Tree planting on hold in B.C.'s Interior over pandemic safety concerns
Up to 5,000 tree planters from across Canada had been poised to begin forming work camps
The plan for an ambitious reforestation season in B.C.'s Interior is at risk from coronavirus.
The province's chief forester is delaying operations for up to 5,000 tree planters for at least two weeks, until early May.
"The COVID-19 pandemic is creating huge uncertainty for everyone involved in making the Interior planting season a success; the situation is fluid and changing every day," wrote Diane Nicholls on March 24 in a letter prepared by her office, B.C. Timber Sales and Western Forestry Contractors Association.
In most years, around 5,000 workers, some from across Canada, are organized into camps for mid-April to begin planting trees in areas that have been harvested in the Interior.
Now that work is on pause and could affect millions of seedlings and thousands of jobs.
It comes in a year that was to be one the largest single planting programs the province has ever conducted, according to the letter from Nicholls.
More than 300 million trees were to be stuck in the ground in B.C.'s Interior to meet reforestation goals, help recover from the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons and mitigate climate change.
The season was supposed to start around April 20, when 230 million of those seedlings were to be planted over a 10-week period.
John Betts, the executive director of the Western Forestry Contractors Association, says meeting targets with a shortened season is going to be tough.
"It's remotely possible … if the season's weather co-operates and we end up pushing the season into June and July, but I think a few million seedlings are at risk," he said.
Nicholls wants the pause to allow time for the province, workers and contractors to come up with measures that will keep everyone involved safe from the virus, but also the communities that many workers live in and around during the season.
She says this planning is already underway, and updates will be shared in the coming days.
Betts says that tree planting is already underway in coastal regions, and crews there are working under new protocols to keep from spreading the virus.
Nicholls says those efforts can continue, but new starts should wait.
"I am recommending that any planting not yet initiated be deferred until the beginning of May to provide additional time to allow the preparation of a proper response to the COVID-19 pandemic," Nicholls said in her letter.
"I recognize that some planting is already underway, and my expectation is that these contractors continue so long as they follow the current health and safety requirements to help contain spread of the virus."
With files from Bob Keating and Jon Hernandez