Politics

Ottawa throws lifeline to 50 Million Tree Program cut by Ontario government

The federal government is putting up $15 million over four years to rescue the 50 Million Tree Program which was cut by the Ontario government of Premier Doug Ford in its last budget, CBC News has learned.

Another 4 years of funding will put some 7.5 million saplings in the ground

Ottawa will provide $15 million over four years to keep Ontario's 50 Million Tree Program up an running. (Alain Belliveau/Medway Community Forest Co-op)

The federal government is putting up $15 million over four years to rescue the 50 Million Tree Program which was cut by the Ontario government of Premier Doug Ford in its last budget, CBC News has learned. 

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna made the announcement today in Ottawa, saying the new cash will extend the program for at least another four years.

She said in a statement to CBC News on Tuesday evening that preserving the program will mean cleaner air, a healthier environment and good local jobs.

"While Mr. Ford cuts programs that support tree planting ... and tackling climate change, we will continue to invest in a clean future for our environment, our economy and our kids," she said.

The 50 Million Tree Program had an annual budget of $4.7 million and had planted more than 27 million trees across the province since 2008. Its goal was to have 50 million planted by 2025.

But a day after Ontario's budget was delivered, Forests Ontario, the non-profit group that oversees the program, was told funding for it was being eliminated.

This new funding will essentially support the planting and growth of 10 million trees, bringing the program's total to 37 million. Support for the program beyond that target is not part of this announcement.

Rob Keen, CEO of Forests Ontario, said it takes three to four years for a tree to go from seed to planting.

Every year, the four key nurseries in Ontario participating in the program cultivate 2.5 million seeds between them, which they nurse over three years until they are ready to be planted in their permanent settings.

The funding cut left 7.5 million saplings at various stages of growth in limbo, with nursery owners unsure how they were going to fund their crops until they were ready to plant.

Sustaining the program

Nurseries have been asking if they should be planting seeds to be ready for 2023, Keen said.

"If you don't have the funding in place … nurseries are not going to plant."

The new funding "is fantastic because it provides that assurance that there's going to be funding in there to use up the stock that is currently in the ground and plant some more stock," he said.

Ed Patchell, CEO of the Ferguson Tree Nursery in Kemptville, Ont., also welcomes the funding. He told CBC News he has three million trees at his nursery at various stages of growth. He said he was unsure what to do with them but is pleased they will now be guaranteed a permanent home when they are ready to plant.

"I think it's great that the feds have stepped up. I would like to see the province step up, to see a value in the program and contribute as well, but we'll see what happens," he said.

While nurseries now have the confidence to plant a crop now for delivery in 2023, Keen said it remains unclear if there will be funding next year to plant again.

About 40 per cent forest cover is needed to ensure forest sustainability, Keen said, and the average right now in southern Ontario is 26 per cent, with some areas as low as five per cent.

"The 50 Million Tree Program has been great, but we need to plant one billion trees to really get the forest canopy up in southern Ontario," he said.

Balancing the budget

Ontario's Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry John Yakabuski told CBC in a statement that his government is focused on balancing the budget to "protect critical public services like health care and education."

"In order to do this we have to maximize value for the taxpayer dollar," he said. "We remind other levels of government that there is only one taxpayer, and that we have committed to balancing Ontario's budget in a responsible manner."

"Previous governments who did not share this commitment to fiscal restraint are responsible for saddling Ontario with a $347,000,000,000 debt."

Yakabuski said that the 50 Million Tree Program only plants 2.5 million trees per year, while the forestry industry plants about 68 million trees annually.

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