In a city that treasures its lush summer canopy, the loss of 33,000 elm trees since 2016 has been a serious blow.
In neighbourhoods such as Wolseley, the West End and Glenelm, these towering icons are being felled by disease.
To put it in perspective, if each block had 10 elms, that would amount to 3,300 blocks being stripped of their foliage because of the city’s losing battle against Dutch elm disease.
"They really are the equalizers of our communities: shade, air conditioning, just a place of comfort and protection in the Prairies," said Gerry Engel, an arborist and president of Trees Winnipeg.
The group, which considers itself the voice of Winnipeg’s trees, has launched a campaign to renew the effort to save Winnipeg’s rapidly dropping American elm population. The huge loss in trees since 2016 has made Trees Winnipeg, which began as a coalition to save Winnipeg’s elms, return to its roots.
"The last five years have been devastating on our elm population, and it’s such a significant part of our city, when you consider its history to the communities," Engel said.
'(Trees are) just not valued the same way something that's human-built is valued. And I feel like that's a missed opportunity'‐ Glenelm resident Mellanie Lawrenz
The year-long campaign will include information on elm maintenance and halting the spread of Dutch elm disease.
For starters, the city’s forestry urban forestry branch is woefully underfunded, Engel said.
Recent additional funding from the city, beginning in 2018, to clear the backlog of diseased trees marked for removal, will come to an end this year.
The group worries the city will return to a backlog as soon as the funding ends.
"If the budget goes back to where it was, status quo before emergency funding, this is going to explode on us," he said.
The 2020-23 budget included an additional average of $4.6 million a year from 2018-2021 to address the backlog of diseased trees that need to be removed.
The operating budget provides the city with resources to remove 3,500 diseased trees a year. In 2020, 8,000 diseased trees were tagged for removal.
"We did catch up on the backlog as of 2020. We eliminated (it), so now we’re back on schedule with our Dutch elm disease removal," city forester Martha Barwinsky said.
Despite this, the number of trees that must be removed remains high, and the contagious nature of the disease meant having a backlog in the first place had destructive effects on Winnipeg’s elm population.
"We certainly don’t want to be in a position where we need emergency funding, that’s for sure, and we’re still really feeling the impacts of that backlog," she said.
The city doesn’t know how long it would take for the number of diseased trees in Winnipeg to start coming down at a significant number, Barwinsky said, but added she was "hopeful" and believed Trees Winnipeg’s 2021 campaign will be "an important part in managing the disease."
The elm population is mature, she said, and as the city grows and becomes more urbanized, growing trees becomes more complicated. The city has partnered with the University of Winnipeg’s centre for forest interdisciplinary research to develop a program to prioritize removal of diseased trees that host most of the elm bark beetles that spread Dutch elm disease.
"I don’t want people to give up," she said.
Before Glenelm resident Mellanie Lawrenz moved to the neighbourhood in 2003, she drove in the area with a real estate agent.
"I remember driving down Noble Avenue with all those lovely shaded trees, and turning to my real estate agent and saying, ‘You could sell me a shoebox on this street, and I would move here.’ It was just so welcoming, and peaceful, and calm," she said.
"I think you really lose that place when you lose those giant old trees."
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In 2020, the neighbourhood, bordered by Henderson Highway, the Red River, the Disraeli Freeway and Harbison Avenue, lost about 100 elms to the disease.
The Glenelm Neighbourhood Association tree committee estimates that should trees continue to die of the disease at the current rate, the neighbourhood could have no American elms in just 11 years.
Lawrenz has lobbied for increased funding to the city’s urban forestry budget with "some success," but said more work needs to be done.
"There’s something called ‘plant blindness,’ that I wonder if maybe council’s not coming up against a little bit — it’s when you tend to take natural infrastructure like trees and grass for granted," she said. "They’re just not valued the same way something that’s human-built is valued. And I feel like that’s a missed opportunity."
Malak Abas Reporter
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.