By CHRISTOPHER MASON, New York Times
VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Jan. 24 — A toppled oak near the entrance to Stanley Park awaits cleanup crews. Some 85 to 90 percent of trees in one park area were knocked down.
Nothing symbolizes this dichotomy more than Stanley Park, a 1,000-acre forested oasis next to downtown Vancouver that juts into the Burrard Inlet. Its trails and pathways are an escape for the growing legions who may live in a high-rise building and conduct an otherwise urban life but who disappear by the thousands into the park’s hiking trails or jog the six-mile path along the water.
That tranquillity was shattered, though, by two recent brutal winter storms that have all but decimated huge swaths of the park, knocking down some 10,000 trees and forcing much of it to be closed as crews struggle to clear the debris.
The park has been a part of Vancouver since the first city council was established in the late 1880s. The council’s first action after taking power was to create the park, preserving the lands that had until then been a marine base for the Royal Navy.
“This park has a very special place in Vancouver’s heart,” said the city’s mayor, Sam Sullivan, who choked up while discussing the damage. “It is part sacred cathedral, part just an icon of the city.”
The park is a hybrid of sorts, mixing urban features — like the paved seawall path, a petting zoo and areas of manicured lawns ripe for picnics — with wild pleasures like the hiking trails that weave through the park’s interior where vestiges of city life seem farther away than just beyond the next grove of trees. Several pairs of bald eagles live in the park, as do coyotes.
Its wilder sections have always been an important outlet for Vancouver’s many nature-loving residents, but they have become even more crucial with the city’s growth.
Downtown Vancouver has seen waves of high-rise development, first 50 years ago, and again in the 1990s, leading to a densely built core. The city is facing further urbanization as Mr. Sullivan, who was elected in 2005, champions a development strategy — called “ecodensity” — that is meant to cap urban sprawl by encouraging sustainable but dense development within the city.
“If we want to convince people to live in higher densities we have to provide them with the amenities that will make that type of living attractive,” Mr. Sullivan said. “And Stanley Park is one of the reasons for that.”
During a recent tour of the damage, the steady rain did not diminish the mist-filled view from the highest point of Stanley Park. Some 200 feet below, birds of dazzling variety swooped out over the inlet; several spectacular peaks loomed in the distance.
But the view, however breathtaking, is in reality some of the most clear evidence of the storms’ destructiveness. Six weeks ago, the view did not exist. It was obscured by hundreds of towering red cedars, Douglas firs and hemlocks, now felled and lying at obtuse angles on the forest floor.
“It looks like a bomb went off,” said Brian Quinn, a foreman at the park.
On one hill overlooking the park’s northwestern flank, the number of trees still standing could be counted on one hand. Park staff members estimate 85 to 90 percent of the trees in this area of the park were knocked down during the storms, though many of those left standing are unstable and will be taken down during the cleanup.
“There will be almost nothing left here by the time the cleanup is done,” said Mr. Quinn, who then pointed at one of the few remaining trees, long dead, where a bald eagle was landing with a fresh branch to add to its nest. “We’re all rebuilding from the storms.”
The worst of the storms came Dec. 15. Nearly 80-mile-an-hour winds blew inland during the middle of the night and struck the park like a stone skipping over water, leaving concentrated pockets of destruction.
About 250,000 people in southwestern British Columbia lost power, and Lions Gate, the main bridge between the Vancouver’s two heavily populated shores, was closed. The access road to the bridge on the southern side runs through the park, and it was blocked by fallen trees.
Park workers could barely comprehend the devastation. The only way to travel was by foot, with a chainsaw to clear a spot for each step. The extent of the damage was not known until someone managed to survey the area by helicopter.
“I felt sick,” said Jim Lowden, director of the park, in describing his reaction to the aerial images.
Another storm, on Jan. 9, felled trees that had been weakened in December.
Even now, nearly a month after the last of the storms, much of the park is still closed off. Barricades block hiking trails, and about half the seawall path, used by an estimated two million people each year, remains closed.
The closed-off section of the seawall is littered with trees that fell about 40 feet from the cliffs above. Ocean swells added to the damage, picking up entire sections of asphalt and depositing them intact farther down the path.
Efforts to put the park back together will focus first on rebuilding the seawall and then on slowly restabilizing the soil and clearing the fallen trees to make way for new saplings.
The federal, provincial and city governments have pledged the equivalent of $5.1 million for the work, and the local community has already raised the equivalent of $2.6 million with a telethon fund-raiser.
Mr. Lowden, the park director, predicted that the restoration would take nearly two years, but it is likely to take 40 more years for the forest to regain its density and many more before the trees reach the height of their predecessors.
“People of my age will never again see the park as it was,” said Mr. Lowden, who is in his early 60s.
But amid thousands of downed trees, Vancouver’s hardiest continue to use the park as though nothing happened. Groups still congregate at the dozens of monuments, statues and lookout points and joggers run through on the few paths left open.
“This park is my saving grace,” said Emily McPherson, 32, who moved to Vancouver six years ago and runs regularly in the park. “The way I look at it, the trees will grow back eventually, and in the meantime we’ll keep on enjoying it.”
Photo credit: Farah Nosh
Published: January 29, 2007, New York Times