Forestry sector scrambles to recruit tree planters to sow millions — perhaps billions — more seedlings
B.C. silviculture companies are struggling to find up to 1,000 more tree planters
It takes the stamina of an athlete to run up the side of a steep mountain the way Lann Dickson does.
"Nothing about it is easy," said Dickson.
"A lot of people quit in the first week or two, it definitely breaks a lot of people."
The veteran tree planter zig-zags across the mountainside in Fraser Canyon near Boston Bar, B.C., dodging stumps and branches, with 300 seedlings tucked into pouches strapped around his waist. Without losing a beat, Dickson pierces the ground with his shovel and slings a seedling into the ground. Then he's off to the next spot he eyes several metres away.
Dickson has been tree planting in B.C. for 24 years, and skilled workers like him are in extremely high demand right now.
And that's before the ambitious campaign promises by federal parties to plant billions more trees across Canada are even factored in.
B.C. alone needs to plant an estimated 48 million more trees in 2020 than it did last year in an effort to restore massive areas burned in the province after two record-breaking wildfires, and to promote carbon sequestration.
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The Western Forestry Contractors' Association estimates the increase may be the largest leap in planting volume in the industry's 50-year history, going from 270 million seedlings this year to as many as 318 million seedlings next year.
The industry estimates it employs roughly 4,500 workers. It will require 500 to 1,000 more planters to get all those extra seedlings into the ground next year.
"It's going to be a challenge for sure, [with] a lot more trees coming to market this year than past years," said Timo Scheiber, CEO of Brinkman Reforestation.
Adding to that extra demand, the search for reliable and experienced planters could skyrocket after a recent landmark study by Swiss researchers found that tree planting could play a huge role in combating climate change. Federal leaders on the campaign trail jumped on the study, and two parties have promised to plant billions of trees if elected.
The Liberals have pledged to plant 2 billion more trees over the next decade across the country to get Canada closer to carbon neutrality.
The Greens have an even more ambitious goal — 10 billion trees over the next three decades.
For tree planters like Jeff Andrews, who has been doing this for 17 years, the extra attention being paid to his trade is good news.
"Nice for us to be seen as skilled workers, not just a kid job you come out to do and mess around with for a while. It's hard work and can get quite dangerous," Andrews said.
But it's also putting big pressure on planting companies that are struggling to staff their operations.
It has become increasingly challenging for them to recruit and retain reliable staff. Besides the physical challenges, tree planting is seasonal work, and there are no benefits or guaranteed hours and wages.
Planters get compensated by the number of trees they get into the ground. They're paid anywhere from a dime to 28 cents per tree, depending on the type of terrain they are working in.
"Younger people are saying they will stay home and work at McDonald's or landscape. Stay closer to home and make slightly over minimum wage … [rather] than going through hardships of planting," said Sylvia Fenwick-Wilson, project supervisor for Zanzibar Reforestation.
The industry bumped up wages 10 to 15 per cent this year, but the job is still a hard sell.
The Greens say if they are elected they will adopt a cost-sharing model to get better compensation for planters.
"If we want to get serious about reforestation, we need to start treating planters like the valuable silviculture workers they are, rather than like transients trying to pick up minimal compensation in a gig economy," said a Green Party spokesperson via email.
The Liberals did not lay out the specifics of their plan, but said they would use revenue from the Trans Mountain pipeline to pay for their overall efforts to use nature — including tree planting — to combat climate change.
The party said it would also work on a cost-share model with businesses and municipalities to increase the amount of tree cover across Canada.
UCLA Environmental Lawyer Jesse Reynolds said political promises of tree planting can be appealing to environmentally minded voters.
"Perhaps more important politically, tree planting is a highly visible act. Candidates and others can literally show their actions through photo opportunities, and voters can visualize the results," he said.
But in addition to addressing the cost and labour shortages, Reynolds added, making good on those lofty political promises is also going to mean finding space to plant all the trees.
The Greens say they will focus on reforestation, planting on previous forest lands that have been harvested or burned.
The Liberals say they will consult with experts to find out where and what type of trees to plant.
But Reynolds says neither approach alone will be enough to accommodate all the trees the parties are promising to plant, and which are needed to address climate change.
"The needed land is already in use. Land where forests could grow is variously cropland, pasture, deforested and not farmed, or presently forested," he explained.
He suggests the government would need to either buy land from farmers and ranchers, or pay them to become long-term forest managers.
Whether ambitious federal reforestation initiatives get green-lighted or not, there's no question that skilled tree planters will have no shortage of work for the foreseeable future.
"They realize we are an essential job and that they need us," said Dickson.
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