While a few know the story detailed in my book Two Billion Trees and Counting: The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz, of the rescue of Ontario’s rural lands by trees and resolve virtually none understand the history of our province’s urban forests. What is astonishing is that many of the same problems that plagued rural areas also caused our cities to be barren. It is for such reason’s that our province’s capital was once called “Muddy York.”
In the 19th century it was common to keep livestock such as cattle in cities that would frequently eat young trees. This is why Toronto’s Osgoode Hall is surrounded by an elaborate metal fence. Also stream valleys were urbanized and tended to be where factories were concentrated. This would cause periodic floods, which were intensified by deforestation. One such flood torrent in Guelph in 1926 damaged most of the city’s industrial buildings.
Edmund Zavitz first got involved in creating urban forests at a timely hour when the province had brought in legislation to create municipal parks commissions. Once these were created such commissions had to be funded according to a percentage of a city’s assessment. Zavitz complemented these new parks commissions with a Demonstration Forest program. After the municipality acquired the land the Department of Forests, under which he served as Deputy Minister would plant and manage the ensuing forest.
The most spectacular results Zavitz achieved were in the City of Hamilton, where there was a very visionary parks commissioner, Thomas McQuesten. Areas of the Niagara Escarpment here which previously were barren waste lands as a result of his worth now have the ecological qualities of healthy diverse old growth forests.
McQuesten’s bold leadership was unusual and most cities in Ontario made no use of Zavitz’s tree planting programs. This is one of the reasons that following the great Thames flood of 1937 which inundated a third of London, Ontario, Zavitz lead a movement to create conservation authorities in Ontario. This resulted in success in 1946 with the passage of the Ontario Conservation Authorities Act. Greater funding for these efforts came as a result of the devastation caused by Hurricane Hazel. As a result of these efforts the flood plains of urban areas gradually became forested parkland.
What is tragic is that the miracles of the past of ecological restoration are often forgotten. This puts at risk the legacy of Edmund Zavitz. Part of the success of the controversial Mayor of Toronto’s Robert Ford’s election campaign is that he used populist rhetoric to champion the right of a homeowner to build in an area protect by conservation authority regulations.
Forests created by Zavitz in the past our now at risk. Some of Zavitz’s Hamilton achievements were damaged recently by the construction of the Red Hill Creek expressway. Where building for the highway blasted through the Niagara Escarpment, it also cut up an 80 year old reforestation project.
One of the worst threats to Zavitz’s legacy is now the threat to the 150 acre forest around the David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill. Zavitz was involved in its first plantings in 1939. It provides habitat for a herd of twenty to thirty deer. Its fate is awaiting the outcome of an Ontario Municipal Board Hearing, which came about largely because the past has been forgotten.
Photo 1: Here is a photo of Hamilton’s Niagara Escarpment before Zavitz reforested it under the Demonstration Forest program.
Photo 2: This photo taken by Mary Lou Bacher shows both Zavitz’s magnificent legacy and its current threats. The photo is taken is Hamilton’s King Forest Park, which was reforested by Zavitz in the late 1920s. Although there is still a substantial tree cover, much of its was damaged by the construction of the Red Hill Creek Expressway in 2004-05, which at this point crosses the Niagara Escarpment.
The Markerting Coordinator at Dundurn, lover of books, tea and dancing in the rain.