Erik Jorgensen: Canada’s First Urban Forester

Erik Jorgensen and Bill Morsink

Erik Jorgensen


Prepared by Andy Kenney, P.h.D., Vice-Chair Tree Canada 

for The Forestry Chronicle

Canadian and international forestry has lost one of its true innovators.  Erik Jorgensen passed away in Guelph on May 25, 2012.  In 1955, Erik was working as a forest pathologist in his native Denmark when he was invited to Canada by the Dominion Forest Service to diagnose a problem in red pine plantations in both southern Ontario and Michigan.  Ken Armson, a long-time colleague of Erik's recalls: "The US Forest Service had investigated the cause without success and trees with symptoms associated with the onset of mortality were said to be suffering from "Jones Disease".  Erik told me that as soon as he saw the affected trees he knew the cause was  Fomes annosus ."

In 1959 Jorgensen left the federal service and joined the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto. One of his first tasks at U of T was to start a program to study the control of Dutch Elm Disease (DED).  At the First Canadian Urban Forest Conference held in Winnipeg in 1993, Erik recalled "The Ontario forestry authorities got out of the problem [of controlling DED] by the then minister declaring that elm is a weed species not of concern to forestry, but belonging under the 'Weeds Act' administered by the Ministry of Agriculture". Urban residents and some municipalities didn't view elms in the same light as those responsible for the forest found beyond urbanized parts of the province.  The recognition of the importance of this one genus to many of Ontario's communities was sufficient impetus for Erik to establish the Shade Tree Research Laboratory. In 1964 the efforts of the Shade Tree Lab led Erik to the establishment of the Ontario Shade Tree Council.  It was during this time that Erik first defined the term "urban forestry".  Over the intervening years, the term has gone from relative obscurity to part of the global urban vernacular. Cities and towns around the world have programs and departments with the term in their titles.  Over the past few years, international conferences billed as "urban forestry" have taken place from Reykjavik to Buenos Aires and from Edmonton to Kuala Lumpur.

Armson remembers that "under Erik the Shade Tree Laboratory was an autonomous entity within the Faculty with separate funding, this inevitably led to conflict within the Faculty; a situation I shared with Erik in my own development and financial support for the Forest Soils Laboratory at Glendon Hall only strengthening our rapport.  Matters came to a head with the appointment of a new Dean in 1972. It was no surprise when Erik left in 1973 to join the federal forest service and establish a national urban forestry program."  Unfortunately, the program never came to fruition because of a change in government objectives and Erik moved to Guelph to become Director of the Arboretum at the University of Guelph. During his time at the University of Guelph, Erik was instrumental in bringing a program in Agroforestry to the University.  While farmers in many parts of the world have incorporated trees into cropping systems for eons, agroforestry as a discipline was embryonic in the early '80s. Perhaps this is another example of Erik's ability to "think outside the box" when it comes to the interaction between trees and humans.

In the words of Ken Armson "Erik was a highly professional forester with an acute wit and sense of humour. With his death the forestry profession in Canada has lost not only an internationally respected and innovative forester but one of great integrity and humanity."

Erik was predeceased in April 2012 by his wife of 66 years, Gitte.  He is survived by his two daughters Marianne La Rose and Birthe Jorgensen, sons-in-law Bob La Rose and David Baker, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.  Donations in Erik's memory can be made to the Ontario Forestry Association