No beating around this bush: it’s gone

The ice storm destroyed our tree canopy, and recovery will take years

The ice storm that grounded thousands of planes and left hundreds of thousands of Ontarians and Quebecers without power has left a gaping hole in our tree canopy. No city forestry employees, arborists or environmental activists are willing to hazard a guess at how much we’ve lost.

Toronto’s Forestry department originally stated that it was 20 per cent, but quickly denied that figure. According to Forestry Policy and Standards supervisor Brian Mercer, “There is no way to really put a number to that right now.” He says that figuring out the extent of the damage is part of the recovery efforts.

His department’s reluctance to quantify the loss, he says, is partly because it’s received conflicting reports from residents. When Forestry staff plotted service calls on a map, they thought large areas had remained untouched, but then they realized those areas were parks.

“There’s a lot of damage across the entire city,” he says. “It’s all trees indiscriminate of age, species, size or location.”

Although the city did not call a state of emergency, it estimates over $100-million price tag on cleanup, including hydro repairs. The storm claimed two lives in Newscastle and left thousands without power for days.

The city is now expecting $86.5 million in storm recovery assistance from the province. More than half of that – $48.5 million – is earmarked for Parks, Forestry and Recreation.

Mercer says Urban Forestry is committed to replacing any tree that comes down on city property.

“That doesn’t mean every tree that gets removed is going to be replaced this spring,” he says. “Maybe not next spring. Maybe it might be – who knows? – a number of years.”

The damage has left many wondering if this could have been prevented.

While $11.7 million has been cut from Parks, Forestry and Recreation over Mayor Rob Ford’s administration, $7 million of that last year alone, Mercer maintains, “We took budget cuts for sure, but I don’t think that would have impacted anything.”

Veteran arborist Philip van Wassenaer disagrees: “In Toronto like many Canadian, if not North American municipalities, urban forestry departments generally don’t have an appropriate budget to [do] what we call proactive pruning,” a systematic process that maintains healthy tree growth.

Regardless of money spent and preventive pruning undertaken, an ice storm is a rare and particularly severe event. “Mother Nature overcame the strength of the wood of the trees,” van Wassenaer says.

In terms of natural recovery, an average elm that may have lost 90 per cent of its crown in the storm will re-sprout in two years, he says.

Generally, “If a tree is properly pruned, the canopy renewal is much faster.”

Across the city, the “mighty oaks sustained almost no damage,” he says, but more mature trees “won’t grow back the parts they are missing.”

Overall, the city has many native species that are resilient in the face of extreme weather systems, but people plant non-native species privately.

While van Wassenaer’s observations on canopy loss are anecdotal, he says, “The only way to see the full extent of the damage is to take an aerial shot when the leaves are out this summer and compare that to an old photo.”

Apart from the city’s responsibility to cleanup the damage and replant what was lost, “we’re talking about the trees of Toronto (meaning it’s on private lands), not just the city of Toronto,” he says.

Approximately 60 per cent of the canopy is on private property, according to Janet McKay, executive director of Local Enhancement and Appreciation of Forests. That may be a conservative guess.

The $48 million in recovery funds is for city trees, and doesn’t include what residents spend to prune and replant or on increased electricity bills this summer.

“Three strategically placed shade trees can reduce [the need for] air conditioning by up to 40 per cent,” says McKay. Shade trees “reduce the heat island effect, because the shade prevents the hard surfaces” – like roads and buildings in the downtown core – “from heating up.”

If we think of trees as natural air conditioners, even without knowing how much canopy we’ve lost, it stands to reason that the city’s going to be a lot hotter this summer.

According to the David Suzuki Foundation, Toronto has 20 annual heat-related deaths. Some of those are related to stresses on our hydro system that was hugely affected by the storm as well. That, too, is in serious need of repair.

In a place where extreme heat can be a killer, we need all the trees we can plant.

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