifying to be part of something community-based, with long-term benefits. “Every city should have a Friends of Trees.”