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OPINION: This year’s tree-planting seedlings could end up a huge compost pile

Ben Parfitt, resource analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

BY BEN PARFITT

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

There’s no such thing as a convenient time for a global pandemic. But for BC’s tree-planting industry, COVID-19’s arrival is particularly brutal. 

This was to be a record year for the BC industry: the biggest season ever, with more than 300 million seedlings slated to be planted. 

Even though the provincial government declared tree-planting an essential service, there is fear the vast majority of trees slated to be planted this year could end up as one of the biggest compost piles in history. 

At the industry’s urging, BC’s chief forester Diane Nicholls delayed the start of this year’s planting season in the province’s interior until early May to buy time and develop a plan to salvage the season. 

The industry, rural communities, First Nations and the Province must now figure out if it’s even possible to put 5,000 planters and additional support workers on the ground in the Interior where three quarters of all trees are scheduled to be planted. 

The Quesnel area is one of many regions crying out for concerted tree-planting efforts thanks to nearly two decades of mountain pine beetle attacks, heightened logging in response to those infestations and two horrific, back-to-back wildfire seasons in 2017 and 2018. 

Quesnel mayor Bob Simpson says that vast areas nearby the city are “blown out” landscapes so bereft of trees there is elevated risk of devastating floods—a nightmare any time but particularly now as sandbagging while social distancing is impossible. 

So how to plant massive numbers of trees when social distancing is the most effective tool in the fight against the virus? 

Simpson notes at least three major hurdles must be cleared should planting commence in May. 

First, provincial health authorities must sign off on industry plans to operate tree-planting camps where social distancing requirements will be needed. Second, absolute assurances must be provided to—and informed consent received from—First Nations for zero contact between planting operations and First Nation communities. Third, rural communities may have to identify facilities that could temporarily house tree planting crews, preventing potential transmission of the virus from workers to community members and vice versa. 

To date, roughly $80 million has been spent growing seedlings in commercial nurseries for the planting season. Projected wages for planters easily double that and associated economic spinoffs add millions more. 

Of bigger concern is the solvency of many forest companies legally required to “reforest” the lands they log. Well before the pandemic, a combination of unsustainable logging, insect infestations and wildfires had gutted the landscape, forcing companies to log further afield with increased costs. Now lumber prices have plummeted and mill closures loom. 

Therefore, it may be time for a new provincial Crown corporation to coordinate reforestation and for the provincial and federal governments to again invest hundreds of millions of dollars into expanded tree-planting programs. 

Active government involvement makes sense because huge tracts of “Crown” lands, shared with First Nations, were successfully replanted by industry in recent years only to then be wiped out by wildfires, insect attacks and disease outbreaks. The companies can argue with justification that those lands are not their responsibility to replant yet again and are the government’s responsibility instead. 

Replanting those lands to increase their biological diversity and resiliency in the face of climate change and restoring the health of badly damaged watersheds is laudable with demonstrably positive public benefits and should be the mandate of such a new provincial agency.   

Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, BC Office

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