09/22/2015 05:34 EDT | Updated 09/22/2016 05:12 EDT

Canada Needs a National Urban Forest Strategy

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Considering the environment never receives much discussion around election time, it should come as no surprise that the topic of urban tree cover is buried deep in the forest of political discourse, under a layer of heavy brush.

However, I believe a big part of our national identity is tied to the environment, and our leaders should strive to improve the health of our communities and the Canadians who live in them.

Two recent studies show a clear link between nature and personal well-being. Using data from Toronto, a team of researchers showed that having 10 more trees on your block can have self-reported health benefits akin to a $10,000 salary raise or being seven years younger. And scientists from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently concluded that increased exposure to nature "can have positive effects on mental/psychological health, healing, heart rate, concentration, levels of stress, blood pressure, behavior and other health factors."

Trees, of course, also clean the air, provide shade, increase wildlife habitat, store carbon, fight the impact of climate change and help prevent flooding, as each mature tree will lift nearly 400 litres of water out of the ground.

But without a national urban forest strategy, many of our urban tree canopies are at risk. The city of Toronto estimates most of their 860,000 ash trees will be affected by the emerald ash borer, with most killed by 2017. In the nation's capital, the devastation can be seen by anyone who walks through Ottawa's Arboretum or Hampton Park, with close to 15,000 dead or dying ash trees having already been chopped down in the city.

While this invasive insect from Asia spreads rapidly across the eastern part of the country (southern Ontario, western Quebec and the Montreal area), the Alberta mountain pine beetle -- a tiny bug about the size of a grain of rice -- has already done more than 19 million hectares of damage to British Columbia and Alberta forests. For context, a hectare is about the size of your average football field.

To help mitigate the damage caused by these invasive insects, Tree Canada has set up both an Alberta mountain pine beetle ReLeaf program and an emerald ash borer Releaf program to provide funding to homeowners, private landowners and municipalities for replacing trees. This past summer, our organization also entered into a new pilot project with the City of Peterborough to reimburse private landowners for some of the cost of the insecticide needed to kill the beetle. While many cities have been slow to combat the problem when EAB was first sighted in their backyards, Peterborough has gone on the offensive, recognizing that the beetles spread fast (flying up to 10 kilometres in distance), and therefore need to be wiped out on both public and private land.

Tree Canada works with many Canadian communities who have been proactive in the fight against these tree-killing insects, but more needs to be done to protect our urban tree canopy, especially with an increasing number of floods and forest fires occurring across the country.

This year, in honour of National Forest Week -- which falls on the third week of the month -- and National Tree Day (September 23), we encourage Canadians to ask their candidates about where they stand on the issue of a national urban forest strategy.

Developing a national strategy to protect and replenish our urban forests is not only necessary to keeping Canada beautiful, it's vital in maintaining the health of each and every Canadian. While trees might not seem like such an important issue around election time, I think we all realize how much emptier our lives would feel without them -- and now studies back that up.


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