Saving Trees: An Unwieldy Task - Unravelling Canada's "Heritage or Significant" Trees Jigsaw Puzzle

March-April 2011

Protecting Heritage Trees: A Synopsis (2-page pdf file prepared by the Ontario Heritage Tree Alliance)...

EVERYONE HAS A TALE of the contractor who leveled a historic forest for a subdivision or the cranky neighbour who cut the majestic maple because it shed its leaves in fall. I lost count of the number of people who said in their own way, “people cut trees for stupid reasons” and one guy admitted sheepishly, “like my parents.” In 1970, Joni Mitchell hit the charts and brought the issue to the air waves with the line: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” But it seems like Canadians are only just catching on to the idea that when you cut down a 200 year-old tree, it will be 200 years before it can be replaced.

Barbara Heidenreich, Natural Heritage Coordinator, Ontario Heritage Trust states: “Without trees there would be no life on earth. It is that simple. People who don’t realize this need to be educated.”

From British Columbia to the east coast we have many “tools” and ideas to use in that educational process. We also have diverse points of view on what and how trees should or can be protected. The challenge is to find the appropriate way(s) to protect trees from those who cut for those “stupid” reasons.

Canada’s tree with the highest level of legal protection afforded by Park’s Canada is a tulip tree planted by WLM King’s father in what is now Woodside National Park in Kitchener. Robert Roe, curator at Woodside, said they can not put a value on this tree. “It is priceless.” It is a living, level one artifact because it is related directly to Canada’s longest serving prime minister. This native species planted well outside its native range requires ongoing care and there is no concern for the cost at this time.

A Lone White Pine in New Brunswick
No matter the amount of money the country or other levels of government are willing to spend, trees remain subject to nature. In New Brunswick, sitting high on a gorge above a historic waterfall is an ancient white pine. It is and has been a visual landmark for centuries. It is New Brunswick’s only tree commemorated at the provincial level (
Carlo Laforge, Project Executive-Commemorations, Heritage Branch, in New Brunswick reinforces, “This tree is commemorated, not protected.” He isn’t kidding. In the winter of 2010, St. George received record rain fall, 170-180 mm. Structures came clear of their foundations. According to the township office, at the time of writing it is thought 12 to 20 people will never return “home.” The floods were followed by freezing weather and snow. In all the uncertainty and concern the white pine was forgotten. Gail Mullan (Town spokesperson who also apparently lives close to the tree) reported when they were able to get to the site, “The tree is not leaning but we can’t tell if there is substantial erosion due to the snow cover.”

Other historic trees in New Brunswick are protected at the municipal level. About 20 years ago, the Canadian Forestry Association of New Brunswick published a book on the 50 most important trees in the province. There is no plan to update or republish this book and it is no longer available.

A Sitka Spruce in British Columbia
In BC, the situation is similar. Heritage trees are protected only at the municipal level. At the provincial level, in the 1990s lists were started of the “largest” trees in BC. This included the ten largest of all the native species. Andy McKinnon, Research Ecologist, Coast Forest Region, is proud of BC’s forests and the search for “BIG” trees. He says, “Ontario or Quebec may have the biggest sugar maple but we have some of the biggest trees in the world.” This spring, the program is moving its web pages to the University of BC’s site where they expect to receive more support for ongoing maintenance. They are planning a “big splash” in a few months.

McKinnon said, “People are passionate about big trees and can be motivated around those trees to protect parks and other areas.” He gives the example of the Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island (

This park was formed in 1990 after the discovery of what is thought to be the world’s tallest sitka spruce. The park now totals 16,450 hectares of protected land and trees. The “legendary giant” that started it all is considered a young tree at only 400 years-old while some of its neighbours are well over 1,000 years old.

The listing of “Big” trees in BC is completed by volunteer experts or people with proven abilities to measure trees since many of the trees are in remote locations and the data can not be confirmed. The individual trees are not marked. There is discussion of including non-native species and perhaps even stumps.

Raising Awareness: More Lists, Books & Contests
Nova Scotia also has a tree recognition program. They’ve run an annual contest ( since the 1970s. The program is paid for by the Nova Scotia Forest Technicians Association. Winners are presented with a certificate and a small prize. The owners/nominators of these trees are proud of their discovery and information regarding all entrants is available.

In Manitoba, the situation is different. In 1985, the Manitoba Forestry Association (, with federal and provincial funding, started a program to increase public appreciation of trees. A book was published. It’s 25 years later and they continue to receive nominations on annual basis. Manitoba Hydro Forest Enhancement is now interested and has new ideas for the project. “A book is static. We need to update photos and information as it comes in. There will be no advertising; it will be embedded in the association web site,” said Andrea Kraayeveld of Think Trees. A public launch is expected in the spring of 2011. Again this provides no legal “protection” – it is about raising awareness and “getting Manitobans excited about trees.”

Manitoba will be looking for the largest of each species, community landmarks, survivors, unusual locations, unusual growth and distinctive shapes. “We can’t say what is important to the individual. We will have categories and different classifications. We talked to Alberta and are using some of their ideas.”

Speaking of the western province, anyone interested in heritage tree programs should check out Alberta’s Heritage Tree Foundation site at Their book was published in 2008 and it is recommended as one of the best on the subject. The foundation is continuing to accept nominations for trees with cultural significance, rarity, community landmark, survivor of adverse conditions, horticultural significance, rare or endangered, bird habitat or part of environmental significant area.

Part of the Alberta program is volunteer training to assess nominations and research the tree stories. The trees accepted are plaqued or marked. Unfortunately at this time funding is an issue but the foundation isn’t giving up. Over 100 municipalities contributed to their heritage book. Corporate giant Chapters called and asked if they could carry it. TD Trust bought many copies and placed them in schools. It has almost sold out in two years. They are now also considering reworking an earlier book Trees of Renown that was about protected forest trees or clumps.

Dennis Baresco, a volunteer with Alberta’s Heritage Tree Foundation, explained that heritage tree does not imply “protected” (although many think it does and he hopes this will continue). However, even the potential of registration raises awareness and pride of ownership in the individual trees. In one specific case he is aware of, a nominated tree was scheduled to be cut down. When the developer learned of the potential status of the tree, he altered his plans and saved it. “The forest is so big. When you take people to a single tree, stand under the branches and touch the bark, they gain appreciation for that one tree.” This can be translated to protection for the urban forest as a whole. “In almost every case when I share a tree story people respond, Oh, Wow!”

The Ontario Situation
Moving along to the homefront, here in Ontario we share many of the same concerns and incentives of the other provinces for protecting trees. These include logging, forest fires, urban sprawl, bad neighbours and a rich diversity of trees. We also have a complex maze of legislation and the Ontario Urban Forest Council (OUFC, is working to sort it out.

The Ontario Urban Forest Council, formerly the Ontario Shade Tree Council, is connected to the Ontario Heritage Tree Council. Their updated “Tool Kit” is due out in the spring of 2011. This package is geared to the user to answer questions about heritage trees and their status. They list trees, include the value of trees, and then look at municipal bylaws and the necessary parts of the laws to make them effective for protecting trees.

The original goal of the program was to energize communities/individuals to take a good look at the natural heritage in urban centres and the boreal forest and get these sites/trees protected. Their program also includes seed collection from heritage trees based on the philosophy: “Heritage trees won’t live forever.”
OUFC also provides general how-to information on working with municipalities and help dealing with neighbour disputes regarding trees. They encourage individuals to stay involved and anticipate when a tree might be in line to be cut down. “We don’t assume we know. Our objective is to discover what is happening and work with the community. We always think. Where can we work? Our tool kit is even used in Barbados. They are using the process to help save bibao trees,” said Fran Moscall, an OUFC volunteer.
In partnership with this program, Trees Ontario launched a heritage tree program and will be maintaining the web site listing maps where heritage trees are in Ontario.

Some criticize the concept of accepting too many trees as special and in need of protection. Barb Heidenreich of the Ontario Heriatage Trust disagrees. She said, “Few trees will meet the provincial requirements of ‘heritage trees’ as this definition requires the tree to have both physical and cultural associations that are exceptional. So, I think it is incorrect. A more important question… what is the cost to society if we don’t protect our significant trees?” She raises a valid point. The definition of a heritage tree used by OUFC is from Aird Paul:

A notable specimen because of its size, form, shape, beauty, age, colour, rarity, genetic constitution, or other distinctive features;
A living relic that displays evidence of cultural modification by Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal people, including strips of bark or knot-gree wood removed, test hole cut to determine soundness, furrows cut to collect pitch or sap, or blazes to mark a trail;
A prominent community landmark;
A specimen associated with a historic person, place, event or period;
A representative of a crop grown by ancestors and their successors that is at risk of disappearing from cultivation; and/or
A tree associated with local folklore, myths, legends, or traditions.

A Closer Look at The Law
Maintaining listing and protecting heritage property is the law in Ontario. This law does not specify trees but it also does not exclude trees. As in other provinces, a great deal is left to the municipalities. For example, the clerk of a municipality shall keep a register of property situated in the municipality that is of cultural heritage value or interest. And, no owner of property designated under section 29 shall alter the property or permit the alteration of the property if the alteration is likely to affect the property’s heritage attributes, as set out in the description of the property’s heritage attributes that was required to be served and registered under subsection 29 (6) or (14), as the case may be, unless the owner applies to the council of the municipality in which the property is situate and receives consent in writing to the alteration.

With all legislation, essential points to note are: is there a penalty sufficient to be a deterrent and can it be enforced. With respect to environmental issues, there is an added point to consider – are legislators and victims motivated to enforce the legislation or do they take the view that the trees are dead (or soon will be) and nothing can bring them back.

Aurora is taking tree protection seriously. Paul King, Culture Services Advisor (West), Ministry of Tourism and Culture, stated: “There have been trees cut down by developers in contravention of tree bylaws enacted under s.135 of the Municipal Act.” In this case 118 trees were injured or destroyed without a permit to make room for a golf course. Furthermore, the developer removed the trees prior to the Ontario Municipal Board hearing. See the article in the Star for more details:

The maximum fine is $50,000 or $5,000/tree. The pre-trial hearing was scheduled for February 18.
Ontario’s Endangered Species Act is another piece of legislation that should protect some trees. To date no one has been convicted under this act. However, sometimes just the potential of designation protects trees without legal consequences. Here in Ontario, Paul King said that he contacted several heritage planners in municipalities where there are designated trees as well as someone he knows in the Tree Alliance, but to date, no one is aware of any individual trees designated under the OHA Part IV that have been destroyed, threatened or the subject of a recent prosecution.  

Currently in Vaughan a wood lot is slated for destruction. It is near the Baker-Cober Cemetery. This property is not designated, but the trees are considered part of the cultural heritage landscape and several are two hundred plus years-old. Yorge Hettmann of Vaughan said, “This is private property. It is to go through the building permit process. This supersedes the tree cutting bylaw.” Signs are supposed to be posted to inform how the public can participate in this process. Hettmann was unable to confirm who to call or how to be involved in the public consultation but suggested trying building standards.

Municipalities have many different ideas on the topic including avoidance techniques around protecting private trees. When considering making a move to protect a tree, it is essential to know the current definition of heritage or protected tree in the municipality, where the tree is growing, and if the tree is privately or municipally owned.

A Closer Look at Perspective
Fran Moscall, volunteer with Ontario Heritage Tree Council, believes we need to change our attitude toward tree protection. She said: “We need to ask, what is the argument for cutting the tree down? We shouldn’t be able to simply clear the land and plunk a building(s) in the middle.”

The Town of Collingwood agrees with this in concept, but they say it a little differently. The town currently has no heritage trees designated. They have three different programs to help support heritage properties financially but none apply to trees. “Trees for preservation” is mentioned in a 2003 bylaw and there is a $1,000 fine for cutting these trees without a permit. Robert Voigt, a Collingwood planner, said they have an urban design manual that amongst many things requires contractors to maintain and protect a percentage of mature trees (if they exist) as opposed to planting street trees after the development is complete. When trees are planted as part of the requirements, they have minimum sizing and native and hardy breeds are specified. Voigt says there are two sides to tree protection: the policy and the enforcement. At this point, they want to develop more programs to protect trees on private land.

Collingwood is concerned about their total tree canopy and they recognize that to make policies that work takes time. They want to do an inventory to find the special trees and then make an overall decision. They hope to start this spring. “We looked at the provincial guidelines and realized some of our beautiful trees would not qualify. We need our own definition. It doesn’t fall under any one department. It’s a complex issue.”
Another option to protect canopy trees is with the use of permits. Municipalities require permits for a host of reasons. Some include: to cut any tree in the municipality, trees over a specified size, trees from a list of breeds, or trees on a list of “special” trees. In theory, the tree is assessed and the reason considered before the permit is issued. However, one municipal worker confided, “They are cutting behind my house to put in a subdivision. All the permits were obtained. It is all legal.” She became more emotional: “We’re losing our air conditioner. And more.”

In the City of Kawartha Lakes, Steve Gimblett, Parks & Open Space Supervisor, said, “People are polite here. We don’t have a problem with cutting (municipal) trees.” He added, “Counsel and the mayor are very supportive and they stand behind us. When someone wants to cut a tree and we assess that it is healthy, we sometimes have to do a lot of work but the tree is not cut.” Private trees, however, are another issue. “Yes, it’s true. Some people do cut trees because they don’t like the leaves. Sometimes I think we need a bylaw but in some ways I don’t like it.”

Deciding when a privately owned tree is valuable to society as a whole and should be protected is not easy and many municipalities simply don’t want to deal with the issue at all. One bylaw in Ontario protects all trees planted in the municipality, if they were planted after 2005. Other urban foresters told me they had no problems with private tree disputes. When pushed for further explanation, they acknowledged they have no problem because their bylaws don’t apply so they leave it to the civil courts. No one I spoke to could give any specific cases where a tree was successfully protected in civil court.

Motivating municipal counsels to take an interest in trees sometimes starts with individuals. The City of Kawartha Lakes doesn’t have any heritage trees registered and they have no bylaws to protect private trees. Glenn Walker is a doctorate history (not forestry) student at McGill in Montreal. He’s been searching for trees that survived the original logging in the area. When his thesis is complete (hopefully this spring), he has promised to provide the list of old growth trees in his research area to the municipality. (The thesis will be available through McGill.)

Originally when Walker spoke with the township, they were interested in the list as a means to determine the location of high liability trees. This attitude changed when they learned “heritage trees” were an asset to the Community in Blooms program and they wanted photos for the competition. However, when I spoke with the township they indicated a new excitement for “their” heritage trees and are waiting for Walker’s lists with the idea that some of these trees should and maybe could be protected. No one is making any commitments at this time but the subject is gaining interest.

Walker states that “old growth” does not necessarily mean “big trees.” Many of the oldest trees he calculated with core samples were small, growing in rocky conditions and “obviously not fit for lumber.” The oldest tree he’s found so far in his subject area is a white cedar about 410 years-old. In one case, he was collecting core samples in old growth sugar maples as the owner was cutting the tree down for firewood. After, showing him the results, the owner is considering saving some of the trees. Walker also found a collection of sycamore trees planted as horticultural specimens around 1900. No secondary growth was noted but some were in the road allowance.

Maybe Money Can Change Perspective
It’s amazing how little Ontarians know about the positive financial benefits of tree protection. The historic city of Kingston has a heritage clause that allows up to a forty percent tax refund for eligible work done to qualifying heritage properties. City Planner Lindsay Lambert said this would apply to heritage trees if they had any in the city. At this point, there are no heritage trees designated and no one has applied. Toronto has heritage grant applications for up to $10,000. This is an area worthy of further investigation, as is the more basic concept of the positive spin-offs that could be associated with a city or town that promotes itself as a place where trees are important.

Healing & Planting For The Future
The final point in protecting trees is about moving on. Like climate issues, sometimes all the strategies and legislation fail and the tree is cut. Remember when trees were cut on the north side of the Sharon Temple National Historic site in East Gwillimbury two years ago? The site was protected federally, provincially and municipally, but the mayor and parks staff at the time took active roles in destroying the trees. Curator John McIntyre says they have moved on. “We are healing. The OCAA Day of Service in 2008 was part of that healing. The new trees are filling in.” The legal issues are settled (and sealed). “The mayor didn’t run in the next election. We are on good terms with the community and the new counsel. Above all, nature is a marvelous healer.”

And healing is almost complete at Sharon Temple. The ex-mayor has returned to the site and apologized. He has even had discussions with them about volunteering.

McIntyre said, “You can’t take anything for granted. You can’t assume people understand something is important. Just because you value it and your organization values it and even the community values it, everyone may not. You must educate. We need to build programs with schools so children growing up have that sense and will carry it with them to other historic sites.”

Our mission is to enhance and promote the care and benefit of trees for present and future generations in Ontario through education, research and awareness.