A "perfect storm" of environmental dangers has prompted a coalition of Winnipeg residents to push city hall to reduce spending on roads in order to protect its trees.
Chronic underfunding of tree pruning and maintenance in the city's elm- and ash-dominated urban forest has led to an urgent need to invest in trees, says the group of more than a dozen neighbourhood associations and community organizations.
The group is informally known as Trees Please, and it's lobbying for a minimum $7.6-million increase to the City of Winnipeg's urban forestry budget — a request it acknowledges feels akin to fighting over funding scraps when so many crucial municipal services appear to be on the chopping block.
"We know that 'hard choices' means budget decisions that may not be politically popular. That is why we, as citizens of Winnipeg, are giving you permission to spend money differently. Roads can wait a little longer; our public trees cannot." – Letter from Trees Please to Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman
In a letter sent to Mayor Brian Bowman and councillors last week, the group asks the city to make up the $7.6-million shortfall in last year's urban forestry budget. It also proposes increasing the roads budget by slightly less than what's been projected (23 per cent, rather than 28 per cent).
"We know that 'hard choices' means budget decisions that may not be politically popular. That is why we, as citizens of Winnipeg, are giving you permission to spend money differently. Roads can wait a little longer; our public trees cannot," the letter states.
If the city had previously invested in tree maintenance and followed a seven-year standard for pruning trees — instead of its current 26-year pruning cycle — last month's snowstorm likely wouldn't have caused so much damage, the group says.
Coalition spokeswoman Lisa Forbes from the Glenelm Neighbourhood Association said it's a sign of solidarity so many groups decided to come together to express their concern about the tree canopy, which has been ravaged by Dutch elm disease, the emerald ash borer and the cottony ash psyllid, on top of an unprecented October snowstorm that took down thousands of trees.
"What we're saying is you have to do something substantial now, and the way to do that is through budget decisions. And you have to make hard decisions, absolutely, and think of future generations." – Ron Mazur, of Outdoor Urban Recreational Spaces (OURS) Winnipeg
"I think it's because people really recognize that it is a disaster. And I'm not talking about the huge snowstorm that we had. It's a perfect storm of three separate insect infestations that are going to take away 30 to 40 per cent of our trees within the next 10 years," she said.
Roads are important, Forbes said, but trees are valuable infrastructure in the city, too.
"Trees can't wait. We can make the decision that we're not going to invest in them, and then... they're gone. So there is no waiting."
The city is in the midst of a multi-year planning process for its future budgets, which has stoked fears about potential cuts to policing, transit, libraries and public pools. The public works department, which oversees urban forestry, is trying to work within a proposed 1.5 per cent increase this year.
"Investing in Winnipeg’s tree canopy is a priority. The October snow storm, with its devastating impacts on the city’s trees, has highlighted this important issue. Tree planting, removal of diseased trees, and continuing to monitor the spread of disease are all integral to the health of the city’s urban forest," the mayor's office wrote in an emailed response to the coalition's letter.
Ron Mazur, of Outdoor Urban Recreational Spaces (OURS) Winnipeg, is part of the coalition. OURS Winnipeg has started a website (saveourcanopy.com) encouraging residents to email mayor and council before and after a Nov. 27 hearing, during which a city committee will hear presentations on the matter.
"What we're saying is you have to do something substantial now, and the way to do that is through budget decisions. And you have to make hard decisions, absolutely, and think of future generations," Mazur said.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
Updated on Thursday, November 21, 2019 at 7:57 PM CST: Adds pdf of letter
November 22, 2019 at 1:53 PM: updates pdf with added signatures