NB Media Co-op: Fredericton and its trees: the story of a dysfunctional family
by Margo Sheppard
A June 2020 Fredericton Daily Gleaner story recounted a local woman jumping in front of a bulldozer to save an Eastern white cedar hedge at Old Government House, the Lieutenant Governor’s residence in Fredericton. It was migratory bird nesting season and no nest survey had been done. A subsequent protest and later rally drew 100 people showing their support to retain the cedars. On Sunday, October 4, the natural feature was razed by City crews at 8:00 am while onlookers filmed the destruction, powerless.
In 2018, tempers flared when Fredericton City Council announced plans to remove 19 of 23 mature trees from Officer’s Square in the heart of downtown. The City-appointed Tree Commission Chair, whose group had not been consulted, resigned as a result. A public meeting held to quell the uprising drew 250 people convinced that trees, and heritage, had gotten short shrift in the plan for revitalization. A few trees survived but many other serious concerns went unanswered.
Months later, the beloved Calithumpians tree (the Calithumpians are a youth theatre troupe, a decades-old institution of the City; their tree was their shade and also their stage) was chopped down under cover of darkness by City crews, surveillance video cameras conveniently turned off. The troupe decamped away from downtown and Officers’ Square in protest.
Most recently old growth hemlocks have come under threat in Odell Park from City-proposed trail building over the objections of the Friends of Odell Park and hundreds of concerned citizens.
The uneasy, some might say dysfunctional, relationship between the City and its tree-loving residents is a result of several things.
Firstly, the looming biodiversity and climate crises are in our faces daily. Removing beloved natural features predictably gets our ire up. At times it feels like the City Engineering or Parks and Trees Departments are unaware of the impacts of some of their nature-destroying actions. They are, but the pressure on them to deliver eclipses any moral hesitation over the cumulative impact of disruptive work, meaning they can only look at projects one by one.
Secondly, public distrust of the City over trees arises in part from the lack of a proper tree bylaw. Last December, a bylaw was hastily given first and second readings by Council then put out for public consultation over Christmas. It was ratified in January 2020. The bylaw got minimal attention and for good reason: it was rushed through without proper engagement and does nothing substantive to protect our tree cover, which is the beating heart of a liveable urban environment.
The bylaw is so feeble that the main thrust appears to be to keep people from hanging decorations, bird houses or lights in City-owned trees. There are no targets for canopy retention, no mention of trees on private property (except as they impinge on City lands), no mention of at-risk tree species, or the value of ecological services our trees provide, estimated in a City-commissioned study at roughly $195 million.
Even the fines in the bylaw are completely inconsequential. A $100 fine for cutting a tree is not going to deter anybody with a chainsaw and the desire for a nice(er) view.
Last year, a group called Trees Matter Fredericton was formed. The purpose, from Facebook, is to “create wider public involvement in caring for our urban forest in Fredericton and area, by strengthening city tree protection bylaws and policy and supporting positive and proactive local initiatives.” Several prominent Fredericton tree experts and activists have joined this group, which has as a key initiative, the creation of an urban forest strategy and plan.
This group recognizes factors rarely discussed: that old trees in Fredericton may never be seen again, because climate change and urban stressors mean that the average urban tree lifespan is seven years. Yes, just seven years, according to a City report. Add to this that the elms that typically provoke uproar when removed comprise only 4-5 per cent of our urban street tree population. They are our heritage, and thanks to Dutch Elm Disease and development pressures, they are disappearing fast.
To his credit, Councillor Greg Ericson in his role as City appointee to the Tree Commission, has championed an urban forest study and plan. His Council colleagues should support him and align to prioritize protection of our trees. Without this leadership, trees in this municipality won’t get the attention, or care, they deserve and will continue to be needlessly destroyed.
We will only reach a place where each tree downed is not perceived as an affront when we have a proactive plan reached through a coherent, democratic process. It must be deliberative, where people have a say, the City has theirs, and a mediated solution is found to balance competing viewpoints. No single camp can be allowed to take precedence over the other; like any major family heart-to-heart, this is too important to mess up by clinging to old grudges, egos or predetermined outcomes.
The results must be made available and the plan truly embraced by City Council and staff, with implementing instruments (bylaws, policies, directives, etc.) being in complete alignment with the plan’s goals and objectives.
This dysfunctional family has hope, we just need to find some common ground and stick to it going forward.
Margo Sheppard is a resident of Fredericton.