I’ve been reading about the city’s budget proposals with a growing sense of alarm. While I sympathize with the fiscal constraints the city faces, current budget projections seem to suggest Mayor Brian Bowman and a number of councillors are either in denial or simply don’t grasp the fact climate change is real and that its early effects are already bearing down upon us.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/11/2019 (611 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

I’ve been reading about the city’s budget proposals with a growing sense of alarm. While I sympathize with the fiscal constraints the city faces, current budget projections seem to suggest Mayor Brian Bowman and a number of councillors are either in denial or simply don’t grasp the fact climate change is real and that its early effects are already bearing down upon us.

Predictions of another spring "flood of the century," drought conditions in several Manitoba municipalities and new and mounting threats to our urban canopy all speak to a growing climate crisis.

But instead of a budget that prioritizes what is best for the city in a climate-change context, it appears to be business as usual at city hall. As evidence, consider the suggested 28 per cent increase in the capital roads budget, alongside capital cuts to those services that might actually help to offset the worst effects of climate change — public transit and urban forestry being just two such services.

So let’s take a closer look at trees. It turns out that our urban forest doesn’t just help to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Trees offset energy costs, helping to cool our houses during heat waves.

They help to defend the city against floods and river bank erosion by intercepting rain, slowing water flow and holding the soil together with their vast root systems. And because mature trees — 10 years of age and older — can absorb and store between 1,500 and 2,000 litres of water, they also help to take pressure off a city storm sewer system that’s struggling to keep up with the superstorms that are becoming more frequent in this region.

The urban forest is also a city asset whose worth has been estimated at more than $5 billion. And unlike roads, it’s an asset that actually appreciates over time.

Recent scientific evidence also suggests that healthy forests, both urban and wild, may be our most efficient, inexpensive and natural systems to combat climate change. Urban trees located in close proximity to two of the primary sources of fossil fuel emissions — gas-burning vehicles and industrial activity — turn out to be particularly effective. According to researchers in the U.K., urban trees store as much carbon per hectare as tropical rainforests.

But let’s be clear — urban forests are not the same as wild forests. They don’t just grow on their own; nor do they replant themselves. They need to be protected, maintained and replanted, and to do that we need a properly funded urban forestry department.

Yet for decades, that city department has received insufficient funds to meet its most critical goals, whether fighting disease and pests, pruning, cutting down diseased or dying trees, or replanting. The projected forestry budget of $4 million falls far short of the department’s requested $11.6 million.

Pruning, or cutting dead, diseased or excess branches from new and mature trees, is a key part of urban forest maintenance, but Winnipeg’s tree-pruning record ranks somewhere between inadequate and dismal. Best practices dictate that urban trees be pruned every seven or eight years. We prune ours, on average, once every 26 years.

Urban trees that grow in open spaces produce too many branches, and if they aren’t properly pruned and maintained, it can result in the kind of destruction we saw during the October snowstorm.

Yet when questioned about the cuts to urban forestry, and their implications, Mayor Bowman proudly points to his One Million Trees campaign, an effort designed to encourage Winnipeg businesses, non-profits and private citizens to plant more trees.

It’s a good idea, no doubt, but let’s be honest — the mayor’s campaign is no substitute for the skill, expertise and critical work that can only be done by a trained forestry department, such as the one led by Winnipeg’s chief forester, Martha Barwinsky. It is Barwinsky and her underfunded team who are fighting to save, maintain and replace the 280,000 boulevard trees we already have, and who will be on the front lines when we lose more than 30 per cent of our canopy over the next 10 years as a result of the emerald ash borer.

Yes, that’s correct. Some 350,000 ash trees, 100,000 of them on public land, will be lost over the next 10 years.

So what does Winnipeg really need? Do we need another new road leading to yet another new subdivision? Or do we need a properly funded urban forestry department?

Before answering, you might want to consider a proposal being put forward by a city-wide coalition of resident and community groups in a campaign called "Trees Please," which points out that if the city redirected just five per cent of the 28 per cent capital budget increase promised to roads — a total of $7.6 million — urban forestry’s budget would increase by almost 200 per cent.

In road terms, $7.6 million buys you just 1,500 metres of pavement. In tree terms, it buys urban forestry a running chance at actually meeting some of its goals and securing a future for our trees.

So what will it be, Mayor Bowman? A well-maintained tree canopy to bequeath to our grandchildren, or 1,500 metres of paved road? It’s up to you, and city council, to decide.

Erna Buffie is a Winnipeg film-maker and author.