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Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman is planting a seed for a citywide challenge he hopes will root one million new trees.

Today marks the official launch of the One Million Tree Challenge. The mayor’s goal is to connect corporations, community organizations and city residents in order to plant that many new saplings — in addition to the city’s replacement tree-planting program — before Winnipeg reaches the one million population milestone around 2035.

"The saying is: ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the next best time is now.’ And we benefit from the foresight of previous generations who gave us a tree canopy that now is under threat," Bowman said in an interview with the Free Press.

"We really do have a responsibility to respond and be bold with a vision that’s ambitious."

So far, Canadian National Railway has announced a $1-million donation to Trees Canada to plant thousands of shrubs as part of the City of Winnipeg’s challenge, whose framework is in the early planning stages.

Bowman said Trees Canada will accept donations from companies and individuals and then work with Winnipeg’s non-profit sector to plant trees, with help from volunteers. The challenge’s success will also rely on residents willing to buy trees from nurseries, learn how to plant them, and break ground in their own backyards.

The mayor envisions the city will create a website where individuals can enter data about a newly planted tree, including its location and species, so it can track the total count.

Species that are under severe threat in Winnipeg, elm and ash, account for as much as 60 per cent of the city’s tree cover.

The city has been battling Dutch elm disease, a fungus spread by elm bark beetles, since 1975. The fight was expanded in 2017 by the invasive emerald ash borer, which is expected to wipe out Winnipeg’s ash population (about 356,000 trees) over the next two decades.

The forestry department has injected trees with insecticide to lengthen their life spans, as well as removed trees and planted other species in their place, but it cannot keep up due to limited funding.

Last year, the city only replaced 2,500 of the 6,000 trees removed from boulevards, parks and natural areas.

The realization Winnipeg will lose its trademark tree tunnels is what prompted Bowman, a Charleswood resident, to announce the challenge. "You look down your street and imagine: one-third of the trees are there. That’s not a community people want to live in," he said.

The target is also an idea that has been top of mind for the mayor as climate change becomes an increasingly popular kitchen-table topic at the Bowman residence. A move he acknowledges is minor in addressing climate change, one million new trees will capture carbon dioxide, help with storm-water management and provide shade.

"This initiative really is a recognition on my part that (the city is) not doing enough and we can’t do it alone," Bowman said. "I think Winnipeggers are looking for ways in which they can be part of the solution and do something positive and constructive, and this will be one of many things that people can do to help."

Both the challenge and initial investment from CN is welcome news to Martha Barwinsky, a forester who has been front and centre in the fight against invasive species.

"We’re certainly not replacing one for one," Barwinsky said about the city’s replanting work. "A program like this, it’s exciting. We’re certainly looking forward to it. It’s a great opportunity to help our urban forest as a whole."

She said Tuesday the city has been working on increasing its tree canopy diversity since 2007. The trees planted under the challenge will be of the "hearty Prairie stock" variety, she added.

Disease-tolerant American and Japanese elms, and varieties of maple, honey locust, hackberry, oak, Ohio buckeye, lindens and alders are among the options.

"The more trees, the better — as long as we’re planting the right kind in the right places," said Richard Westwood, chair of the University of Winnipeg’s environmental studies department. "Just because you plant a million trees, doesn’t mean a million trees are going to survive."

Westwood said the mortality rate of young trees can be high if how-to instructions aren’t clear, especially considering trees planted in urban areas already face damaging pollution levels and risk losing limbs due to climbers and passersby picking at them.

The day after the provincial election, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister hinted to reporters tree-planting is also on his agenda. Pallister told reporters this month he wanted to see more trees planted along the Trans-Canada Highway, singling out a strip west of Winnipeg near St. Francis Xavier, where shelter belts can help increase visibility in the winter.

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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