Thanks to a generous donation from the TD Friends of the Environment Foundation (TD FEF), plans are taking root to turn a 5-hectare urban forest on the west side of the University of Waterloo campus into a living laboratory and vibrant community asset.
The UW Urban Forest is located south of Village 1 and west of the Health Services building. Home to a variety of habitats, including a marshy wetland and upland deciduous forest, it is the largest remaining wooded green space on campus and thought to be one of the oldest in the area. According to Associate Professor Michael Drescher, an expert in ecological conservation and project co-lead, historical aerial photography reveals the woodlot was already home to mature trees in the 1930's. “Considering how long it takes for trees to mature,” he concluded, “some of these trees might be up to 150 years old.”
The forest is not only a heritage resource but also an important habitat for rare and endangered species. Last spring a Faculty of Environment student and local bird expert spotted a prothonotary warbler in the forest, a rare bird that hasn’t been seen in the region for 20 years. And while the bird didn’t remain in the forest, Drescher said the sighting underscores the importance of the natural area as a resting and foraging spot for birds on their way to their breeding habitat.
Yet for all of its beauty and unique qualities, the forest is at risk. The eastern zone is largely overrun with an invasive species. Rhamnus cathartica, commonly known as European Buckthorn, propagates quickly, chokes out other tree species and dramatically alters the chemistry of the soil. “It has profound impacts on the ecology of the area,” Drescher remarked. “There's no undergrowth at all.” Other invasive species threatening the integrity of forest include Alliaria petiolata (garlic mustard), Dipsacus fullonum (teasel), and Arctium Lappa (burdock).
Ecology Lab Manager Anne Grant is co-leading the UW Urban Forest Revitalization Project. She said removing and containing the invasive species is just one part of a larger vision. “We want to create a living laboratory in the forest,” she explained. “Teaching and guiding students to understand the importance of this natural space located right here on campus.”
“There are a lot of scientific and research opportunities in there,” Drescher added, ”from ecological questions about forest dynamics to environmental monitoring stations, to the best approaches to removing or containing invasive species.”
Both Drescher and Grant also hope to include people from the surrounding communities in the project, especially children. “It would be a wonderful experience for children to engage with this space and with these positive, constructive, close-to-nature activities,” Drescher mused, sharing his vision of school trips where students learn about forests and participate in planting initiatives. “I think we have a great opportunity to re-engage people with the natural environment."
Eventually, Drescher also hopes to use technology as a conduit to get people outside and actively involved with the natural environment. “We'll never get people to give up technology," he acknowledged. "That train has left the station." Hinting at future plans, he added, “we might as well join them and use technology for our own goals, which is to re-engage people with the natural environment. That is the end game.”
The first steps towards realizing the grander vision however, is less magical and more methodical.
“We are currently doing a tree census of the area,” explained Drescher, “which entails documenting the size, species and spatial positioning of every tree,” work he said that would not be possible without the many volunteers and co-op students recruited through the Ecology Lab. “There is a steady increase in the number of students that want to contribute to restoring the urban forest,” Grant elaborated. "This past year we trained over 25 volunteers to perform tasks from pulling buckthorn to recording weather and snow data.” Classes in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability (SERS) and the Department of Geography and Environmental Management (GEM) have also integrated the forest into their course curriculum, allowing students the opportunity to collect data and analyze various aspects of the forest as part of their class work. So far, through these efforts, survey grade research plots have been staked, and many of the larger trees have been measured and identified.
Now, with help from TD FEF, Drescher said the next crucial step of the project will soon be underway: using laser rangefinders to measure the spatial position of all of the large trees. “I see that as something like the backbone of the entire forest,” he noted. “We need to know what we have in order to be able to manage and use it properly.”
“We are still at ground zero,” added Grant, “gathering baseline data for birds, vegetation, lichens and other taxa. The funding provides opportunities to step up to the next level of analysis and action."
For TD, the gift is part of their commitment to bringing communities together to celebrate Canada’s 150th. "Through the TD Common Ground Project, we will work with community organizations to support seven major projects that will leave a lasting legacy in key cities across the country – in Halifax, Montreal, Kingston, Waterloo, Toronto, Calgary, and Surrey," said Environment Coordinator Skye Vandenberg. "In addition to those flagship projects, TD FEF is providing over $3 million in grants to 287 projects in communities across Canada to help bring people together in parks and green spaces. As part of this initiative, we are proud to celebrate the work of University of Waterloo Faculty of Environment, for their work on an Urban Forest Revitalization Project."