The maple tree at the Cowichan Community Centre, before it was cut down to make way for parking lot improvements. (Citizen file)

The maple tree at the Cowichan Community Centre, before it was cut down to make way for parking lot improvements. (Citizen file)

T.W. Paterson column: Are heritage trees finally coming into their own?

Arbutus was “a significant fixture of the community and the residents have grown up with it.”

The Millstone Avenue arbutus was “a significant fixture of the community and the residents have grown up with it.”—Nanaimo urban forestry coordinator.

In a single recent edition of the Times-Colonist trees were the headline story, the subject of an editorial and several letters to the editor.

In this case the trees in question were the thousands of iconic ornamental cherry trees whose springtime pink blossoms have adorned city streets and added to Victoria’s international appeal for 82 years. The front-page article was a declaration by Mayor Lisa Helps that the cherry trees, originally a gift from Japanese-Canadian citizens in 1937, wouldn’t be affected by a new city plan to favour native plants for boulevards and park beautification.

The perceived threat obviously struck a nerve with many residents, following as it did, within days, of a photo story showing the razing of 29 mature evergreens to make way for a new building development, something common to communities everywhere these days.

Last September, a 90-year-old arbutus tree in Nanaimo described as being “pretty impressive” by the city’s urban forestry coordinator, was given a “death sentence” as a possible safety risk because of advancing decay. Ironically, it wasn’t the tree’s fault, as old as it was, but that of city works crews who’d smothered its base when laying concrete sidewalks, and its having been struck by a vehicle.

Although not on the city’s heritage tree list the Millstone Avenue arbutus was recognized as being a “significant…fixture of the community. It is a member of the community and the residents have grown up with it.”

In other words, trees on public property can come to be regarded as community assets whose destruction should be a last resort on the part of various levels of government.

The usual disclaimer by many developers (and some bureaucrats and elected officials), that mature trees will be replaced by saplings (what some conservationists have derisively dismissed as “Martha Stewart trees”, a reference to the popular home fashions merchandiser) rarely results in a Jack-in-the-beanstalk exchange — i.e. no magic beans.

To Nanaimo’s credit, the city hired a Victoria arborist firm to conduct a resistograph test with a fine drill to measure differences in resistance (the trunk’s soundness) and even measure its growth rings. The tests showed the arbutus tree, at just one-third of its possible life span, was beyond saving. The city promised to replace it with “new trees” of unspecified species — but note the plural.

Here in the Cowichan Valley we’ve seen the Municipality of North Cowichan cautiously agree to a citizen-inspired appeal to place logging on municipal lands on hold for a year to allow for a professional study of harvesting practices vs. environmental considerations.

This is beyond the purview of heritage trees and I include it to make the point that many people of all ages and personal backgrounds are increasingly concerned with tree health. Many are motivated by increasingly obvious detrimental effects on all vegetation by global warming with its as-yet incomprehensible end results.

But back to so-called heritage trees. Late in 2007 the issue became newsworthy when it became known that the massive 200-year-old maple at the entrance to the Island Savings Centre parking lot was to make way for a re-design.

Officials cited the inevitable case of safety liability with the support of a professional arborist’s study showing that the tree, which gave an appearance of good health with its large canopy of leaves, really was a hollowed-out disaster in the making. Another arborist thought differently. But down it came, just as the ‘improved’ parking lot’s proponents wanted.

As usual, the landmark tree was replaced by not one but, in this case, an orchard of spindly deciduous trees in a desert of blacktop. It was the last ancient maple tree in Duncan, a city once known for its maple-treed streets. Such, they tell us, is progress.

So here we are, more than 150 years after the arrival of the first colonists and the beginning of wholesale land clearing, first for farming, then for logging. Old-growth forests are no more in the Cowichan Valley. Likely the closest we come is the 57-acre (23-hectare) Elkington Garry Oak Preserve which was only saved from development by the efforts of public spirited citizens.

Sadly, that seems to be the usual scenario. Rarely does an elected politician lead the charge for tree conservation, locally or elsewhere. Trees don’t vote and they take up space that, arguably, can be put to better use. So it goes.

But there’s change in the air. In December 2017 an old copper beech tree located at 750 Park Place in Duncan was given “significant tree status” by the City. Approximately 15 metres high and at least 100 years old (they can grow to 40 metres high and typically live 150-300 years), the beech was brought from England as a sapling and planted in its present location about the time the house was constructed in 1905.

Said to be in excellent health, it’s a relatively uncommon form of beech (Fagus sylvatica pururea).

Duncan’s tree protection bylaw defines a significant tree as being of “significant, size, species or heritage” and trees meeting these criteria require the consent of council to be razed — or even pruned. Preserving significant trees is part of the city’s ongoing urban forest strategy, said former mayor Phil Kent, who admitted that the city didn’t have many trees that met the criteria of the bylaw. As of December 2017 the city had 23 significant trees on its registry, including another beech of a more common species than the one on Park Place, near the intersection of Canada Avenue and Beverly Street.

More and more, citizens are standing up for tree conservation, not just those which we might consider to be heritage trees, but trees which contribute to making a community a pleasant place to live (not to mention their providing animal habitat). But North Cowichan still hasn’t followed suit. Covering a far greater area than the city it has that many more trees to consider for possible protection.

North Cowichan council has stated that it wants to move forward with “its plans for meaningful public engagement on the future of its 5,000-acre municipal forest reserve” (Citizen, April 24).

Well, there are trees much closer to home than those in the forest reserve. The tide of public sentiment has shifted and will grow not decline; it’s time, councillors, to get with the program.