MTO contractors mow down hundreds of saplings


Astounded that the same provincial ministry that planted thousands of trees along a highway later paid to have them mowed down, a Morrisburg, Ont., woman is now trying to save the few that remain.


Seven years ago, Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation (MTO) hired contractors to plant 3,250 saplings along the shoulder of Highway 401. The aim was to eventually create a barrier to wind, snow and sound, to stabilize the soil and to create a habitat for insects and birds.

Last June, mowers under MTO contract passed along the six-kilometre plantation between Nudell Bush and Upper Canada roads, lopping all but a few hundred of the trees off at their trunks.

“It boggles my mind. If that’s what you’re going to do, why not pave it?” said Michelle Poilly, 50, whose rural property backs onto the devastated plantation. “It seems like a huge waste as well. This is essentially taxpayers’ money.” 

Convinced the cutting crews were making a mistake, Poilly chased down one of the mowers when she first saw them last June.

“In my mind, I was confident since they had planted these trees that they would be aware, that they would not mow them,” she said.

High Road Maintenance holds the MTO contract to mow the ditch along the section of highway where the trees were planted in 2011. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Mowers return

The man on the mower apologized for cutting the trees, but explained to Poilly that his employer, High Road Maintenance, was under contract by the MTO to mow the ditch.

Now the mowers have returned, and Poilly said she’s determined to save the trees that survived last year.

Earlier this month she planted herself in the path of a mower moving along the shoulder of the provincial highway. The operator told her to contact his supervisor, but Poilly said when she called the company, the person on the other end of the line hung up.

“I find it absurd. It’s ridiculous. You plant them for a reason — why cut them down?” 

Calls to High Road Maintenance by CBC News were not returned.

The MTO planted 3,250 saplings along the stretch of highway near Michelle Poilly’s home. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Destruction ‘disheartening’

The South Nation Conservation authority (SNC) oversaw the planting of the trees and checked on the vulnerable saplings in their first, second and fifth years following planting.

Pat Piitz, SNC’s director of research, called the mowing by MTO contractors disheartening.

“A lot of work goes into tending those trees to get them to a point [where] they can survive on their own,” Piitz said.

Piitz said during one check a few years after their planting, foresters found 70 per cent of the original saplings had survived and were thriving.

In a statement, an MTO spokesperson said contractors had been instructed to step up both mowing and herbicide spraying to control the spread of invasive plants in the ditches along provincial highways.

“The ministry’s contractor will continue mowing from the fence line, but will also ensure that the viable species along this stretch are protected and mow around, as is the approach in other parts of eastern Ontario,” said Brandy Duhaime in the statement.