British Columbia

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 workers to plant millions of additional trees next year, even as Liberals and Greens make campaign promises to plant billions more seedlings.

B.C. silviculture companies are struggling to find up to 1,000 more tree planters

Veteran tree planter Jeff Andrews works his way across a B.C. mountainside. Facing a multimillion-seedling spike in the number of trees that need to be planted, B.C. is looking for hundreds more tree planters for the 2020 season. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

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.

Experienced tree planters like Lann Dickson are in high demand, because they know how to move quickly and safely across tricky terrain, and have the skills to plant hundreds of trees a day. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

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.

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.

In addition to normal projects to reforest trees harvested for logging, B.C. is planning to plant millions more trees next year in areas burned by wildfire. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Labour shortage

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. 

Timo Scheiber, CEO of Brinkman Reforestation, says he believes it’s a great time to be a tree planter, as there is a huge need to reforest areas harvested and burned down by wildfires. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

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. 

Tree planting is demanding work, and planters aren't paid by the hour - they're paid by the tree, so they have to work quickly if they want to make money. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

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.

Jeff Andrews has been planting trees for 17 years. He says he enjoys the seasonal aspect of the job, because it allows him to work in the film industry the rest of the year. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

"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.

Zanzibar project supervisor Sylvia Fenwick-Wilson says a lot of people are drawn to tree planting because of the outdoor aspect of the work, although the strenuous nature of the job drives others away. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

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.

Snow has already started to dust parts of the mountain near the Fraser Canyon, signaling the end of tree planting season this year. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

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.

WATCH | From The National, why planting trees is no easy climate change solution:

B.C. needs to plant 40 million more trees next year to reforest land devastated by two record-breaking wildfire seasons and to do that industry needs to find at least 1,000 more workers. 2:27

About the Author

Tina Lovgreen

Video Journalist

Tina is a Video Journalist with CBC Vancouver. Send her an email at tina.lovgreen@cbc.ca

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