Trees are priceless, life-giving public assets that provide the air we breathe. While local counties and townships across southern Ontario have been empowered to enact tree-cutting bylaws since the Trees Conservation Act of 1946, the power to protect natural assets is discretionary and typically falls to local champions who have the time and resources to coordinate, depute, and speak up for trees.
In the County of Prince Edward, located along Lake Ontario between Toronto and Ottawa, tree protection is a slow story of local citizen action and the determination to affect change. In this rural municipality, zoned predominantly as agricultural, the right to clear land is a mindset embedded in the ethic of a colonial farming economy.
In 2001, then-Deputy Engineer Ernie Margetson (now Councilor of Hillier Ward), was reviewing the plans for the rebuilding of Picton’s historic King Street and noticed that more than 60 mature trees were slated for removal in the road work. Having been raised with an ethic for the value of trees, Margetson was concerned by the lack of tree protection and tree replacement measures to guide the work. He hired an arborist to assess the health of the trees and was able to save a portion of them. His efforts led to a two-page policy in 2002, directing the Public Works Department to maintain and enhance the roadside tree stock and associated canopy for the enjoyment of present and future generations. Without his foresight and perseverance, King Street would look very different today.
More than a decade later, new residents of the County expect better tree protection standards, and are speaking up about the frequent removal of trees during roadside clearing without community consent, care, or municipal measures to replace. In 2016, Tree the County was launched by Susan Banks and PEC Field Naturalists members, who invited representatives from The Master Gardeners and the Horticultural Society to join them in advocating for more formalized political discussion around tree protection, and to raise awareness of the value of trees as public assets and their role in reducing the impacts of climate crises.
In March 2017, Susan Banks and Gerry Jenkison, on behalf of Tree the County, addressed Council to seek “a forward-looking tree policy for the County which sees trees as a valuable community asset and integrates green infrastructure into the asset management and financial planning of the municipality.”
Lise Bois, past president of the PEC Horticultural Society, became aware of the plight and joined Tree the County. “This group was instrumental in getting the municipality to revise its existing tree policy.” After a number of deputations and meetings with the County’s Chief Administrative Officer, in 2017 Council established the Ad Hoc Tree Policy Advisory Committee composed of community volunteers, staff, and a developer to advise on a policy. As chair, Susan Banks remembers, “We had to maintain a constant pressure to get something going. It was the energy of the group that kept pushing to find an open door.”
“We looked at many other tree policies/bylaws from similar communities,” Bois says. “After more than two years a tree policy was finally adopted. We also proposed an “Adopt a Tree” program [adopted in Spring 2022] to engage residents in the care for newly planted trees. We are now in the process of trying to get this policy to become bylaw.”
Thanks to the persistent efforts of a small-but-mighty group of tree champions, the County’s “no net loss” Tree Management and Protection Policy (adopted January 2021) now guides tree management in the urban settlement areas (Picton, Bloomfield, Wellington, and Consecon), in all public land (parks and roadside right-of-ways), and for all new commercial development proposals. While neither enforceable by law or requiring permits to apply, now, with a staff person to oversee the policy and begin a County-wide tree inventory, the County is committed to planting trees on public lands, reviewing and assessing tree removals along roads prior to work proceeding, and upholding a new consciousness around the value of trees as public assets and the need to constantly regenerate the tree canopy. In April 2022, one of the first comprehensive Tree Assessment and Protection Plans, prepared by certified arborist Jennifer Gagné of Cohen & Master Tree & Shrub Services, was provided to the Planning Department as part of The Wellington Hotel’s Site Plan Application.
Says Banks, “Now there is a much better attitude toward tree protection and enthusiasm, a better attitude toward the community that wasn’t there before. Staff have approved a version of a policy that we can live with but, while there are no enforcement measures, change is coming slowly. I think it’s moving in the right direction.“
Text by Victoria Taylor, OALA, CSLA, principal/founder of VTLA Studio | vtla.ca