West Vancouver is part of an amazing coastal temperate rainforest that nourishes and interconnects a complex series of ecosystems — the forested mountains, streams, creeks, intertidal regions and oceans. People flock to this spectacular urban area that is nestled in the midst of a wonderful sky-to-sea continuum. It is clearly time to understand what we have — our jewel of West Vancouver — toward protecting what we love. I’m speaking of the trees, those beautiful giants, many of which evolved some 300 million years ago, and are the very reason that life on earth was able to flourish.
WV District mayor and council are in the process of revising the District’s interim bylaws that concern the protection of trees, including those on private properties. After years in the wait, they recommend replacing the present interim bylaw (protection for trees of 75-cm diameter and greater), with an equally inadequate and politicized one (35-cm diameter), and artfully pair this with the allowable harvesting of trees above the set limit, either triennially or annually, provided that a replacement sapling is planted.
Clearly this is unsustainable within the context of the biology of trees, and presents an ethical haze in place of what we desperately need, which is urgent action and leadership so that protection is afforded to more than just the oldest trees, and a fresh lens is imprinted to envision future generations who will inherit the landscape.
It is hard to believe that 11 years have elapsed since tree protection bylaws were first on the slate of the WV District Council in June 2008 as an outcome of the Clovelly-Caulfeild Neighbourhood Planning Process report. Eleven years is a long time that was witness to countless trees being destroyed, and poignantly it is equal to the amount of time that leading UN scientists have recently predicted that we have to address the global crisis of climate change so that we can ensure that our youth and future generations will have access to clean air and water, and to healthy food.
This level of urgency requires immediate and fundamental changes in the way that we conduct our lives. And while conservation in general, and of trees in particular, is partly a personal choice, it must be backed by policies — and those policies need to be solidly based on rigorous science. Why are trees so important in relation to the present crisis that we find ourselves in?
First we need to realize that the ongoing flurry of clear cutting and habitat destruction on the North Shore to accommodate new homes and highways is in itself a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions. Not only does this directly contribute to climate change, but this whole-scale removal of trees causes ecological degradation, local extirpation of species, and losses of biodiversity. The science behind preserving trees is vast and irrefutable: along with kelps and seagrasses, trees, especially the older ones, are powerful mitigators of climate change because they sequester carbon. They use carbon dioxide during photosynthesis to make larger carbon skeletons (sugars or photosynthate) that support their growth.
Trees provide essential habitat for the wildlife and birds that we enjoy, and protect biodiversity. Further, trees — by offsetting climate change, reducing run-off, and enhancing water conservation, flow and quality — improve the sustainability of our food systems. Within our coastal community, trees also maintain the general health and vitality of our air, oceans and coastlines partly by reducing agricultural wastes (pesticides and herbicides) in our rivers, streams and oceans, and by cleaning the air by removal of pollutants, aerosols, and noxious gases.
The scientific evidence is not just compelling, it is irrefutable. These so-called “ecological services” provided by trees are especially important to offsetting costs to municipalities; by saving trees we are in fact spared millions of dollars associated with flooding and wind damage to homes, excessive temperatures, noise pollution, wildlife relocation, and so on. Let’s face it, part of the challenges in the not-too-distant future will be associated with the potentially astronomical costs of climate change, and its numerous secondary effects such as sea-level rise.
Incidentally, youth seem to realize the benefits of trees more readily than do adults as exemplified by a grade 9 student who took a few minutes to create a beautiful drawing of a tree and to come up with multiple “services” provided to us by trees; when asked conversely what we do for trees, he took over 10 minutes to come up with “nothing” and “cutting”.
Land and water stewardship requires us to think ahead — some say at least six generations — and we need to fully understand that economic stability relies upon ecological vitality; when trees of the urban environment are removed, the cumulative stresses on our interconnected ecosystems threaten the many plants and animals whose health and well-being is intimately connected to our own quality of life.
We need to be guided by new values which place ecosystem vitality at the forefront, and embrace the exciting possibilities for innovation so that habitat is not destroyed each time a house is built; sensitive ecosystems are not put at risk; and vital trees are protected. The science needs to be listened to in order to understand what is at stake by not protecting the trees of our urban environments, with education including the rationale behind a stricter and scientifically supported bylaw to afford adequate protection to trees (e.g. those of 20-cm diameter and greater – Vancouver’s present bylaw), why the present rate of tree loss is unsustainable, and how clear-cutting evokes devastating effects on wildlife habitat.
We also need to visit sites on the North Shore such as WV’s Brother’s Creek Ancient Cedar Grove where some of the trees are over 2,000 years old to experience their majesty, power, and history, and to learn about the fascinating biology of trees including their ability to communicate via complex, symbiotic networks that mimic our own neural and social networks — the research of Dr. Suzanne Simard of UBC.
Our homes and properties are more valuable when trees are retained; but while the financial aspects may “speak” to some people, it is critical in this new era that we begin to develop a genuine connection to nature and an understanding of its infinite inherent value. This environmental “ethic” would serve as the basis for a different lens and a different way of living — one that ensures that the basic rights of our youth and future generations will be met.
Allison Kermode is a Professor Emerita, Plant Cell Biology & Physiology, at SFU.