Tree controversies leave questions unanswered

This marks the return of environmental columnist Roy Strang to the Peace Arch News, where he will write monthly, alternating with Anne Murray’s By the Bay column.

This marks the return of environmental columnist Roy Strang to the Peace Arch News, where he will write monthly, alternating with Anne Murray’s By the Bay column.

Trees and forests have been much in the news lately, notably here in White Rock and at Slave Lake, but there are other news items also.

How many know that the UN has designated 2011 as ‘The Year of the Forest?’

From that there is such trivia as the tallest known tree is a 125-metre coast redwood, or the oldest is a 5,000-year-old bristlecone pine, both in California; approximately half of Canada, 400 million hectares, is forested, making up 10 per cent of the world’s forest cover home to 80 per cent of our terrestrial biodiversity.

Locally, and more immediately, a tree controversy pits those who appreciate trees for their manifold environmental attributes against others who value views of Semiahmoo Bay.

Willy-nilly, White Rock city council has been drawn into this dispute, essentially a struggle between community values and individual interests.

Its 2008 Environmental Strategic Plan values tree cover and seeks to conserve healthy trees on public and private property increasing the extent of tree canopy. The 2010 Strategic Water Management Plan recognises that “increasing the amount of tree cover benefits our storm-water management in terms of both volume and quality.” And the 2010 Tree Bylaw recognizes the environmental function of trees, especially as nesting sites.

In contrast, there seems now to be a sentiment favouring a policy which allows tree removal on an individual whim.

The difference is more social than environmental.

This most-against-one type of dispute has diverted attention away from the more technical question of which trees are best suited to our particular urban setting.

Not long ago, the Semiahmoo Peninsula was covered by forest and conditions here dictate that Douglas-fir and western red cedar trees will easily grow to 100 m. Are they right for gardens?

Topping them to reduce height growth is probably the worst possible treatment; thinning the branches may go some small way to mitigating their obstruction of views. Replacing them with other native species – dogwood, wild cherry, vine maple – which will not grow nearly so tall, or perhaps exotics, will maintain a good measure of greenery and obviate much of the problem.

While one can only weep with the unfortunate victims of the Slave Lake fire or the Kelowna residents who were burned out in 2003, questions need to be raised and answered.

What fuel management was practised at the forest/urban interface: thinning tree stands, pruning, controlled early burning to consume fine fuels? Who should be responsible for such activities? Do planning and permit authorities insist that developers and builders to use only low-flammability materials and install roof sprinklers in potentially vulnerable sites?

While fire station crews are well-versed and experienced in dealing with structure fires, do they have adequate training in fighting forest wild fires?

Are purchasers of homes in housing developments at the interface fully advised of their risks and what precautions they should take?

We are fortunate the forests on our doorsteps are not fire-prone, though they could burn if conditions were suitable, but the Ponderosa pine/bunchgrass forests of the southern interior have a history of regular lightning-caused fires (one data set indicates a 20-year average fire interval) which is augmented by fires caused by people’s carelessness or arson, and more northerly pine forests, too, are flammable.

Several years ago, I was dismayed to see a new mobile-home park set amongst pines with no provisions to reduce fire hazard or to provide more than one single access road.

What planning authority allowed such folly?

We cannot control natural events, but we can take steps to reduce the likelihood of their happening and minimize the damage they cause.

Dr. Roy Strang writes monthly on the environment for the Peace Arch News.


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