Urban Forestry in Northern Ontario

Issue: 
September-October 2006

SINCE I RECENTLY HAD THE OPPORTUNITY to participate in the Tour des Trees, I met Shelley Vescio, Urban Forester for the City of Thunder Bay, and Vince Rutter, President of Trees Thunder Bay, a volunteer tree advocacy organization. Before cycling out of Thunder Bay, Shelley and Vince made themselves available to provide a cycling tour of the city and make brief presentations at the opening dinner/reception highlighting some of the challenges and successes of managing an urban forest in a northern Ontario city.

About Thunder Bay
The city is actually an amalgamation of two cities, Fort William on the south end and Port Arthur to the north. Together they have a total population of just over 100,000 people in an area of 324 square km. The city is very isolated, surrounded by boreal forests, with its nearest neighbours being Winnipeg 700 km to the west and Sault Ste. Marie 700 km to the east.

The recent outlook for the city is not good, as there is now a real down turn in the forestry industry. Several of the large paper mills who are major employers are closing down operations and laying off staff. According to Shelley, the city may see their population shrink by as much as 10%. This will add additional pressure to decrease the already limited urban forest budget.

About Their Urban Forest
Shelley Vescio is the city’s first Urban Forester, hired in 1995. While it seems ironic that a city so dependent on a healthy forest industry would have such little regard for trees in their community, that in fact was the case. Prior to Shelley taking on her position, there didn’t seem to be a need for an urban forester. Shelley explained that the general attitude regarding trees was to replace, not conserve,

Based on an inventory conducted in 2000, the city has approximately 20,000 street trees spread out over its 844 km of roads and 124 parks. There are approximately 10,000 potential tree locations within that network. Because of the severity of the northern climate, most sites within the city would be classified as zone 3. The urban forest composition is 25% ash, 20% silver maple, 15% white birch (in which bronze birch borer is a serious problem) and the remainder is a mix of lindens, bur oak, choke cherries and conifers.

Until recently, Shelley has single-handedly administered the city’s urban forest program, which she first had to create. She now has a seasonal consulting arborist who assists with tree related calls and enquiries. The actual work is performed by the Parks Department that consists of two trucks and a seasonal staff. There is no such thing as a pruning or maintenance cycle, as available resources are hard pressed to keep up with emergency and on-demand requests from the community.

Based on 2005 figures, the city received 2,000 service requests: they removed 284 trees and planted approximately 600 trees between new and existing sites. They pruned 737 trees and made roughly 500 assessments. All of this was accomplished on an operating budget of $200,000 and capital budget of $100,000.

Doing More With Less
In spite of what appears to be a grim picture, Shelley is proud of what she has accomplished in her 11 years in the city. She continues to focus on her successes and uses available resources in the most effective manner. Shelley explained that she quickly realized that if she was to build a successful urban forestry program, she needed to change the community’s attitude and to do so would require cooperation and assistance from both residents and city officials.

By patiently building relationships and finding allies who were willing to consider her position throughout the system at administrative and operational levels, she feels that attitudes are gradually turning around – trees are now recognized as a legitimate component of and add value to our municipal infrastructure.

Specific Accomplishments

Tree Protection. By 1999, Shelley had established some specific tree protection standards that became a required part of most city tenders, planning documents and construction contracts. As part of those standards, a policy was adapted requiring two trees to replace any one tree that had to be removed to accommodate construction activities. Also around that time, a moratorium on tree removals relating to sewer and water main conflicts was put in place. Shelley proudly proclaims that with the exception of over night emergencies, trees on city property are not removed without her approval.

Set standards force planners and construction crews to look at alternatives – preservation has to be considered before replacement is implemented. As a result, Shelley plays a much larger role in the planning process. She attends lots of pre-construction meetings and spends a good part of the winter months reviewing and commenting on projects where trees may be impacted. As part of her job, Shelley sits on a Public Utility Coordinating Committee, where she gets an opportunity to comment on capital projects involving utility initiatives. Considerable progress has been made with Thunder Bay Hydro. Municipal trees are now actually pruned away from utility lines according to arboricultural standards – topping is no longer the common practice.

In 2005, Shelley became an official Municipal Law Enforcement Officer with the responsibility of enforcing the new Public Tree Bylaw. Shelley laments that she would like to have seen tree appraisal costs applied where trees have to be removed instead of going with the established two for one rule. She also had to allow some concessions for residences to do minor pruning on city trees, but again, focusing on the successes, she concludes it is a good bylaw. The community is aware of its restrictions, and respects and largely adheres to its regulations.

Resource Allocation. As further evidence to the community’s shift in attitude, Shelley explains that trees are now integrated with all capital projects and landscape components in general are much more prominent throughout the city. Recently an $800,000 project that involved the installation of a sewer line through George Burke Park included $150,000 in landscaping.

In the past, full road rehabilitation did not include boulevard trees, now it does. Pre-construction pruning is now often considered to limit tree damage. In these instances, Shelley will contract the work and have the costs incorporated into the project.

Collaboration With Volunteers
As part of her team building approach to an urban forest program, Shelley has been fortunate enough to partner with a volunteer organization called Trees Thunder Bay coordinated by President Vince Rutter. In his representation, Vince explained that he runs his own company, Rutter Urban Forestry, by day and Trees Thunder Bay is his night job. The organization was formed about six years ago by members who saw the need for a public voice to help the urban forest. Over the years, they have accomplished many things. Regular tree planting events have resulted in several hundred new trees planted city wide. There are a few streets and neighborhoods that are lined with trees thanks to the work done by Trees Thunder Bay.

The organization is also very proud of the role they played in changing public policy. A few years ago, the city was conducting a full road restoration on Bay Street. When Trees Thunder Bay found out that trees were not to be included in the project, they brought public attention to the matter. The end result being that city council directed the Engineering Division to include trees in all road rehabilitation projects. Vince also pointed out that the organization strongly supported the new public tree bylaw, which contributed to it passing successfully through council.

Tree Stewardship Program
The most recent project initiated by Trees Thunder Bay and supported strongly by Shelley and city officials is the Tree Stewardship Program. Taking into consideration that the city has a very small budget for new trees, the waiting period is now about two years and there are approximately 10,000 plantable spots. This new program provides residents with the opportunity to partner with the city and willing sponsors and donors to speed up the process by providing one third of the cost. The program is an innovative way to engage the public. As part owners, residents would be required to provide watering and other basic maintenance. In addition, it will help to decrease the size of the waiting list with less cost to the city’s budget.

The city’s Manager of Parks feels that the Stewardship Program could serve as an example to other communities in similar economic situations to Thunder Bay and be a stepping stone to other projects such as an “Adopt-a-Tree Program.” To help initiate the program, Trees Thunder Bay along with the city staff was able to secure $20,000 to hire a coordinator for one year. $10,000 of that money was made available through a Tree Canada Foundation “Green Streets Canada” grant. According to Vince, although there has been no formal public notification, there are already 25 residents ready to participate.

In concluding his presentation, Vince thanked the Tour des Tree participants for coming to Thunder Bay and highlighting the city’s urban forest. For more information, go to www.Treesthunderbay.org and www.ThunderBay.ca.

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