British Columbia

5,000 tree planters heading to B.C.'s forests, despite pandemic

Thousands of tree planters from across Canada are about  to head into B.C.'s forests, as a massive reforestation effort gets underway, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

B.C. government approves biggest ever tree plant despite community COVID-19 concerns

Thousands of tree planters from across Canada will help plant about 300 million seedlings during the 2020 planting season. (Submitted by Connor Johnstone)

About 5,000 tree planters from across Canada are  set to head  into forests across the B.C. interior, as  the province's biggest ever reforestation  effort moves ahead, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

After weeks of uncertainty, and community concerns about  tree planters spreading COVID-19,  government officials gave the silviculture industry the green light Friday afternoon.

Hundreds of millions of trees at stake

About 310 million seedlings will be planted to replace trees destroyed by wildfires and pine beetle infestations. The  unprecedented reforestation will also increase carbon capture in B.C.'s forests to combat climate change. 

"We're very hopeful that we'll be getting most of those trees in the ground," said Dianne Nicholls, B.C.'s chief forester. "We're doing everything that we can, while respecting health and wellness first." 

New health and safety rules from the provincial health officer will mean a radical change for tree planting culture.

John Betts, the executive director of the Western Forestry Contractors Association, represents the majority of tree planting companies in B.C. (Supplied by John Betts )

For decades, summers in remote planting camps have been defined by hard work and intense socializing in tight knit groups.

Strict rules will change tree planting

But this year, tree planters will have to practice physical distancing, even in shared tents.

Planters will only be allowed close contact with a handful of people assigned to their "work pods"— a group that will be similar to a family that self-isolates together.

According to provincial health directives, the tree planters will also be in lock down in their remote camps, forbidden from visiting neighbouring communities on their days off. 

In cases where tree planters are accommodated in motels or hotels, on-site security will help enforce the rules.

"There will be no balcony parties, no parking lot parties," said Jordan Tesluk, a forestry safety advocate with the BC. Forest Council  "Basically, you'll get fired if you don't follow the rules."

Siilviculture companies working near Indigenous communities must also consult with health officials and take special precautions.

Industry leaders say theses measures have already been tested during planting already underway on the B.C. coast.

"Tree planting can safely take place," said John Betts, executive director of the Western Forestry Contractors' Association, which represents the majority of tree planting companies.. "Our members began implementing additional steps to protect workers and the public very early on, and it is working."

Bett says tree planters, several thousand of whom are coming to work from outside B.C., are taking the pandemic seriously.

"They know that they risk infecting the rest of their crew.. They know that they could possibly infect communities and they know they could also get infected," said Betts. "They're well aware of their duty." 

Concerns raised about spread of the virus in the north

But not everyone is confident the rules will keep communities safe. 

"I have already seen tree planters wandering around downtown Prince George,and that is not part of any self-isolation," said Herb Martin, who has worked in forestry for 35 years. "Social distancing in tree planting is a pipe dream."

Martin wants the several thousand tree planters who arrive from out of province to spend two weeks in quarantine —possibly in empty sports facilities — before they head out to planting camps.

"If you can assure that all participants going in are COVID free, then the other planters and society might stand a chance," he said.

Last week, an emergency doctor in Fort St James called on government to cancel the tree planting season.

"I feel it is more important to save a life than to save a tree," said Dr. Marile van Zyl.

"It's millions of dollars [for] industry, but what's the worth of a human life?" said van Zyl, who believes it will be very difficult to enforce provincial health rules on young, transient workers in remote camps.


Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary and the Adrienne Clarkson Diversity Award. Based in Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry and the Paralympics.