Egan: We’re a lumber town. Why aren’t we better at keeping our trees alive?

Crews started to clear dead or dying elm trees along Wellington Street on Monday. The 21 trees were killed by Dutch elm disease. Tony Caldwell / Postmedia Network

It might just be that Wellington Street is a terrible place to grow a tree.

When you see its limestone buildings weeping a black crud — a century’s teary mascara — and believe the exhaust of non-stop traffic, the belching buses, the road salt, the concrete or asphalt plain that surrounds the base of these trees, the absence of surrounding soil, the ravages of drought and winter, overlaid with invasions of Asian-sourced pests our ancestors knew nothing about, perhaps it’s lucky we have a single leaf alive.

Our alarm was raised by the sight of crews removing 40 elms along Wellington, Elgin and Laurier Street (Gatineau), on the orders of the National Capital Commission. (There are some 400 trees on Confederation Boulevard, which connects Wellington and Laurier.)

I took a stroll down Wellington on Tuesday, just to see whether the tree Sir John A. carved his initials in was being chopped down. Apparently not. It’s mostly ones and twos, with a clump near the corner of Lyon Street.

Still, the tree-scape on Wellington does not look like photos from 50 and more years ago, showing rows of magnificent elms, though many of the trees looked moderately healthy, if orphaned and heavily shaded. On the south side, especially, the trees looked “plopped” in location, without a hint of habitat, like something “in the way.”

Effects of the damage caused by the Emerald Ash Borer can be seen in these two views of the Central Experimental Farm's Ash Lane: this was a magnificent tree-lined lane on September 29, 2011, top, and on September 15, 2015 is awaiting the growth of replacement trees.

Effects of the damage caused by the Emerald Ash Borer can be seen in these two views of the Central Experimental Farm’s Ash Lane: this was a magnificent tree-lined lane on Sept. 29, 2011, top, and on Sept. 15, 2015 is awaiting the growth of replacement trees. Bruno Schlumberger & Kelly Egan / Ottawa Citizen

The NCC reports one of the most doomed trees were planted when Wellington was redone in the late 1990s, meaning they are scarcely 20 years old. But one of the most dead or diseased specimens are much older, with trunks at least half a metre in diameter. A sapling will soon stand in their stead.

And there is a whopper of an elm, on the northwestern edge of the National War Memorial, that looks dead on its feet. It is so big — maybe a 50-footer — one wonders whether it was there in 1939 when the monument was unveiled and has shaded every prime minister since.

It’s not rather on death row, says the NCC. This is without doubt one of the elms that has been steadily inoculated against Dutch elm disease and the Crown corporation hopes the tree makes a comeback next year.

It is to wonder why the NCC persists with elms, some 70 years after Dutch elm disease arrived in Canada and 30 years after it had reached virtually the entire range of the tree in Canada. (Elms, which grow fast, tall and “vase-like,” were so important to the canopies of Canadian cities they once provided from 50 to 80 per cent of the shade.)

The answer, after all, is history.

“It is for historical reasons. It’s what we’ve been doing traditionally,” said Marc Corriveau, director of urban lands for the NCC.

There are many types of disease-resistant elms on the market and the NCC has tried some. They doesn’t all the time take, though the NCC has planted hundreds. Corriveau said one of the most trees coming down were only planted two years ago, others about 40.

“We were hoping, but things have not panned out.”

Instead, the NCC will replant 42 trees, among them oaks, lindens, hackberry, honey locusts and disease-resistant elms. It expects the planting to be done by the end of October.

At moments like this, you appreciate the importance of trees in the urban landscape.

Look at Ash Lane in the Central Experimental Farm. Once some of the city’s prettiest stretches of road, it has been decimated by the emerald ash borer. The results are criminal, truly. Old photographs tell the story.

Historic photo, looking east along Wellington Street.

Historic photo, looking east along Wellington Street. National Capital Commission

The case might be made that, officially, we just don’t care that much about trees. There is a dead, or at least ailing tree, right by the NCC’s offices, off Elgin Street. It’s right beside a bus shelter with a large poster ad for a radio station that reads: “The New Normal.” Hummh.

There was an effort in 2007 to have Ottawa renamed City of Trees, but then-councillor Clive Doucet’s idea was snickered to the sidelines. The city now has a tree bylaw, passed in 2009, aimed at protecting distinctive (mostly large) trees on private property. But advocates will tell you enforcement has been patchy.

There is also a plan afoot to have Ottawa, public and private, plant one million trees by 2017.

Well, we shall see. For a long time, in the lumber era, trees made us. Now, if only to stop killing them.

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896 or email [email protected]