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 Last Update 02/04/07  

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The past 20 years have witnessed widespread conflicts over ancient trees and old-growth forests. A familiar snapshot: Environmentalists cry foul, claiming the wilderness is being strip-mined. Loggers and millworkers cry foul, claiming their jobs are being jeopardized by a Birkenstock brigade of outsiders who return to comfortable condos once the camera crews depart. The conflict is, in a very real way, about a sense of place. Many environmentalists plead for places they cherish. That place, however, is often somewhere else: the boreal forest, the Pacific rainforest, the wilderness. For many Canadians, nature is, indeed, something out there in cottage country, a wilderness park, a summer camp-a rural landscape, not a city streetscape.

When Mary Anne Good planted the Wolseley elm, most Manitobans were sod-busting settlers. Twenty years later, when landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted urged Montrealers to make their new park on Mount Royal a naturalistic retreat ("You can put in a broad dark mass of low mountain pine, or pensive, feathery and brooding hemlock . . . to supply the degree of canopy and shadow which will be the most effective for your purpose"), Quebecers were still by and large country folk. We're about to enter the planet's first truly urban century: a majority of the world's people now live in cities, and although Canadians may visit a wilderness place from time to time, we pass our daily lives in the shadow of an urban forest.

Urban forest may sound like a contradiction in terms, but not to Judy Werier, the peppy director of Winnipeg's Coalition to Save the Elms. As we drive around trendy Osborne Village to check out the condition of its trees, she hits the brakes and jumps out of her car to rip a yard-sale sign off a sidewalk elm.

"Can you believe this?" she fumes, hurling the offending poster into the back seat. "It was nailed to the tree! Someone actually used four nails!"
Jamming the car into gear, she mutters something about going over to the yard sale on Saturday to scold the culprit. She explains that nails provide another way into the tree for the elm bark beetle and wood-boring beetles and hence for the fungus that causes Dutch elm disease. Heading along River Avenue, she has trouble keeping her eyes on the road as she points out the cankerworm bands that residents have dutifully wrapped around their neighbourhood trees, scolds construction foremen for neglecting to strap protective lumber around trees on building sites, and of course, keeps an eye out for the telltale flagging that indicates an elm has been infected. 

Citizen involvement has been crucial to Winnipeg's efforts to preserve the elm forest. Coalition members report "hazard" elms to Mike Allen's department, where every summer forestry staff adopt a war-room approach, sticking hundreds of red and black pins onto a map as they chart sightings of the disease. There are lots of pins along the rivers. The city uses an expensive fungicide injection system on valuable park trees, while a less expensive basal spraying technique is aimed at zapping beetles with an insecticide containing chlorpyrifos. This prevents the beetles from overwintering in the tree but must be done annually. The principal defence, however, is sanitation, which includes tree removal and pruning of dead branches: some diseased trees can be saved by fungicidal injection, but many are simply cut down. It's a $2 million-a-year battle, but Werier thinks it's worth it. Aside from organizing workshops on tree planting, identification, pruning, and Dutch elm disease, the coalition helped pressure the province into restoring some of the $3 million it had cut from the program to control the spread of the disease in the buffer zone around the city. 

"My husband calls me 'a crazy militant little person,' " she says as we head out Portage Avenue. When I ask her about her commitment to the urban forest, why she's such a tree zealot, she responds in the same way a wilderness tree hugger might. "I love the trees," she says after a moment's thought. "That's all I can say. There are no words I can put to it. It's emotional."

Werier got an early start in urban forestry. Her father, Val Werier, a longtime Winnipeg newspaper columnist who recently won the Order of Canada for his advocacy work, used to quiz her about trees, teaching her to tell an ash from an elm. "When Dad came home from work, we'd go for a brisk walk. I'd have to run to keep up with him, but he taught me about trees, and I developed a real appreciation for them. So when I became involved with the elms, I said to myself, 'This feels right.' " 

In 1969, Val Werier was pushing for a bylaw to control the removal of trees on public land. Three years later, he was telling his readers to get out and put sticky bands on elms to protect them from cankerworms. And in 1974, the year before Dutch elm disease was first identified in Winnipeg, he wrote a long series of columns on the imminent threat. By 1976, he was writing that government action wasn't enough-Winnipeggers had to get involved in the fight against the disease. Werier was soon able to point out that Manitoba was the first North American jurisdiction to require the removal of diseased elms from private and public property.

"There's a history of citizen activism here," Mayor Glen Murray told me when I asked him about Werier. "And a very practical reason is that the absence of the elms would have a huge negative impact on property values and the enjoyability and livability of neighbourhoods." 

A city forest has a long list of virtues. Urban air, full of carbon dioxide and a host of noxious car fumes, is measurably improved in cities where a dense overstorey of trees adds life-giving oxygen. The forest moderates storm runoff. A deciduous forest protects houses from the summer heat, saving on air-conditioning costs while permitting passive solar gain in wintertime. If it's dense enough-as it is in Winnipeg-it acts as a winter windbreak. It also buffers the ceaseless white noise of city traffic. Parents can take comfort that shaded play areas are safe in an era when high-ultraviolet sunlight is cause for concern. Realtors know that a treelined street is a price-boosting part of their "location, location" mantra. 

Though she has a passionate attachment to the urban forest, Werier inherited a lobbyist's understanding of how to protect it. She knows that she can't just rely on the virtues of nature appreciation when it comes to navigating the political terrain at city hall. A savvy politician, Glen Murray is well aware that Stephen Juba, Winnipeg's longest-serving mayor, made an early and lasting impression when he defended the Wolseley elm in 1957. "If you ever want to lose elected office in Winnipeg," says the mayor wryly, "say something bad about a tree." 

Of course, all the political will in the world will not stop the steady onslaught of Ophiostoma ulmi. That's why Winnipeg, prodded by Werier and the Coalition to Save the Elms, has been sending cheques to the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto, where Martin Hubbes and his research team have recently developed a vaccine that immunizes the elm against the fungus. With patents on the way, Canadian scientists have helped spark renewed international interest in a problem that many had given up as a lost cause. 

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4

Jamie Swift is a writer and broadcaster living in Kingston, Ontario. His most recent book, Wheel of Fortune, was published in 1995. He is also the author of Cut and Run, a lament for the mismanagement of Canadian forests.


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