San Mateo County Parks Hires New Assistant Director
Monday, March 9, 2016
After being on the job only two weeks, new San Mateo County Parks Assistant Director Sarah Birkeland already knows she’s landed her dream job.
“The people I’ve met are fantastic and highly engaged with their work,” Birkeland said. “My general impression of the County and the Parks Department so far is that there is a strong commitment to delivering a high level of service to the residents of San Mateo County as effectively and efficiently as possible. This is all very inspiring to a new employee.”
As Assistant Director, Birkeland is tasked with managing park operations, planning and natural resources management. A typical day might include one or more meetings with colleagues or community groups, the review of plans, policies, construction drawings, emails, and site visits related to one or more of the many projects the Parks Department is involved in.
So far her first few days on the job have been spent getting to know staff and paying a visit to each of the 20 parks in the County parks system.
She was delighted to see her first week several San Bruno elfin butterfly larvae, which she’s never seen before.
“The vegetation on San Bruno Mountain presents a whole other set of wonders,” Birkeland said.
She’s also observed on a broader scope that the Peninsula presents real opportunities to undertake a landscape approach to management “that transcends jurisdictional boundaries” which she said “is needed if we are going to enhance and conserve the resilience of our park ecosystems.”
Birkeland brings with her some impressive credentials: an undergraduate degree in botany from Oregon State University, a Master of Landscape Architecture degree from University of Washington and a Juris Doctor degree from Boalt Hall School of Law of the University of California at Berkeley.
Her early work experience includes a stint as a botanist for the Natural Resource Division of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, a landscape architect for an architectural firm in Seattle and an attorney for a law firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she provided analysis, briefing, and strategy in federal and state environmental law, water law, mine safety, and land use and zoning.
Her most recent job of 12 years was as an attorney for the Office of the General Counsel in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In that San Francisco-based position, Birkeland said she is most proud of her work defending the U.S Forest Service so that it could implement important forest restoration projects.
“Sarah has a deep and varied background and professional experience,” Parks Director Marlene Finely said. “She brings a unique combination of design skills, knowledge of natural resource management and critical thinking abilities to work within an increasingly complex natural and social environment. We are so lucky she found her way to San Mateo County Parks.”
Finley said the County is also fortunate to have leadership that recognized the need for the newly created position to provide support and guidance within an expanding and complex department that balances visitor access with resource protection and values community engagement.
“The addition of an assistant director demonstrates yet again, the strong commitment our Board of Supervisors have for the future of our parks,” said Finley.
Some of the projects Birkeland is looking forward to moving ahead on include the Coyote Point East Promenade improvements; designing accessible and attractive pathways and picnic areas at Wunderlich Park; and working with staff on an environmental review, permits and implementation plan for Re-Imagine Flood Park.
She would like every San Mateo County resident to know that our County Parks "are an incredible resource and visiting them can improve your well-being," she said. "We have amazing County park rangers and staff who take great care of our parks and parks visitors.”
Birkeland describes her work style as “collaborative, inquisitive, analytical,” and is eager to apply her skill set to move forward all the projects Parks has in the works right now by "integrating the tremendous natural resource, operational, cultural, and planning knowledge our Parks staff holds," she said, "as well as the valuable input we receive from the community."