Maple Leaves Forever is proud to present this series of posts detailing the history of roadside tree planting in Ontario, researched and written by Terry Schwan, R.P.F. The full essay will be released in its entirety in Fall 2021.
Terry Schwan is a semi-retired forest consultant. Born in Hanover, he served as District Forester in Guelph for the Ministry of Natural Resources for 17 years. One of his current projects involves researching and delivering forest history tours. He was winner of the Maple Leaves Forever / Ontario Envirothon Leadership Award in 2020.
Maple Leaves Forever thanks Terry warmly for this detailed and informative essay.
Part 1: The need to beautify Old Ontario with roadside tree-planting
In journeying lately through many of the northern and southern States … no contrast was more striking, none more pregnant with reflection than the difference between the deforested and the partially wooded farms on the route. Numbers of the former, numbers of the latter, were passed.
…, the roadside fence, the long side fences as well, east, west, and south faces, would have their row of closely growing trees a dense extended wall of fragrant cedar, or lightsome larch, or, it may be, a continuous line of clustering maple branch and stem, their multitudinous leaflets bright in the sun of early June.
Screened from the wind in some quiet corner, the branches of the orchard rose. However poor the mansion, backed by such surroundings, it looked respectable, the fields rich, the farmer opulent. The comments of the travelling passengers invariably took this direction. “How much better a farm looks for the trees!”…. I’d give two thousand dollars more for this than one of those others, anyway. The man who owns a place like this is somebody. This is a residence, sir. 
Driving through rural Ontario we often see rows of trees, mostly sugar maple, along roadsides. They are here and there and when you see a particularly spectacular one you are enthralled. That is what William Phipps described above, as he travelled through Ontario and North America.
The legislative history of roadside tree planting in Ontario goes back 150 years with the first Act passed in 1871. For some decades before, the clearing of the forest by the settlers was causing some concern in Old Ontario among progressive farmers and conservation minded men. These men worried about the loss of forests, of water in the soil, with the resultant drying of springs, soil erosion from the spring melt and from unobstructed winds, as well as the clearing of soils unsuitable for agriculture. Demands were made by a few lonely voices about the need to reforest and protect farm woodlots and to stop clearing of more forests, especially on the headlands and higher slopes. And in fact, many of these forward-thinking farmers had done this and then later had seen the error of their ways. Probably the first group to sound the need for trees for protection and aesthetics was the Ontario Fruit Growers Association. 
Members of the Association recognized that tree replacement along roadsides was one of the solutions. Four years after Confederation, Ontario passed its first law to encourage roadside tree-planting: ‘An Act to encourage the planting of trees upon the highways in this Province, and to give a right of property in such trees to the owners of the soil adjacent to such highways.’ 
In the preamble to the Act, the Province recognized it was expedient to encourage the planting of trees, shrubs and saplings upon highways, as well as provide protection, from injury and damage to those already growing there. The Act allowed trees, shrubs and saplings presently growing along the highway to be the property of the owner of the land adjacent to the highway. Landowners could plant trees bordering the highway as long as they were not a nuisance and every tree was deemed property of the owner. Municipalities could remove trees for highway improvements, and reimburse the owner. Any tree cut or injured had to be approved by municipal council. There was a fine not exceeding $25.00 plus costs upon conviction for removing or injury to a tree or tying an animal to a tree that caused injury to the tree. Half the fine went to the person laying the information and half to the municipality. The municipality could spend money to plant and preserve trees along a highway or grant money to persons or associations to do the same. A highway was defined as almost any public road, place or square.
Did the act succeed in its goal of having more trees planted? It is not clear if there was any promotional program similar to what will be described below. There is no record to any great degree the number of trees planted. Certainly, some progressive farmers understood the ecological and aesthetic advantage of having trees planted along the highway, around their homestead and farm lane. Figure 1 illustrates an example of this from 1878. The Beldon Illustrated Atlas’s for Ontario counties have many such illustrations. 
 Ontario. Forestry Report 1884. R. W. Phipps. Sessional Paper #4 of the Ontario Legislature. 1885. p.5 https://archive.org/details/n01ontariosession17ontauoft/page/n555/mode/2up
 Coons, C. F. Reforestation of private lands in Ontario. Forestry Research Group, Armson Private Land Forestry Review. 1981. p.5
 Statutes of Ontario. VIC 34. CAP 31 An Act to encourage the planting of trees… adjacent to such highways.1871.
 H. Beldon & Co. 2001 Edition of Illustrated Historic Atlas of the Counties of Northumberland and Durham Ont. Toronto 1878.