Lake Country council was recently deliberating over a property rezoning application to allow for a 40-lot subdivision on a vacant forested lot.
While council was generally in favour of the proposal, debate shifted from the project itself to its potential impact on the natural forest.
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The discussion led the council to make a commitment to develop a tree retention policy, a move that is applauded by Tree Canada president Michael Rosen.
Rosen feels it’s a discussion and policy planning shift that all municipal councils across the Okanagan need to embrace in order to curb the growing loss of urban forests, a Canada-wide phenomenon.
“It’s always a better option to retain existing growth in the face of development rather than bulldozing a site and trying to grow new trees, which tend to have a lower success rate,” Rosen said.
Rosen, a professional forester, has been president of Tree Canada for the last decade and worked for the organization over the last 15 years.
He says Tree Canada has organized the planting of about 82 million trees in communities across Canada since 1992, but that is a drop in the bucket nation-wide next to the urban forest growth sacrificed for other land use purposes.
“Our goal is really to awaken the important role that trees play in our communities and everything we do is geared towards that,” Rosen said.
While it is cheaper and less complicated to level existing vegetation on a subdivision site for building, Rosen argues the loss to the community is distressing.
“Having trees in a neighbourhood is beneficial to the people living in that neighbourhood, but it is also better for the community at large,” he said.
While developers often prefer to avoid dealing with preserving trees because of added cost and construction complications, he says the responsibility for embracing techniques to help reduce that loss ultimately rests with municipal councils.
In the case of the Lake Country development, one option council is considering is to expand the lot sizes to reduce the impact on the forest, but that will likely raise issues for the developer about rising construction costs against reduced potential revenue.
But the concept of smart growth, he says, is trying to find compromises between addressing growing population needs but not at the widespread expense of displacing nature.
Rosen says the benefits of established urban forest cover are numerous—one mature tree recycles up to 100 gallons of water daily, reduces soil erosion, offers benefits of natural shade reducing demands on air conditioning in summer and heat in the winter, mitigates potential flood damage, absorbs noxious gases in the air such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, leaves and needles physically block movement of particulate matter causing pollution moving through the air, generates oxygen and contributes to a better quality of life.
He cites a groundbreaking study done years ago in Chicago, comparing two housing projects, one with tree growth and one without. The study found those living in the treed area recorded fewer incidents of domestic violence, incidents of graffiti and fewer cases of attention deficit disorder.
“The irony is that people generally over the last 20 years have become more conscious of and want to live in a greener environment by embracing things like composting and recycling, but in that same time the actual tree cover existing in municipalities has been slipping.
‘That is certainly the case in larger cities like Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Calgary.”
Rosen also acknowledged the fire hazard in the Okanagan caused by old growth forest, and the commitment required to space and prune trees, clean up underbrush ground fuels and replanting with hardwood species less susceptible to burning compared to conifer species.
“I see the reasoning there but it’s a poor argument to not save a tree. We are capable to managing a forest canopy to reduce the fire hazard. Nature is not totally unmanageable. It can be influenced sometimes to do what we want it to do,” he said.