Although rooted in the ground, trees often provide drama in our lives. They push out shiny green growth in the spring, scrape the sky with their graceful branches and sometimes burst into colorful flowers.
Lisa Ortega, STT’s 2013 Professional of the Year, has the same flair for drama and intensity. As urban forester for the city of Henderson, NV, she brings passion, dedication and enthusiasm to every project she touches.
Growing up in rough-and-tumble Ely, NV, her contact with trees was limited mostly to climbing them. “None of my family ever went to college, so I didn’t even consider it,” Ortega recalls. “I just wanted to get out of town.”
Here ticket was a job with Northern Geophysical, an oil company. She spent several years working for that and other oil companies, traveling the country developing oil fields – mostly with explosives. “I ran a dynamite crew,” she says. “I got to travel all over the country and saw some amazing sights. The mountains were just breathtaking!”
On the way, she started a family and after about seven years, decided to return to Ely so that her son could start kindergarten. Ely was home to several copper and gold mines, with a boom and bust economy, and Ortega easily found employment. “I ran the dynamite crew and drove a 10-ton truck and worked as a secretary,” Ortega says.
When the inevitable bust happened, hundreds of people lost their jobs. “I was one of the few that were kept on, but my whole family lost their jobs,” she says. “I committed myself to changing my profession. I needed expertise that could not be swept away in the blink of an eye.”
Moving to Las Vegas in 1998, she enrolled in the Community College of Southern Nevada and decided to major in horticulture. “I was always drawn to that rich, deep smell that greets you at the door of a hot house,” Ortega explains. “I always wanted to work in a nursery – loving and caring for plants.”
A quick study, she earned dual associates degrees in ornamental horticulture and landscape design. She moved on to the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in landscape architecture (and met her future husband, instructor Danny Ortega).
Her first job was at the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s Desert Demonstration Garden, working as an intern in the educational department while earning her degrees. She moved on to contracting with Clark County Long-Range planning, but her career really took flight when she joined the Nevada Division of Forestry in 2001. There, she was enchanted by the whole concept of community tree planting.
“People really love to plant trees. It is very rewarding to set up an opportunity that gives people the feeling that they can change our environment – that they can make a difference,” Ortega says. “It is always great to meet these people and share that experience with them.”
“I met Lisa when she was pretty much a newbie to the green industry,” says Russ Thompson, retired Clark County parks and recreation manager, now a self-employed consultant. “I could immediately tell that she was energetic, bright and passionate about horticulture. I can remember thinking that she wouldn’t be able to keep that energy level up very long. I was tired just watching her! Boy, was I wrong about that!”
Dennis Swartzell, consultant, author and speaker, agrees. “Lisa is a person who is not be denied. When she first started out on her career path, women were not common in the industry. She worked hard to get the education and the necessary credentials to rightfully stand amongst the men in her field. Then she worked even harder to earn the respect of her colleagues and to eventually elevate herself to the top of her profession.”
Her drive and energy eventually landed her a position at the city of Henderson, briefly as a park design technician and then as the urban forester for the city in 2008. There, she has developed and manages the city’s urban forestry program and is responsible for the city’s extensive tree plantings.
Although she oversees crews, parks and budgets, her love of trees is what gives her the most pleasure. “Lately, my favorite part of my job is watching neglected trees get a second chance with proper pruning. To see them go from potential failure to a chance at another 20 years is very rewarding,” Ortega says. “I love to spend time trying to understand what the tree is telling me.”
Ortega’s passion goes beyond her job. She has been active in several associations, including the Southern Nevada Arborists Group, National Urban and Community Forest Advisory (NUCFAC), Society of Municipal Arborists and Nevada Shade Tree Council (NSTC), where she has served on the board and as president.
“Lisa is so passionate about everything there is about trees,” says Molly Sinnott, arboriculture consultant and current NSTC president. “She is someone that gets things done. You give her an idea, she takes it and runs with it. In no time, you end up with an excellent, completed project from her! As president of NSTC, I cannot thank her enough for the time and effort she has put into the Council.”
But everything isn’t “coming up roses” in Ortega’s view. “I am sure that a lack of formal education will come to bear on the green industry. We have lost our ornamental horticulture degrees at CSN and the UNLV Landscape Architecture classes are small,” she laments. “It seems that if you’ve got a mower and a truck, you are qualified, so why go to college? We are losing our foundation of science, and from that foundation lays creative ways to increase best practices, instead of just doing what we’ve always done.”
In the meantime, Ortega will throw herself into the green industry with all the energy she can muster. “She was, and still is, a breath of fresh air to our local industry,” says Thompson. “Her passion for growing trees, and promoting the benefit they provide, is unyielding — and we’re all the better for it.”