After ‘game-changing’ injuries, Tacoma’s urban forester resigns

One Friday morning in October 2013, Ramie Pierce was commuting by bicycle to her office at the Center for Urban Waters. A normally easy, mostly downhill route from her Hilltop neighborhood home, along South 11th Street through downtown Tacoma, and across Thea Foss Waterway by way of the Murray Morgan Bridge was re-routed due to a bridge closure. Pierce was forced to take a detoured route. As she coasted down South 15th Street near the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center, a valet attendant driving a Toyota Prius failed to notice her and pulled out of a side street.

Pierce squeezed the brakes, but it was too late to stop.

She flew over the handle bars, slid along the pavement, and skidded to a stop pinned beneath the vehicle. The accident broke bones, busted her teeth and split her lips, and covered her body in deep bruises. The immediate aftermath is a patchwork burst of memories: a swift ambulance ride to a nearby hospital; clicking sounds emanating from an X-ray machine; and the terrible taste of dirt and blood as she lay on an emergency room table. Pierce underwent surgery that afternoon, and remained in the hospital overnight.

As she returned to work a month later, Pierce noticed she was easily fatigued, plagued by headaches, and had issues related to memory and concentration — the results, she was told, of a mild to moderate concussion. She scaled back her hours, tried working from home, and took extended leaves of absence hoping she could fully recover and resume her career.

Late last month, however, Pierce, 34, announced she would step down as the City of Tacoma’s Urban Forester. “I recognize that this may come as a shock to many of you,” she wrote in an e-mail to colleagues and friends. “[A]fter attempting to heal by working, or working while healing, for the last year, which has not been easy . . . it’s best for me to reduce distractions and focus on my recovery. While I am unsure of what the future holds (as all of us are), I know that everything will work out as it should.”

Pierce agreed to meet with me last week at a downtown Tacoma cafe, just a few days before her last day of work. During an hour-long interview, she was emotional about the trauma she experienced and her decision to leave a job that she loved, but also optimistic about taking time to fully heal her injuries.

“I just — I am not the same me that I was before the accident,” she explained. She pulled back the sleeves of her jacket to reveal post-surgery scars, and smiled to reveal the clear braces that are correcting the damage to her teeth. “Despite all my best efforts of trying for the last year while recovering, I’m still working twenty hours per week and I’m stressed out and I’m tired of struggling. Meanwhile, I still have all this physical therapy that I have been limping along and really haven’t been able to address wholeheartedly.”

“Ramie will be missed at the City,” said Lorna Mauren, City of Tacoma Environmental Services Assistant Division Manager and Pierce’s former supervisor. “If you know her, you know the care and passion she brought to her work.”

Tacoma’s Urban Forest program received a boost when Pierce arrived at City Hall nearly eight years ago, after earning an associate degree in horticulture from South Seattle Community College, and a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and urban forestry from The Evergreen State College.

Between 2007 and 2008, the City partnered with local residents to plant a record 803 trees through the City’s TreeStreet NW Program. Since 2008, more than 3,000 street trees were planted throughout Tacoma. In 2011, a University of Washington study showed Tacoma’s tree canopy increased from 12.9 per cent to 19 per cent between 2001 and 2009. Ultimately, the City hopes to achieve 30 per cent tree coverage within the next 15 years. Pierce also undertook a complete overhaul and update of the codes and regulations related to Tacoma’s Urban Forest program (the revisions still need final approval).

Beyond data and regulations, the program became a more visible part of the community. Four years ago, the City’s Urban Forest Project invited local artists to create artwork that was turned into banners that lined downtown Tacoma streets. The banners credited and promoted individual artists, while advocating the importance of street trees. The banners were later turned into messenger bags and available for purchase. Also, anyone with a green thumb had plenty of opportunities to attend one of Pierce’s free workshops at Tacoma’s EnviroHouse to get their questions answered and learn more about landscape design, seasonal garden preparations, composting, and the benefits of rain barrels.

For some Tacoma residents who care about trees, Pierce was more than just another government bureaucrat.

“She hit the ground running and she never stopped,” said University Place resident Nan Hogan, who first met Pierce during a community open house shortly after Pierce was hired. Hogan recalled initially feeling awkward in a meeting room full of well-connected forestry representatives with vested interests. “I think I was the only know-nothing ordinary citizen there,” she recalled. “I was so impressed because Ramie treated me like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I felt very welcomed. I was just awed that someone like me could have access to someone with such expertise. I was so impressed.”

Hogan became a sort of neighborhood watchdog who always had Pierce’s phone number handy and placed phone calls when she believed trees were being unnecessarily cut back or chopped down. “Ramie just raised the awareness in the community. She was just tireless in her efforts to bring things down to the community level. An ordinary citizen could be included and engaged and feel like they could make a difference. I don’t think she can be replaced.”

Four years ago, Tacoma resident Matt Kite contacted Pierce to inquire about working with the City to plant street trees in his neighborhood. Over the course of two years, according to Kite, approximately 40 trees were planted in a one-block residential area near Jefferson Park. “After my first contact with her, she became a resource for me whenever I had a question about a tree,” said Kite. “She was very generous with her time. I consider myself to have kind of a green thumb. I have a lot of experience planting and gardening, and she taught me some things. She was basically a walking reference manual. She was always right there and got back to me right away. She didn’t need to do that. She was very generous with her time.”

Tacoma resident Jon Abels first contacted Pierce after a car plowed into an old Magnolia tree in his neighborhood. According to Abels, Pierce helped Abels find wholesalers who could replace the tree at a good price. Over the years, Abels followed Pierce’s work at City Hall, and was impressed by her advocacy to fund the Urban Forestry program during a recession and other periods of budget scrutiny. “I think, more than anything else, I admire her fortitude in the face of some pretty considerable push-back from various departments and individuals,” said Abels.

Hogan, Kite, and Abels said they were concerned about the future of the Urban Forestry program now that Pierce is gone.

“I do worry about it,” said Kite. “She has been a very active advocate for the program and she knows her stuff. Any time you see someone who is that qualified and passionate about their work leave their position, it’s worrying and discouraging. You hope someone will pick up the ball and run with it.”

“It would be really sad and an absolute tragedy to lose that program and all the work she has done,” added Abels.

“There will be an urban forester position hired this year,” said John O’Loughlin, City of Tacoma Assistant Director of Environmental Services. “That position is being scoped but they haven’t hired yet.” O’Loughlin noted the City’s current budget includes $415,000 to be spent on open space and urban forestry. The City also plans to leverage grants in order to increase those funding dollars. O’Loughlin also noted capital projects funded in other parts of the budget often include allowances for street trees or rain gardens that don’t tap the $415,000 set aside in the budget.

Pierce told me stepping down from a job she loved was a difficult decision. “I do care [about the program],” she said. “I care, but then I don’t. I have to not care because I have been hanging on to caring for the last year and I have been putting it before my recovery and I can’t keep doing that — as much as I love the city and I love my job. It’s not an easy decision, you know?”

Pierce’s last day at work was on Feb. 6. On Monday, she had another appointment with a doctor. As for what comes next, Pierce said she will plan things one day at a time.

“I try to explain to people that [the day of the accident] was like getting transported into another game with no explanation of what the new set of rules are,” she told me. “Everyone else is going about their business like they know the rules because they have been in the rules, but the rules for my life and my body have changed since that day. I have been trying to figure out what those rules are and get used to the world. Until I can do that on a personal level, I can’t even fathom professionally what that looks like. I don’t know. A lot of people want to know [what's next], but I don’t have an answer people are happy with. I’m just going to focus on feeling better and wanting to get up and make the world a better place again.”

"I am not the same me that I was before the accident," says former City of Tacoma Urban Forester Ramie Pierce, who was seriously injured in a cycling accident. She resigned from her position last week after nearly eight years at City Hall. (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

“I am not the same me that I was before the accident,” says former City of Tacoma Urban Forester Ramie Pierce, who was seriously injured in a cycling accident. She resigned from her position last week after nearly eight years at City Hall. (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

To read the Tacoma Daily Index‘s complete and comprehensive coverage of the City of Tacoma’s Urban Forest program, click on the following links:

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index, an award-winning journalist, and author of A Reporter At Large: A decade of Tacoma interviews, feature articles, and photographs and Wah Mee. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.