You may not have noticed, given the decided lack of press coverage, but on May 10 the State of the Urban Forest Report was finally released by the city of Winnipeg. It’s a kind of forest health "report card," step one in the development of the city’s 20-year Urban Forestry Strategy.
And just like your kid’s report card, this one can sometimes be a little bit difficult to interpret. So let me walk you through it, to illustrate why an A+ in one subject doesn’t necessarily mean you pass the grade.
The first A+ goes to the report itself, which is blessedly short and amazingly concise, compared to other recently released city documents. And it’s clear as a bell on one key message: city trees are valuable natural assets and should be included as essential infrastructure in city asset management plans. Two gold stars for that.
I’d also give the report a gold star for assigning a dollar value to the services and benefits our trees provide. When you add up just three of the services calculated — pollution capture, carbon storage and reduced energy costs via heat mitigation — you wind up with a grand total of more than $6 billion in tree benefits.
Great news? Well, it is, until you consider what is not clearly indicated in the report: that almost 50 per cent of that $6 billion is based on the services provided by our mature elm and ash canopy.
And therein lies the rub. Over the next 10 to 20 years we may lose most, if not all, of those mature trees, thanks to the threats posed by Dutch elm disease, emerald ash borer and cottony psyllid, as well other factors including climate change, an aging tree population and — yes, you guessed it — inadequate urban forestry budgets.
So, given the current threats, how do we measure up against other metropolitan centres that all face the same, or similar, problems?
In terms of tree canopy cover, Winnipeg beats all other western cities, hands down, at 17 per cent. But before you celebrate, consider this: cities in the U.S. and around the world are now aiming for canopy cover targets of 30 to 50 per cent to ensure climate resilience and maximize tree benefits. Toronto’s canopy cover is already at 28 per cent, and the city plans to hit 40 per cent by 2050.
On the financial front, our budget may look bigger than other western cities’, but that’s not much of an accomplishment given that our tree canopy is around double the size.
What’s more telling is what we spend per tree. Compared to Toronto, which is also fighting Dutch elm disease, we shell out just $34 per public tree, while Toronto spends a whopping $57. And if you take out the costs associated with DED management, we spend just $15 per tree. Calgary spends double that.
But the failing grades really mount up when you compare Winnipeg’s record on basic tree maintenance, such as pruning, tree removals and replacements. On the pruning front — something that’s essential to maintain tree health — almost every other city listed in the report is on a five-to-seven-year pruning cycle. We prune our trees every 31 years.
Finally, and perhaps not surprisingly, when compared to Toronto, we have half the tree density per hectare and even less than that at street level. The report also notes that tree loss in Winnipeg was observed six times more frequently than tree gains.
Which brings me to the most puzzling statistic in the report: according to the authors, Winnipeg has experienced only a one per cent loss in tree canopy cover since 2005, dropping from 18 per cent to 17 per cent.
I live in central Winnipeg, and based on my observations and those of my colleagues in Trees Please Winnipeg, the loss of mature trees in neighborhoods from Elmwood and Riverview to the West End has been a lot higher than one per cent. And it’s mature trees that really count when it comes to delivering maximum services and benefits.
So why is there no statistical breakdown of mature canopy loss in the report?
That omission leads me to my final point. While the State of the Urban Forest Report is excellent in many respects, providing us with new and essential data, it fails, in my opinion, on one key front: a seemingly steadfast refusal to connect the dots, provide essential comparisons and break down key statistics to give us a clear picture of the urgent threats facing our mature urban forest.
Perhaps those connections will be more clearly laid out in the upcoming 20-year Urban Forestry Strategy. I certainly hope so, because the sooner the general public is clearly informed about the urban forest crisis and city councillors have the indisputable evidence needed to act swiftly to adequately fund the maintenance, protection and expansion of our public canopy, the better.
Erna Buffie is interim chair of Trees Please Winnipeg, a coalition of resident and community groups lobbying for sustainable infrastructure funding for urban forests. Check out their website at treespleasewinnipeg.com.