By Kate Harries February 1 2013

During the first half of the 20th century, Ontario was suffering from massive environmental degradation. Reckless deforestation had led to desertification and flooding in the south. In the north, uncontrolled clearances led to massive forest fires that consumed soil cover – and took lives.

In Two Billion Trees and Counting – The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz (Dundurn – 2011), John Bacher has given us a meticulously researched and very readable account of a courageous civil servant whose vision and strength of purpose would allow him and his supporters to turn the tide, tripling the forest cover in southern Ontario and starting the conservation authorities and county forest systems we know today.

The pictures tell the story. Many of the photographs were taken by Zavitz during the course of his long career, to document the desperate state of the land:

-In 1905, massive white pine stumps in Norfolk County loom high above the ground, their roots holding them up like stilts because the soil below has been blown away.

-Desert lands stretch into the distance on the site of the future Springwater Park.

-A sand dune engulfs an apple orchard in Prince Edward County.

-Barns are buried under sand in Norfolk County.

-London neighbourhoods are under water from a devastating Thames River flood in 1937.

The problem was all too clear and the solutions were not new. Zavitz modelled his reforms on those instituted in India, where the need to address devastation caused by over-exploitation of forest resources had been recognized in the mid-19th century. South of the border, there was the example of Gilford Pinchot, a pioneering forester who set up the U.S. Forest Service in 1905. Bacher notes that Pinchot had the advantage of a wealthy and influential patron, President Theodore Roosevelt, and his reforestation efforts remain celebrated and protected as national shrines.

In fact, Bacher points out, “the Canadian folly of not valuing its environmental exemplars is vividly demonstrated by the blatant disregard for the country’s, indeed the continent’s, first successful reforestation in Oka, Quebec.” Bacher has described elsewhere the issue at the heart of the 1990 Oka crisis: the seldom-reported fact that the white pine forest that was to have been cleared for a golf course had been the result of a remarkable replanting effort in 1888-1920 by the Mohawk community of Kanasetake, led by their parish priest, Father Joseph Daniel Lefebvre.

Spurred by priests like Lefebvre, the Catholic Church had taken a leadership role in bringing professional forestry to Quebec, practices that were resisted by Ontario’s lumber barons. In 1904, Zavitz had been able to persuade the Liberal agriculture minister to support his setting up the province’s first tree nursery, in Guelph, and had hopes of an expanded role for Ontario’s fledgling forestry bureau.

But the provincial Conservatives defeated the Liberals in 1905. The role of forestry was downgraded, the position of chief forester of Ontario left vacant and Zavitz went to teach at the Ontario Agricultural College.

Despite being sidelined, Zavitz made a key connection during this period, with Simcoe County’s own E.C. Drury, the future “farmer premier” who would become the forceful political advocate every visionary civil servant needs. Davitz actually cycled from his home in Guelph to Drury’s farm in Crown Hill for their first meeting. It was the start of a long friendship that would last until 1968, when both men died. “The high point of the visit was their three-day horse and buggy expedition to view the marching deserts on the former pine plains of Angus and Midhurst,” Bacher writes. “Amidst this desolation,” Zavitz and Drury selected the future site of the Midhurst Reforestation Station, now Springwater Provincial Park. 

On the national stage, matters came to a head with the Great Porcupine Fire of 1912, when 75 people died, 3,000 became homeless, over 2 million hectares of forest were consumed, the towns of Cochrane, South Porcupine and Pottsville were completely burned to the ground, and 10 gold mines were incinerated. The differences in forest management between Quebec and Ontario and the disastrous consequences of the laissez-faire attitudes in the latter, were too great to ignore. Under pressure from Ottawa and Quebec City, the Conservative government appointed Zavitz chief forester of Ontario.

Many challenges still lay ahead, the greatest being indifference and even hostility from municipal politicians. The provincial Conservatives – prompted by a 1908 report Zavitz produced on the wastelands of Ontario – passed the County Reforestation Act in 1911. But not one municipality – not even those like Norfolk County where the devastation was so overwhelming - would use its reforestation powers until Drury became premier in 1919, heading a coalition government of the United Farmers of Ontario and the Labour Party.

Drury’s aggressive promotion of the act put his own county in the lead of reforestation measures. But the then warden of Simcoe County took the occasion of the ceremonial opening of the Midhurst Reforestation Station in 1920 to rebuke the new premier, asking him: “What’s all this nonsense about spending public money on growing trees… if you want a few trees, why don’t you go into the bush and get them?”

Flooding problems resulting from deforestation – and the threat of lawsuits – overcame municipal resistance to the creation of the first Conservation Authorities, for Etobicoke Creek, the Ausable River and the Ganaraska River (where councillors in Port Hope had been opposed to spending money on reforestation despite annual flooding evacuations).

Again, this book's pictures tell the story. One shows a man whose father’s land was one of the first reforested by Zavitz, dwarfed by the towering pines that had been planted a generation earlier. Some of these forests haven’t survived. The Rockland Tree Plantation near Ottawa, planted in 1911, was razed in 1998 for an arena and parking lot. The public tree nurseries that Zavitz established to produce the seedlings needed for large-scale reforestation were closed by the Mike Harris Conservatives in the mid-nineties. 

But for the most part, Zavitz’s legacy remains, written on our landscape – ours to conserve, or to squander.    

The Plants are Family to Us - Bacher on Oka