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Neighbors: Shawna Mullen Eardley took a chance on Duluth

Shawna Mullen Eardley was drawn to Duluth for its recreational opportunities. After searching for a meaningful job after graduating from college, she took a chance on Duluth. Today, she’s helping to shape the way we treat our urban forest and making transportation easier for those not using a vehicle. (Photo courtesy Shawna Mullen Eardley)

Shawna Mullen Eardley graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in southern Minnesota with a degree in biology during the heart of the Great Recession. After kicking around with no permanent job prospects in sight, by 2010 she made a move here “with no other reason than I loved Duluth.”

It was more of the same here — retail and “random jobs,” she said. “It sucked.”

Then, she landed a gig with the new Minnesota Green Corps in 2011. For two years, she worked on urban forestry projects, including an inventory of every boulevard tree in the city. Today, Shawna works two jobs related to her interests that are offshoots of the Green Corps job.

“That’s what opened doors for me,” she said. She met people, networked, and made Duluth work. She’s just what Mayor Don Ness is talking about when it comes to growing the population here and bringing in young people drawn to Duluth’s outdoors opportunities.

Shawna now works part-time for the city of Duluth in the parks department, continuing outreach work relating to the value of trees in an urban setting. She helps gather volunteers to plant and prune trees as well.

Her other job is through the YMCA as part of the Healthy Duluth Area Coalition, which informs the public on better walking and biking opportunities in the city.

“My two jobs have quite a bit of overlap, which is fun,” she said.

Shawna moved here with her husband, John, who is still attending school.

She said it was “incredibly frustrating” to have a degree and work experience but no job that interested her. She and John learned a good lesson, she said.

“Living in Duluth is different than visiting Duluth,” she said with a smile.

The Healthy Duluth Area Coalition is trying to influence policy that makes it easier for people to think about taking a bus, a bike or walking around the city.

“It’s about health,” Shawna said.

She bikes to work and has the attitude I found this month in talking with the delivery bicyclists at Northern Waters Smokehaus: the hills of Duluth are not a deterrent.

“It’s a mind thing,” Shawna said. “The people who do it don’t see the hills as an obstacle. It’s all in your brain.”

She’s encouraged by the volume of bikers she’s been seeing, even in the winter.

This month, Shawna joined the mayor in presenting a “parklet” in parking spaces on West Superior Street downtown in front of Jitters. It’s another way to bring a human scale to an urban area often designed for vehicles more than people.

I asked Shawna what she’s found the most interesting in her urban forestry work, particularly the tree inventory. They ended up counting 13,000 trees. Keep in mind, these are only the trees in boulevards, between the street and sidewalk. There are thousands of other trees in yards and parks and forested areas of the city.

“Stop planting maples,” Shawna quickly said.

That’s because 38 percent of the trees counted were maples. That’s a lack of diversity that makes our canopy vulnerable. The second most-popular tree is the ash, at 18 percent. Shawna said the ash borer will reach the city and threaten those trees.

More diversity means a healthier forest for that reason, she said. More than 83 percent of boulevard trees are just five species. The other three are basswood (15 percent), elm (7 percent), and oak (5 percent).

“Maples have the most mortality,” she said. “The boulevard is a harsh environment.”

She tended to agree with me on the inevitability of taking trees out of boulevards for the planned reconstruction of Fourth Street and its infrastructure in the East Hillside neighborhood.

“I love trees and have lots of knowledge of their benefits,” she said. “I share the appreciation.”

But many of the trees slated for removal are old, she said, and probably will need to come down in the next decade. And many of them won’t be able to withstand having their roots taken out by utilities digging.

Shawna said residents can take advantage of the project and get replacements for those trees now instead having to do it themselves later.

I also asked about the surviving elm trees in the city. There are several around the Civic Center Plaza and in Portland Square Park on Fourth and the western neighborhood of Morgan Park. She suspects some were injected with chemicals to save them from Dutch elm disease. But others in the city are being studied for their natural defense to the disease that killed millions of elms across the world in the last century.

Shawna’s next big project for the city is recruiting forestry volunteers. She takes on that task with another lesson she’s learned about a city she’s adopted through thick and thin.

“People in Duluth love volunteering,” she said.

“What keeps me here is the sense of community and people who care and know each other.”

Mike Creger is always looking for interesting people to write about. Nominate your neighbor, friend or offer other suggestions at (218) 723-5218 or via email at