The rise of the tree-savers

Since the war a million city trees have been destroyed in Canada by bulldozers, snowplows, vandals and disease. At times, the public has seemed to hate its trees. Now, the professional treesavers are fighting back with test tubes, strange machinery and a determination that tomorrow's children will play in the shade

FRANKLIN RUSSELL November 4 1961

The rise of the tree-savers

Since the war a million city trees have been destroyed in Canada by bulldozers, snowplows, vandals and disease. At times, the public has seemed to hate its trees. Now, the professional treesavers are fighting back with test tubes, strange machinery and a determination that tomorrow's children will play in the shade

FRANKLIN RUSSELL November 4 1961

The rise of the tree-savers

Since the war a million city trees have been destroyed in Canada by bulldozers, snowplows, vandals and disease. At times, the public has seemed to hate its trees. Now, the professional treesavers are fighting back with test tubes, strange machinery and a determination that tomorrow's children will play in the shade


ONE MORNING EARLY this summer, a strangelooking machine shot past a bulldozer working beside Highway Ten, north of Orangeville, Ontario, uprooted a thirty-foot tree and roared away in a cloud of dust.

This Jules Verne-like incident is one example of a relatively new breed of men at work—the tree-savers. The machine belonged to the Ontario Department of Highways and was saving a small wood lot of pine trees from the bulldozer's destruction.

The tree-savers are a mixed bunch; some arc arborists working for parks departments, others university or government pathologists hunting for cures to tree diseases; the rest are tree surgeons using axe, chisel and saw to doctor trees back to health. All are working with growing speed and effectiveness to halt the tree destruction that began w'hen the w'hite man landed in North Amer-

ica and which is only beginning to be slowed today.

Their work is changing the face of Canada’s cities. Elms, oaks and maples are fast disappearing from our streets. Replacing them are fastergrowing, more easily maintained trees, like crab apple and mountain ash in the east, and cherry and plum in British Columbia.

$a\ing trees is nothing new. The Romans doctored their more valuable trees. But only in North America, and particularly in Canada in the last ten years, has tree-saving been forced to become a really well-organized fight. In only twentyfive years Dutch elm disease, a fungus distributed by beetles, has killed a hundred million elm trees in North America. About five million maples have died in Canada in the last ten years of an unknown disease, vaguely called "dicback." The commonest tree in the eastern U. S., the chestnut, w'as wiped


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The elm was to be destroyed. It won a reprieve. Then it was attacked — with axes, fires and bombs

out by a virulent blight in only twentysix years. Since the w'ar. roughly a million irreplaceable city shade trees have been destroyed in our cities by bulldozers, snowplows. vandals, neglect and disease. Vast areas of the new Canada—shopping plazas, parking lots, housing subdivisions —remain treeless, and look like reconstruction after an atomic-bomb blast.

Till recently, the record of the treesavers has been depressing. Howard Ferguson, who had once been Ontario premier, fought, with temporary success, to stop the widening of Toronto’s Avenue Road and the destruction of old shade trees there: but the trees were toppling rapidly again shortly after his death in 1946. Between 1946 and 1951, Toronto de-

stroyed 21.000 city shade trees in various street widening projects. Montreal lost more than 30.000 in the same time.

The incredible incident of Winnipeg’s Wolseley Avenue elm showed how difficult it may be to save any tree in the city. It was due to be removed as a traffic hazard in 1957 but won a reprieve from Mayor Stephen Juba after a public

outcry. Clandestinely, it was hacked, chopped, gouged, girdled, set on fire and finally finished off with a homemade bomb. Its assailants are unknown to this day and the furor over its destruction obscured the brilliant efforts made to save it. Under horticulturist Professor A. C. Ferguson’s direction, tree surgeon Alec Gudziak grafted twenty to thirty small strips of living wood into the trunk. These bridged the areas without bark and grew into strips of conductive tissue. In addition, Gudziak circled the tree with small elms and grafted their tops into the big tree, above the girdling. Gudziak’s work would have saved the tree but it was not devised to withstand bombing. The elm died in 1960.

Though Gudziak was unsuccessful, he showed that modern tree surgery can be an essential part of the tree-saver's art. Ross Wood, a Niagara Parks Commission tree surgeon, recently operated on an old oak. First, he used a power chisel to clean out a rotted hollow. He lined the cavity with tar paper, then laid in four-inch layers of concrete, each spaced by tar paper inserts, and designed to move fractionally when the tree flexed in the wind. He drilled a hole diagonally up beneath the cavity and hammered in a brass drainpipe to remove condensation.

The tree was sprawling and Wood cut out some branches to balance the weight on the trunk. He linked other branches with stainless steel wire, and drove a cadmium-plated brace through two branches above a splitting fork. Then he pruned to get beauty of appearance and to allow sunlight through to sustain the grass at the foot of the tree.

Skillful tree surgery like this can save almost any tree as long as it isn't actually senile. But it is a supreme irony of tree-saving that there never have been so many commercial tree surgery companies in Canada—about 300 today—and never so little tree surgery done by them. Most make their money trimming or removing trees, not saving them. "In the old days.” says Wilfred Weller, an Ontario tree expert, “people who owned trees loved them and cared for them. Today it's a very different story.”

F. F.arle Martin, president of Cedarvale Tree Fxperts Ltd., one of Canada's biggest tree surgery firms, recalls saving an old oak with extensive surgery for former Royal Winter Fair president John McKee for $500. Today, he has trouble persuading tree owners to spend ten dollars to remove dead branches. "So little cavity work is done,” he says sadly, "that the art almost disappeared during the war."

The commercial tree-men find some sentiment for trees today but this usually disappears the moment it has to be backed up with cash. Weller says the great days of tree surgery were during the depression. "Those who kept their money had no hesitation in spending it," he says. One Toronto millionaire kept Weller working for nearly three years transplanting $75,000 worth of fully grown trees to his Bayview Avenue estate.

Through this, and other big jobs. Weller became a top tree-moving expert, capable of transplanting trees weighing up to fifty tons. Oddly enough, this is earning money for him today. Though few people can be bothered with tree care, many have no hesitation in plunking down $400 to $600 for a half-grown tree transplanted to their bare suburban lots. The economics of this baffle Weller. Often, he transplants to areas only recently denuded of trees by builders. But he has noticed the demand

for transplants — he did 3.000 one year — comes mainly from people who want trees for practical reasons; keeping the house cool or providing shade for outdoor barbecues, on a sort of "instant tree” plan.

To survive destruction in the city, a tree must not be a nuisance or get in the way of making a profit. When Gordon McNair was city arborist for Hamilton. he noticed that all oil companies had rubber-stamped their new service station plans with; “Remove all trees in area.” He tried to sell the idea that trees could vastly improve bleak station sites but got nowhere. "Who sweeps up the leaves?” asked one company executive.

When a huge elm on an apartment house lot in the old district of Rosedale, 'I oronto. was killed by Dutch elm disease recently, the owner rang Jack Kimmel, the City of Toronto arborist and asked him to remove it. Kimmel can’t touch trees on private property but he warned the owner the dead tree could infect the neighborhood. It’s still standing, a danger

to millions of dollars worth of stately elms for want of a $100 removal job.

This cavalier attitude to trees is the main reason why preservation work is fast passing out of private hands. The International Shade Tree Conference has mushroomed into a powerful tree-saving force. Some of its members want laws to give them control over trees on private property. Its membership comes largely from tree experts in municipal, state, provincial and federal governments. These men often have power and money to save trees on public property. Even so. this does not make their jobs easy.

George Dalby, Superintendent of Horticulture of the 3.500-acre Niagara Parks Commission parkland flanking Niagara Falls, uses 7,000 gallons of spray and a crew of twenty to combat all the enemies of his 57,000 trees. He fights a bewildering variety of tree-killing funguses. He trys to control tree-eating scale insects and spider mites and to halt the spread of the beetles which carry Dutch elm disease. He forcefeeds diet-deficient trees with fertilizer drilled into their root systems. Latest methods and chemicals keep his tree losses to less than a thousand a year.

Few municipalities are anywhere near ready to embrace this sort of tree care even though their trees may be worth millions. “Many communities seem re-

signed to heavy tree losses,” says John Riddle, manager of the 100-man Davey Tree Expert Company. “They can’t believe that treatment is worthwhile.” He has great difficulty selling the idea of spending three dollars per tree to spray against disease. But he has no trouble getting $100 to remove a tree when it dies and becomes dangerous or unsightly.

To save trees, municipalities must have an intelligent system of cutting corners and costs since they lack the public support for heavy tree spending. Ron Hambly, general superintendent of the Metropolitan Toronto Parks Department, has a relatively big budget for tree care— $30,000 to cover 3,500 acres—but his scores of thousands of trees are in every conceivable location, in gullies, ravines, vacant lots, and by roads and superhighways. He has no hope of battling diseases that reach his trees from adjacent areas but instead concentrates his experts and equipment on the highest priority trees. He uses a combination of pruning and spraying which keeps strategic tree losses to around one and a half percent. A good part of his budget must go to getting rid of diseased, dead elms— five hundred of them every year.

Montreal has perhaps the worst problem. Once famed as a great tree city.

its tree losses are today running 300 percent higher than Toronto’s—1,500 a year from collisions with snowplows alone. Arborists visiting the city are horrified at the public disregard of trees. “It’s almost a hostility.” one arborist said recently. A Belgian-born horticulturist, Joseph Dumont, is fighting hard not only to halt the tree slaughter, but also to educate the whole city to tree saving.

The tree in the modern city may be unloved by its owners, a barrier to progress and a host for disease, but rural trees probably die needlessly in far greater numbers. Little can be done to save trees from the march of power and telephone lines but Harold Spence, chief arborist for the Ontario Department of Highways, at least is saving them from highway construction.

Ten years ago, engineers would send construction crews trampling across country via the shortest possible routes. Today, they go to work after the department’s tree men have charted all valuable trees in the way. On the still unbuilt section of Ontario’s 401 superhighway trees in valuable hickory wood lots in a score of places in the Chatham area, instead of being destroyed, are standing on the highway right of way.

But the department's greatest trick is the

mechanical tree-saver. This is a weirdlooking, $37,000-machine which can ram its metal snout five feet into the ground and lift a twentyor thirty-foot tree, roots and all. and replant it. Since 1959, this machine has been whisked all over the province and snatched more than 2,000 trees from under the blades of the advancing bulldozers. Arborist Spence would like to have a huge tree-float which will speed uprooted trees a hundred miles or more to new planting sites.

Tree surgery, transplanting, spray programs, feeding and pruning are all essential but arborists are reluctantly conscious that in a fast-moving world, the slowgrowing tree is an anachronism. “Some trees may take 300 years to mature," said one arborist recently. "Then, wham! Along comes a new fungus and wipes them all out." Science may supply the answer: a fast-growing tree.

The Ontario Paper Company has thousands of hybrid poplars growing on Manitouiin Island on Lake Huron some of which, eight years old. are more than fifty feet high and nearly a foot through the trunk. They are growing at rates up to three times faster than normal trees. Dr. Carl Heimburger of the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests, is experimenting with a number of hybrid trees designed to grow faster or resist disease, or both. The chestnut may yet reappear, disease-resistant this time.

George Dalby points out that many existing trees can meet demands for speed. He is using ailanthus—till now held in contempt as a slum tree—to clothe Niagara Gorge banks quickly. He has a royal paulownia which, less than twenty years old. is nearly thirty feet high. But sheer speed may be dangerous. Lombardy poplars have become popular in Vancouver but their eight-foot-a-year growth makes ownership a trimming nightmare which, as local tree surgeon Nat Williams says, "often means the owners can’t keep up with them."

Tree research has lagged far behind other sciences in the past, says Dr. James Reid, a federal government forest pathologist, mainly because it is difficult to speed up research on anything that grows as slowly as a tree. But research is quickening now. A Russian, Dr. P. S. Zakharov, is changing the physical properties of trees, making their wood fireresistant, harder, more flexible and even colored. Eventually, the great tree disease problem may yield to chemotherapy— treating sick trees with antibiotics— though this is not yet a recognized science.

But none of this touches public apathy to trees. To counter apathy, the treesavers are working to persuade youngsters that trees are a good thing. Montreal's Joseph Dumont has given 20.000 free trees to school children with encouragement to plant them, and has seen them sprout in a hundred back yards. Yearly, he sends a blizzard of tree propaganda to schools, public figures and press. "We can educate the people,” he says.

The giveaway tree idea was tried in Toronto but abandoned because so many young trees ended up in gutters or garbage cans. But the Toronto Board of Education, say arborists, is doing an outstanding job of tree planting on school grounds and then interesting youngsters in looking after them.

Montreal will plant 200.000 trees in the next ten years, I oronto between 200,000 and 400,000. Winnipeg has an active plan to line most new streets with trees. The tree-savers all agree with George Dalby’s philosophy at Niagara: “For every tree you lose, plant two." In this way, the next generation is going to get trees, whether it wants them or not. ^