Bicycle locks endangering health of McGill’s most vulnerable trees
By Neale Mcdevitt
In the iconic holiday cartoon classic, Charlie Brown’s attempt to champion a stunted Christmas tree teaches the rest of the Peanuts gang a lesson about goodwill and caring.
Eric Champagne, McGill’s Horticultural Supervisor, hopes that the Lower Campus’s very own undersized sapling will help teach similar lessons to the many McGillians who bike to and from campus.
The tree in question, a 10-year-old magnolia acuminata, stands in front of the Macdonald-Harrington Building. It’s not much to look at, standing barely 10 feet tall, with a few spindly branches at its uppermost reaches – branches that carry fewer and fewer leaves in the summer months.
The tree, a protected species in North America and the only one of its kind on McGill’s lower campus, is dying. And it’s not dying of disease or as a result of an infestation of some exotic bug. Ironically, it’s being killed by cyclists.
With the greening of lower campus, more people are riding their bikes to McGill and the extra two-wheel traffic means crowded bike racks. The University is in the process of doubling the number of bike racks on lower campus from 1,200 to 2,4000. Nevertheless, some cyclists insist on chaining their rides to anything that doesn’t move, including fences, signposts, wheelchair access ramps – and small trees.
The problem with the latter is twofold. First, the constant rubbing and banging of locks, chains, pedals and pointy derailleurs cut into the protective bark, leaving the tree susceptible to disease, fungi and insects. It also impairs the flow of sap, which usually runs just below he surface of the bark.
Second, the relentless traffic of people and bikes at the base of the tree tamps down the soil, compacting it and making it more difficult for the roots to absorb water – another hindrance to the healthy flow of sap.
With its vital supply line of sap in an increasingly compromised state, the magnolia tree is literally withering to the point where its trunk at bike level is significantly thinner than it is higher up the tree (see photo). It is slowly strangling to death.
“This tree has almost stopped growing,” said Champagne. “It should be twice as large as it is now. And it’s a shame because in Canada this is a fairly rare tree.”
The situation is compounded because cyclists are locking their bikes to smaller trees all around campus, including just inside the Milton Gates. As a result, a generation of smaller, less robust trees is increasingly at risk of developing serious problems.
The City of Montreal will cut locks and dispose of bikes locked to trees without warning or will fine owners when possible, but Champagne is hoping that raised awareness will help curtail the damaging practice.
“Last year we added 40 different species of trees to the downtown campus because biodiversity will protect us from having all our trees wiped out by something like Dutch Elm disease,” he said. “But everyone should help protect these trees in any way they can. The natural beauty of the University is as much a part of McGill’s identity as is its architecture.”