The 10-year urban forestry management plan of Baguio City prepared by the City Environment and Parks Management Office covering 2020 to 2030, acknowledges despite its moniker as the “City of Pines,” this mountain resort has no clear or comprehensive vision on how to preserve and conserve its remaining urban trees, especially the Benguet pine.
This is also in spite of the fact that the uphill bid to preserve the remaining forest covers in Baguio with a land area of 57.51 square kilometers has been in the top agenda of past and present local administrations. Over the decades, the green patches in the Summer Capital have been rapidly decreasing to pave way for urban development.
The current urban forest cover in Baguio is 28.58 percent of its total land area, according to the inventory of trees conducted by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in 2019 in coordination with Cepmo. The ideal forest cover vis-à-vis the city’s total land area should be at least 30 to 40 percent.
This means long before the current city leadership had raised the alert on the degradation of its forest covers, the number of tree stands in the city had already been rapidly decreasing to give way for the construction or expansion of private or government-owned structures.
The rapid dwindling of forest covers in Baguio prompted former DENR secretary Roy Cimatu to order the inventory of trees in the city in 2019, particularly its pine trees and for the DENR-Cordillera to take all steps to preserve and protect these remaining trees.
Results of the inventory showed that 2.5 million trees in Baguio remained standing, of which, only 500,000 were Benguet pine.
On the other hand, Baguio’s population in 2020 based on the survey of the Philippine Statistics Authority was at 366,358.
Sites for possible new urban forests identified
But there is still hope if the city government makes the aggressive move to regreen idle areas.
Based on the 10-year urban forest management plan, forest and watershed reservations in 14 sites in the city cover an aggregated area of 765.4221 hectares while city parks and plazas with tree stands have an aggregated area of 61.3 hectares.
On the other hand, Cepmo reported around 42 hectares of land in government reservations, 18 hectares in private parks, 15 hectares of barangay lands, and two hectares of open spaces in campus grounds are available for new forest projects.
In his inaugural speech on June 30, Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong acknowledged Baguio is facing a great challenge in preserving and conserving forest covers in the city.
He said the city lost more than 50 hectares of forest cover between 2014 and 2017.
“We are currently developing ways and strategies in overcoming and mitigating these urban challenges, but we need each and everyone’s cooperation. Only when we come together with the 4Cs of good governance – cooperation, collaboration, coordination, and communication – would we be able to solve the city’s problems. We, altogether, need to be proactive and accepting of a much-needed transformation. The challenge is not to just reverse urban decay but to root out the causes, implement immediate and strategic solutions, and eventually put us on track toward the better Baguio we long for,” Magalong said.
Dilemma in preserving forest covers within private properties
Atty. Rhenan Diwas, head of Cepmo, said one of the primary concerns in relation to preserving forest covers is that valuable forested areas covering 14 percent of the total urban forest covers in Baguio are within private properties.
This means these trees can be cut anytime should the private owners opt to develop their properties and after securing regulatory permits from the city and other agencies.
In most cases, Diwas said the types of development in private properties are residential and commercial in nature, where trees have to be cut or removed to give way for structures.
The current process of securing a tree cutting permit for trees obstructing development requires only the developer to secure a building permit with attached documents such as a site development plan, lot title, certifications, and an inventory of trees to be affected.
Diwas, in an interview with the Baguio Midland Courier, said these tree stands within private properties can be protected if the city government expands its land banking program to include purchasing valuable forest covers within the city.
Earlier, the city government came up with a proposal to purchase a private property in nearby Topinao, Tuba, Benguet worth P95 million for future use.
Diwas added that preserving urban forest covers also requires strong political will, as tree protection in private lots is governed by the city government and DENR. This means the city can determine how the land can be used and therefore can influence tree retention while the DENR issues the permit on whether trees will be cut down or spared.
These concerns were raised by Diwas during the executive-legislative agenda (ELA) meeting attended by all city officials and department heads in Clark, Pampanga in June this year.
Earlier this year, the city council initially discussed the possibility of providing real property owners with incentives for maintaining green covers within their properties. Members of the city council proposed the incentive to help protect the trees within private lands and contribute to the city’s environmental protection efforts.
One of the councilors had even committed to pushing for alternatives, such as urging the Local Finance Committee to review the fair market values for reassessment of the valuation of properties based on their actual use and reduce the taxes for land planted with trees.
Baguio can survive without high-rise buildings and malls, but not without pine trees
Considered as the most recognizable landmark in the Summer Capital, the pine trees which made this city distinct from any other highly-urbanized cities in the country must be preserved at all cost, even declaring them as heritage trees.
This argument might have convinced members of the city council in unanimously approving on first reading the proposed ordinance authored by Councilor Leandro Yangot, Jr. declaring all pine trees as heritage and protected trees.
As a stern warning against illegal tree cutting activities, the proposed ordinance, without prejudice to other administrative, civil, or criminal offenses as may be filed against violators, states that any person who violates any provision of the same shall upon conviction be subjected to a fine of P5,000 per violation and imprisonment of six months or both at the discretion of the court.
If the violator is a juridical entity, the ordinance states that the managing officers and other persons responsible for any violation shall be liable for the penalties.
The proposed ordinance tasked the Office of the Mayor in coordination with Cepmo to monitor and formulate the guidelines necessary for the successful implementation of the measure.
The proposed ordinance states the city is facing the reality that in due time, it will lose all the pine trees in the name of development and its title as the City of Pines and the Pine Tree Capital of the Philippines.
Based on studies, a pine tree absorbs as much as 150 liters water, then releases it to recharge ground water.
Planting the right trees at the right locations
Aside from preserving the remaining forest covers, the 10-year urban forest development plan recommends massive tree planting activities in strategic planting sites in the city between June and September, which is the ideal tree planting period.
The plan recommended for roadside or sidewalk tree planting especially in major routes coming in and out of Baguio, circumferential roads and even along the central business district.
With help from experts, the plan has identified that pine and calliandra trees are ideal for roadside or sidewalk.
Diwas said the balete trees currently planted at the center island of Session Road is not the ideal tree within the area, as the roots will soon cause cracks and it will endanger the public if trimming and pruning, which was widely criticized, are not regularly done.
The establishment of tree parks or green pocket parks in every barangay is feasible, according to the plan, which also recommends the establishment of green patches in schools and government lots.
Cepmo is also aggressively encouraging developers to include rooftop and vertical gardening in their plans within the central business district.
Saleng Festival as a reminder on the value of forest covers
Efforts to preserve and conserve the urban forest cover of Baguio is not solely a government concern, reason why Cepmo has embarked in a massive information and education campaign on instilling public awareness on the current state of the city’s fragile environment. Part of the campaign involves nurturing activities and encouraging government and private agencies to embody the advocacy programs on preservation of trees, especially pine trees.
The Pine Tree Festival saw the birth and eventual institutionalization of the “Saleng Festival” that drew 2,600 participants from various sectors in tree planting activities held from June up to September leading to more than 10,000 tree saplings planted in 2021.
Part of the IEC is to also instill the value of planting native or endemic trees in Baguio since these are more adaptive to local climate conditions. These native trees such as the “tibig” (ficus nota), “dapdap” (Erythrina variegata), rainbow eucalyptus, including the giant fern are suited for the city’s reforestation program.
“These trees also help in preserving birds that are endemic to Baguio and its environs. You will be surprised that this city is host to various species of birds and the presence of these indigenous trees is important to their survival,” Diwas said.
“Planting the right tree in the right place is crucial for the safety and health of the trees,” Diwas added, as he emphasized the plan to replace existing trees with native ones, but that would require massive information drive, as netizens tend to criticize rather than understand the purpose of such a plan.
Putting to work the city’s Environment Code
The holding of the Saleng Festival puts to work the Environment Code of Baguio, which also aims “to instill awareness among the people on the present state of the environment, the importance of pine trees and all laws/ordinances and policies relative to the caring of Benguet pine forest.”
Observers say the city government must also drum up Section 226.c of the Code, which prohibits and penalizes, among others, the boring, girdling, nailing, concreting, choking, and burning of the basal part and other forms of mechanical injuries to the trees.
The DENR Watershed and Water Resources Research and Development and Extension Center, which is also helping the city in its IEC campaign on tree protection and forest conservation, reported damaged trees when weakened are vulnerable to bark beetle infestation and bring chronological conundrums on the health and ecological services of Benguet pine forest ecosystem.
In a recent study by Adreana S. Remo, an Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau (ERDB) researcher, Information Officer II for her MS thesis, it was found majority of the death of Benguet pine trees at Camp John Hay forest reserve covering an area of 581.86 hectares was triggered by the injuries inflicted by man to trees during developmental activities.
Diwas, for his part, also said Cepmo has been strict in the imposition of the green infrastructure requirement under the Environment Code to applicants for tree cutting permit and building permit.
The first article of the Code requires the integration of green features in plans for all new buildings. Green infrastructures include features such as rain harvesting and recycling facilities, energy conservation retrofitting, waste water treatment and solid waste facilities, and roof areas for plants and trees.
The second article requires tree cutting permit applicants to plant 30 pine seedlings for each pine tree cut within the boundaries of the construction site.
City goals and challenges amidst dwindling forest covers
Meanwhile, Diwas expressed hope the city government, with the help of concerned agencies led by the DENR and private partners, will achieve the primary objectives of the 10-year master development plan which include, among others, increasing urban forest covers from 28.58 percent to 40 percent, or an additional 657 hectares to the city’s total land area.
The plan also aims to adapt the urban forest population for the city that considers climate change; and improve urban forest diversity by planting different tree species – 40 percent of Benguet pine trees and 30 percent of indigenous or local trees, 20 percent of acclimatized ornamental trees, and 10 percent of fruit-bearing trees.
Diwas also reported the plan is geared towards developing an urban forest stewardship program to build community ownership of the remaining and new urban forest covers in this mountain resort.
Among the challenges that contribute to the continuing decrease of urban trees are the non-stop infrastructure developments both in public and private properties such as road widening. Encroachment into forest reservations and watersheds due to unabated urban migration is also a major problem.
The Busol watershed, for example, is greatly threatened by encroachment with around 150 informal settlers found in an almost eight-hectare portion of the watershed. On the other hand, half of the 18-hectare Buyog watershed is occupied by settlers.
Another established threat to urban trees is infestation, particularly by beetles that attack and kill pine trees in a cluster within a wood stand. The beetle (Ips calligraphus) infestation was first documented in Benguet in 1956, usually attacking a weakened tree by consuming the cambium layer of the tree.
Illegal tree cutting was also reported in the city, even in privately-owned lots near the central business district, to pave way for development without securing tree cutting and other regulatory permits.
Typhoons and climate change have likewise greatly contributed to the dwindling number of urban trees with over 20 typhoons entering the country and an average of nine landfalls recorded in areas hit by these typhoons.
Children as guardians of urban forest covers
Meanwhile, there is no better substitute for involving children in the preservatio n of urban forest covers, especially the watersheds and reservations, for the present and future generations to enjoy.
This calls for the city government and other concerned offices on the importance of reviving the multi-awarded “Eco-Walk” program where children, over the past decades, took the lead in preserving the watersheds by walking the talk in keeping a balanced ecology.
Under this program, children are brought directly to areas where the water cycle can be best understood, among which is the Busol watershed, instead of learning about the environment inside the classroom.
The program allows children to lead in environmental conservation, and its success has inspired leaders and adults to support the program and heighten community commitment to environmental concerns.
This child-oriented environment learning project is keeping the hope that critical forests can be saved, and more communities and local government units are now inspired to replicate the program.
The program started and continues at the Busol watershed where children enjoy the camaraderie while planting trees and internalizing the values that will help preserve the remaining patches of forest in this mountain resort.
A walk through the forest has several things going for it to make it doable and sustainable. First, children naturally love the outdoors. It is a respite from classroom doldrums, and thus does not need big funding to get the children out for a walk to the forest. And as they do so, they learn about the responsibility of preserving the forest not just for the present but also for future generations.
A year after its inception, Eco-Walk received the 1993 Gawad Oscar Florendo national award from the Public Relations Organization of the Philippines.
In 1996, it received the Galing Pook national award as one of the country’s most innovative and effective local government programs. The Galing Pook award is handled by the Asian Institute of Management and the Local Government Academy of the Department of the Interior and Local Government and is supported by the Ford Foundation.
A decade later, Eco-Walk received its greatest recognition so far from the United Nations through the Global 500 Roll of Honour Award for Environmental Achievement during the International World Earth Day celebration in Shenzhen, China in 2002.
This came a year after the program won for the late veteran journalist Ramon Dacawi, as program director, the 2001 Lingkod Bayan award from the Civil Service Commission.
Of late, however, implementation of the program seems not to be as active and vibrant after the passing of its founders, including Dacawi, who died during the planting month of June 2019.
It is also our wish that the dreams of the genuine environmentalists now in the great beyond who envisioned Baguio to care for its environment for future generations can actively involve the children, who are constant reminders from God that the world must go on.