When 5,000 trees were removed from the Vandekerkhove property on Watkiss Way in 2016 to farm hay, few batted an eye.
When at least 512 trees and thousands of native shrubs were felled and removed for the current McKenzie Interchange, again, the backlash was mild.
But when a number of people spoke out online about the removal of the so-called Humboldt tree, which came down on Monday so Victoria can redesign the intersection to add a scramble crosswalk and a bike lane, it triggered a response from environmental advocates regarding the McKenzie Interchange as well as cycling advocates for Victoria.
“There’s a lot of crocodile tears over the one tree being cut down for a bike lane when almost nothing was said when hundreds of trees were cut down for the McKenzie exchange (or for the Malahat widening),” said Victoria resident Doug Grant. “Victorians like to think they’re a green town – it’s just a lot of talk. It rarely walks the walk.”
The tipping point for many was when residents questioned the tree’s removal as part of the City of Victoria’s commitment to climate change.
“If you’re taking out a 50-year-old tree and putting in a sapling, you’re removing all this growth that’s already a service to climate change,” said Community Trees Matter Network member Nancy Lane Macgregor.
The tree in question is the birch tree, or Betual papifera, at Humboldt and Government streets. It was planted in the 1970s as part of the Government Street Mall upgrades and is being removed for the new pedestrian scramble (all-ways) crosswalk at Humboldt and Government, part of an overall improvement that includes a new bike lane.
As Victoria cycling advocate Ed Pullman pointed out, one tree sequesters only a fraction of the carbon emissions that a car puts out. In other words, a tree can digest and process about 22 kilograms of carbon emissions a year while, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average commuter car emits 4.6 metric tonnes.
So if the bike lane can equal the effect of taking one car off the road, it well be well worth it, he said.
According to the City of Victoria’s latest Climate Action report, 40 per cent of Victoria’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 (370,000 tonnes total) came from transportation (approximately 50 per cent came from buildings, and 10 per cent from waste).
In fact, the tree is not being removed for the bike lane but as part of the intersection’s all-ways scramble crosswalk improvement, noted another cycling advocate, Corey Burger.
Julian Anderson, longtime steward at Cuthbert Holmes Park, noted that trees are fallen for city projects regularly and believes this tree set off Victoria’s anti-bike lane establishment and others who should pay more attention to the city’s happenings.
“What we’re seeing with the tree downtown is a general public outrage that we never saw when the McKenzie Interchange was proposed,” Anderson said, alluding to the rare grove of 309 trembling aspen trees, and the 212 mature trees of the Garry oak woodland that came down beside Spectrum Community School in the last 24 months.
While the Humboldt tree is in good health and birch trees in ideal conditions can live for more than 100 years, it’s also due to be replaced by two red oaks. The red oaks are native to North America and were selected for this location for their suitability, said City of Victoria spokesperson Bill Eisenhower.
The Ministry of Transportation does have plans to replace 600 new trees near the McKenzie Interchange, and many native shrubs were inventoried and will be replenished on the new berm and the post-construction areas.