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The quest for accountability at Forestry Services, Ottawa

Updated: Apr 22, 2020

Last week,  I had a chance to ask questions of David Barkley, the head of Forestry Services, at a public meeting hosted by NCENN—a network of environmental groups in the Ottawa region.  I had three things on my mind:

#1. The question of accountability: when and how does Forestry Services report on its activities, particularly in relation to the Urban Tree Conservation By-law? The last time it did so, to my knowledge, was in November 2011. The by-law has been in effect since 2009. Isn’t a five-year reporting schedule a reasonable notion?

#2. Damage to distinctive trees: when will Forestry Services institute rules (and make those rules public) so that infill developers and property owners know and abide by a set of protocols to protect distinctive trees during tear-downs, excavations, and active construction projects?

#3. Distinctive trees on site maps: why are distinctive trees NOT appearing on site maps being considered by planning department or Committee of Adjustment? Citizens in Wellington Village lobbied long and hard in 2010 and 2011 to have trees more than 50 cm in diameter included on site maps for developments on private property. They thought they had succeeded in this.

Mr. Barkley’s answers to my questions did not inspire confidence in the work that Forestry Services is doing to report on the fate of and to protect mature, healthy, distinctive trees in Ottawa. With 75,000 ash trees on public land slated for destruction over the next five years, citizens in Ottawa are increasingly aware of how killing large trees leaves holes in the sky. In many established neighbourhoods with a healthy tree canopy, distinctive maples and oaks are being damaged due to construction and development. That damage may not show up for 5 or 10 years, but is likely to  kill the tree. What is the city doing to prevent lethal damage to distinctive trees?

Reporting on its work (not!) 

#1. According to Mr. Barkley, Forestry Services’ strategic plan requires it to implement a Trees and Forests Maintenance Program. It is now in year two (or three) of this 7-year plan and has no requirement to report to any Council committee or City Council on its progress. The maintenance program applies to trees on City property, not to those on private property. I wanted to know how a report on the Urban Tree Conservation By-law, which applies to distinctive trees on private property, would be initiated, so I asked Mr. Barkley that question after the meeting. It seems that if a politician raises a query at committee (such as planning or environment) and committee agrees to request a report or presentation, Forestry Services will comply.

Damage during construction

#2: On the question of protecting trees on private property from damage during construction, Mr. Barkley said: “We are trying to educate contractors, on a one-to-one basis, to mitigate tree damage during excavation and construction. We focus on them because they will work on 10 properties a season. It’s easier than trying to educate individual developers or property owners.”

Trees missing from site plans

#3 On the question of distinctive trees not appearing on site plans [which has happened at least once—and that’s enough to set off alarm bells—in Champlain Park this year], Mr. Barkley said: “Creation of a City of Ottawa computer system that is supposed to link departments like Forestry to Planning and other relevant departments has been delayed. It will be up and running in the fall of 2014.”

There you have it! I find Mr. Barkley’s answers to sadly lacking in substance. They do not show a concern about proactively protecting distinctive trees from damage. This is becoming more and more of a problem because developers are not asking for permits to destroy a tree. Instead, they know that making vague promises about “protecting” a towering oak, for example, during construction will get them the approvals they need from city officials.

What contractors and property owners need is a package of information issued by Forestry Services (and readily available on its website) that describes what they must do to protect distinctive tree from damage during construction. The Champlain Park Community Association has recently created a package aimed at developers and construction crews because Forestry Services is not taking care of this part of its business.

The only thing that currently exists online from Forestry Services is directed at contractors working on city property and paid by the City of Ottawa. Compare that to the clear direction that the City of Toronto provides to private property owners, and that the City of Calgary also features on its municipal website. In that city, private citizens are required to protect trees growing on city property that might be affected by construction they initiate on private property.

Let’s throw this into the mix.

“A review of Vancouver’s urban canopy since 1996 found that more than 23,000 healthy trees were removed for either private or public development.”

That’s why Vancouver, earlier this year, revoked a provision that allowed property owners to remove one tree a year from private property with no questions asked.

The same CBC report in April 2014 added: “The review also found that 22.5 per cent of the city [of Vancouver] was covered by tree canopy in 1995. Today, it’s only 18 per cent — a decline of over four percentage points, or a net loss of roughly 20 per cent of the tree cover that existed in 1995.”

Who is tracking the desecration of the urban tree canopy in Ottawa? Is this part of Forestry Services’ mandate? Who knows?

Ottawa needs protocols in place to preserve the urban canopy.

Vancouver will lose about 7,000 ash trees due to the emerald ash borer. Ottawa is losing 75,000 mature ash trees. And that number only refers to ash trees on public lands, like parks and wooded areas owned by the City of Ottawa. Nobody has tallied how many ash trees on private property will be destroyed, at considerable economic and social cost, in the coming years. Ottawa is reeling from the impact of losing so many mature ash trees.

Wouldn’t it make sense to have protocols in place in Ottawa that would prevent damage to healthy, mature trees whose greatest threats come from infill developers intent on making a profit and from the cohort of our society eager to build huge footprint homes after tearing down bungalows on tree-lined streets?

Finally, I can only characterize as absurd the answer Mr. Barkley provided to my question about why distinctive trees are not appearing on site plans. It’s appalling to hear a senior manager within the City willingly admit that his department is being prevented from doing its job because it does not have a system in place to ensure that mature, healthy trees are noted on site plans. City Council mandated that planning and forestry work together to set up such as system after concerned citizens (not me, not then) lobbied for change. They were angry over the loss of mature ash and maple trees due to wanton infill developments in early 2010, just months after the Urban Tree Conservation By-law came into effect. Back then, Forestry Services said it didn’t have systems in place to adequately protect trees from destruction.

Nowadays, I don’t think the excuse of non-existent software can justify the fact that it is not doing its job as a steward to distinctive trees.

Forestry Services has somehow managed to fly under the radar. Hoping that nobody will notice doesn’t work in a democratic society where accountability to taxpayers matters.

In turning over this particular rock, I see an eco-system that needs to have the strong light of day shone on its activities. --Debra Huron

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