Mapping & Mobilizing in Earl Grey

Thanks to Earl Grey resident Oly Backstrom for this local tree story!

About 25 years ago, we bought our first and only house in the Earl Grey area. A big reason we loved the neighbourhood was the spectacular urban forest – a canopy primarily made up of elm  trees. Whether walking or riding bike, we found shade in the hot summer days. The elms in the winter provided a stark beauty. 

I’ll admit that, over the years, I took the trees for granted. Many days meant a longer day at work, a stop at the gym, and then pulling into the garage through the back alley as the sun was setting or had already set. The pandemic changed all of that, of course. Suddenly, I was left to figure out how to exercise and tend to my mental health while unable (or unwilling given the risk) to go to the gym. I eventually established a routine – walking in our beautiful neighbourhood. It was a significant upside – I became more tuned in to what was happening, and the block-to-block nuances. 

I always knew that we had a Dutch Elm Disease problem in the city, and had seen the “red dots of death” for years. During the summer of 2020, however, I really became aware of the extent of the problem in our neighbourhood of Earl Grey. First, I noticed what seemed to be a high number of trees with red dots. It might not have been any higher than past years, but now that I was more tuned in, I was alarmed. I decided to map out the red-dotted trees in Earl Grey, bordered by Stafford, Corydon, Pembina and Grant. A few blocks in, however, I realized that I was missing part of the picture—I hadn’t really tuned in to the number of stumps representing recently removed trees. I realized that the map had to show both stumps and trees marked for removal to tell the story that needed to be told.

Once completed, I posted it on Twitter, and it became a point of discussion because the results were so alarming. You could see disease patterns where some blocks were hit particularly hard.

Melissa Martin from the Winnipeg Free Press reached out and wrote a feature on the map, and the negative impact on the neighbourhood. (See: Lost Treasure)

As luck would have it, our own block started a movement to mobilize to try to address the issue on a local basis. For this, I can’t take any credit—though I am thoroughly involved, it was other ringleaders who pulled us together. After a few evening outdoor meetings and conversations, a “coalition of the willing” decided to chip into a fund to purchase nine disease-resistant trees (species approved by the city) to start filling the “gapteeth” in our block as the result of recently removed elms. We would also purchase injection treatment for one of our boulevard elms, as well as grind down stumps that had been left after removal. These decisions was based on an environmental scan that informed us of a few things:

  • the city was years behind planting replacement trees and grinding down stumps
  • Purchased trees, though still young and small, would be significantly more mature than the free trees available through the “million tree challenge”, and thus more likely to survive and thrive.
  • An arborist had provided feedback that the majority of our remaining elms were either vulnerable to disease or already showing signs of disease, and that most would likely be lost in the coming years.

Our Councillor, Sherri Rollins, attended one of our meetings, listened to our concerns, and did provide some financial help from her office to our project. 

It has been great to work together with our neighbours on this project. It’s built a sense of community that we hadn’t previously experienced or contributed to. Most of us know that this will be a long term project; more trees will eventually be removed, and we are already proactively planning to purchase more trees for another fall planting. In the meantime, we’ve worked out a watering plan for our newer additions during this unusually hot and dry summer we are having.

I’m still walking the neighbourhood, paying attention to the trees and what is happening. The city is starting to mark trees newly identified for removal. I fear that it is going to be a tough summer for tree removals in the neighbourhood (and plan to update the map once it looks like the city is finished with the marking). As much as it pains me to see the trees marked for removal, I do fear that diseased trees are not actually being removed quickly enough, giving disease a chance to thrive and spread. Our beautiful elms are fighting a tough summer of heat, drought, and defoliation from worms and aphids. We’ll see how we fare.

We’re lucky in that we have a collection of neighbours mobilized to work together to do something about our little spot in the neighbourhood. Enough of us also have the financial means to chip in and shift into our proactive tree purchase/planting mode. Not all blocks or neighbourhoods have the means to do this. We know that the city is in a financially tight spot, and is fighting an infrastructure deficit. I hope that our city representatives, as well as our provincial and federal representatives, understand that our tree canopy is also part of our urban infrastructure.

Our canopy is not just aesthetically pleasing – it helps us stay cool, our houses stay cool, and should be considered an important part of our bigger fight against climate change. In a perfect world, our governments would jump into a proactive mode, protecting and nurturing the healthy trees left, expediting removal of diseased trees, and speeding up the planting of disease-resistant shade trees. This would provide an equitable solution to our canopy problem. In the meantime, we’ll keep acting locally and piping up about our canopy crisis. I don’t know what our neighbourhood will look like in the next 25 years, but I hope we can—as citizens and as a city—get on top of our canopy crisis.

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