Bad Drama of Reforestation and Conservation Cuts Show Historical Amnesia by Dr. John Bacher

Another timely article from Dr. Bacher:
May 7, 2019

Bad Drama of Reforestation and Conservation Cuts Show Historical Amnesia
Dr. John Bacher

Last week while boating through flood waters Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced two cuts to programs that were helping to prevent such disasters being more catastrophic and widespread. At the same time he axed two complimentary if underfunded provincial programs that were controlling flood risks, made worse by climate change impacts which are increasing precipitation in southern Ontario in the winter and spring periods. Such programs to reduce flooding risks are needed more than ever before since there is a bigger tide of rain and snow melt which needs to be soaked up by forests, many of which are wooded wetlands.

Ford axed the program launched in 2008 the Fifty Million Tree Program. It was about half way through its target and cost $4.7 million annually He also announced that provincial funding for Conservation Authorities now a thin $7.4 million a year would be cut in half. Much of this funding assisted flood control programs, including reforestation.

The pennies for trees and flood control cut by Ford of $12.1 million is especially galling in view of the small amounts of money involved in comparison with the catastrophic damages posed by to climate change to the province. It also illustrates the historical amnesia as to why these programs were developed, going back to the first provincial tree nursery at the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) (now Guelph University). Operated by the dedicated graduate forestry student Edmund Zavitz as a summer job it grew its first tree in 1904. The need for reforestation was especially vivid at OAC at that time since the campus had been cut off from the world for a few days by turbulent floods which broke mill dams and damaged factories.

The reason for the massive floods that ravaged Guelph and much of southern Ontario during the first half of the 20th century was a rock bottom level of forest cover of about nine per cent. (many watersheds such as the Thames, the Grand and the Ganaraska were worse at four per cent) The denuding included some of the most critical areas to absorb precipitation surges such as former swamp forested wetlands along streams. The remaining woodlands were composed of sickly scarred trees which could not regenerate as roaming livestock ate young saplings.

With the help of an OAC Alumni activist who became an Ontario Premier EC Drury, Zavitz dedicated his life in the public service (he died in 1968) to the cause of reforestation and conservation. Despite massive tree planting however, despite decades of leadership roles including being Deputy Minister of Forests, Zavitz could not accomplish very much since his reforestation efforts were simply only able to hold on to the tiny five per cent of southern Ontario’ landscape covered by forests.

For decades the new forests he was able to place on the landscape simply replaced the huge areas that famers were continuing to burn out through land clearance. The situation was made worse when the newly elected Liberal government of Mitchell Hepburn in 1933 embarked on a wave of firings of foresters and budget cuts for tree planting and fire control. These moves were based on simplistic populist rhetoric that exalted uneducated lumberjacks over university trained foresters.

Flood, 1937, London, ON.

What caused public opinion to change in support of Zavitz’s policies was an ecological disaster the Great Thames River Flood of 1937. Most dramatically this disaster put about a fifth of the City of London underwater. In response to the disaster Drury lamented how, “In our own time. The Grand and the Thames Rivers through no other reason that the over clearing of their watersheds…have become serious menaces, at one time being the source of destructive floods, at another time having so little water that they become polluted or stagnant.” A former student of Zavitz from the OAC Watson Porter wrote that, “Something must be wrong when farmers are obliged to draw water in the summer and must be rescued from their upstairs windows in the winter.”

The inundation of London was simply the most catastrophic of the flooding disasters that hit many Ontario cities with regularity in the great depression. Port Hope in the stripped bare Ganaraska had its downtown core inundated with flood waters every two years. The stripping of its watershed’s forests had become so severe that its headwaters in the Oak Ridges Moraine, like much farmland in the province had been reduced to dangerously shifting sand dunes. Brampton was routinely hit by similar devastation from Etobicoke Creek, originating in the then deforested Niagara Escarpment. (now restored)

Porter, Zavitz and Drury developed a effective political campaign that in response to the great floods of the depression. The most creative of their colleagues was one of the foresters fired by Hepburn’s hachet man, Frederick Noad. He was Al Barnes who nurtured a veterans’ group Men of the Trees. Barnes organized spectacular parades up to 60,000 veterans in prominent places such as Toronto’ Coronation Park.

Springbank Drive, London, ON, April 1937

Barnes’ well orchestrated political savvy campaigns led to two major reforms in 1946. One was the passage of the Trees Act. This for the first time gave municipal councils the powers to restrict tree cutting on private land. The other was the Conservation Authorities Act. This created watershed based authorities with the objectives of reducing flood damage by increasing forest cover. One of the most successful was the Ganaraska Authority, It increased its watershed forest cover from five to fifty per cent. This massive reforestation put Port Hope’s flooding woes into the history books.

In popular memory Hurricane Hazel of 1954 is often associated with the birth of Conservation Authorities. In reality Hazel simply gave the authorities a needed boost. The passage of the 1946 reforms had already reduced the magnitude of Hazel’s carnage. This would have been in the thousands had not a bypass channel around Brampton been constructed in time by the Etobicoke Creek Conservation Authority. (one of the first created in the province and now part of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority).

One of the reasons Zavitz’s programs became so effective in this period was that two of the most powerful politicians in the province: Premier John Robarts and his Treasurer, John White lived through as adolescents in London the Thames Flood of 1937. From this experience they understood how reforestation and conservation could prevent flooding disasters. From the funds they poured into reforestation and conservation forest cover increased in southern Ontario from 9.7 per cent to 25.2% in 1963.

While across southern Ontario there is still around 26 per cent forest cover in some watersheds it is still as low as the five percent that triggered flooding disasters in the past. The Fifty Million Trees Program launched in 2008 was far below the level of reforestation that was being mobilized when the network of provincial nurseries launched by Zavitz was terminated by Premier Bob Rae in 1993. The need to increase forest cover now is greater become of climate change precipitation in southern Ontario is increasingly concentrated in the winter making spring flooding dangers worse.

Springwater Park, Midhurst, ON, circa 1922.

Rae’s demise should be warning to Ford. His party sank to depths in 1995 after slashing funding for conservation authorities and reforestation. Hopefully Ford will lose his historical amnesia and appreciate why Ontario cities have been spared the devastation at least of the more deforested regions around Montreal, which never faced up to its loss of trees and forests, lacking such champions of conservation as Drury and Zavitz.

John Bacher’s biography of Edmund Zavitz, “Two Billion Trees and County: The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz” explains the history of reforestation and conservation programs in Ontario.” ( Dundurn Press, 2011)


2 thoughts on “Bad Drama of Reforestation and Conservation Cuts Show Historical Amnesia by Dr. John Bacher

  1. Proper management of biodiversity by protection and biodiverse plantings is essential to the long term needs for healthy ecosystems in Ontario. These are needed for both nature and people who must live together. Pollution of the air, water and earth must be stopped as soon as possible. We must consider the future of our planet sepeciaapy now!!

    Liked by 1 person

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