January 1, 2018
Mark Cullen
Mark Cullen

Why reforest the Highway of Heroes?

Living respect

Question: How would you like to die?
Walter Cronkite: In my sleep after celebrating the outbreak of permanent world peace.

Perhaps you have heard that Landscape Ontario is leading the charge, with others, in the planting of 117,000 native trees on the Highway of Heroes (HOH) in Ontario. Why choose such a hostile environment, when it would be much easier to plant elsewhere, perhaps on agricultural land?

First, the busiest stretch of highway in North America, Hwy. 401, provides an opportunity to improve conditions where it is truly most needed. Traffic is a primary source of air pollution, and trees will make a measurable, positive difference by cleaning the air, producing oxygen, filtering toxins and providing a cooling effect for all. This idea was born three years ago out of environmental concerns on the part of 14 not-for-profit tree planting organizations, including the Compost Council of Canada, Tree Canada and Landscape Canada, represented by Tony DiGiovanni.

Second, we have an opportunity to engage every Canadian in a unique public acknowledgment of those who have paid the price for peace and freedom. Since Confederation, 117,000 Canadians have been lost at war. Coincidentally, the HOH stretch provides about enough right-of-way space to plant that number of trees.

Our commitment to honour Canadians in military service during times of war does not end there. We are planting 1.8 million additional trees on the highway corridor to acknowledge the service of each person who volunteered for military service during times of war.

Jean Perdue is one of those. As a young woman living in Toronto in 1940, she saw billboards around town that said, ‘Women, sign up and let our men fight!’ She stood with many others at the recruitment office to do whatever was asked, and served in a munitions factory. An original Rosy the Riveter! A tree will be planted for Jean, of course, and the 1.8 million men and women who did the same: Signed up to help win peace.

This is a national magazine. Truth is, every province has a Highway of Heroes. What makes the Ontario Highway special? During the Afghan conflict, 158 Canadians lost their lives. Each of their bodies was flown to CFB Trenton in Ontario and driven down Hwy. 401 to the Coroner’s Office on Keele St. in Toronto. As each was honoured in this way, Canadians gathered on bridges over the highway to quietly pay tribute to the fallen as they passed by. The numbers swelled each time a procession was formed.

The organic phenomenon on the original Highway of Heroes serves as inspiration for our plan to replant it with trees. In the first two years of our campaign, no one has told us this is a bad idea. We have raised over $1.3 million, all from private Canadian donors, including support from TD and Cowan Insurance. Thousands of private citizens have stepped to the plate, donated their hard-earned cash, volunteered for tree planting days and helped to spread the word.
Landscape Ontario is committed to plant all the right-of-way trees, and we currently have 12,000 in the ground.

We are not content to plant trees in a row. While our plant list includes mostly native species, five landscape architects are providing in-kind services to help us create a plan that will truly inspire highway travelers for generations to come.

Think of the transformation that Central Park provides New York City, or Millennial Park in Chicago. Only 18 years old, it is now the largest tourist magnet in that city. The Highway of Heroes will become a tourist attraction, instead of a bland ribbon of asphalt.

Clearly we have a long way to go. Our goal is to raise $10 million by 2020, and complete planting by 2022. While we are in discussions with each level of government about support, we need Canadians to help us raise about $4 million of the total. What can you do?

Volunteer: We need planting supplies, trees, labour, equipment, mulch and soil. Please call our team if this interests you at (905) 875-0021.

Donate: We need cash and would very much welcome any amount you can afford to donate. Donations are tax deductible.

Spread the word: Log on to www.hohtribute.ca and sign up for our free monthly newsletter. Pass it on to friends and relatives who are predisposed to this campaign.

And finally, thank you. Many readers of Landscape Trades have stepped up and offered in-kind services, products and cash support.

Every effort helps. We will plant the Highway of Heroes one tree at a time until we reach our goal of two million trees. Just as our freedom was won, one volunteer at a time, during times of war.

Mark Cullen C.M., a lifelong horticulture professional, is Canada’s most respected garden communicator.