Toronto Star column – published February 15, 2014
Urban Trees: Where do We Go From Here?
“Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the buildings.” Bill Biggs, retired, Canadian Forestry Service
Torontonians live in a big, densely populated city. We spend a lot of time trying to get to work, find work, feed, educate and entertain ourselves. For the most part our busy lives revolve around the safe and efficient transportation from one place to another.
Is it any wonder then that we spend as little time as we do pondering the value of the natural world around us? There are 1,600 public parks and over 4 million trees in the public spaces of Toronto. Another 6 million trees on the private land. When Mother Nature ‘glazed’ the city with over 30 mm of ice in late December, we were unprepared for the effects, for the most part.
But there is a silver lining: we have never been more aware of the presence of our trees. It’s like when the kid in the family who never speaks up and is always well-behaved decided to stand up during a nice family dinner and, against all rules of decorum and acceptable behavior, made a speech that suddenly got them noticed. I can’t say that I relate to that kid as I was always looking for attention. I guess I would not make a very good tree.
The Problem with Trees
The problem with trees, according to Rob Keen, the Executive Director of Trees Ontario, is that they don’t advertise. Perhaps this is why our Mayor [yes, Mr. Ford] proposed a motion at the recent City budget debate, to eliminate the planned planting of more than 70,000 trees this year. This, he argued, would save the taxpayers precious, hard-earned tax money.
Humankind, it seems to me, is forever testing Nature’s tolerance of our bad behavior. Why don’t we just asphalt the whole thing and connect ourselves to an iron lung? Be done with the messy business of good health, the way nature intended it.
Fortunately, we are surrounded by a great number of sober, intelligent people who have excellent ideas and questions about the health and wellness of our tree canopy. I have been delighted, for example, by the response from Toronto Star readers to my request for feedback regarding the ice storm event almost two months ago. Here is a sampling:
Rita Fundner wrote to firstname.lastname@example.org:
“If we want to have a tree canopy at all we’ll need to be prepared to spend more time and money keeping alive and strong what’s now growing and what will be planted in the coming years. Money will likely be the key… how much of the city’s budget can be devoted to re-forestation? It is my hope that the federal and provincial government will see fit to make meaningful contributions [to the urban tree canopy].”
Mark van Stempvoort [a tree specialist], observes:
“I have noticed that 70% of the damage to Toronto trees is from a single tree species: the Siberian Elm. Perhaps we should be planting more native species?”
He adds, “The Toronto Star has gained a lot of credibility for its investigative reporting in recent times, and no doubt the readership has gone up as a result…. At least, one hopes so!” I hope so too, Mark.
I also received a thoughtful two-page reply from my friend John Cary, CEO of Maple Leaves Forever, a not for profit organization that is dedicated to planting native maple species across the land. He said, “Native tree species are more resilient in the face of harsh conditions than their foreign counterparts. The genetic material of many native species has become more adapted to local climate over time. By and large fostering large healthy native forests will ensure our cities and towns become more resilient in the face of potential storms. Disasters like this can encourage us to re-evaluate the importance of trees.” Learn more at http://www.mapleleavesforever.com/
How do we avoid a similar calamity?
The question is a good one. And the answer, according to many people who weighed in on the subject, is to plant more native species. Native sugar and rubrum maples, serviceberries, oaks and the like can help to manage our tree canopy over time, with a minimum of costs for pruning maintenance.
It is not, however, quite that simple. Jason Doyle, Director Urban Forestry at City of Toronto, has said to me many times that there are many ‘introduced’ species and varieties of trees that serve a useful purpose in the re-building of our tree canopy. The answer, in effect, boils down to planting the right tree in the right place. See my column of January 30, 2014 at http://www.thestar.com/life/homes/2014/01/30/how_to_choose_the_right_tree.html for details.
Trees For Life
In the meantime, I draw your attention to several not for profit organizations that are dedicated to enhancing the Toronto tree canopy. Each of them are members of Trees For Life, the urban tree coalition. This is an organization that sprung from these very pages in the Toronto Star when I sent up smoke signals almost three years ago looking for anyone that was interested in enhancing the tree canopy. People representing 12 charity tree organizations came to the fore and have started to work together through Trees For Life in an effort to maximize the benefits of their efforts. Here is what some of them want to say about the future:
“We are partnering together to help build the Toronto Tree Canopy by 40% by expanding the Adopt a Park Tree program. Through Adopt a Park Tree, friends of park groups and community groups take on the role of adopting newly planted trees in Toronto’s parks and provide mulching, water and care during the trees’ critical first few years. Adopt A Tree has been proven to significantly improve the survival rate of newly planted trees.” Janet McKay LEAF [ www.yourleaf.org/make-donation] and Dave Harvey, Toronto Parks People [http://www.parkpeople.ca/]
“LEAF is helping property owners get the right tree in the right place through their subsidized Backyard Tree Planting Program. They also offer fun and engaging educational opportunities, like guided Tree Tours and a 15 hour arboriculture course called the Tree Tenders Training Program.” Janet McKay, LEAF
“The Composting Council of Canada is providing assistance with soil preparation through the addition of compost for the trees’ new and permanent home.” Susan Antler, Composting Council of Canada. www.compost.org
The Toronto Parks and Trees Foundation has launched a campaign to raise funds and awareness of the tree canopy through their ‘Recover the Canopy Campaign’. This unique campaign gives citizens an opportunity to make a tax-deductible donation at www.torontoparksandtrees.org to help plant new trees and care for damaged ones in public spaces. One hundred percent of the contributions of the Recover the Canopy campaign will be directed toward these efforts.
If you visit their website you have the opportunity to direct your donation to a specific park in Toronto.
I urge you to go to www.treesforlifecanada.org for a complete list of Trees For Life members and some photos of our recent work.
Finally, ‘words to live by’ from Bill Biggs, a retired forestry worker:
All I need to know about life I learned from trees:
– it’s important to have roots
– it pays to branch out
– if you really believe in something, don’t be afraid to go out on a limb
– be flexible so you don’t break when a harsh wind blows
– avoid people who like to cut you down
Thanks Bill. And thanks to you, dear Star readers, for responding. Our work is only beginning. Stay tuned.