One thing you’ll notice about the Greenbelt – whether you’re walking, cycling or driving – is the immense numbers of trees. In fact the Greenbelt is home to an estimated 200 million trees, and they do a lot more than provide a shady place to rest.
The Greenbelt’s forests capture and filter water, absorb air pollution, support crop pollination, and store and sequester carbon. These ‘eco-services’ are worth an estimated $1 billion – and the trees provide them for free.
Scientists are now discovering that living near trees is also really good for your health. Research by EcoHealth Ontario, and funded by the Friends of the Greenbelt, shows a direct link between trees in urban areas and cooler, cleaner air for residents. Another study found that adding 10 or more trees to a city block offers many benefits, including feeling seven years younger.
So there are huge benefits to planting trees – we can improve public health outcomes at the same time as addressing climate change, protecting soil and water, and creating important wildlife habitat – and all for a relatively small investment.
Ontario has a long history of tree planting programs. The province’s first director of reforestation, Edmund Zavitz, helped to replant the Oak Ridges Moraine, rescuing it from the brink of becoming a dust bowl. Under his leadership, Ontario planted two billion trees, leading to the recognition of the Niagara Escarpment as a World Biosphere reserve.
Although current planting levels have dipped below the historic highs seen in the twentieth century, initiatives such as Forests Ontario’s 50 Million Trees program, which works with private landowners to plant native trees, continue to recognize the importance of reforestation.
This is why I was delighted recently when I heard about a proposal from MPP Ted Arnott, who represents Wellington-Halton Hills, to plant 150 million trees in 2017 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the province in Confederation. MPP Arnott’s idea was introduced in the Ontario legislature in October 2015 and received support across the political spectrum.
Could it be done? The example of Wellington County, part of which lies within the Greenbelt, suggests that it could. The County’s Green Legacy program has planted almost 2 million trees since 2004, working with local conservation authorities, municipalities, community groups, schools and landowners. If such an effort were scaled province-wide with the goal of planting 150 million trees, just imagine the results, not only on the environment, but on community engagement.
Now that would be a fitting 150th birthday present for Ontario and Canada.