Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Big Brother silences chainsaw

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VANCOUVER -- Out here at the Canadian end of the Pacific Ocean, people embrace nature in such a robustly devoted way, most of the national population finds it hard to understand.

Except for the rainiest of days, or the very occasional short-lived snowfall, shorts and flip-flops are a normal part of the West Coast dress code. Days are defined by skiing on the local mountains in the morning, tennis in the afternoon and drinking wine outdoors in the evening.

The city's gorgeous parks are a photographer's dream, and getting outside to share in the staggeringly abundant beauty is an almost-official mantra.

This mantra is especially understood by the civic government, which aims to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world in the next six years. An element of that ambitious plan would see 150,000 additional trees planted on street boulevards and in local parks between 2010 and 2020.

It is hard to argue against the "greenest city" plan since trees are pretty, help mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon, provide shade, soften the urban landscape, lessen stormwater runoff and are beneficial to birds and bees.

But the elected patrons at city hall may have allowed their green-fringed zealotry, which many citizens accept in principle, to overstep its reach with their recent unanimous amending of a bylaw that used to allow homeowners to cut down one healthy tree a year on their own property.

Now if a tree is diseased, under power lines, blocking construction or interfering with sewers, a homeowner will have to hire a registered arborist to prepare a report and a site plan as part of the expensive tree-removal application process. And for the most part, those wanting to whack a healthy tree are pretty well out of luck. Fines of up to $10,000 could be levied.

Call it George Orwell silences the chainsaw.

That's certainly the sentiment of folks who believe they should be able to do whatever they want, besides committing murder or other similarly heinous crimes, in their own garden.

One Vancouver columnist, under the headline It's my tree and I'll chop it if I want to, asked Vancouver park board general manager Malcolm Bromley why the city felt it necessary to trespass on private property. "My yard. My trees. Mind your own business," she wrote.

In defence of the amended bylaw, Bromley has noted more than 23,000 trees have been removed mostly from private property since 1996, which has resulted in the city's forest canopy dropping to 18 per cent today from almost 23 per cent. A city report notes that as the canopy declines, so do the benefits to residents.

Currently, the city's urban forest consists of about 440,000 street and park trees. There are an unknown number of trees on private land. Street trees make up 11 per cent of the city's forest canopy, park trees represent an additional 27 per cent and trees on private property account for 62 per cent.

There is no denying Vancouver's urban forest -- both on civic and private property -- is a lovely, calming sight. But in our diverse society it is also true not everyone loves, or even likes, trees. Their roots crack concrete sidewalks, rotten limbs come crashing down, their leaves fall and fall and fall, and tree sap can damage automobile paint. My elderly neighbour hates our boulevard trees with a passion.

In considering the pros and cons of promoting an increasingly dense urban forest, city hall has ruled trees are more important than protecting the concept of private-property rights.

That decision has been applauded by a different columnist who noted city council was right to stop the "chainsaw massacres of healthy trees" undertaken so people could get a better view or build a bigger house.

I suppose he's right, but many people are genuinely concerned about the possible continued incursion -- even for the best of reasons -- of the state into our lives. Heritage rules, design rules and tree rules are all now the norm.

In my younger years, I was both a logger and a tree planter. As a homeowner, I have both admired my trees and taken some out when they just didn't complement the garden oasis I was attempting to create. One afternoon a couple of decades ago a neighbour and I ripped out about 10 medium-sized prickly holly trees. The yard immediately looked a lot friendlier and brighter.

Now my partner and I have downsized, we live in a duplex and the only tree we own is really a sad specimen of a shrub trying to survive in a smallish planter box that would look much better sporting tulips.

All that is to say I'm pretty sure my personal tree-free zone means the new civic amendment won't involve me.

But those who try and sneak a fast one on city hall and end up with an illegal stump in their own backyard, the one they have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for, could have to deal with the judgmental and ever-watching Vancouver chapter of Orwell's Big Brother.


Chris Rose is a Vancouver writer and the Winnipeg Free Press West Coast correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 1, 2014 0

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