British Columbia

'Completely different, crazy world' of B.C. tree planting revealed in new documentary

Most Canadians haven't set foot on a cut block, but they've probably seen them from afar. For tree planters, the block is where they carefully, but swiftly, place hundreds of saplings a day.

One Million Trees gives viewers a taste of the gruelling job without having to step on the cut block

Lesley Mackenzie plants trees on a cut block near Maple Ridge, B.C. (Everett Bumstead)

Erin Bros remembers the millionth tree she planted. It came late in the tree planting season this year, on a cut block between Bamfield and Port Alberni on Vancouver Island.

It was a sunny day during a heat wave on Sept. 8. She remembers the little Douglas fir being roughly the 63rd seedling in the second load she'd packed into her bags that day.

"I knew I was going to hit it that day," said Bros, a tree planter who just finished her 11th season on the job. "I tied a little bow around it and sat down. I popped a bit of champagne and sat there for maybe five, ten minutes."

The break didn't last long, and soon she was back to work, carefully finding the spot each tree will live out its life until harvest time several decades away.

Some planters will put hundreds of trees in the ground each day. Experienced veterans like Bros can plant two, three, or even four thousand in a day.

Tree planter Erin Bros kept careful track of the number of trees she planted each season. This year, toward the end of the season, she counted her one millionth tree, a Douglas fir that Bros planted in a clearcut between Bamfield and Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. (Erin Bros)

Bros is one of the tree planters featured in the new documentary, One Million Trees. The film explores the industry, culture and people who spend a few months each year toiling in the wilderness — a wilderness marred by logging that makes the tree-planting industry necessary.

"I think most people's first impression is that you are working in kind of a natural wasteland, in the middle of what is otherwise looks like a paradise," said Everett Bumstead, director of One Million Trees.

'Not a pretty place'

"A cut block itself is just the area that's just been harvested for logging. So it's just full of overturned stumps, the leftover debris, sticks and mud and gravel — everything. It's not a pretty place until you look beyond it," said Bumstead, who planted for four seasons, but hasn't wielded the shovel for a few years. 

He's planted 453,000 trees, but Bumstead said he wanted to make a film that showed the journey some planters take to reach one million trees, or even more.

That journey includes extremes highs and lows, bitter cold, wet days, scorching hot days, obstacle after obstacle, and planters generally don't earn a cent unless they're putting trees in the ground.

It's a job that attracts a certain type, and according to Bumstead, the film is somewhat of a celebration of the tree planter, while showing the reality of the job for anyone who hasn't given it a try.

"I hope that for a non-planter, that this can take away the veil of the mystery of what goes on in the bush," he said.

Tree planter Jessie Blackstock's hands are embedded with dirt after a day's work near Port Alberni, B.C. (Kenrick Block)

'You have to be very tough'

Claire Ross is one of the tree planters featured in the film. She has spent four seasons doing the job, but says a million trees wasn't a goal within her reach.

"Unless you've been a part of it, or there's been somebody close to you who's explained their experience, it's just a completely different, crazy world," she said of tree planting. "I don't think I was that tough. You have to be very tough and strong-willed and just be able to keep going."

"You're planting in the rain and planting in the snow and you'd get so cold, and I didn't want to be cold anymore," said Ross, who now lives in Vancouver, having finished her tree planting career.

Dave Guise plants in the early morning near Sayward, B.C. (Everett Bumstead)

There's a certain perception of tree planters — a stereotype that they're hippies, or as Bros put it, that they're dirty, outcasts who smell gross. But Bumstead said he wanted to show another side with One Million Trees.

"In this documentary we had a chance to really explore the high, professional level," he said, adding that it's complex, highly logistical and technical work, sometimes with significant risk to the workers.

"I think in Canada everybody kind of knows a tree planter, but they don't know what those three months they spend in the bush really looks like," said Bumstead.


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About the Author

Rafferty Baker is a video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver. You can find his stories on CBC Radio, television, and online at cbc.ca/bc.

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