Big trees, big dreams

By Maleea Acker, May 2016

James Clowater’s urban arboreal vision.

James Clowater, photo by Tony BounsallIN THE WORLD OF West Coast restoration ecology, native species usually hold a pinnacle place of importance in the minds of decisions makers, scientists, and the public at large. Trees such as Douglas-fir, big-leaf maple and Garry oak support a host of native birds, insects, mammals and mosses. Restorationists push the importance of wildlife corridors made of native shrubs in urban areas. Botanists cherish lands unmarked by development—where native species can thrive unmolested—and often wave their hands in dismissal at horticultural gardens and urban trees as if they don’t merit attention at all.

James Clowater, local biologist, educator and avid bird watcher, regularly leads hikes into native oases in the Capital Region. He shows hikers the fall fungi and winter birds at Witty’s Lagoon, or the grand spread of an arbutus half way down a treacherous trail to Finlayson Arm in Gowlland Tod Provincial Park. Six years ago, however, his way of seeing the South Island began to change, and today he has created a new resource for Capital Region residents.

Clowater realized that most South Island residents live in urban areas. We pass the seasons walking under scarlet Norwegian maples or the vast canopies chestnuts create over many of the city’s main road arteries. “The giant sequoias on Rockland Avenue caught my eye,” he tells me over coffee at an East Saanich Road cafe. He asked himself why it shouldn’t be possible to value an introduced tree as much as a native species. Clowater also started noticing other species—trees he couldn’t identify. “Curiosity started it. What are these?” he asked himself. The answers were often nearly impossible to find. 

Clowater’s archival research uncovered a 1988 Heritage Tree Society publication. Victoria has an urban forest master plan available online, but there is no access on its website to a listing of trees or species. A big tree registry—vancouverislandbigtrees.blogspot.ca—lists native species in excess of 1100 years old within 30 minutes of the city centre. But no site existed that could lead those interested in heritage trees, native and introduced species of note, as well as map the location and species of significant trees. Until now. His new website—treesofvictoria.com—celebrates the beauty of his home region, so that “people can learn, and then value the region more because of that learning.” 

Horticultural species are foreign plants—they aren’t native to the West Coast—but many aren’t aggressive invaders; they play nicely with native plants. Victoria’s ornamental cherry trees become pure blossom in February. Monkey trees, Lebanese cedars, horse chestnuts, and ornamental plums saturate this region’s urban areas with a riot of spring colour. Content to stay where they’re planted, instead of reproducing or running riot like balsam poplar, eucalyptus or “tree of heaven,” ornamental trees can provide paved city streets with much needed shade, a heat sink, and architectural grandeur, as well as acting as habitat for adaptable native species. 

The history of the region’s horticultural trees is rich. It’s also in plain view. The Begbie “hanging tree” grows on Cook Street. On Ash Road, near Mount Doug, a tree once part of the Todd family farm was used by cougars for sighting deer. Ross Bay cemetery contains rarities such as Spanish fir and cork-bark elm. But the details of these tree species and their locations weren’t easy to find, until now. Clowater also hounded the City of Victoria until they gave him a printout of species not just in Ross Bay but also an identification of all of the city’s street-side trees. The cemetery, Clowater tells me, once served as an unofficial tree nursery; cuttings from the trees became many of the city’s current boulevard trees. 

Some protection currently exists for non-native trees in the CRD in the municipalities of Saanich and Victoria. Victoria trees must be over 80 centimetres in diameter at chest height to qualify. The Saanich bylaw lists “significant trees” with addresses, and it specifies where both native and horticultural species exist. Though the Victoria bylaw was established in 1999 and strengthened in 2005, exceptions still exist for species in the building footprint of a house or house addition or driveway, or those interfering with utilities. Victoria asserts that it has one of the “rarest and most threatened urban forests in the Pacific Northwest,” but it’s easy to imagine how the bylaw can be sidestepped by owners who want, as arborist Ryan Senechal tells me is common, “a better view of the Olympic Mountains.”

Clowater’s site launches this May, and features GIS maps of Outerbridge Park, Beacon Hill and Ross Bay Cemetery, as well as walking tours and listings of historical, horticultural and native trees of significance. The maps show paths as well as trees such as blue atlas cedars from the Himalayas or a dawn redwood, previously only known through its fossils. The Ross Bay Cemetery section features trees from dozens of countries, each species overlaid on a satellite image map. 

To begin the project, Clowater received funding from the estate of Joan Outerbridge. Naming the species outside of parks, says Clowater, will help locate unmarked but significant heritage trees and ensure their protection. Clowater acknowledges, however, that mapping the entire region will be a lifelong endeavour. He makes his living from the talks he gives, but there is little left over for this passion. “What the project needs is to find funding and hire people—a master identifier and a GIS person.” That said, Clowater’s favourite part of the process is the exploring: identifying horticultural species, creating lists of trees and maps, and walking neighbourhoods to photograph giant species. Next on his list is UVic’s Finnerty Gardens and St Ann’s Academy.

Many mapping projects already exist in the region. The University of Victoria Community Mapping Collaboratory features dozens of community green maps, including indigenous digital harvest stories, community vision maps, maps with traditional place names and UVic student maps completed during the Cascadia Field School sessions. Some environmental organizations, including the Ancient Forest Alliance, are also working to create maps of big trees in Avatar grove. 

Clowater’s site will also include a community mapping feature, where residents can add their own trees. Habitat Acquisition Trust’s land cover mapping project shows that the core municipalities lost 2025 hectares of urban tree cover between 1986 and 2011, 452 hectares of which was in Langford. The clearing continues today, as residents can see travelling between View Royal and Langford, where hectares of land beside the Island Highway are rapidly changing from forest to subdivision. 

Mapping also comes with its own risks, as Canada’s Indigenous peoples have discovered to their dismay. Maps don’t guide only well-wishers to the location of special trees or species at risk. Even ecotourism can increase negative impacts on habitat and native species and detract from privacy. But ultimately, the reason Clowater started Trees of Victoria is the same reason he started his birding courses and hiking group: “If we can get people excited about things in their own back yards,” he says, “if they have knowledge, and find it interesting, that leads to protection and preservation.” 

Clowater’s enthusiasm is infectious, and it is hard to undervalue the excitement, and the potential actions that excitement inspires, when confronted by a truly stunning example of an incense cedar, or a giant coastal redwood. In garnering public support for conservation—distinction matters.

Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012).