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Arborist will leave the urban jungle life for retirement

As a child growing up in the 1950s, Alan Mayberry wiled away hot Florida afternoons swinging from vine to vine in a thick oak hammock near Clearwater High School.

As he swung through the mammoth trees, the Tarzan fan dreamed of one day being king of the jungle.

In a sense, that's exactly what he became. A longtime city employee, Mayberry has ruled Clearwater's urban jungle as the city's urban forestry manager since 1997. He prides himself not only in the number of trees he has planted or saved, but the seeds of knowledge he has spread.

"He has a passion for trees," said Tim Kurtz, senior landscape architect for the city. "He works on holidays and during his vacation."

He also has a reputation that goes beyond Clearwater.

Largo Parks Superintendent Greg Brown, a certified arborist, said the city employs seven arborists. Thursday, Brown attended a class on new technologies in tree care with Mayberry.

"I heard a couple of stories of how he's protected trees at all costs," Brown said.

Today, after 30 years of employment with the city, the 52-year-old arborist will retire and move on to a job as a consulting arborist with Boen's Tree Service.

So, Wednesday, about 125 city employees gathered in the Public Services Complex for cake, punch and a few goodbye hugs and laughs. Plastic vines hung from the ceiling tiles. A chain saw and orange work helmet were propped next to a banner that read "Happy Retirement."

"We are going to be so sad to see him leave," said Mahshid Arasteh, public works administrator. "He has done so much for the city."

Ray Boler, assistant public services director for Clearwater and Mayberry's supervisor, said that despite their strong friendship, the two have sometimes found themselves at odds when it came to trees.

"He was always crying over them when it came time to put in a parking lot," he said.

Mayberry's favorite species of tree is the long-leaf pine, which he calls majestic and picturesque. Pinellas County took its name from the Spanish Punta Pinal, meaning "point of pines," and now these trees are disappearing from the landscape, he said.

While oaks have gained favor with homeowners, he said it's dangerous to plant too many of one kind of tree because a serious disease could wipe out the whole population.

Mayberry started with the city in 1973 when he was a "long-haired hippie." He began mowing grass and drove a solid waste truck.

In 1984, he was able to move into a job he really loved. He became a forestry inspector.

"I became a voice of organisms that have no voice," he said. "Trees are the largest organisms on earth, and they do so much for us. I felt they needed someone to speak up for them."

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Mayberry considered himself a radical environmentalist who would do anything to save a tree. As he matured, he mellowed and now considers himself a tree preservationist who "will exhaust all means to prevent unwarranted removal."

"We only have so much power," he said. "We can regulate but not stop development."

He remembers with pride two incidents where he persuaded developers to save trees.

When developers wanted to take out three large oaks for a new Builder's Square (now Home Depot) on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, Mayberry asked them to design the parking lot around the trio. They proposed saving two. Mayberry fought for the third, and the developers threatened to pull the project and leave the city.

Finally, Mayberry asked if they would save all three if he somehow got them some attention for doing it. They agreed.

The Times ended up running a story headlined, "Three live oaks get reprieves." The trees were saved.

Also in the mid 1990s, the developers of the Bayside Arbors apartments near Clearwater Mall wanted to put up two-story buildings that would have destroyed most of the 1,400 oaks and hickories on their property. Mayberry suggested making the buildings three stories and marketing the project in a beautiful, shady setting.

"I told them they would sell faster in beautiful surroundings, and they bought the idea," he said. "They also contoured their retention ponds around the trees."

To this day, he thinks the design not only saved the trees, but contributed to the project's commercial success.

Mayberry still fights to preserve the healthier trees, but realizes that many urban trees have defects that can become hazardous.

"By applying good science and selecting the right species of tree and those with sound structure, we can improve our future urban forest," he said.

In his job, Mayberry has often attended neighborhood meetings to demonstrate proper planting, pruning and maintenance techniques. He also advises residents of the importance of striking a good ecological balance.

"When we spray for mosquitoes, we also kill wasps, which are very good for oak trees because they eat kermes scale," he said referring to a problem all-too-familiar to residents of Island Estates.

He has turned city tree trimmers into arborists. Clearwater now has more arborists than any other city in Florida.

He recently started a program in which all of the city's 25,000 trees will be inventoried and those with multiple spreading trunks will be earmarked for future pruning to improve their structure and safety. He also supervises an Arbor Day event during which about 2,000 young trees are given away each year to Clearwater residents.

As for individual trees, he has two favorites, both enormous oaks with intricate branch patterns. One is in the Harbor Oaks district in downtown Clearwater. The other is in downtown Safety Harbor near the public library.

"I call that one the Lovers' Oak," he said.

And why is that?

"Personal reasons."

_ Staff writer Lorri Helfand contributed to this report.