The remaining cedar trees that dot the Surrey campus between the Fir and Main buildings are hardly recognizable for the lush yet inviting forest they once were. Recent work has left heaps of lumber, as well as branches, brambles, and sawdust, strewn about the forest grounds where dense foliage was just under a year ago. Fallen trunks have been blocking pathways through the forest for weeks, worrying some members of the KPU community who value what remains of the campus’s natural landscape.
“For a university named after a First Nation, [KPU] sure does erode the small amount of connection our campus has with nature,” says Tawahum Bige, a creative writing student at KPU who uses the forest to engage with his Dene and Cree spiritual practices. “It physically pains me to see it harmed.”
“When I walked into [the forest] this semester, it seemed lifeless,” echoes Chelsea Franz, another writing student. “So much was missing.”
Franz says that a forested area on campus isn’t just an aesthetic attraction, it is important for the mental well-being of students who otherwise spend most of their time on campus crammed into classrooms and lecture halls for hours on end.
“With enough trees you can almost forget where you are and escape the pressures of the school system for a minute,” she says. “It used to be so grounding. It helped a lot of art classes connect to the universal, too.”
The removal of trees from the forest began last year during the transition from the summer to the fall semester when the nearby courtyard pond was being renovated. More recently, a much larger number of trees were cut down and left on the forest floor.
“What happened with the very hot weather in the summer, was that there was a speedy decline in a bunch of the trees,” says Andrew Chisholm, Executive Director of Facilities Services. “We reached out to an environmental company, The Arborist, to figure out what was happening to these trees. Suddenly, the fir trees lost their greenery and died. So we were in the situation of, ‘Well, we’ve got all these dead trees, we’ve got buildings, we’ve got people, we’ve got pathways that people use,’ so for health and safety purposes, we needed to take the trees down.”
Chisholm says that the university did its due diligence by “consulting with the right parties” to make sure that the trees were already dead, and made sure to obtain permits for taking the trees down. He adds that many of the fallen logs have been given to First Nations who will make use of them.
Most of all, Chisholm says he was astonished to see the sudden deterioration of the forest he was in charge of caring for.
“Within one season, these large trees were alive, and then they were deceased,” he says. “For us, when you look at it, we have to look first at life and safety. With the wind storms and all that, we needed to take these trees down.”
Dr. Rajdeep Gill, an IDEA instructor at KPU, feels that the situation was only addressed after it was too late.
“The increasing stress the forest has been under—which has led to the cutting down of many trees—has been very distressing to witness,” he says. “I see the current challenge with the forest as an opportunity to give back to the land, with care and imaginativeness, rather than reacting to the situation once it becomes more and more challenging, or doing crisis management.”
Gill uses the forest as a space to conduct mindfulness and connectivity practices as part of his classes. He says that the space is “very close to [his] heart.”
“I experience and view the trees, and the forest as a whole, as a life-enhancing member of the KPU community,” he says. “Green spaces enhance mental health and improve focus and cognition, apart from serving other vital socio-ecological functions. Our biophilic draw to the living earth also has the power to orient us to think about the meaning and purpose of our lives and the knowledge and gifts we carry.”
For years, Gill has been taking KPU students to the forest to connect with nature and to reflect on ecology. He says he has witnessed the “emotional and ethical impact of the forest” on countless students.
Creative writing instructor Ross Laird also sees the forest as a “valuable part of the environment [that] could be utilized in any number of ways to promote well-being and connection,” though he believes it isn’t currently being used to its potential.
Laird is in the process of writing a new book titled Object-Based Learning and Well-being: Exploring Material Connections, and has just finished a chapter about how nature can be used in post-secondary environments. Part of it reads, “with some practice, and with a spirit of creative inquiry, any field of study could benefit from exposure to natural environments and the objects within them.”
In comparison to KPU, UBC is densely populated with “pocket parks” such as Khorana and Nobel, and forests as large as 870 hectares. UBC forestry researcher Lorien Nesbitt agrees with Laird’s point, saying that “every resident should be within a 10-minute walk to a park.”
“I think that urban forests should reflect [a community’s] identities and priorities,” she says. “When you have trees in these neighbourhoods, they provide all sorts of benefits: psychological health, physical health, and climate change adaptation benefits.”
Chisholm says that, while plans to revitalize the forest aren’t currently being developed, the university is open to the idea.
“I want to wait and see what’s going to happen to the trees this year,” he says. “We’ll engage horticulture and biology and all those folks when we start making plans for that space, but I want to see how the trees manage over the next year. It needs to be done in a collaborative manner.”
For his part, Gill hopes to start a committee of dedicated staff and students to revitalize the forest and take matters out of the maintenance department’s hands.
“I think it could be wonderful to have students, staff, and faculty collaboratively take on the stewardship of the forest, to protect and enhance the health of the forest,” he says. “I see this as a critical moment to reflect on the vital need to not only preserve but also expand green spaces on campuses, with collaborative involvement [from] the entire KPU community, enriching social and ecological sustainability.”
There is currently some concern among students and staff that if the health of the forest continues to deteriorate at the same alarming rate that it has been, trees will keep needing to be cut down, leaving the entire forest at risk of being paved over.
Mariah Negrillo-Soor, a KPU student who is particularly fond of the on-campus forest, does not want that to happen. She hopes the forest will return to its former vitality and remain an integral part of the community for students—and woodland creatures—of the future to enjoy.
“Shout out to the forest for making my view from my classroom windows a little more interesting and calming,” she says. “I wish I could’ve spent more time with you, but I know you’ll do what you have to do to get strong again. Hopefully you’ll be left for many years to keep spreading those roots, to keep growing those rings, to give home to birds and squirrels, and to support those intelligent fungal systems.”