News / Calgary

Covering Calgary in a canopy is a battle

City funding needed to maintain trees post-Snowtember: report

This heritage American elm tree, though it's not native, is thought to date from around the founding of the city, landscape architect Bernie Amell said. It was surrounded by a protective structure when a parking lot was built around it.

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This heritage American elm tree, though it's not native, is thought to date from around the founding of the city, landscape architect Bernie Amell said. It was surrounded by a protective structure when a parking lot was built around it.

Calgarians love their trees. A new city report says so. But trees do not love Calgary.

The benefits of planting a robust tree canopy – beauty, cleaner air, better property values – are well known to urban dwellers. But in this western city, it's an expensive, uphill battle to create a forest oasis in the middle of what was once a vast, dry prairie.

Nearly every tree in Calgary, whether on public or private land, was planted by people. Our urban forest is a human-made project.

And, in the setback of the century, about half those trees were damaged or destroyed in September 2014's freak summer snowstorm, dubbed Snowtember.

ReTree YYC, the city's one-time, $35.5 million recovery initiative, saw 357,000 damaged trees pruned and 24,000 new ones planted over three years.

But it's drawing to a close, and the money is almost gone. Just $1.89-million is left to water and prune the new trees through 2018.

Now there's a risk the investment could go waste if the canopy is not maintained, experts worry.

To maintain the current canopy cover, new funding will be needed to plant 3,500 trees per year, and expanding it will require an additional 3,500, city staff wrote in a report to be presented at the Community and Protective Services committee meeting on Wednesday.

It's particularly costly – but worth it – to maintain Calgary's tree cover because the city straddles four ecological regions, each with different species and different needs, explained consulting arborist Anita Schill.

Most of Calgary, before all the development, was practically tree-free grasslands. Trees need intensive care and watering to survive here, especially during the first few years when they're getting established, Schill said.

To really thrive, she added, the soils around them need special care (not to be crushed under turf grass) and complementary plants are needed to create a healthy biological community.

Young trees also need a very specific and laborious type of pruning to keep them structurally sound and able to resist future storms, even those not quite as dramatic as Snowtember, Calgary arborist Jean-Mathieu Daoust added.

For the ones on public land, all that maintenance requires public money, and it can be a “tough sell” for the city, Schill said.

“I'm just tired of seeing trees being planted and then ripped out,” she said. “If that isn't going to be allowed to happen, everyone's got to be behind it and believe in it.”

The purpose of planting an urban forest is not to restore the city's environment to its natural state, explained Calgary Parks manager Nico Bernard, but to make it a better place to live.

"The canopy has lots of benefits, environmental, social and aesthetic," he said. "In short, people care about trees."

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