A 20-year strategy to protect Winnipeg’s urban forest could extend heritage protections to significant trees and spark new rules to preserve others, while also setting a target to expand the overall canopy.
A draft of the city’s first urban forest strategy contains a lengthy list of actions to protect trees as "natural assets," which the city is now asking Winnipeggers to weigh in on.
It recommends a new bylaw, which could add unspecified fines for those who damage or remove protected trees on both private property and natural areas.
"The whole idea is to recognize the urban forest and trees as assets… Like a historic building or other infrastructure, trees fall into something that is valued, definitely, and also (are) identified as an asset that needs to be protected and maintained," said Martha Barwinsky, Winnipeg’s city forester.
The report also sets clear targets for tree protection, including a goal to expand the canopy to cover 24 per cent of the city, up from 17 per cent, by 2065.
While Winnipeg’s urban forest currently contains more than three million trees, many are at risk due to pests and disease, as well as severe weather events that are growing more common with climate change, Barwinsky notes. Winnipeg is now at risk of losing about half of its public trees due to invasive pests over the next 40 years, according to the report. Between 2016 and 2020, 33,000 American elms in Winnipeg died due to Dutch elm disease.
Currently, the city lacks the authority to fully protect its canopy since just 300,000 local trees are publicly owned within city streets and parks, with the rest in natural areas and on private land.
"With a majority of Winnipeg’s tree canopy believed to occur on private land, the absence of a tree bylaw (or equivalent) to help manage and maintain (the) tree canopy is a critical barrier to preserving urban forest values in the face of forest health and climate challenges," the strategy states.
The document suggests a tree bylaw could be linked to enforcement and fines that help control tree protection and replacement on private land.
The report’s many proposed changes are paired with a list of key goals, such as ensuring one public tree is planted for each one that is removed and no more than 1.5 per cent of public trees are lost each year.
“The whole idea is to recognize the urban forest and trees as assets… Like a historic building or other infrastructure, trees fall into something that is valued, definitely, and also (are) identified as an asset that needs to be protected and maintained.” – Martha Barwinsky
In 2019 and 2020, less than one in three removed trees was replaced, leaving the city thousands short each year.
The report also recommends that the city ramp up its public tree pruning cycle to once every seven years for street trees and once every 12 years for park trees, which would vastly increase that maintenance from once every 31 years.
The strategy suggests the city also consider buying land to preserve heavily treed areas and consider tax rebates or grants to entice the protection of trees on private property.
Barwinsky said none of the actions listed have been costed out yet, since public feedback is still needed to help shape the final strategy. But she did note implementing some actions, such as increased tree pruning, will directly depend on how much funding council is willing to provide.
"It is a matter of resources. There’s a lot of services that are competing for the same dollars out of the collective money. It really comes down to that," she said.
The report does make a case for how trees can benefit the economy and human health, if maintained. It estimates the local urban forest stores more than 500,000 tonnes of carbon, removes 270 tonnes of pollutants each year and provides shade that can reduce air-conditioning costs.
“We definitely need to be thinking about that and how to get some tree cover so that (lower income Winnipeggers) aren’t experiencing the heat waves (to a greater degree) than others.” – Coun. Sherri Rollins
Coun. Sherri Rollins said she believes tree protection is a key budget priority, though cost and public feedback will help determine which actions are implemented.
The strategy notes some neighbourhoods with higher poverty levels have fewer trees for shade and experience higher temperatures, which Rollins said should be addressed as an equity concern.
"We definitely need to be thinking about that and how to get some tree cover so that (lower income Winnipeggers) aren’t experiencing the heat waves (to a greater degree) than others," said Rollins, the chairwoman of council’s protection, community services and parks committee.
She expects a tree bylaw is also needed to better protect the existing canopy and supports the idea of considering heritage protections to prevent historic trees from being cut down.
"It goes without saying that if you have a historical park, a historical building… the tree canopy around it is… considered as historical, too," said Rollins.
The city is now collecting public feedback on the strategy, with details at winnipeg.ca/urbanforest
Barwinsky expects the final strategy will be released in November.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.