The City of Winnipeg issued a startling, if not entirely surprising, report this week that says Winnipeg could eventually lose its entire elm-tree canopy, partly because of the spread of Dutch elm disease, but also because many of the trees have reached maturity and are more than 100 years old.
It's not the first time urban foresters have warned that Winnipeg is at risk of losing one of its most precious resources. Most residents may take it for granted, but the city's green roof is made up of the largest inventory of Americans elms anywhere in North America.
It wasn't always that way. In the 19th century, the Prairies, including the Red River Valley, were largely treeless, but that changed with a set of decisions at the beginning of the 20th century to plant American elms, some of which are still standing today. Of the roughly 140,000 elms in Winnipeg today, about 60,000 are classified as mature.
The grand elms are appreciated, of course, but the effort to protect and replace them has not been equal to their overall importance to the community and its identity.
Their value is not merely in the obvious qualities of beauty and shade.
Prof. Erik Jorgenson, known as the father of Canadian urban forestry, underlined the full importance of Winnipeg's trees in a publication more than 40 years ago:
"This unique forest," he said, "modifies our harsh climate, reduces harmful ultraviolet light levels, provides shade, cleanses, conditions and oxygenates the air we breathe, reduces human stress, augments settings where we can relax, and provides a stimulating interaction with wildlife."
It was only a few years after Mr. Jorgenson's report that Dutch elm disease made its appearance in Winnipeg, but the community has responded too weakly over the years and the scourge is now causing a loss rate of two per cent of trees a year.
A city report is recommending several measures to protect the urban forest, including the spending of an additional $7.4 million annually to be cost-shared with the province.
Given their enormous importance and the catastrophe that a treeless skyline would represent, a few extra million dollars a year seems like a pittance, particularly when weighed against what could be lost.
Let's protect and expand our forest for the sake of the city, its inhabitants and future generations. New plantings should also be increased, in addition to new varieties of trees that can complement and expand the city's green canopy.
The very identity of our community depends on it.