The city is officially asking for financial help following December’s ice storm, but the damage to the city’s trees goes far beyond dollars and cents.
At the edge of Mount Pleasant Cemetery last week, gnarled tree limbs lay strewn across gravestones in a twisted topiary that looked like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe story. Arborist Ian Bruce sighed as he brushed away ice from a broken branch covered in tawny-coloured pods resembling snow peas. “This is Sophora japonica,” he said. “This is a tragic loss. It would be one of the biggest specimens of [Japanese pagoda tree] in the city. It’s these kinds of things that are major losses—it’s going to take years to replace them.”
As we wove around Chorley Park near the Brick Works, it looked like a tank battalion had driven through. Brush was piled along the roadside—trees reduced to little more than kindling. In addition to claiming some of the rarer, prized specimens of the Mount Pleasant arboretum, the ice storm had the most dramatic effect on structurally compromised trees and those not suited to carrying the weight of snow and ice.
One of the hardest hit was the Siberian elm, a “weak-wooded and storm-prone” species better suited to being maintained as driveway hedges, rather than the 50-foot-tall giants lining busy streets and tangling with hydro lines throughout parts of Scarborough. While the storm culled some of the pesky and invasive Norway maples, it was also severe enough to decimate native trees that were healthy, save for structural anomalies.
The storm was a freak weather system, one that caught the city off guard. But Bruce says that the economic devastation could have been lessened by preventative tree care. He stressed the importance of regularly scheduled maintenance done by somebody who knows what they’re doing. Attention to pruning in the formative three to five years after planting can prevent expensive fixes (or removals) later. Trees, while prized for their property-enhancing value, are too often overlooked as mere decoration. He says people need to realize that “like animals, or like any living thing, there are genetically programmed life expectancies. So you’ve got to start planting young trees to take over. You can’t expect these big ones to stand here forever.”
It’s not just the physical destruction of Toronto’s trees that are a concern, either. Janet McKay, Executive Director of LEAF (Local Enhancement and Appreciation of Forests) noted that Toronto’s urban forest has “a huge impact…. the equivalent of at least $28.2 million in total ecological services each year. This includes air quality, carbon sequestration, energy conservation, and storm-water reductions.” The psychic impact of trees is considerable; a walk in a tree-lined park is “equal to peak effects of two typical medications” for children with ADHD, according to a University of Illinois study. The Sustainable Cities Institute says trees can also improve road safety by providing a physical buffer between vehicles and pedestrians, while tree planting can be “a valuable tool for reclaiming derelict land within cities.”
The ice storm isn’t the only assault on our trees. “We’ve been hit by the Asian longhorn beetle, the emerald ash borer, Dutch elm disease,” said Bruce. “It’s like another war that comes in and hits the urban forest.” The city’s forestry budget is subject to competing factors like new planting and evaluating the existing canopy, but it’s stretched even further by the large-scale removal required in the wake of a natural disasters. For a city dealing with an ice storm whose clean-up costs exceed $100 million, baby-tree pruning and cabling reinforcements may seem like too little too late.
But Bruce thinks this could be an opportunity—for education, removing derelicts, re-planting, and planning for the future. As cars whizzed past on Yonge Street, he squinted into his rear-view mirror to look back at the ravaged cemetery. “Someone just contacted me and said, ‘You’re in the tree business—what do you think about nature after this?’ I said, ‘You know what? I take heart in the fact that nature is still in control.’”
ICE-STORM TREE DAMAGE: BY THE NUMBERS
10.2 million: Estimated number of trees in Toronto, pre-storm.
$7 billion: Estimated value of Toronto’s trees.
20%: Estimated percentage of the city’s urban canopy lost in the storm.
$75 million: Estimated cost of tree debris removal.
131: Number of crews working to remove tree debris, as of Jan. 10.
13: Number of new arborist jobs posted on the City of Toronto website after the storm.