England’s National Trust protects historic places and green spaces in the UK, for sale including the apple tree at Sir Issac Newton’s home in Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire that is said to have inspired his theory of gravity. Is this the yardstick against which Ottawa’s heritage trees are to be measured, approved or do we have our own natural and human history worth celebrating and protecting?
The chain buried deep in this 154 year-old Champlain Oak (see photo) would surely say yes, if it could. The tree was felled by infill development in 2011 after significant protest and appeals to the City’s Urban Tree Conservation By-law. Following on this action, and research on the human and natural history of the area, a permanent art and history exhibit now celebrates people and trees in Champlain Park (see previous posts). But after two years of trying, the Champlain Oaks Project has failed to inspire the City staff responsible for heritage conservation in Ottawa to think of trees as natural heritage property in their own right (without being attached somehow to a heritage building).
Our proposal, submitted formally in June 2013 to the Planning and Growth Management Department of the City of Ottawa, was rejected on legal advice. Legal staff argued that no effective protection would be provided to trees listed in the Heritage Register of the City of Ottawa. This is, in my view, flawed thinking that by extension would conclude that listing of a building in the Heritage Register would not provide any protection to the building. Importantly, the opinion does not recognize that the 90 day period of review required for heritage-listed properties provides additional protections beyond what is already offered by the Urban Tree Conservation By-Law (a 7 day notice period). For a tree of heritage value at risk, the difference is 83 days during which mitigation and protection measures can be considered and negotiated with due attention to the balance between private property rights and the public good. It is for this reason that municipalities throughout the Province of Ontario have listed trees in their Heritage Registers. Why not in Ottawa?
A second argument made by the City is that the Champlain Oaks do not merit protection under the Ontario Heritage Act (Part IV). Fair enough. They do not have the international pedigree of Sir Issac Newton’s apple tree. They do, however, stand up quite well to comparisons with The Allanburg Heritage Oak in Thorold, Ontario or the Jacob Fisher Bur Oak in Woodbridge designated under the Ontario Heritage Act. They also compare very well to trees listed in Heritage Registers by many municipalities in Ontario. The largest of the bur oaks in Champlain Park, about 24 individuals, predate residential development in the neighbourhood. Builders accommodated them (see photo below), just as the tree (above) accommodated the chain attached to it around 1940. These are forest-born trees containing the genetic resources of the ancient forest that lined this part of the Ottawa River following the retreat of the last glaciers 10,000 years ago. Judge for yourself in light of documentation of the natural and human history of the Champlain Oaks submitted to the City for their review.
Our experience to date suggests that the problem lies in the absence of a modern definition of Heritage Trees for use by City staff and the citizens of Ottawa when recognizing the city’s natural heritage. The City of Toronto has found guidance recently in the Heritage Tree recognition program of Trees Ontario, which is treated by the City of Toronto as equivalent to designation under the Ontario Heritage Act. The Ontario Urban Forest Council has also done the ground work for a working definition of a heritage tree. Why not in Ottawa?
It is time to create a definition of Heritage Trees that offers scope for recognition and protection of Ottawa’s natural heritage and its lasting relationship to people in an urban environment. This would recognize and protect special trees and groups of trees in the City through an amendment to the Urban Tree Conservation By-law. As such, it would offer an additional review period for trees with natural heritage value, over and above what is currently available to all mature trees in the urban parts of the City. It would also help to build awareness about forest genetic resources and the longstanding relationships between trees and people in changing urban environments.
This house, built in 1904 on what is now Cowley Avenue, was intentionally set between two mature bur oaks. It is the last of the “cottage era” homes in the neighbourhood, and continues to accommodate one of the last of the forest-born bur oaks.