OTHER VOICES: Do we have the right to irrevocably alter the landscape for future generations?

Dear editor:

It’s Tuesday and I look up to see a beautiful eagle soaring above. I feel so lucky and privileged to live here in West Vancouver and on the North Shore – arguably the most beautiful urban area in the world.

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But with this feeling of privilege, connected to the area’s trees that support our wonderful gifts of nature, comes a great responsibility - that of stewarding the lands and oceans for future generations.

Enter a special youth delegation who presented to the West Vancouver District mayor and council on April 29, with the express purpose of conveying two important facts: first, that the protection of trees on private and public lands is essential for ensuring the vitality of the region’s interconnected ecosystems, and second, there is an urgent and critical need to take responsibility for climate change at the community level.

As young people are taking to the streets to demonstrate - not as climate change activists, but as climate change realists - we are clearly at a crossroads for ensuring that our youth and future generations will thrive and have access to clean air and water and to healthy food. The message from young people is clear – the urgent actions that the West Vancouver community needs to take will require critical leadership on the part of Mayor and council, as well as a different set of values on the part of residents, the latter requiring education, and community building and engagement.

Olivia Kovacs, a Grade 8 student of Rockridge Secondary, set the scene by presenting her impactful art exhibit entitled “It’s up to us now”. 

Via a progressive series of her paintings, Olivia depicted a historical-perspective starting with First nations communities who took great care of their surroundings as they realized their survival depended on the forests and waterways – they took and used only what they needed of the environment so that they could sustain it, and ensure that their descendants would have access to the same things. 

Her subsequent images illustrate the diametrically opposite actions of the settlers who embarked upon an ever-increasing assault on the landscape that included massive harmful logging campaigns all throughout the 1800s. And while temporary relief may have been derived from the so-called “nature protecting” 1970s – insufficient lasting actions toward environmental protection ensued.

Powerfully Olivia ends her speech by noting that “Now, we are at a turning point. It is quite literally now or never. We have no other options and can’t ignore the obvious anymore. The people who made it worse in the past are gone and we are the only ones who can make it better. It’s up to us now”.

Council then heard from Ellie Barnhart, a Grade 9 student from Quamichan Secondary (Duncan, BC) who presented a science-based discussion of the devastating effects of clear-cutting, particularly on local ecosystems.

With few or no bylaws to protect our urban forests and insufficient riparian management zones around streams and rivers, trees and habitat within West Vancouver and within British Columbia in general are being destroyed at an alarming and unsustainable rate – trees that would otherwise provide incredibly important “ecological services”, and in urban settings, also offset municipal costs.

Ellie cites irrefutable scientific evidence showing that it is the older coniferous trees that store more carbon making them extremely powerful for mitigating climate change. Close to Ellie’s heart is the need to stand up for the countless animals who’ve lost their homes to clear-cutting regardless of whether this occurs in municipalities, Districts (e.g. West Vancouver’s Cypress and other highland areas), or more remote regions within British Columbia.

Not only is this heartbreaking in and of itself, but she further notes that this “causes species to have territorial battles for the remaining land, which can drive out entire species”. She states that “biodiversity is important, and there is overwhelming evidence that clear-cutting drastically reduces biodiversity.”

And to all of you salmon lovers, the negative effects on salmon runs are truly significant, with Ellie noting that there can be significant temperature rises within streams (as the surrounding tree canopy that normally offsets this is removed), and in rainy climates, such as West Vancouver and the North Shore, the ensuing soil erosion and unpredictable water flows - especially temporary flooding - can remove nutrients important for salmon, deplete spawning gravel, and potentially trigger egg smothering due to silting. Instead of diverting streams to offset the flooding risks within West Vancouver - actions which could put additional stress on salmon populations and other aquatic life, why not save and restore those vital trees?

Emily Kelsall, a young West Vancouver resident of age 21, then took centre stage with a bold request: “I’m asking you to reduce the size of protected trees from 75 cm in diameter to 23 cm”.

She then built up to this request by focusing her speech on the social connections and beneficial health effects provided by trees, noting that tree cover in residential areas is linked to reduced blood pressure and symptoms of ADD. Significantly she relays that “preserving and restoring trees is a basic step that we can take to mitigate and adapt to climate change, but it is also a step to restoring the human spirit; ….. human beings are part of nature, and just like a tree, the closer we are to our roots, the better we are for it”.  We have all heard the comments by West Vancouver residents claiming that because we have so many trees, that cutting down a few here and there can’t make a difference.

But Emily steadfastly notes, “It can. Trees represent history; we must treat every piece of nature with deep respect, we never know when it will be gone.” Emily then recounted a tree that was important to her as she grew up – one that has branches arranged symmetrically to allow it to be climbed. “That tree saw bonds formed and angst teenage moments spent alone… and it was witness to countless sunsets and several exhilarated smiles when someone made it to the top”. This perspective made an important impact on council as most of the members subsequently recounted a tree that meant a lot to them. Establishing that personal connection is a critical step toward community members revering the inherent value of trees and nature.

Emily then got down to the grit of the matter and stated that the diameter of the tree that she has always cherished is 26 cm in diameter, noting further that if someone filed a complaint and made a case for its destruction that the present bylaws (75 cm-diameter) would have been insufficient to save it, as opposed to the stricter bylaws of Vancouver (20 cm). And a sobering factor Emily notes is that this tree may be at the larger end of the spectrum of the trees comprising West Vancouver’s urban forests. “Why shouldn’t we want the security (of protecting these trees) for ourselves, so that West Vancouver will always remain this beautiful, and that the children of tomorrow and today can find solace in trees yet discovered, trees that are not yet safe.

For the sake of the planet, for the sake of the human spirit, please protect our trees.”

The youth delegation left council with a signed letter comprising a five-point action plan so that their voices would continue to resound; included was an appeal to adopt the stricter tree protection bylaw on May 27.

Allison Kermode is a West Vancouver resident, SFU professor emeritus and director of Take A Stand: Youth For Conservation, which offers school programs to engage youth with conservation issues in their own community.

What are your thoughts? Send us a letter via email by clicking here or post a comment below.

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