The B.C. Climate Leadership Plan was met with lukewarm reviews last week, but the province's reforestation industry sees the potential for a major surge in tree planting operations.

To meet carbon reduction goals, the province has called for 300,000 hectares of forests damaged by wildfire and pine beetle to be rehabilitated over the next five years in order to turn the forests back into a carbon sink. It's titled the Forest Carbon Initiative.

While the overall Climate Leadership Plan was panned by environmentalists who don't believe it will lead to any meaningful reduction in GHGs, for many members of the province's forestry sector, the commitment stands out.

"If this is really 300,000 hectares that are going to treated over five years, then that would amount to [the replanting] of hundreds of millions of seedlings," said John Betts, director of the Western Silvicultural Contractors' Association. 

"That would be huge."

Betts says the Forest Carbon Initiative represents the largest commitment the industry has seen out of the government in decades.

Pine Beetle Damage

The pine beetle has damaged over 17 million hectares of forests in British Columbia, and decaying logs contributes significantly to the province's greenhouse gas emissions. (Themightyquill, copyright cc-by-sa-3.0)

Getting back to below zero

The announcement comes during what's been described as one of the most vulnerable times for the province's forests.

"What we've been dealing with is increased disturbances is in forests for the last 10 to 15 years," said Dr. John Innes, the dean of UBC's forestry department.

"We've seen a large number of fires, and obviously the mountain pine beetle and that changed our forests from being a net sink to a net source of carbon."

Since 2003, the province's forests have become one of the largest contributors to B.C.'s greenhouse gas emissions.

According to B.C.'s GHG inventory, forests sent over 60,000 megatons of carbon into the atmosphere in 2014 — almost half of the provincial total — due in large part to wildfires, decay from pine beetle devastation and slash burning.

"The idea [of the Climate Leadership Plan] is basically to switch our forests back to being a net sink for carbon dioxide, and there's absolutely no reason that shouldn't occur," said Innes.

Fire lights up sky

Members of the forestry sector are hopeful that the Climate Action Plan will make forests more resilient to forest fires once damaged areas are replanted. ((Richard Lam/Canadian Press))

'The long game'

Innes wonders how the government will make it happen, however, in the face of increasing wildfire risks and more beetles emerging, on top of the millions of destroyed hectares of forests that still need to be replanted.

"There's a lot of area out there that needs planting, but there's only limited capacity to do it," he said.

The Ministry of Forests doesn't think it will be a problem.

"I have full confidence in the ability of private enterprise to respond to a program like this," said Caren Dymond, a research scientist with the ministry.

According to Dymond, the project will begin with a baseline goal to reforest 20,000 hectares in the first year of the project, which begins in March 2017, and steadily increase production each year, up to 100,000.

Some of the trees would be available to be logged after 50 years of growth.

She admits that it's going to take a while before results take effect, but it's geared towards "the long game."

"[We] can get millions of tons of carbon sequestered as those trees are growing," she said, adding that they're in the middle of determining which land they will reforest first.

According to the document, by 2050 the forest initiative will sequester four million tons of greenhouse gases annually.

Planter

Rehabilitating 300,000 hectares of B.C.'s damaged land would mean planting hundreds of millions of trees over the next five years.

No praise for planting trees

But not everyone sees the Forest Carbon Initiative as a sufficient method to combat greenhouse gas emissions in the wake of climate change.

Mark Jaccard, director of the Energy and Materials Research Group at SFU, says planting trees "doesn't cut it."

"We really need to stop taking fossil fuels out of the earth's crust to reduce emissions, and when government focuses on things other than that, it means that they're not serious about climate change and reducing greenhouse gases," he said.

According to Jaccard, reforesting land that will eventually be harvested doesn't yield any significant results. He says that carbon sequestered by trees would eventually go back into the atmosphere once the trees are logged, especially when a lot of the excess fibres are burned — a practice that contributed over 7,000 megatons of greenhouse gases in 2014 alone.

"We need to keep doing what we were doing," said Jaccard, meaning transitioning transportation, electricity, households, and industry away from fossil fuels,

slash burn

Slash burning is a common method of getting rid of debris from logging, where piles of branches and other tree debris are burned. It contributes significantly to annual GHG emissions in B.C. (Denver Post via Getty Images)

​Stabilizing the industry

While Jaccard and many environmentalists are frustrated with the plan, some workers in the reforestation sector are now breathing sighs of relief.

Prior to the announcement, the number of trees destined to be planted in B.C.'s forests was set to decline for the foreseeable future due to reductions in the Annual Allowable Cut.

But according to Tony Harrison, co-founder of Zanzibar Reforestation, that doesn't seem to be the case any longer.

"This will keep the industry stable," he said.

Harrison says he's happy to see reforestation taking a front seat in the carbon plan.

"There's a lot of areas in the province that are affected by either beetle or fire that need that kind of work," he said. "I think it's great. I think it's really forward thinking."