WINCHESTER – If there are no trees left to fall in the forest, what will we hear then?

If or when that likelihood occurs, it’s clear that diverging factors, in this case agriculture, industry and environment, are on a collision course.

According to the area chapter of the Ontario Woodlot Association, it is time local municipalities heed the urgent call and take action.

“Local politicians need to engage with the public to discuss the future of our forest,” Elaine Kennedy said.

This request comes at a time when the provincial government has downloaded responsibility for forests onto lower-tier governments.

“A frank, respectful discussion about how important trees are, and what we can do about protecting them in a way that does not hurt the economic situation for the farmers,” she added, noting that each municipality should be forming a group “representing all people” to conduct the conversations.

Clear-cutting is becoming all the more common along county and township roads throughout SD&G as producers race to increase farmland and output. Schoch Photo

In terms of sheer numbers, an average of one million trees, per year, were lost in the South Nation Watershed between 2008 and 2014. The conservation authority tasked with charting the totals notes that in all, the forest canopy in SD&G dropped to 29 per cent in 2014, and in neighbouring Prescott-Russell it went to 24.8 per cent.

“What’s the lost of trees doing to our atmosphere… What’s it doing to our water quality?” Hennie Velema, an OWA director, questioned.

Fellow board member Chris Bowen reports that the quality and quantity of water has already been impacted. Of the loss of forest cover, this also places stress on wildlife as habitat disappears and exacerbates springtime flooding conditions.

In 2014, three SD&G municipalities were below the 30 per cent minimum for ideal forest cover recommended by Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Of that, North Dundas’ total was just 13.3 per cent, far lower than the 41.1 per cent registered by South Stormont, the highest of the six municipalities in SD&G.

With numbers like that, South Nation Conservation is expecting a further decline in forest cover when the next aerial measurements take place in 2020.

“We have the feeling it’s going to be shocking, super stunning,” Alison McDonald, team lead for planning, said.

One answer that has been banded about is a tree-cutting bylaw, though most rural townships have avoided exercising that option to date. This type of action could be broad-based, requiring a permit to cut any tree, or more measured and aimed at landowners want to clear cut an entire forest or woodlot.

So, why the non-starter?

“It’s [been that way] because agriculture is an important business… They need the land, and the mindset has been historically that we need the land,” North Dundas Mayor Tony Fraser said during a tree planting session with Scouts Canada members Sat., Sept. 28 at Camp Sheldrick southeast of Winchester. “These youngsters are getting it. They’re involved and it’s through osmosis maybe, but they’re going to understand. In the future, for sure this dialogue will be happening. Hopefully long before they’re in seats of power in municipalities or anywhere else.”

While the upper-tier SD&G government did pass a bylaw earlier this year aimed at clear-cutting and forest cover, following a provincial government directive to answer for tree conservation efforts, the transition hasn’t been an easy one.

“[The bylaw] is so generic, there’s no teeth in it at all,” Warden Jamie MacDonald said. “Everybody’s doing the wait and see. Truthfully, it’s a hot potato; we just mention we’re talking about tree cutting and where you normally have two people at a meeting, you have 75. It’s just one those things that I think a lot of municipalities are waiting for somebody to take that step.”

For Fraser, who wouldn’t go so far as to say North Dundas will lead the way, he did acknowledge that the next generation is going to play its part.

“If these [kids] ask questions for their grandparents and parents like, ‘how come we cut trees down and I’m planting trees?’ Those questions have to be answered at the dinner table,” he said. “This generation is so in tune with what’s going on, saying to them that you’re going to have a bylaw, it’s an easy conversation. It’s a conversation that needs to be had.”