25th Trillium Award

Ten Questions, with John Bacher

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Writer and environmental activist John Bacher shines a light on an unsung Canadian hero in his new book, Two Billion Trees and Counting: The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz.

He talks to Open Book about Edmund Zavitz, Canada’s special relationship with trees and some surprising aspects of Ontario’s environmental history, including how close we came to losing countless acres of precious farmland and forests.

You can catch John Bacher’s at the book’s launch this Saturday, August 13, 2023 at St. Williams Nursery in St. Williams, Ontario. For more details, see our event listing for the launch.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Two Billion Trees and Counting: The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz.

John Bacher:

My book is the story of how Edmund Zavitz, (1875-1968) rescued Ontario from the ruin of spreading deserts, fires and floods. The threats facing Ontario in 1904 were quite serious and varied. The most dramatic and difficult to correct was in Prince Edward County on the shores of Lake Ontario, where Zavitz photographed apple orchards being buried in sand. Deforestation had caused much of the Oak Ridges Moraine to become desert wasteland. What is so inspiring is how Zavitz was successfully able to rescue Ontario from the serious ecological threats it faced.


Many people think of deforestation as a recent problem. When did it start in Canada?


It appears that deforestation began in Canada in the 17th century in Newfoundland. The coast of Newfoundland is still rocky and barren and most people think it was always this way. It was however, Canada’s first case of long lasting deforestation.

In the course of writing the biography I was shocked to learn how rapidly the deforestation of Ontario was carried out with very little of the arable land in the province being in forest cover by the 1850s. The destruction of forests caused more severe winters and more frost and extreme temperatures.

One of the reasons that deforestation was so rapid in Ontario was that the trees were burned down for potash in which soap and other industrial products could be made. This was an incredibly wasteful process. It took 60 large maple trees to produce a single bag of potash. Harold Zavitz, a cousin of Edmund who worked with him closely in the reforestation of Southern Ontario, called this a horrible burnt sacrifice “to the god of agriculture.”


Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote this book?


When I began my dream was that it would be read by everyone who is eligible to vote in a provincial election in Ontario. This is because the issues that the book deals with — protecting forest cover, watersheds and wildlife habitat — are central to the work of the provincial government.

People need to understand how Zavitz carefully developed an approach to protect the economy and ecology of the province on a long term sustainable basis. This needs to be applied carefully in a systematic way. It is possible to do this but little attention is paid to these issues. Part of the reason is widespread lack of understanding of the ecology of Ontario and its history.

I see the problem of the lack of appreciation of Zavitz’s legacy all the time in my work for the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society. (PALS: an environmental group that seeks to stop sprawl in Southern Ontario).


How would you describe the role of trees in Canadian identity? Do Canadians have a special relationship with trees?


I believe that Canada is blessed to have the maple as a national emblem. Its significance is shown by the festival honouring the maple which is one of the important seasonal ceremonies in the Longhouse religion of the Iroquois. The tree has a wonderful and honourable history as part of our human culture. Maple sugar was embraced by abolitionists as the “Tree of Liberty”, because of the ties of cane sugar to slavery.

The Group of Seven is the longest lasting national school of art we have had in Canada, and it appears that nothing has supplanted it. I think the reason for its success is that Canadians do have a special relationship to trees. This is certainly evident in the life of its founder, Tom Thompson, who worked as a fire ranger for Zavitz.

It is important to acknowledge that all Canadians did not always have a special relationship with trees. Although we had the maple associated with Canadian nationalism arising out of the patriot movement in Lower Canada in the 1830s, a more positive attitude towards trees in general did not emerge among Euro-Canadians until the 1880s. It is significant that one of the key persons in fostering this change was the Canadian author, Susannah Moody. She lamented how Canadians in her time hated trees and compared the collective tree burnings to diabolical rituals. She was in her old age able to live to see a change in attitude. The special positive relationship that Canadians have with trees was slow to develop and was originally nurtured by a small minority that transformed their society.


What was the most challenging part of writing this book?


The biggest challenge to writing this book was the relative obscurity of the accomplishments of Edmund Zavitz. My disappointment with such negativity ended however, when I encountered professional foresters who were quite aware of the magnitude of his contribution — Dolf Wynia, Ed Borczon and Ken Armson. They understood Zavitz’s accomplishments and were very encouraging.

I have to say that I was very blessed in having Edmund Zavitz as a subject. He did his best to wake up the people of Ontario with reports and books that are still widely accessible in libraries across the province. His photographs are awe inspiring and should cause him to be appreciated as a great Canadian artist.


You’ve also written about the challenges of dwindling fossil fuel supplies. What sparked your interest in environmentalism and conservation?


My interest in environmentalism and trees grew up from the positive influences of my parents, Win and Mary Bacher, as a child. The first home they lived in was in surrounded by a magnificent planting of towering White Pines in Delhi, Ontario, which they continued to own until I was in my mid-twenties. In the course of my research on the biography I was stunned to learn that this magnificent urban forest was created as part of the reforestation policies fostered by Edmund Zavitz.

As a boy I frequently went on trips to Delhi, where I would keep my father company when he did work on his home and my mother and younger brother stayed in St. Catharines. On these trips he would tell me how the rich farming land we were driving through, where the tobacco fields were carefully rotated with nitrogen fixing crops to increase fertility, was once a desert until there was massive reforestation.

My interest in dwindling fossil fuel supplies was sparked by the same concerns that sparked my interest in environmentalism and conservation. The first environmental protection struggle I engaged with in my teens was the effort to stop the construction of Highway 406 in St. Catharines. Although we didn’t stop the expressway we got important design changes which made for more forest cover and less concrete in the Garden City.

Much of my work for the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society (PALS) is devoted to writing critiques of the seven new proposed expressways in Ontario. What is most disturbing about these proposals is that they will inevitably mar the beautiful ecologically restored landscape of Southern Ontario that was the great legacy of Edmund Zavitz. People should view such assaults as similar to destroying a great artistic work.


If you could take a person on a one-day tour to witness the effects of Edmund Zavitz’ work, where would you go?


I would start the tour at the St. Williams Forestry Interpretation Center. It has good exhibits on the desert like conditions that prevailed in Norfolk County before the reforestation work of Zavitz. I would then take a two hour walk through what is now named the Edmund Zavitz Forest around the interpretive center. The forest is quite magnificent with a super-story of towering pines and native Carolinian hardwoods such as Sassafras growing beneath. The interpretive trail explains how this was created since 1908 by thinning the originally dense conifers planted in the blowing sand, which allowed hardwoods to naturally seed creating a mixed woods forest.

After touring the Edmund Zavitz Forest the next point would be Turkey Point Provincial Park and the adjacent James Herbert White Forest. During the drive I would stress that all the land we are travelling through was once barren desert wastelands.

After exploring the trails and various natural areas of Turkey Point, (which include some fascinating arboretums, such as a collection of all the world’s spruce species), I would then go to the Backus Woods Conservation Area. What I would try to stress here is that the conservation area and the adjacent woods which is now owned by the Nature Conservancy of Canada, is a good expression of both Zavitz’s ideals and what he was able to accomplish in his lifetime.

The tour would conclude with a trip to the Balls Falls Conservation Area on the Niagara Escarpment. It was the first park acquired by the newly created Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority after it was created by men inspired by the conservationist vision of Edmund Zavitz. In walking through the forests I would stress that it is one of the few old growth areas on the Niagara Escarpment, which was heavily impacted by wrong-headed attempts to farm here.


You hold a PhD in History. How does your formal education influence your writing about environmental issues?


My graduate studies did help shape in a positive way my approach to environmental issues. One of the most beneficial books I read was Mel Scott’s history of land use planning in the United States. This was very helpful because it gave me an understanding of why land use planning and zoning controls were introduced. One unusual point is that banks got behind them since before there was zoning any sort of land use was legally permitted. Banks in particular were outraged when planing mills were established near expensive homes. This would cause the market value of these homes to suddenly collapse, making mortgages worth more than the property.

Understanding the historical background gives a greater appreciation of the magnitude of what was achieved in conservation and how difficult it was. Zavitz’s close friend J. H. White authored for the Commission of Conservation the Trent Watershed report in 1913. It was quite compelling in its call for watershed protection but apart from small reforms that Zavitz was able to pry out of the provincial government in the 1920s, completely shelved. With the James Commission’s Garnaraska study of 1944, Zavitz was able to persuade the Ontario government to pass the
Conservation Authorities Act. This was a critical step in the massive tripling of forest cover in Southern Ontario over the next two decades.

My doctoral studies prepared me well to write Zavitz’s biography. I scanned over the pages of the Ganaraska and Trent reports aware of the significance of what was being involved, but not wanting to delve too deeply lest the contents completely cause me to lose interest in the issue of the struggle for social housing in Canada. The biography has caused me to go back and complete work that so captivated my interest during the writing of my doctorate. This was captured by flipping over the dramatic photos of eroded wastelands and forest soils burnt down to bare rock captured by the photographers of the Commission of Conservation.


Why should people care about deforestation and conservation?


The most vivid way to tell people about the importance of reversing deforestation and promoting conservation is to look carefully at the news coverage on television of environmental disaster that happen outside of Ontario. If you look and listen carefully, once you learn the story of conservation in our province, you will give thanks and say, there but for the work of Edmund Zavitz goes Ontario.

What was so compelling to me was the summer of 2010 there were big news stories in very different parts of the world. One was of the terrible flooding in Pakistan, which killed thousands of people and left millions homeless. Another was the massive forest fires of Russia, which caused huge smoke damages and threatened to burn up nuclear reactors.

Both the Pakistan and Russian disasters were typical of the type of problems we used to have in Ontario before the reforms wrested out of the provincial government with great difficulty by Zavitz. In Pakistan severe deforestation helped trigger the massive floods. In some parts of the country, notably the area of richest farmland the Punjab, only three per cent of the land is in forest cover. Just before the massive floods some of these very tiny forest areas got destroyed for purposes such as luxury shopping malls. In Russia the Communist era dictatorship and its authoritarian successor under Putin made the country very vulnerable to forest fires in dry conditions since forests were crudely exploited for perceived economic gain.

It was very illustrative to see how in the last few months in Ontario we have had massive rainfall, but no flooding. We just hear of flood warnings issued by diligent conservation authorities, but don’t see any actual floods. The contrast is enormous with our neighbours, Quebec and Manitoba and the American states.

We used to have the same problems in Ontario that you see on television from events outside the province. Forest fires burnt up entire towns, such as Cochrane, Cobalt, Haileybury, Hearst and Porcupine. This problem was solved through the public intervention measures wrested by Zavitz.


What are you working on now?


It is a priority for me to complete my biography of Mel Swart. His great accomplishment was to protect Zavitz’s great legacy of restoration from the ravages of quarry pits, expressways and urban sprawl. In this his greatest legacy was playing a central role in the twenty-five year struggle to establish the Niagara Escarpment Plan.

In my environmental activism I am quite conscious of the need to have the larger scale reforestation achieved by Zavitz in other parts of Ontario accomplished in Niagara. Here only about 15 per cent of the landscape is in forest cover; with some rural municipalities, notably Niagara on the Lake, being only three per cent.

I hope to write more tributes to people who contributed to Zavitz’s work who have largely been forgotten. One such astonishing figure is Monroe Landon, his close friend from Norfolk County. A farmer and amateur botanist, Landon got the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce to campaign for forest protection across Southern Ontario. He was a major figure in the founding of Ontario’s largest environmental group, the Ontario Federation of Naturalists, now Ontario Nature.

John Bacher received his Ph.D. in history from McMaster University in 1985 and has taught at McMaster and the University of Toronto. A co-author of Get a Life: An Environmentalist's Guide to Better Living, Bacher is a passionate supporter of environmental preservation. He lives in St. Catharines, Ontario.

For more information about Two Billion Trees and Counting please visit the Dundurn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

For more information on environmental issues in Ontario, please visit the Climate Action Niagara website.

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