Urban forester dedicates 30 years to the City of Houston
Story by Sarah Fuller '08 & '13
Photos by Robin Johnson '99 & '19
When thinking of Texas' largest city, home to roughly 2.3 million people and booming aerospace, biotechnology, energy and manufacturing industries, it is unlikely that images of forests and lush green spaces immediately come to mind. However, thanks to Victor Cordova's '88 three decades of service as urban forester for the City of Houston, the sprawling metropolis is greener than ever.
"We had a city Christmas tree every year in front of city hall," Cordova said. "One year, the tree was delivered from Michigan, and the first thing the delivery guy said when he arrived was, ‘Wow! Y'all have a lot of trees — I was expecting nothing but pavement.'"
Currently, the Houston Parks and Recreation Department comprises 380 developed parks and more than 167 greenspaces totaling more than 39,501 acres. Cordova and his team of employees were one component of the city's larger Greenspace Management Division.
Reflecting on his career, Cordova eschews discussing achievements that led Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner to formally proclaim Dec. 31, 2020, as Victor Cordova Day. Nor does he boast of the countless hours he worked that earned a plaque located at the Houston Parks and Recreation building honoring his service to the field of urban forestry. Instead, Cordova focuses on the employees who made his achievements possible.
"Luckily, I had a lot of strong and talented help," Cordova said.
Given the geographic range of Cordova's responsibilities alone, it makes sense he valued his core team of dependable people. As Houston's city forester, Cordova was responsible for trees located across an area totaling 600 square miles.
As if the sheer number of trees and size of the city weren't enough to challenge him, Mother Nature delivered several unforgiving blows to Houstonians and their trees during Cordova's career.
Houston's urban forests were pummeled by the 2011 Texas drought — one of the hottest, driest one-year periods in modern Texas history.
"There were about 40,000 trees lost on city properties," Cordova said while shaking his head. "Not to mention Hurricanes Ike and Harvey. It took us two good years to clean up all of the debris after Harvey."
Despite these devastating events, Cordova, like a healthy forest, is resilient.
"One of the career highs I hang my hat on is when our team and 2,000 volunteers planted 20,000 trees on Will Clayton Parkway for Arbor Day in 2009," Cordova said.
Prior to the planting, the approximately 40-acre lot was simply a grassy median that required constant mowing.
"We took those 40 acres, narrowed it down to 12, and everything else is trees," Cordova said.
When planning these plantings, Cordova took great care to ensure species diversity, which benefits urban wildlife and aesthetics and strengthens against forest disease and tree mortality.
"In everything we planted, we fought against having a monoculture," Cordova said. "I took the opportunity to diversify the tree species planted on city properties."
This effort paid off at Memorial Park, Houston's largest urban-center park.
Following a planting at Memorial, Cordova said around 10,000 trees died. However, thanks to the diversity of species that thrived, park aesthetics were not negatively affected.
Cordova also dedicated five years toward passing a city ordinance to help protect Houston's trees.
In 1995, a homeowner was recorded on video cutting down eight oak trees located on city property without permission. Despite having video evidence of the event, Cordova was devastated to learn no law existed to punish such action.
Now, thanks to the Tree Protection Ordinance, trees located on city property are safeguarded from indiscriminate removal.
"I didn't do it alone, but passing that ordinance was a big deal for me," Cordova said.
Growing up in rural South Texas, Cordova's first exposure to towering trees took place when he visited the SFA campus with a friend.
"Where I grew up, there is nothing but mesquite," Cordova said. "I saw the pine trees along State Highway 7 coming into Nacogdoches and was like, ‘Wow!'"
Cordova took that newfound love of trees and directed it toward earning a Bachelor of Science in Forestry at SFA.
He also ran for SFA's track and cross-country teams throughout his undergraduate career and met his wife, Julie '87. The couple later had three children, Samuel, Caroline and Catherine.
Now retired, Cordova has his sights set on enjoying time with his family, completing home renovation projects and possibly adding to his impressive tree count.
"I planted 902,071 trees during my career — almost a million," Cordova said without hesitation. "I kept track."