Urban Forester Steve McKindley-Ward Lives His Life Dream

A large Sycamore Street on 16th Street needs some TLC but its diagnosis for a long future is good.

Henry David Thoreau, America’s nature writer, once wrote, “Live the life you’ve dreamed.” Steve McKindley-Ward, arborist and urban forester for DC, is following this solid advice. Steve says he has been blessed to follow his dream of having a successful career outdoors, and he couldn’t be more excited keeping Capitol Hill’s trees in tip top condition.

It may be a surprise to some that DC has an entire division devoted to forestry, located in the Department of Transportation (DDOT). The Urban Forestry Division’s mission is to keep the District’s street trees well-managed and healthy and to increase their number. Once a tiny little agency with a meager budget and offices in a trailer, it now employs 23 certified arborists.

The city has a goal of 40% tree cover by 2032. Last year, Steve says the city inventory shows we have reached 38%, but he says there is still a lot of work to be done.

Capitol Hill’s Own Tree Guru
To better manage the trees, the city has been divided into zones, and Steve has been on the Capitol Hill beat for a number of years, seven altogether with the Urban Forestry Division. Before he joined the government, he spent eight years planting trees in the stream banks of Anacostia with the Anacostia Watershed Association.

Steve McKindley-Ward is Ward 6’s tree guru, helping to keep city trees flourishing.

Steve seems to have the perfect disposition for his job. His deep passion for the environment, in particular trees, comes through the minute you meet him. He is not just some guy with pruning shears that the city sent out to trim your tree. First of all, Steve arrives on site on his bicycle that is fitted with a strong set of tree loppers, (the long-handled tools used to trim tree branches), a small laptop computer, pruners attached to his shorts, and the mandatory yellow work vest. He shouts hello from down the block. In a moment’s time, he has his bike helmet off, and is filling me in on his immediate project in the hundred block of 16th Street, SE.

311 Call for the Sycamore
A neighbor has called 311 to report a sycamore tree that is leaning and has overhanging tree branches. Steve’s mission is to see what he can do to give it a chance to survive. He may oversee approximately 6,500 trees around Capitol Hill, but on this morning, his sole concern is this one tree. The laptop allows him to pull up the inventoried and digitized history of individual trees in the Urban Forestry Division’s system. After a brief computer glitch, he selects the tree and its history pops up. The sycamore was planted by the city in 2007 and it had been looked at in August 2013. Steve can see how fast the tree has grown in its eleven years. He examines the soil around the tree and looks up and down the street for any reasons the tree might be stressed and leaning.

“I think this tree is actually doing very well,” Steve grins when he announces his assessment. “Not quite sure why it leans.” He cuts back the low branches that need pruning and leaves them in a pile for their truck to pick up the next day. A work order will be put in to bring a bucket truck out to do an all over pruning over the next few months. Steve says he likes to be able to interact directly with the residents when he is doing his tree work. For this one, he only has an email address to respond to.

Steve begins his regular workday at 6:30 am and finishes up at 3:00, unless there is an emergency situation. “To me, getting to work outdoors everyday is truly a blessing,” he says. “I must have gotten the bug when I was a kid growing up outside of Seattle, and going camping all the time with my family.” Steve obtained an undergraduate degree from Seattle Pacific University where he majored in environmental studies. He would later receive a Masters Degree in City Planning, but says he knew his heart was really more in the outdoors. A chance to work at the Franciscan Monastery in DC’s Brookland neighborhood sealed the deal for him. For Steve, trees support the planet’s ecology and are to be cared for with a respect that acknowledges the good things they bring into our lives.

Steve was awarded Casey Tree’s Canopy Award for Education this spring, alongside his colleague, Joel Conlon, for starting a volunteer pruning corps. As dream jobs go, Steve has found his and Capitol Hill residents are the lucky beneficiaries.


Rindy O’Brien has spent her professional career involved in trees, and really is excited for the current work of the forestry department. Contact her at rindyobrien@gmail.com