Retiring Steve Cothrel credited with cultivating Upper Arlington's sylvan growth
After more than 30 years shaping Upper Arlington's urban forest and maintaining the city's parks, Steve Cothrel will retire at the end of this month.
Roughly 32 years ago, a group of Upper Arlington residents concerned over what they saw as a lack of trees along city streets and other public spaces was put in touch with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
That group -- which included future mayor and city manager Virgina Barney; future mayor Priscilla Mead, who also became an Ohio state representative and state senator; and Mary Duchi, a longtime and current member of the Upper Arlington Parks and Recreation Advisory Board -- began to work with Cothrel, who recently had begun a career in urban forestry with ODNR after earning bachelor's and master's degrees from Ohio State University in natural-resources management.
Soon after, Cothrel was recruited to become Upper Arlington's first city forester. Though the title and responsibilities changed over the years, it's a post he held from April 1989 and will continue to until he retires Sept. 30.
"It became very evident this group was very serious about getting together and starting a proper tree-forestry program," Cothrel said. "Other than the city's enthusiasm for this, the other thing that appealed to me was the chance to be hands-on.
"With the state, I was primarily a consultant with communities, as opposed to getting out there and making things happen."
Now the city's parks and forestry superintendent, Cothrel, 59, heads a division of the Upper Arlington Parks and Recreation Department that oversees and maintains 23 parks. That includes approximately 186 acres, as well as such parks facilities as playgrounds, sports fields, shelters and picnic areas, walking paths, fitness trails and wooded areas.
He also supervises the city's forestry unit, which manages and maintains an inventory of approximately 17,000 trees in the public right of way and "thousands" of trees in city parks and at various public facilities, according to the city's website.
Cothrel noted that in the late 1980s, a number of large cities had forestry divisions, but few suburbs in the U.S. did.
Upper Arlington was one of the first suburbs in the state to create a forestry program, and it paid off in Cothrel's first year when the city received its first designation as a Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation.
Ever since, the city has maintained that annual status, which now is given to about 3,400 communities that commit to "sound urban-forestry management," as well as maintaining a tree board or department, having a community tree-care ordinance, spending at least $2 per capita on urban forestry and celebrating Arbor Day, according to the Tree City USA guidelines.
Among other steps Cothrel took to bolster the city's urban forest was to develop a database that accounted for all of Upper Arlington's trees in public spaces.
"That was pioneering in the day," Cothrel said. "It told us how many street trees we had, what condition they were in and if any needed to be removed."
As part of the quest to become a Tree City USA and to enhance the city's urban forest, a tree commission made up of volunteers appointed by Upper Arlington City Council was formed in 1989 under Cothrel's watch.
The group and Cothrel soon developed a street-tree-pruning schedule that Cothrel said helped beautify the community and improved the health of trees while reducing public-safety issues.
"We established a pruning cycle, which for us is every six years," he said. "We prune (a portion of) street trees every year, and it takes six years for us to get to all of them."
Upper Arlington City Manager Steve Schoeny said Cothrel "fundamentally reshaped" the city's approach to parks and forestry.
"He taught us to invest in and manage our parks and our trees as vital assets that enhance our health and well-being and contribute greatly to the future of our community," Schoeny said. "His knowledge will be missed, but he leaves behind an amazing legacy in our parks, our street trees and his team."
When asked about his contributions to the city, the tree commission opted to provide a statement on behalf of all its members:
"Steve Cothrel's many years of invaluable service to the city of Upper Arlington is remarkable," the commission statement said. "His vision and foresight into the city's forestry program, both short- and long-term, (have) elevated UA to be the envy of countless municipalities across the country.
"His many accomplishments include the decision years ago to plant a diverse selection of trees within the city, and our beautiful canopy is a realization of that. UA is also a longtime recipient of the coveted Tree City USA designation from the Arbor Day Foundation.
"The city is most fortunate to have had Steve lead the forestry division, and the benefits are showing and will continue for the foreseeable future. We wish him well and congratulate Steve for a job well done."
As is the case with most city business, Cothrel said, leaders had differing views over the years as to the importance of the forestry program.
That said, he added, he enjoyed the support of those leaders to pursue forestry programs and initiatives, including a strategy to replace trees that had to be removed due to deteriorating conditions and the invasion of the emerald ash borer, as well as those that were taken down to make way for construction projects.
"City Council and the parks and rec department recognized the need to do this," he said. "They devoted resources that allowed us to get to work from day 1."
Now, Cothrel said, the city has 35% canopy coverage, and it went from having 12,000 street trees in the early 1990s to more than 18,000 today.
"That number will keep increasing," he said.
While widely recognized during his tenure as "the Tree Guy," Cothrel also is proud of his work to maintain and expand city parks, duties he assumed in 1994.
During his time overseeing parks and their associated facilities, the city has renovated ever parks shelter and restroom and added several of both, Cothrel said, and all park playgrounds, pathways and ball diamonds have been renovated.
He also oversaw the addition of Burbank and Sunny 95 parks to the city's system.
"I'm pretty proud of what we accomplished there, especially in some pretty lean budget years," he said. "That's never been more apparent than during the COVID-19 era.
"Our parks are getting such heavy use, and we're happy to see that."
In addition to the support from city leaders, Cothrel credited Veronica Trommer, a parks and forestry office administrative assistant who has been with the division more than 20 years, and Lisa Metcalf, the city's horticulturist for more than 15 years, for helping to beautify Upper Arlington and protect its natural resources.
He also congratulated parks and forestry supervisor Samantha Simmons, who will take over as the division's superintendent Sept. 28.
"I'm really pleased the division will be in such good hands," he said.
In retirement, Cothrel said, he plans to stay involved in various professional associations, and he's part of the Baltimore Downtown Restoration Committee, which is working to restore the 115-year-old Victoria Opera House in the Fairfield County community.
Cothrel, who lives in Baltimore, also plans to spend more time with his wife, Michele Morrone, and daughters, Helen and Lucy.
"I still have some drawings my kids drew in preschool hanging in my office," he said. "I guess I need to take those down."
Looking back, Cothrel said, the transformation of the city has been more surprising to him than how the urban forest and parks have taken shape.
He noted Upper Arlington has gone from a "quiet bedroom suburb" to a full-fledged city.
"I never would have dreamed I would've seen that during my time here," Cothrel said.
Additionally, Cothrel said, he marvels at how quickly it seems his career has wound to a close. He said he is satisfied with the strides his division made under his watch and grateful for the relationships he's forged through his job.
"For 30-plus years now, I've been doing exactly what I went to school for and wanted to do," he said. "It has flown by.
"I've gotten to meet some awesome people that I never would have met otherwise. It's a community with high expectations, but one that also appreciates what they have."