Letter: An obituary for UBC’s tallest tree

UBC has lost a very special member of its campus community.

A local tree known as the Wesbrook Sentinel, germinated from seed circa 1910 in Sty-Wet-Tan, Musqueam territory — a land now known as UBC. It would grow its whole life there until being tragically cut down at the age of ~110 on February 20, 2020 so that UBC could make way for more market condos.

The tree belonged to the Douglas-fir species, or Pseudotsuga menziesii in Latin, which is native to the UBC campus and can live for over 1,000 years. This tree was the tallest, and possibly, the oldest living organism in the UBC campus at its time of death.

The Wesbrook Sentinel grew up in a troubled environment. It was born from the seeds of its parents — the remains of which are still visible in the form of large rotting stumps nearby. Its parents, which were several hundred years old at the time, were cut down for lumber during an era when little concern was given for forest stewardship, which means to take care of the forest. Forest stewardship is practiced by making careful assessments of the forest to identify important values — i.e. things that people care about, such as superlative trees — and then developing strategies to ensure that those values can be safeguarded and maintained into the future. When good forest stewardship is practiced, development can occur while impacts to forest values are minimized.

But, despite its rough start to life, the Wesbrook Sentinel grew to become one of the tallest trees in the area. In fact, it was pinpointed as the tallest tree on campus following a search in 2014 by the website www.Vancouversbigtrees.com. The search was aided by sophisticated technology, including a spatial search using Google Earth and then ground laser measurements. The Wesbrook Sentinel stood at a striking 60.5 metres (200 feet) tall or 7 metres taller than 18-storey UBC Brock Commons, one of the tallest wood building on Earth.

By its centennial year, however, the forest in which this tree watched over had begun to be chipped away at.

In 2012, a study of the UBC Urban Tree Canopy documented that 11 hectares of tree cover had already been lost to make way for development at Wesbrook Village. The Sentinel witnessed all of this, but it seemed safe. It was vigorous and solid. Also, it was tucked away at the corner of the development, where it could have likely been spared even as development encroached.

In a strange twist of fate, the year that this tree germinated was the same year that the Point Grey Peninsula was selected as the future site for UBC campus. This decision laid the path for the demise of the Wesbrook Sentinel.

To this day, UBC does not do enough to protect its trees, especially when considering the following: 1) the community deeply cares about its trees and forests; 2) UBC is a leading institution in urban forestry research with extensive in-house expertise and 3) UBC exerts bold claims to be a leader in sustainability.

Yet, UBC lacks a rigorous tree protection bylaw and is lagging when it comes to urban forest stewardship. For instance, had the Sentinel been incorporated into the City of Vancouver rather than UBC, that tree would have never been cut down due to the rigour that the City of Vancouver applies to identify high-quality trees and then work to ensure they are retained throughout development.

Let the untimely death of the Wesbrook Sentinel remind us of the need to think long term when it comes to our trees and forests. Before UBC ever existed, the forests of this region had grown for centuries but then were quickly laid to ruin by a forestry industry that prioritized short term economic gains over long-term forest integrity. The Wesbrook Sentinel and the nearby stumps of its parents remind us of this legacy. To prevent enduring losses, UBC must commit to stewarding the campus trees and forests. UBC must undertake the proper planning to ensure that short term dollars and cents don’t trump the longterm health of our campus environment.

An informal celebration of life has been planned for Sentinel. Join friends from the Faculty of Forestry and campus community Wednesday March 4, 2020, 3:30 p.m. at Khorana Park, Wesbrook Village, UBC.

In lieu of donations, please send a letter to the UBC administration to demand proactive planning and protection of our campus trees. While this tree has been lost due to shortsightedness, let us rally to ensure that its legacy lives on.

Ira Sutherland is a PhD student in the faculty of forestry and the chair of the BC Big Tree Committee.