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TREE TROUBLE, FOREST FIXES: City looks to protect its urban forest before it's gone

From the city's parks to its streets, there is no shortage of challenges for the arbourists who strive to keep Abbotsford green.

Clearbrook Park’s towering birch and maple trees cast cool shadows on Ken Snowden as he walks beneath the forest canopy.

To a casual observer, the forest looks healthy and vibrant. But Snowden, Abbotsford’s urban forester, is less pleased with what he sees.

Years ago, towering 200-year-old evergreens would have dominated here, but today the park is dominated by non-native “pioneer” trees that sprung up after the area was logged and today are nearing the end of their lives.

“These are not long-lived trees,” Snowden says. “We don’t expect this forest to be looking the way it does now in 20 years.”

The hope is that the park will one day revert to its natural state, but of the few smaller trees poking up from the forest floor, few are of the Douglas fir and western hemlock that should naturally dominate such a park.

Only in the last decade or so has work been undertaken to renew the city’s parks to try to restore them to a semblance of their natural state.

Fixing the Clearbrook forest and others like it will take decades, but it’s far from the only to-do item on the agenda for the city’s tree division.

But it’s not just the city’s parks that concern Snowden. All around the city, he and other parks staffers are in a constant battle to keep a fast-growing city as green as possible while balancing the needs of decade-old infrastructure, independent property owners, busy developers and new cultural groups. To do so, the city is looking at updating its tree bylaw. And if the past is any indication, the public will have plenty to say on the topic.

• • • • •

As Snowden drives around central Abbotsford, he sees issues everywhere. Where a novice may appreciate trees planted in the strips of grass that separate roads from sidewalks, Snowden sees trouble, noting that such pedestrian-friendly buffers often don’t have enough soil to support the trees that were once planted there.

Elsewhere, well-meaning developers have tried to retain existing trees that won’t survive changes to the property, or planted new trees not suited to their location. Some time later, a request inevitably comes to the city to remove the now-dying trees.

Snowden and his team have found that decades ago the city was frequently planting “the wrong tree in the wrong place.” Often, that meant large species being planted in areas where they had little room to grow, or where the soil conditions would either result in them dying, or cause their roots to grow straight down, making them more prone to toppling over in windstorms.

Other neighbourhoods feature almost no tree cover.

Just a couple blocks from Clearbrook Park, Snowden steers his city truck through a 20-year-old subdivision shimmering in the sun. There are few trees here, and despite the age of the homes, none mature enough to reach above the two-storey houses.

Changing that won’t be easy, but the signs of progress are already evident, with buy-in from both private residents and builders.

The area boasts a sizable South Asian population, an ethnic group that Snowden said hasn’t traditionally shown a preference towards leafy neighbourhoods. But the city hopes to change that, as trees bring a range of benefits, from mitigating the ‘heat island’ effect that builds up in cities, to improving public health and walkability of neighbourhoods.

Last year, the city employed Punjabi-speaking youth to go door-to-door to offer residents the opportunity to have street trees planted on the road outside their homes. Today, dozens of such trees line the streets, and parks director James Arden said the department heard for weeks from residents wondering when they were going to get their own trees.

Elsewhere, instead of being required to plant their own street trees, developers are now providing money to the city – and sometimes work closely with arbourists and planners – to ensure newly planted trees can thrive for decades to come.

• • • • •

But in many places, trees are coming down.

Across Abbotsford, developers and property owners are felling hundreds of trees on their properties, according to numbers obtained by a freedom of information request. To cut a tree, one must apply for a permit that typically requires a replacement to be planted. But it can take decades until the new trees grow to replace the mature pine, cedar, hemlock and douglas firs being taken down. Pests too, are taking a bite out of the city’s urban forest.

The city’s current tree bylaw dates back to 2010, and stems from a decade-old worry that the city had to do more to protect its trees.

While initial consultation suggested most favoured stronger rules to protect trees, when the new bylaw was adopted, it met with opposition from some property owners, especially Sumas Mountain residents who complained that it limited what they could do with their land, and that the $300 fee to obtain a tree-cutting permit was too steep.

In 2012, the city reconsidered its rules, and council voted to make it cheaper to obtain a tree removal permit, and exempted a large chunk of rural Sumas Mountain properties from the bylaw’s provisions. The amendments also excluded strata properties from the provisions of the bylaw, and permitted the removal of cottonwood, alder, sumacs and hedgerows, without a permit.

Couns. Moe Gill and Henry Braun, now the city’s mayor, were among those opposed to the amendments, while current Couns. Les Barkman, Patricia Ross and Dave Loewen voted in favour. Ross and Loewen had proposed a rejected motion that would have seen tree permit cost reduced but the Sumas Mountain area still included in the bylaw.

Since the amendment was passed, the number of trees felled with permission from the city has dramatically increased.

Statistics obtained by The News through a freedom of information request show that by mid-May property owners were on track to cut down a record number of trees in 2016.

A little more than a third of the way through 2016, permits had already been issued for the removal of 759 trees on 75 different properties, with exemptions issued for another 407 trees. The combined total of 1,166 already exceeded last year’s number of 1,080 and was on pace to surpass the record set in 2014, when 1,412 trees were permitted to be cut down, 908 of those with a permit.

Prior to that year, the city had issued far fewer tree permits or exemptions, with just 305 tree cuttings approved in 2013, 288 in 2012 and 194 in 2011.

Arden and Snowden note that large windstorms last fall and this spring will have contributed to many of those recently felled trees. The 2014 numbers, meanwhile, were augmented by one developer who received a permit to fell 320 trees alone. Other changes, including to the personnel administering the program, may also affected the figures, the city noted.

Fear of future danger or damage drives many people to ask to start cutting. And while permits are needed to cut most trees, the city only objects if it would breach water protection laws, or if the tree is on city property.

However, when residents or developers do hope to drop trees that lie on city property – often because they have grown to obstruct views or pose a nuisance to development – Snowden and his team can play hard ball.

Earlier this year, a developer asked to remove a massive tree on the edge of a central Abbotsford property where a new home was being built. Over decades, the large Douglas fir had grown into a neighbourhood landmark. And over time, the tree had thickened so much that, while it was originally planted on private property, a portion now stood in the city’s right-of-way, giving it partial ownership and a say into whether the tree came down.

Arden says neighbours had come to the city, promising to chain themselves to the massive tree to prevent its cutting, and in the end, the city took a firm stand and denied the request to fell it.

Often though, the city is more understanding and gives the thumbs up, particularly if the trees are a real nuisance, as in the case of leafy tilias that release a syrup that coats any car parked underneath.

“We have to balance life and reality and what’s going on,” Arden said.

Pests and fungi – some of which are thriving as the climate changes – are claiming other trees. The city’s water-loving birches have been stressed by drought in recent years. As they have yearned for water, they give off a pheromone that has attracted a ravenous bug called the bronze birch borer. The result has been devastating, and Snowden expects the city to lose all of its birches by the time the bug is through here.

However, as an example of the constant challenges facing arbourists, two prominent 100-plus-year-old Douglas firs recently had to be felled near Trethewey House after an inspection revealed a wood-eating fungal pathogen.

“I had never seen this on a living tree,” an expert from the ministry of forests told the city. It’s thought the pathogen may have migrated from the nearby house. Two other Douglas firs at the site were saved, and are being monitored.

• • • • •

“We know we’re losing a large volume of trees,” Snowden said.

The hope is to change that.

The city plans to take another look at its tree protection bylaw this fall, a process that it says will include extensive consultation with the public. What exactly the new bylaw will look like will be shaped by that public input and the councillors they elected, Snowden and Arden note. But the important thing, they say, is acknowledging the need for an urban forest while one still exists. Further west, in Surrey, thousands of trees are being chopped down each year and the city has lost 17 per cent of its tree canopy over the last 13 years.

“They’re chasing their tree canopy because they’ve lost it,” Arden said

As part of preparation for its new bylaw process, the city has commissioned a survey to put a number on its tree canopy. From there, the city will look to set a goal to preserve, or increase, that canopy.

Although Arden said it may seem like the city has many trees, “actually we don’t in the right areas.”

The pair say they expect a range of views on how the city should look at its tree canopy, and how pro-active it should be in protecting it.

“The bylaw can be contentions; people are so passionate on both sides,” Snowden said.

“Last time it was more like Game of Thrones,” Arden added.


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