Stanley Park five years after the storm

When Ian Robertson used to think of Stanley Park, he would remember the summer of 1980, when he proposed to his wife on the sea wall of Vancouver’s forested oasis.

That all changed on Dec. 15, 2006, when a winter storm roared over that same sea wall and tore through the park’s old growth forest, littering cedar, fir and hemlock in its wake.

“I wasn’t prepared emotionally for the devastation that I saw,” recalls Mr. Robertson, who was then the vice-chair of the Vancouver Park Board. He later became chair before retiring.

The memory of his engagement was momentarily forgotten as he stood at Prospect Point and surveyed the ruptured roots and splintered torsos of more than 10,000 trees.

The destruction prompted donations totalling $6-million from all levels of government and citizens from around the world to save one of the city’s most recognized landmarks.

Mr. Robertson says he remembered reading letters of support from people in Denmark, Australia and New York. “All of their stories were the same – they’d either visited as tourists or on business trips, and they’d all been touched by the beauty of the park.”

Five years on, Professor Stephen Mitchell, from the University of British Columbia’s Department of Forest Sciences, says that approximately 20,000 trees have been planted, including western red cedar, Douglas fir, and Sitka spruce.

He said that 400 stems per hectare were planted in the severely damaged northwest corner of the park.

“Nature could have taken its own course – it would have taken a little bit longer – but the idea was to jump start that process,” Prof. Mitchell says.

Some of the newly planted trees are now two to three metres tall, and over 95 per cent of the planted trees are still alive, he says.

Patricia Thomson, executive director of Stanley Park Ecology Society, says that in retrospect the storm was one of the best things to have happened to the park in decades.

Before the storm, Ms. Thomson says, the trend had been to plant tall, coniferous trees to the exclusion of deciduous trees – the leafy trees most commonly used by migratory birds for nesting and feeding.

“But when the trees went over or were snapped off, it created some really valuable habitat in the city such as ‘wildlife trees,’” Ms. Thomson says. “These are dead or dying trees – which can actually provide more habitat for more species of animals than even the living trees do.”

Ms. Thomson says the storm carved up root wads that now act as “mini-condominiums” for winter wrens, and provided nests for wood ducks in the hollows of the dying trees. “The diversity of the park really goes up with these impacts.”