British Columbia

Amid forest industry crisis, tree-planting contractors look to a banner year

Sector gears up to plant 310 million seedlings to replace forests lost to beetle-kill and wildfires and to offset climate change.

Wildfires, climate change boost B.C. reforestation efforts to record levels

The tree-planting sector is focused on the challenge of planting 310 million trees this year. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

As the B.C. forest industry struggles with shuttered mills and a dwindling timber supply, the business of planting future forests faces a banner year in 2020. 

At their meeting in Prince George this week, the Western Forestry Contractors' Association, which represents the tree-planting sector, is focused on the challenge of planting 310 million trees this year.

"Three hundred and ten million is a figure I don't think we've ever reached in in the sector's history," John Betts, the executive director of the association and a 40-year veteran in the industry, told Daybreak South host Chris Walker. 

Driving the boost is the replanting of forests killed by the mountain pine beetle and razed in recent wildfire seasons, and also a new federal government initiative: planting trees to store carbon from the atmosphere, rather than to feed sawmills.

The 2018 Shovel Lake wildfire was more than 680 square kilometres in size. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

In his campaign for re-election last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to plant two billion trees across Canada over 10 years to help meet climate targets. 

"There's a broader sort of societal change point of view where we're now thinking that we need to mitigate the effects of climate change," Betts said. "So we're now planting trees for that purpose as well."

Whether the seedlings going into the ground are timber for future harvest or to prevent climate change, the public's tax dollars pay for it. Betts says that is a good thing. 

"This is part of how our stumpage appraisal system [works] and it's part of what our taxpayer dollars are doing," he said. 

John Betts, executive director of the Western Forestry Contractors' Association, says the challenge of planting a record number of seedlings has prompted an unusual level of collaboration among competitors in the business. (Supplied by John Betts )

"I think the benefits of this are long-term. Obviously, if we can reduce the costs of climate change then we're going to have fewer costs at that end."

Tree-planting activity will increase across the province this year, and Betts said the highest concentration will be in the Central Interior, where wildfire losses were highest, as well as in the Cariboo-Chilcotin and East Kootenay regions. 

Aside from recruiting hundreds of additional tree planters, Betts said the usually highly competitive contractors have adopted a more collaborative operative approach to manage challenges such as weather disruptions 

"Now we're looking at, if things go awry, how can we sort of work together collectively to make sure that workers get to where the trees need to be planted and that we don't end up in a situation where we're starting struggling to keep up with the demand," he said.

With files from Daybreak South