Tree planting is a rite of passage for many Canadians. It can be a lucrative seasonal job for those who can handle the harsh exposure of the outdoors. While pushing your physical limits to plant thousands of trees a day may sound like hell to some, there are probably nearly as many wishing they had given it a try when they had a chance. Now, after years of decreasing wages and increasing labour shortages, the industry needs planters more than ever.
The vast majority of the trees planted in Canada are intended for logging. This means that just like a farm crop, we plant and cut them over and over again.
But major shifts in the tree planting industry mean this may no longer be the case.
A controversial study released in Science in July has suggested that planting 0.9 billion hectares of continuous forest could effectively combat climate change through carbon sequestration, a position further promoted by climate activist Greta Thunberg. This study is controversial because it does not address the many political, environmental, and logistical complications of undertaking such an endeavour, an issue openly acknowledged by its co-author, Professor Thomas W. Crowther of Crowther Lab in Zurich.
Whether or not planting trees will effectively fight climate change, it is a popular idea with politicians, partly because it offers a quantifiable and highly visible method of demonstrating climate action, with plenty of photo-ops.
This is likely what inspired Justin Trudeau's pledge to plant 2 billion trees over the next 10 years, create 3,500 new seasonal jobs, and pay for it with revenues from the Trans Mountain pipeline.
“It’s a feasible, ambitious target of 200 million trees a year,” said Eleanor Caterno, a spokesperson for the Liberal Party of Canada. “It’s a platform commitment. Our plan is fully costed.”
With the Liberals in a minority situation, they should be able to find support among the NDP and Greens for the plan. (The Greens pledged to plant 10 billion trees over 30 years.)
“Several areas of the country, British Columbia in particular, have reported difficulty recruiting tree planters,” John Bennett, a Green Party spokesman, said during the election campaign. The Greens would meet with the provinces and industry to “make the necessary resources to hire, train and deploy tree planters available.”
John Betts, executive director of the Western Forestry Contractors Association (WFCA) in Nelson, B.C., said these plans were “optimistic, but feasible.”
These trees would adhere to the principles of “additionality” and “permanence,” meaning they are trees not already sanctioned for planting and wouldn’t be used for logging. These plans are part of a global appetite for planting trees, as governments around the world scramble to combat climate change.
In fact, so many trees need to be planted that the industry can’t keep up. A combined surge of wildfires, mountain pine beetle kill, and carbon sequestration plans have put serious strains on the workforce. To make matters worse, a decades-long trend of stagnant wages has resulted in a shrinking workforce and a drop in new applicants. In a coordinated attempt to bring people back to work, industry wages increased 10-15 percent across the board for 2019. But there are fears this may not be enough.
“This is less about capacity and more about scheduling,” said Tony Harrison of Zanzibar Holdings. “Tree planters are over-employed three months of the year, and underemployed the rest.” The WFCA has made arrangements with the British Columbia Ministry of Forests to extend the planting season. A nine-day extension could mean an extra 40 million trees planted.
Still, there simply aren’t enough tree planters. “We started banging the drum to get (wages) up two years ago,” said Timo Scheiber, the CEO of Brinkman Reforestation. The wage increases were welcome, but it remains to be seen if they were effective. Scheiber said even if job applications increase, it didn’t necessarily mean the right people were applying. He said the right people were not necessarily athletes; they were people with the right attitude.
Many of those people are women. A 2014 study of the industry by the WFCA found that 42 percent of the tree-planting workforce were women. This is exceptional compared to a 2017 study by Statics Canada, which found only 17 percent of the natural resources workforce consisted of women. While the industry is seemingly approaching a gender balance at the worker level, another WFCA study from 2017 found that “the sector remains male-dominated. With that goes a bias that may not fully appreciate the female perspective and the prevalence of sexism in the workplace.”
Since then many companies have tried to address this issue through mandatory education of staff, as well as seeking more women for leadership roles. “I would say things have changed substantially in many parts of the sector as progressive employers have adopted effective practices,” said Betts. “All in all it is a work in progress.”
Of course, tree planting is not for everyone. It is a tough job that will test your limits physically and emotionally. But for those who can stick it out, the benefits are clear. “2019 was definitely my best year,” said Simone Rochon, a planter of six years.
“Best year yet. Enjoyed that (wage) bump a lot,” said Braeden Harris, also a planter of six years.
And it’s only going to get better. 2020 will see the largest increase in production the industry has ever seen, from 275 million to 318 million in B.C. alone. Of those, 50 million trees will be planted with the intention to fight climate change—and that number will likely grow in years to come. This means that demand for planters will increase, and so will wages. Progressive employers are working to make tree planting safer and more equal. If all that isn’t enough, planters can feel like they are making a difference in the fight against climate change.
“This is a good time to become a tree planter,” said Betts. “The next three to five (will bring) more trees, better money, and longer seasons. This is a chance to do good work, make a difference, do stuff you didn’t think you could do.”
Duncan Ferguson is a Canadian artist and tree planter.