Why We Need to Keep Our Mature Trees Standing in Peterborough

Mature riparian forest of black walnut / black locust along the Otonabee River, Peterborough, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

“Intentional destruction of mature trees by our municipalities is alarming,” reported Tricia Clarkson, climate columnist with the Peterborough Examiner.

In a June 2022 article in the Peterborough Examiner, Clarkson disclosed that thousands of mature trees were being destroyed along country roads in the Douro-Dummer region that should instead have been just pruned.

Just pruning and leaving older trees intact over removal and planting new trees is the best natural solution to climate change.

Country road in the Kawarthas, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

William Moomaw, with Yale Environment 360 and lead author of five reports for the IPCC, recommends the practice of proforestation: leaving older and middle-aged forests (and trees) intact because of their superior carbon-sequestration abilities. Preserving existing mature forests and trees more efficiently slows global warming, given that they are already at their full potential in carbon sequestration. Immature trees sequester far less CO2 than mature trees and newly planted trees (young saplings) take decades to reach their full CO2 sequestering potential. Why remove what is already working?

Certainly plant a trillion trees (as Thomas Crowther at University of Zurich recommends); not instead but alongside maintaining and protecting our already existing carbon stocks, our current old-growth forests and mature urban forests. This should not be a trade off. We shouldn’t be planting new trees with one hand and cutting mature forests with the other; we need both to remain.

Clarkson points out the need to make a distinction between industrial production forests and natural forests. The lumber industry manages its industrial forests to improve timber production, at the cost of biodiversity (often through clearcutting) and with loss of hub “mother” trees for ecosystem health; cut forests and forest plantations do not perform important ecosystem services (such as carbon sequestration and water balance) that a natural and old-growth forest does. It’s important to recognize the different gifts that trees provide us and the need to balance these, not myopically look to just the obvious (e.g. what we can take from them such as timber). Unfortunately, short-term economic interest too often dominates decisions on forest and tree management. Moomaw recommends that trees and forests in the age range of 70 to 125 years are capable of sequestering the most carbon; unfortunately, 70 years for many species of tree is the perfect size for the sawmill, writes Clarkson.

Trees uprooted in the derecho windstorm of May 2022, Peterborough, ON (photos by Nina Munteanu)

The Peterborough region had already lost so many mature trees to the derecho windstorm in May 2022. Purposefully cutting down so many mature trees to ‘improve the roads’ is indeed alarming. We will not experience the many gifts rendered by these cut down trees for another thirty to fifty years, when the newly planted trees mature. This gap is a step backward when we should be stepping forward.

Autumn in Mark S. Burnham Provincial Park, Peterborough, ON (photos by Nina Munteanu)
Old moss-covered sugar maple tree in Mark S. Burnham Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Old maple tree on west path through Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The approach of municipalities and counties with tree and forest management should not be restricted to short-term engineering or city planning considerations. Peterborough’s urban forests and the forests of its countryside need to be approached from a more holistic perspective that includes the many other important gifts trees provide us. Do planners and engineers (and even arborists) consider the ecosystem role of urban forests with associated understory and natural vegetation and undisturbed soils (with associated communities) play in land stabilization, erosion protection, flood control, water quality, and air quality—not to mention wildlife habitat and general aesthetics? No organism or system operates in isolation.

Mature pine-cedar forest in Jackson Creek Park, Peterborough, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Engineers and planners see the natural world in components. Replace one tree with five trees and everything’s fine. Simple. Not so simple. Nature is complex; you can’t solve problems with simple math (ask DFO about how well their compensation programs are doing; their simple equations to address complex natural scenarios have had an abysmal track record). When we compartmentalize—as city engineers and planners appear inclined to do for easeful implementation and maintenance—we run the risk of losing our perspective and understanding of WHY things are the way they are. We lose sight of how connections and relationships drive patterns of change.

Fungi and moss add key functions to a healthy forest ecosystems. From top left: scarlet fairy helmet; tinder polypore; bolete; scaly ink cap; late fall oyster mushroom; shield mushroom; witch’s hat, puffballs (photos by Nina Munteanu)

You can’t replace a functioning natural ecosystem with trees in a landscaped lawn parkland. You can only replace an ecosystem with an ecosystem. Who is doing that? Not the engineer. Not the planner. Not even the arborist. Certainly not the politician.

Where are the ecologists?

Moss-covered cedar in swamp forest of Trent Sanctuary, Peterborough, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Flowers and trees of Peterborough forests, from top left: hepatica; bottle gentian; thistle with bee; yellow birch and mossy roots; sugar maple flowering in spring (photos by Nina Munteanu)

Ecology recognizes the interconnectivity of all things. Ecology is the science that encompasses the larger scope of influence and relationship, the science we need to better understand our place and influence in the world. It is the only science that puts it all into perspective, from the trees to a functioning ecosystem to the water cycle and the global climate.

It’s all connected.

We’re either participating in it or just tagging along behind…

Payne Line Road in a misty rain, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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