Planting the seed to protect Orillia’s cherished urban canopy

The best time to plant a tree is 40 years ago.

It’s a well-worn line that is bound to elicit a knowing chuckle from those tasked with ensuring a healthy abundance of this cherished natural resource.

For Michael Williams, it also points to a harder truth about the vital importance of protecting a city’s urban canopy through long-term planning.

“Some of the big beautiful ones that are out there, when you explain to your child or grandchild the age of that tree and how long it’s been around, I think it just brings a sense of wonderment, ” said the chair of Orillia’s environmental advisory committee.

The importance of planning — make that planting — is becoming increasingly apparent as the municipality comes to terms with the knowledge that a number of the mature trees that shade the streets and lend the city its bucolic charm are either dead or dying.

In partnership with the municipality, Williams and other volunteers are digging to the root of the issue as they work to determine how many of the stately specimens are at risk and how best to respond.

Residents who know of dead or dying trees will also be encouraged to contact the city once the project is underway, he said.

“Our hope is that we will get a lot of engagement,” Williams said, adding the effort will initially concentrate on public areas such as boulevards.

Trees have numerous environmental benefits and contribute substantially to the character of the community, agrees parks manager John McMullen.

In the same breath, McMullen stressed that planting trees along streets in a manner that achieves the characteristic canopy effect poses challenges due to space restrictions imposed by sidewalks and public utilities.

“A fair bit of forethought does need to go in to it, so that you don’t destroy what you’re trying to do there,” he said, adding the effects of road salt and sand on certain species must also be taken into consideration.

Beyond their esthetic appeal, trees provide substantial benefit to the local ecosystem, reducing soil erosion, cooling the air, and helping offset the greenhouse effect by storing carbon.

However, many local neighbourhoods are home to a larger number of overmature street trees, Williams said.

Ideally, replacements should already have been planted alongside these aging specimens, to ensure young stock is there to fill the eventual void.

To that end, the group has secured council support for a project that will identify dying and aging trees in neighbourhoods and on select streets for replacement, with an emphasis on areas where tree cover is jeopardized.

“They’ll be smaller, of course, and take years to grow,” Williams said.

A separate but related effort will explore potential long-term projects that include a focus on “urban corridor cover” — lining major roads with shallow-rooted trees to improve streetscapes.

In the fall the group will review a soon-to-expire rebate program that provides residents with up to $50 for the purchase of specific tree species, with recommendations to follow.

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