After more than a decade of debate and revision, an urban tree-cutting by-law aimed at plugging a loophole allowing developers to clear cut urban woodlots goes before councillors Tuesday.

And while the proposed by-law is welcome news for Hamilton naturalist community, some believe it falls short of their hopes for a urban forest strategic plan—a plan neighbouring cities such as Oakville have in place. They also say it lacks a clear target for how much forest cover the city should have.

The Urban Woodland Cutting By-Law will be in planning committee Tuesday, its last stop before being adopted by city council. The journey for the by-law, which began in 2002, has been glacial, allowing developers to clear cut woodlots without penalty.

The new by-law, which affects lots greater than 0.2 hectares (0.5 acres) or larger, protects the lots from being cut. It does not prohibit private lots from cutting individual trees, but gives the city tools to fines individuals up to $25,000, or corporations up to $100,000, who violate the law.

By-law protects urban forests from clear cutting

"The problem has been is that some developers... have cleared some of the urban forest patches," explained Ward 1 Councillor Brian McHattie. He said there was no tools for the city to stop developers from clear-cutting on privately owned grounds.

Westdale tree count

Giuliana Casimirri (R) the urban forrest project co-ordinator for the Hamilton Naturalists' Club who holds a PhD in community-based forrest management, works with a HNC volunteer to inspect a mulberry bush in Westdale, in July.

"That was the big hole in the by-law… That's the hole we're trying to plug with this by-law."

While supportive of the by-law, originally proposed in 2002 and nearly approved in 2009 after massive revision, the Hamilton Naturalists' Club (HNC) is pushing for a greater strategy to urban forest in Hamilton.

Tree Count taking stock of what Hamilton's urban forest is right now

The HNC is undertaking a summer-long tree count in Westdale, taking stock of the urban forest. It's the second of such studies since the urban cutting by-law was proposed and comes a decade after the first assessment.

Giuliana Casimirri, the urban forest project coordinator for the HNC who holds a PhD in community-based forest management, has been active in supporting the new by-law, but also said there needs to be more planning for the future.

She said the city has dropped a target to have 30 per cent canopy coverage by 2030 in all of Hamilton, adding the last assessed coverage number from 2009 has the city at roughly 19 per cent urban forest coverage. She also added that many areas are over-represented by just one or two species, pointing out Westdale is roughly 64 per cent Silver Maple, a potentially deadly dominance if a bug or disease were to spread throughout the species.

"We have very little information on our forest right now," Casimirri said during a break from this year's Tree Count.

Casimirri added that the 19 per cent coverage number has likely dropped due to the damage from ice in the winter, and Emerald Ash Boar (EAB), an invasive species that kills all types of Ash trees.

Asked why the 30 per cent canopy target appears to have disappeared from the city's strategic plan, McHattie said it was likely a target set by staff and not adopted in council. Regardless, McHattie explained, the number is important for sustainability reasons.

"We looked at landscapes and what's the critical mass of forest cover you need for breeding birds to be successful, to get the carbon dioxide stores that you want," McHattie said. "All the ecosystem services that you get from a forest to store the water and pump the water, all the stuff that forests do, the number of 30 per cent came out of the Environment Canada work. And we simply adopted that as a city. I don't know if it ever went through council, its' more at the staff level, as a target, to increase the canopy."

30 per cent canopy goal likely out of reach

Ward 10 Councillor Maria Pearson, who is on the planning committee expected to rubber stamp the by-law, said she would be surprised if the city achieved a 30 per cent canopy in the near future because of EAB.

"Ward 10 has the largest number of ash trees in city boulevards (1200+) and over 19 per cent of my (ward's) boulevard trees are ash," Pearson said in an email. "It has been absolutely devastating to be out on the campaign trail and all over the ward to see blocks of trees infected and rows of trees dead. As these trees are removed new trees are planted, but it will be years before we will see such a canopy that has existed in many of my neighbourhoods over the last number of years."

Casimirri pointed towards the Town of Oakville's comprehensive plan to achieve a 30 per cent canopy by 2027, a plan developed in 2008.

There, the city was tasked at achieving a 40 per cent canopy target, a goal later reduced to 30 per cent to account for tree mortality and area able to support the targeted canopy.

In the meantime, Casimirri, with the help of volunteers through the HNC, continue to compile tree data in Westdale, with the hope their work will shape future tree policy, like Oakville's.

The dominance of just a few species in Westdale has left Casimirri giving out a bit of advice for people looking to help grow the tree canopy in their area.

"Look around your neighbourhood at what your neighbours are planting, and plant something different," said Casimirri.