Profile of Jason Stein
For the past three years, Jason Stein has held the title of Advanced Volunteer Coordinator for the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, but he has worked for the parks department for over a decade.
“I got really lucky about the opportunities and kept riding the waves”, he says when asked about how he got started with the New York City Parks Department.
When you look at the timeline and how the pieces came together, it does seem like he got kind of lucky in the beginning.
While pursuing a masters degree in philosophy, things got upended and Jason was left scrambling for a job.
He had no formal training but wound up getting hired working for a version of Americorp,that was based on ecological restoration & environmental education called GreenCorp. Between the time he was hired and started the position, the program lost funding was shut down and was then rescued by the Parks Department, and he was eventually hired as a City Parks Worker.
From there, he was on one of the first crews that did some of the original plantings for the Million Trees program. A decade long initiative that spanned boroughs, planted a million trees (ahead of schedule), brought a new sense of public awareness to the parks department, and eventually laid the foundations for the super steward program as it stands today.
Why parks? Stein grew up in a small city in New England with a nature preserve. From his home, it was equidistant from a downtown shopping area and the preserve and from that a passion was instilled in him for urban parks. Jason also credits getting the job with the Parks Department, with his ability to name drop. Specifically obscure parks, which he spent time recreationally exploring from the Bronx to outer Brooklyn, before his official tenure.
After the Million Trees Training Program ran its course, the infrastructure was repurposed and the decision was made. “We had personnel. We had a small fleet of vehicles. We had equipment, so we couldn’t let it dissipate.” Thus, the Super Steward program was born. A cross-pollination between natural areas volunteers, who had established a navigator training program and the million trees management team which focused on street tree care.
Currently, there are 317 active Super Stewards. That number has doubled in the past year, but even with this large growth, one of the biggest challenges for Jason is still a lack of resources in personnel.
Jason’s time is balanced between managing administrative overhead and spending time with stewards out in the field. As he says, “It’s always a challenge to navigate the red tape. That sort of comes with the territory. That’s part of why we’re here. To help stewards navigate that as well.”
In the field is a balancing act as well. Though street tree stewards can be trained on a much larger scale, natural area volunteers require a lot more plant ID training and have to be updated regularly.
They are currently in the process of launching yet another cohort of super stewards called trails maintainers, in partnership with the NYNJ Trails Conference.
“We operate in this hybrid world which maintains the urban forest in the sense of street trees and the natural world as well and we kind of straddle those two worlds working closely with both the Natural Resources Group and Parks Central Forestry Unit...that’s how we found our identity amongst the other volunteer programs that are in or associated with parks. We really focus on the plants and the technical aspects of working with plants.”
For some context, the Natural Resources Group was the first municipal organization in the history of this country dedicated exclusively to ecological restoration and wetlands.
The whole field of ecological restoration only has a few decades worth of study behind it. It’s all very recent, even the idea that we should think about plants being native versus non native or we should pay attention to ecosystems being degraded that’s still very new.
Interestingly in New York City, the first efforts of ecological restoration were geared to pulling torched cars out of the woods. For years, that was the main focus, getting burnt cars out of the woods.
“Okay, we got the cars out, got some of the invasive vines under control, now just put some kind of native tree in, so at least we can have some kind of hold in the ground, so you’ll still find these weird little patches that are the first remnants to restore forests in the city.”
These remnants Jason mentioned are of Eastern White Pine Trees, which you can find in various city parks, in clusters, that are all the same height, and aren’t growing or regenerating because they are non-native. This is another challenge and interest for parks how specific and local you get . When you really dive into what is native vs. non-native it gets very grey very quick.*
For all the challenges that he faces, there are also great stories of community bonding and stewardship, where he feels a sense of pride.
One of Jason’s proudest moments for stewardship is a story I heard on my initiation:
“There is a 70 year old retired accountant. A trail steward for a park in Queens, for decades now. When she retired she thought about spending her winters in Florida. She refuses to because she loves being out on the trails too much. She can't work in the summer because she’s extremely allergic to poison ivy, so whatever forestry and stewardship she did it would have to be in the winter. So she stays up here just so she can be out in the woods. She adopted this one little patch of a vineland which is an invasive exotic species killing a piece of forest and just by herself and a pair of hand pruners was able to cut back this vineland and actually restore the forest. Multiple times I’ve heard ecological restoration grad students say, 'That can’t be done. That can’t be done without chemicals or bulldozers or tractors’, but this retired woman with a pair of hand pruners proved them wrong. That makes me really proud.”
As luck would have it, these trees are growing like they’re on steroids now. They’ve had an incredible growth spurt. Last year to this year they’ve grown 5 or 6 feet.
*During our interview Jason mentioned these goats getting paintballed.
– Carla McAlary