Given the many services Shelbourne Street trees provided, alternatives to their removal should have been found.
LIKE EVERY MUNICIPALITY, Saanich needs bike lanes, safe sidewalks, and up-to-date utility pipes. But were any alternate ways to provide them considered before they finalized the plan to remove 116 trees on Shelbourne Street?
Large-canopied trees are so beneficial to public health and well-being that removing them should only be a last resort, after all other alternatives have been exhausted.
After the scorching heat, felt here and around the world in the past couple of years, many countries are planting trees at a rapid rate to keep citizens cool and save lives. Yet Saanich is stubbornly cutting down a total of 116 large, healthy, magnificent trees. Many, if not most, could have lived another hundred years or more.
Those trees cooled the air and cast more shade than any saplings will. In fact, saplings will not “replace” the benefits of those large, lost trees within most of our lifetimes.
Before and after images of one small section of Shelbourne Street. (After photo by Monique Genton)
Last year, the World Health Organization informed us that no level of air pollution is harmless. Even in nations that consider their air clean—like us—it is a major health issue.
When we inhale tiny particles, they can be carried from our lungs to any organ in the body, and cause potentially fatal diseases, including heart attacks and strokes.
Trees filter the air by catching particles on their leaves. They even absorb some noxious gases, and of course, produce oxygen. Trees can reduce indoor air pollution in nearby homes by as much as 50 percent.
How then could it be a good idea to cut down the trees alongside a busy road, and then add pedestrians and cyclists? And plan for large apartment buildings nearby, where tenants will also suffer from polluted air, as well as unmitigated heat?
Those trees were exponentially more beneficial than the three saplings promised to replace each one. The US Forest Service says a tree with a 30-inch diameter delivers 70 times more environmental benefits than a tree 10 times smaller.
As Saanich’s own climate plan for ecosystems states, “1000 times more carbon is stored in a large tree than a small tree.” Perhaps that is not very important to Saanich.
Large trees are also known to reduce stormwater flooding. Since Shelbourne Street is the valley bottom, it seems particularly unwise to remove so many of its big trees.
Trees can reduce sound by up to 50 percent. They can reduce wind by a factor of two. Those trees were also home, waystations and feeding halls for countless birds and other wildlife.
Saanich staff say the public was consulted before this decision was made. But somehow, in Saanich as well as other municipalities, “consultation” with the public never seems to result in a changed municipal plan, especially regarding tree removals. Nor do people seem informed. These removals have come as a horrific shock to many. People describe it as looking “like a war zone”, that they couldn’t sleep, they cried all day after seeing the carnage.
Could Saanich have used trenchless tunneling to replace utility pipes without removing trees? Could the bike lanes and wider sidewalks have been installed on a quieter road, where perhaps fewer or no trees would need to be removed? Perhaps Cedar Hill Cross Road could have been converted to a one-way street, with a two-way bike lane on one side?
Municipalities must start to seek creative solutions in order to retain trees. Removing trees that took decades to reach great size must cease to be the default.
It’s ironic: Eastern Canada is mourning perhaps thousands of trees lost to tropical storm Fiona. Here, residents are mourning the loss of 116 trees cut down by Saanich. No doubt residents will miss those trees for many reasons, and for many decades.
Grace Golightly is a journalist and a founding member of Community Trees Matter Network. See her FOCUS story on the City of Victoria's Missing Middle Initiative and how it will affect the urban forest. There is a petition by the group called Treasure Our Trees here.