British Columbia

'It's an emergency:' Vancouver park official alarmed by urban forest drought

Dave Demers is drafting motion to accelerate plans already in place to plant more drought tolerant or species of trees from southern climes that can better handle hotter and dryer conditions.

Dave Demers wants to speed up plan to plant more drought tolerant species

The Vancouver Park Board already tries to plant trees it knows have a good chance of thriving in the city despite climate change. (Vancouver Park Board)

A Vancouver Park Board commissioner wants to accelerate plans to protect Vancouver's urban forest from drought.

Dave Demers, a landscaper who was elected in October as a Green Party representative, wants the city to do more to make sure that the varieties of trees it plants in parks and along streets can handle hotter, dryer and longer summers in the city.

'I think the situation is changing very fast and it's an emergency, we have to really speed up and double down on what we are already doing and not let go," he said. "The canopy, it's important, it's what makes the city livable and we cannot let that go."

Vancouver Park Board Commissioner Dave Demers says he wants to speed up plans to plant trees in Vancouver that can better cope with climate change. (CBC)

"To make sure ... in 10, 20 years, 30 years from now we have a canopy that's very resistant and healthy we really need to be careful what we plant and where," he said.

Vancouver is currently trying to increase the canopy of its urban forest, which is the amount of leaf cover over a city seen from the sky.

Urban forest benefits

The city had a 22 per cent canopy cover in 1995, but a combination of development, pests and even property owners bent on improving their views by cutting down mature trees caused that figure to decline to around 18 per cent.

The City of Vancouver is trying to plant 150,000 new trees across Vancouver in a 10-year span from 2010 to 2020 as part of its Urban Forest Strategy. There are more than 450,000 park and street trees combined in Vancouver, made up of around 500 different species.

A healthy urban forest can help clean the air, slow climate change, ease strong winds, conserve rainwater, provide wildlife habitat and contribute to a sense of wellbeing for city residents.

But Demers is worried that any gains will be snuffed out by the damage caused to trees, especially native ones such as Western red cedars, as drought becomes more common.

The root balls of pine trees that the Vancouver Park Board planted in 2018 as part of its push to get 150,000 new trees in the ground by 2020. (Chad Pawson/CBC)

City foresters are already doing work to assess kind of trees will thrive in Vancouver's future forest. They not only have to contend with climate change, but also encroachment from construction and development.

They are working to figure out what species of trees, such as those from naturally warmer regions in Oregon or Washington, will be best to plant here.

Demers wants that work to speed up. He says he's working on a motion to present in July that will strike a large committee to study the concept.

Some people are questioning what future cherry trees will have in Vancouver if summers continue to get warmer and winters, wetter. (Chad Pawson/CBC)

Demers also wants the Park Board to look for ways to ease stresses on the urban trees, such as putting in place other irrigation systems.

The City of Vancouver now uses more than 4,000 special water bags that are attached to trees to help give them steady water in the summer.

Signs of weakened forests continue to pop up however. This week a teen was killed near Sooke on Vancouver Island after a tree toppled on him. Experts say dry conditions and wind can impact the stability of trees.

Meanwhile a mature catalpa tree fell in strong winds in Vancouver's West End this week, but the Park Board say the tree was otherwise healthy.

With files from Timothé Matte-Bergeron.

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