09/27/2017 10:42 EDT | Updated 09/27/2017 10:53 EDT

4 Challenges We Must Overcome To Preserve Canada's Urban Forests

As we celebrate National Tree Day, it's clear we need to take a more strategic approach to maintaining and improving our urban forests.

Today is National Tree Day (Sept. 27), a day for all Canadians to appreciate — and be reminded of — all the great benefits that trees provide. Trees, of course, are the infrastructure of the urban environment, offering shade and clean air, canceling noise, absorbing dust and water, reducing energy consumption, providing people with psychological and physical well-being and more.

Sadly, forest cover in Canadians cities has been declining over the past 20 years. Considering Canadians have always tied much of our national identity to nature, this is especially concerning when you consider that 80-plus per cent of our population now lives in urban areas — four out of every five people.

As we celebrate National Tree Day, here's a look at the four main factors that are putting Canada's urban forests at risk:

Andy Clark / Reuters
A forest fire burns on the edge of Kelowna, British Columbia, July 19, 2009.

Climate change

A recent study showed that extreme thunderstorms coupled with a lack of precipitation as well as climate change-driven insect infestations (such as mountain pine beetle), were the main driver for massive fires in Canada in recent years. This past spring, Tree Canada began a multi-year, million-dollar initiative to restore Fort McMurray's urban tree cover by planting more than 76,000 trees in the areas devastated by last summer's inferno. Unfortunately, just months after Operation ReLeaf Fort McMurray kicked off, a provincial state of emergency was declared in B.C. in what would become the province's worst fire season on record.

We should expect more wildfires like this in the future due to climate change. Additionally, thanks in part to climate change, our urban forests are at risk of being destroyed by floods such as the ones in Ottawa and Gatineau this spring, in Windsor, Ontario this summer, and in Alberta in 2014.

Ho New / Reuters
The towering pine trees of British Columbia's rugged Caribou Region are paying with their lives for five consecutive winters that have not been cold enough to kill a tiny predator. Thousands of trees are infested with mountain pine beetles in an exploding infestation that threatens to destroy more than CA$4 billion in timber.

Invasive insects

Tens of millions of ash trees in the U.S. and Canada have been killed by emerald ash borer, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The city of Montreal recently announced it is planning to cut down thousands of ash trees to fight the effects of the invasive Asian beetle, continuing a disheartening trend that's seen the city of Ottawa chop down close to 15,000 ash trees, with the city of Toronto set to lose most of their 860,000 ash trees.

There's also of course the mountain pine beetle, a tiny bug about the size of a grain of rice that has destroyed millions of pine trees in the forests of B.C. and towns like Prince George, and is now threatening some of Canada's top tourist attractions, Jasper and Banff National Parks in Alberta. This beetle, a natural part of the pine forests of Alberta and B.C., was historically controlled by cold, winter temperatures. However, because of climate change, the temperatures in both provinces no longer drop low enough to control these pests and the results have been devastating. More than 44 million acres of trees have been lost.

To help mitigate the damage caused by invasive insects, Tree Canada has set up an Operation ReLeaf -Emerald Ash Borer program, as well as an Operation ReLeaf - Alberta mountain pine beetle program, to help homeowners, private landowners and municipalities replace and care for trees, but provincial and federal governments need to do more to protect our urban tree canopy.

LightRocket via Getty Images

Poor urban planning decisions

As more and more people move into our cities, Canada is in danger of losing valuable urban tree cover. On the one hand, it's uncontroversial to say that urban sprawl can cause significant destruction to tree cover. On the other hand, if it's not done properly, intensification can also be harmful to urban forests. To ensure our cities are both sustainable and places we want to live in, we need to make better urban planning decisions based on smart growth principles with strong environmental protections for our urban green spaces. This approach uses existing infrastructure wisely while incorporating trees into the design of any new buildings.

The LeBreton Flats redevelopment initiative in Ottawa is one excellent example of urban intensification using smart growth principles. It adds to the city's urban tree canopy, rather than harming it. Now a brownfield site, developers for the new proposed home of the NHL's Senators plan to restore the soil from its current polluted state, build parks and plant trees, making the area greener and cleaner than before.

LightRocket via Getty Images

The lack of a robust national urban forest strategy

Here in Canada, you might be surprised to learn there is currently no federal leadership strategy to preserve, protect and promote urban forests for their life-giving value to Canadian communities. In fact, we are significantly behind other G7 countries when looking at the role of the federal government vis-à-vis our urban forests, especially the U.S., where management of the nation's urban forests falls under the responsibility of an individual equivalent to a Canadian deputy minister.

There is also a severe lack of knowledge in the country when it comes to urban forestry, which is why Tree Canada advocated for the University of British Columbia to develop Canada's first and only bachelor's degree program in urban forestry back in 2015.

As we celebrate National Tree Day, it's clear we need to take a more strategic approach to maintaining and improving our urban forests at both the provincial and federal level in order to combat climate change, invasive insects and poor densification. We have to start creating new programs which recognize municipalities for successful urban forest initiatives, and we need to continue educating private residents, who actually own up to 70 per cent of our country's urban forest.

By developing a "forest city" ethic within Canada, we can protect our urban tree canopies and actually start increasing tree cover in our urban areas for the first time in over 20 years.

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