Losing trees in Victoria: one mature tree equals 269 saplings

A towering sequoia at the Truth Centre, soon to be felled

Guest Column

We should all be concerned about global warming. We can see the changes happening now; our summers are longer and a lot drier.

But I wonder if the City cares. Because I don’t see much evidence they’re trying to save our mature trees, one of the few factors that reduce carbon.

The City’s Urban Forest Master Plan notes that Victoria’s street trees provide benefits worth nearly $3 million, including:

– energy savings,

– air quality improvements,

– storm water interception,

– atmospheric CO2 reduction,

– and aesthetic contributions to the social and economic health of the community.

And those values and benefits are just from the street trees. Even more trees are located on private property, which add more to our city’s good fortune.

Yet this appreciation of the importance and value of trees doesn’t seem to have flowed freely throughout city hall.

Just to provide an example of how valuable each one of our huge trees actually is, consider this report cited by Ohio State University that shows it took 269 saplings to equal the carbon storage ability of one large, healthy mature tree, 36” in diameter.

These days, it seems we are losing big trees every week in Victoria. And they are certainly not each being replaced with 269 saplings. No, just one or two.

A friend told me recently that a visitor noticed significantly less tree cover as his flight descended to land on the Inner Harbour last year, the first time he had flown into town in more than ten years.

“What happened?” he asked. Good question. Well, development would have to be at least part of the answer.

The Community Trees Matter Network, a local enviro-group, recently sent a list of tree-related questions to each of Victoria’s (and neighbouring jurisdictions’) election candidates. You can read all the candidates’ responses online  LINK: https://creativelyunited.org/community-trees-questions-for-candidates/.)

Councillor Pam Madoff replied that the City should “communicate that we have a culture where trees matter, and that they are not just seen as an impediment to development.”

That seems to suggest that at present, we have a culture where trees don’t matter.

Madoff explained that staff could guide developers to retain more trees, and could streamline the process to make it less cumbersome to do so. But retaining trees does not seem to be high on the planning department’s priority list.

For instance, Abstract Development’s project at the old Church of Truth site at 1201 Fort Street will lead to the loss of 29 trees, including 10 that are “protected” by the City’s tree bylaw.

Two of the trees to be felled are giant sequoias that have historic as well as environmental significance: they were brought here from California as seeds, and were planted by pioneers in the 19th century. They are rare and irreplaceable, among a few dozen scattered giant redwoods in the central neighbourhoods. Catch a glimpse of the Church of Truth trees quickly before they’re felled.

In discussions with the City over Abstract’s plans, instead of suggesting more trees were retained, the building site was moved closer to Fort Street to increase its “presence.”

This meant the loss of yet an additional Garry oak–the second largest on the site–which original plans had left in place.

Elsewhere, some Vic West residents were appalled to discover that one of two concepts for changing a neighbourhood park presented at an open house in the spring of 2017 included removing seven 50-to-60-foot-tall poplar trees.

Fortunately, the poplars remain after an option to keep the playground in it original location and save the trees was chosen. But the idea of cutting down these majestic and hard-working neighbourhood landmarks was generated by the Parks department itself. If they don’t understand why it’s immensely more beneficial to leave mature trees than to replace them with saplings, who at City Hall does?

Then, of course, there were the 22 mature trees cut down on Douglas Street last February, to make way for a new priority bus lane. A little creativity might have saved the trees and still have found a way to improve transit.


It’s important to understand that, despite the name of its “Tree Preservation Bylaw,” no tree on private property in Victoria is really protected from development.

“Protected” trees are only protected from owners cutting them down because they don’t like them, or they want more light. Or they are tired of sweeping up leaves or they can’t deal with the fruit.

If you have a plan to build something, or create a driveway or an accessory building, you’re welcome to take down all the trees you want. (Though if they’re protected, you’re required to pay a laughably modest fee: $30 each for the first three, and $5 each after that.)

Besides native species, Victoria lists trees that are 80 cm or more in diameter as “protected.” Vancouver, on the other hand, starts protecting trees at just 20 cm. That’s a huge difference.

Most municipalities give extra protection to native species. But even Victoria’s native Big Leaf Maples, Douglas Firs and Western Red Cedars have to make it to 60 cm before they’re listed as protected.

Saanich, on the other hand, protects those same three native species when they reach 30 cm, and other trees at 60 cm.

In our region, Esquimalt seems to have the most protective bylaws. The municipality protects any tree with a DBH (diameter at breast height) of 30 cm or more, and all native trees that are 4 cm or more. That’s pretty awesome.

John Taylor, a member of Community Trees Matter Network, poses beside a Victoria tree cut down to make way for development at 600 Foul Bay Road. The stump at the base was about five feet in diameter. Photo by Vijaya Taylor

The most recent land cover mapping I know of, done in March 2013 by the Habitat Acquisition Fund, showed what that friend saw from the plane as it descended over Victoria: our fair city’s tree canopy is shrinking, as well as becoming less dense.

HAT compared studies made in 1986, 2005, and 2011 to come up with the results: 8.5 per cent loss of tree cover in Greater Victoria between 1986 and 2011.

We don’t have statistics for the loss since then, but we can guess. How are things looking in your neighbourhood? In Vic West where I lived for a decade and a half, many trees have been lost in recent years. Surprisingly, most weren’t from development. You would just hear the chainsaw firing up and see another big one going down the next block over. Others are dying from the stress of drought.

Faced with a similar shrinking-canopy scenario, Vancouver set a goal of increasing it from 18 to 22 per cent. And it has taken action to achieve that. In 2010, the city vowed to plant 150,000 trees by 2020. To date, it has planted 105,833. In the fall, it even offers trees for only $10 each to residents who wish to plant them.

Victoria, on the other hand, seems unconcerned about its shrinking canopy (estimated at 18 per cent in 2011). It did plant 328 trees last year, Lisa Helps noted in her response to the Tree Network’s questions, but it also removed 150. Helps, by the way, announced the creation of an urban tree festival 12 days before the election, “which could see upwards of 1,000 trees planted in one day.”

Canopy increase is a difficult, but very worthwhile, achievement. It means planting substantially more trees each year, while at the same time replacing all those lost to death, disease and development.

It also means taking care of the trees we have, to keep them healthy. Victoria has room for improvement in that area as well, to keep up with climate change.

We could cover treed boulevards with mulch, which would both retain more moisture in the ground, and provide nutrients for the trees.

Many trees in our region are highly stressed from our long summer droughts. This also makes them more vulnerable to pests and disease, as well as dying from thirst. When homeowners stopped watering their lawns, many street trees lost out. (Tree roots can grow up to two and a half times the size of the “drip zone” in their quest for water.)

Vancouver has responded to this problem. For the past few years, the city has reached out through media and even Twitter to “Be a tree guardian this summer! Water street trees if you see signs of stress like wilting leaves, or early leaf drop.”

Victoria has even less rainfall than Vancouver, but does not see fit to inform residents of this simple way to help our trees survive.

And there are still other ways to help enhance tree health.

Some jurisdictions make good use of volunteers to plant trees and even to care for them throughout the year. Diverse community members–including corporate volunteer groups, disadvantaged youth, people sentenced to community service hours, and neighbourhood volunteers–work to give back to the urban forest that supports our well being.

Just imagine how much this city could do, and how many people could benefit.

All we have to do is truly value the trees our forebears left us, and stop squandering this resource, which cannot be replaced in anything less than decades.

Yes, occasionally a tree does need to be cut down. But this many? We are still behaving as if there are plenty more where they came from.

But between drought, development, and a lack of committed action from the city, there aren’t so many mature trees left any more.

Grace Golightly is a former journalist and speechwriter and a member of the Community Trees Matter Network who has lived in Victoria for 20 years. She is passionate about the value of trees and believes humans are smart and creative enough to figure out how to build homes and still retain mature trees.