On a recent weekend hike, a group of environmentalists hoping to renaturalize an area near the Taylor Massey Creek in Scarborough were startled by the grinding of saws and the crashing of trees.
Soon they came upon a construction company hired by the city's water department who were cutting a swath of trees and shrubs along the river that flows about 16 kilometre from the 401 and Pharmacy down to the DVP.
Turns out the department had assessed the area, a clearing behind a factory south of Lawrence and east of Warden, as a flooding hazard and decided to bring in the chainsaws without even alerting the local councillor or the city's forestry and ravines departments.
Four days of cutting later, activists have a slew of questions.
"I don't understand why that particular location was chosen, given the creek has been the focus of a renaturalization," says local resident Joe Cooper, who in April helped various groups plant 300 native trees and shrubs adjacent to the creek. "The section was left just as tangled, and there were logs and other debris from the cut that hadn't been cleared."
While Rick Mason, district manager of Toronto Water, admits that his crew didn't contact other city departments before making the cut, he says it was well within their rights to do so. According to Mason, there are no formal protocols to follow when it comes to removing trees that are considered a hazard to water flow.
"When trees are in the creek and causing a potential flooding hazard," he says, "we have to go in and clear the area. But we've been following up with the forestry department, and they fully understand why we did the cut."
Mason says most of the trees growing near the creek shore were Manitoba maples that grow fast, "are difficult to manage" and tip over easily. That debris, along with other garbage, then piles into a dam that blocks the entrance of pipes where the water flows out. This could cause flooding in basements of area homes.
John Wilson, chair of the Task Force to Bring Back the Don, says he can see why the department felt it had to act. "Taylor Massey Creek is one of the worst in terms of flash floods - one minute it's a trickle, an hour later where you were standing is under water," he says.
But the issue of notification still remains, says city forester Richard Ubbens. While the water department is legally allowed to clear any obstructions to the water flow, he says it still should have consulted forestry first. Still, he adds, this was the first time such an incident has happened since amalgamation.
"There are formal processes, and obviously, in this case, something went wrong," says Ubbens. "Anybody knows that if you're doing anything to vegetation in a ravine, we're to be consulted."
The city also has a ravine bylaw that "prohibits and regulates the injury of the trees." But this doesn't apply to Taylor Massey Creek, says city spokesperson Beth McEwen, because it's categorized as a "modified ravine" - it has a lot of industrial buildings around it. "It's basically a ditch."
McEwen says other departments are not required to submit a permit if a tree is considered an imminent hazard, but she admits better guidelines are needed, instead of relying on an interdepartmental honour system.
Meanwhile, area councillor Michael Thompson is alarmed by the consultation failure. He wasn't even aware of what was going on in his own ward until he stumbled upon the cut site during a Saturday-morning drive. He's especially annoyed because he and some residents had previously discussed a community initiative to clean the area up without cutting any trees.
"If the city is going to pass bylaws to protect trees on private property," Thompson says, "one would only think that it would be prudent that the city would do the same for its own."
Says Cooper, "The irony is that there are people willing to clean up the area and ensure that the water flows properly for free," he says. "This was just water services' quick-fix solution."