Why planting trees is an act of faith

Sexist Tree Planting
Alice Casselman was laughing. « Oh, no, » she said. « You can’t use that in your column. »

« But why not? » I asked. « It’s not offensive. And it’s very graphic. It says better than anything else what’s wrong. »


We were talking about planting trees. She’s a retired high school science teacher and president of the Association for Canadian Educational Resources (ACER) in Toronto. Finally she agreed that I could quote her. « Planting trees has been sexist, » she said, still laughing. « It’s been slam, bam, thank you ma’am. »


All kinds of well-meaning people have been « planting and walking » she said. After putting in seedlings, they haven’t returned on a regular basis to document how the trees have been faring.


As a result, she said, there’s little reliable data on success rates or reasons for failures. This ought to be a huge concern. The climate is changing, causing stress among trees. Some will die. Some, such as oaks and sugar maples, are more vulnerable than others.


There’s a desperate need for reliable data to guide us in preserving trees and in replacing those that die, she said.


« We have all these volunteers planting their hearts out, » she added. Students, service clubs, companies, neighbourhood organizations. But they’re not necessarily planting at the right time, or at the right depth, or in soil properly prepared. And there’s little systematic, scientific checking on the progress of the seedlings.


As Casselman was speaking, Marianne Karsh was nodding emphatically. She’s a forester and coordinator of Arborvitae in Pickering.


Cumulative stress kills trees, she said. « Three stresses — such as an increase in temperatures, drought, and acid rain that leaches nutrients from the soil — usually mean death. »


Seedlings are especially susceptible, she added. « The first five to seven years are critical. If there’s a lot of competition, or if there are other stresses, the seedlings will die. Or they’ll grow poorly. There can be a 50 per cent difference in their height, their diameter, and in their weight. »


« Of the hundreds of thousands of trees planted in southern Ontario’s urban and suburban areas, only a small percentage are alive at age 40, » Casselman said. « We want to change that. »
She and Karsh have teamed up with the Humber Arboretum on a project to generate the kind of data that will ensure better success in plantings.

The project has two stages: first, to develop standard procedures for planting trees, and for measuring their growth and survival rates; second, to encourage people across the province to establish forestry monitoring plots, so that data from different areas and from different growing conditions can be obtained and compared.

Their focus is on urban and suburban areas, because that’s where the impact of climate change is going to be the greatest, Casselman said. Cities, with all their asphalt and waste heat boost the effects of global warming.


The project is larger that it might appear at first glance. It will need to provide training and written guidelines in planting seedlings, and in measuring and recording growth; staking, surveying, and seeding one-hectare plots; setting up control plots; ensuring there is regular transportation to each plot over many years; and building interactive web sites for the volunteers at each plot.


The first plot is being laid out at the Humber Arboretum where 2,150 trees and shrubs are being planted. The cost, just to purchase the seedlings, is $15,000. Some seedlings will come from trees  growing as far south as North Carolina. Casselman and Karsh want to see if they’ll be better able to survive changing weather patterns.


They estimate they’ll need to raise $200,000 to run a successful program with about 15 sites. Already they’ve received startup funding through Environment Canada’s EcoAction program.
tree is an act of faith that you can make a difference, » said Casselman. I like the way they’re trying to give faith a better chance.

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