Travel

I Planted Trees in the Canadian Tarsands

A longtime tree planter observes the intersection of the oil and reforestation industries. It's not pretty.

by Tyler Batten
Dec 5 2014, 5:00am

A planter takes a short break. All photos by ​John Holota

This post first appeared on VICE Canada

​A good morning is when there's coffee. There's never coffee.

We typically work 14 to 15 hours every day, and often even more. Under pressure and sleep-deprived, we get stuck in mud, break our machinery, fix our machinery, get lost, find ourselves again, start work before the sunrise and fall asleep listening to rebroadcasted NPR shows long after the sun sets. For the last seven seasons, I've signed up for some of the shadiest tree-planting ​contracts in Canada, but last season, I was hired by Suncor to deliver trees around the tarsands in Alberta.

Tree planting is a perennial source of revenue for indebted university students who generally care about the environment, or at least like living in it for months on end. The reforestation industry has existed in Canada since the early 1970s when Dirk Brinkman, the founder of Brinkman & Associates Reforestation Ltd., won his first contract in British Columbia. Since then, tree planting has evolved into a multimillion-dollar industry that in some cases is as effective at buying public relations p​oints as it is at doing legitimate ecologi​cal restoration. Many contracts today are plagued with unfair wages, horrendous working and living conditions, falsely reported hours for employment insurance, and the expectation that employees perform unpaid work. Luckily for me, my season at Suncor wasn't like that.

A tree deliverer drops the boxes of trees she was carrying on her quad along with her patience

My job as a tree deliverer is to bring trees to the planters when they need them. We leave each morning with our pickup trucks and quads intending to find blocks (cle​arcuts) that are sometimes so overgrown they no longer exist. Our equipment consists of inkjet-printed "shape maps" that completely bleed out in the rain, broken 4x4 ATVs or 8x8 Argos, and often-broken trucks. Try finding a clearcut inside a vast system of forests using only a piece of paper with an inkblot printed on its center for navigation and an overheating Ar​go that will only reverse and has no steering. It's impossible.

A Saskatchewan tree deliverer drives his truck into a mud pit

Last season, however, my main contract (beginning around June) was based just outside Fort McMurray, across the Athabasca River from Suncor's base plant—the No​rth Steepbank Mine. Unlike normal tree-planting schedules, reclamation contractors on Suncor sites aren't allowed to stay past 5 PM or start before 7 AM. This is good for a "day rater" like myself who gets paid a fixed amount per day no matter how many hours I work.

A veteran tree planter works close to camp while Morley, the dog, follows

Despite the whole "Fort Mac looks like a 21st century Hiros​hima thing," lots of tree planting happens in Alberta's tarsands, and relative to other planting operations, it's really well managed. Yet the ​disparity between "disturbed" land and certified "reclaimed" land remains high. And despite the relative improvements in labor protections for tarsands planters, tree planting is still one of the few non-unionized trades in the oil patch.

LIVING

Tree planters are a pretty rough and tumble bunch, proud to have slept in the bush for months, showered just a handful of times, and washed their clothes even less. As a tree deliverer, on a normal contract I spent my nights sleeping upright in the driver's seat of a company vehicle. Most mornings I wouldn't even get out of the vehicle until I arrived at my destination. One too many mornings I opened the door and jumped out of the truck, still half asleep, only to land in a mud puddle, realizing instantly I hadn't put my boots on.

An Alberta tree deliverer attempts to decipher a new map

A couple weeks before leaving our spring contract in Green Lake, Saskatchewan, we got word that Suncor's head office was ordering our camp to stay at Borea​lis Lodge, the largest of Suncor's work camps. I had never seen a work camp before, let alone lived in one. Borealis is a three-floor, dormitory-style camp with rooms that have all you need: a bed and a desk. There was no WiFi but there was cable—although you had to bring your own TV. The camp is dry, meaning no liquor, beer, or spirits of any kind, and if you know anything about tree-planting culture you know that intoxication is pretty central to the practice—so much so that it deserves its own bullet in the employee handbook under Standard Operating Procedures.

Suncor is the closest plant to town, so if you want a couple beers after work it is possible—it's just not easy. A day before finishing the contract, one of the planters was found with weed in her room. She was banned from Borealis Lodge for six months and forced into a motel in Fort McMurray. And if there's a motel in Fort McMurray that costs less than $200 a night and doesn't require an exorbitant cash deposit, I've never heard of it.

At the Borealis Lodge, bathrooms are shared with a single neighbor and contain a toilet and a shower. This is fine if you've got a decent neighbor, but if the boarder adjacent is a messy dude who takes insanely hellacious dumps, this could be a problem. While you're occupying the facilities, your neighbor's door can be locked from the inside and vice versa. If you forget to unlock the door when you're done, your neighbor would essentially be locked out of the bathroom.

Early one morning, a friend told me he had accidentally locked the bathroom door from the inside and had gone to sleep. Apparently, his neighbor worked the night shift. My friend heard rattling at the door and woke up affright. After jimmying the lock, a gruff voice, heaving in urgency, cracked the door open and whispered in a deep guttural tone, "Quit your shit."

A planter smokes a cigarette during the final party of the season

In terms of amenities, there are pool tables, cardio and weight rooms, a movie theater, and excellent food. Suncor work camps don't allow animal companions so I had to send my dog to Manitoba with another camp for the month. Also, my best Canadian tuxedo and backpack were stolen. All in all though, it wasn't a bad trade for what average tree planters would consider luxury digs.

WILDLIFE

We were ordered to stay at the lodge because Suncor was going through a public relations battle over the recent bear attack that left one woma​n dead.

The bears were such a massive concern that Suncor hired a wildlife contractor called Bea​r Scare to, you guessed it, scare bears away—or rather, to "aversely condition" them. They had loudspeakers blasting bizarre sounds into the bush. I swear, one of the sounds was a sample of the blac​k smoke from the TV series Lost, but, of the many sounds emanating from the treeline the strangest was an alien sound e​ffect, perhaps a more effective deterrent of late-night wandering workers.

Outside of Suncor, bears remain a big issue for tree-planting camps, many of which are mandated by provincial governments to set up bear fencing, especially in grizzly country. Depending on which province you're in, though, wildlife is treated with differing degrees of concern.

During a contract near The Pas, Manitoba in the spring of 2013, a "nuisance bear" became a big problem for our little camp. Over the course of a week it ravaged a number of tents and tormented our cook so much that he wouldn't leave his shack without an aluminum baseball bat. The appropriate Manitoba authorities were called to remove the threat, but they refused, claiming the campsite we inhabited was actually the place they let problem bears free when they're caught in town.

For obvious safety reasons our supervisor was forced into hiring someone to come out, shoot the bear, then dispose of its carcass. I saw this motley crew of bear busters, speeding down the bush road guns in hand as we were staging. Waving them down, I noticed the box of their yellow Chevy Avalanche was completely empty. I asked them how it went and what happened to the bear—assuming they would have kept at least part of the beast for one purpose or another. The passenger, who wore a bandana nearly covering his eyes, said, "We threw it into the causeway," before speeding off.

The interaction reminded me of one of the strangest people I'd ever met, a planter I hired. Just two hours after meeting him for the first time, on a dark and quiet night's drive across the barren lands of eastern Saskatchewan, he told me that bear is a rare food in those parts. He assured me that it "tastes like human." The cook clenched his baseball bat. I lit a cigarette.

SAFETY

The training required in order to work in the mines as a planter is rigorous. "Are you in the line ​of fire?" is a campaign slogan that still rings in my head and may remain there for years. When the charismatic driving course instructor—a Newfie who was crushed between a pickup truck and a hydro pole 20-odd years ago—suddenly turns white and screws his face in preparation to bawl, and pleadingly asks the small class, "Are you in the line of fire?" you get the message.

Every worker is required to wear a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, high-visibility vest, safety glasses, gloves, and a hard hat. For anyone who has worked on smaller tree-planting contracts, this is the worst element of the job. Added hot and heavy safety gear seems like a regression in terms of safety when planting trees is as physically demanding as running​ a marathon every day. One of the main causes of tree planter sick days is sunstroke.

A frustrated tree deliverer stops to pose for the camera 

Outside of Suncor, if you catch them at the right time, you can look to the hills and see most tree deliverers ripping down harrowingly narrow "quad highways," covered with slash and sinkholes in fourth gear with nothing but a pair of running shorts and cowboy boots on. Since the fateful story of a tree deliver who was flung off his quad into the dusk of life during the summer of 2011 made its way from Ontario to British Columbia, helmets have become hugely popular amongst that breed of neo-cowboy.

Many contractors outside of Suncor do require hardhats and steel-toe boots, but the similarities pretty much end there. Vehicles need to be registered separately each and every morning before entering mine sites, and personnel checks are conducted at specific Suncor gates. Random vehicle inspections are also conducted at these gates and unless you are a manager with a company-provided mobile phone, electronic devices capable of taking photos can be confiscated. Workers can be banned from entering Suncor indefinitely. Drug-sniffing dogs are also randomly assigned to Suncor entry points of the mine and its camps. Every year someone ends up getting busted and reassigned for possession of weed or beer.

WORKING

As far as planting is concerned, the two things that set the tarsands apart from other contracts is that the ground is incredibly hard and the variety of species planted is greater. By contrast, on a normal tree-planting contract it's not uncommon to plant an entire block with a single species of tree. Jack pine or black spruce, for instance—a monoculture. Monocultures are actually detrimental to environmental reclamation activities sincerely vested in long-term regeneration because trees picked from the same seed lot and planted at the same time tend to grow in the same way, leaving very little variety in replanted forests. It's also been shown that animals very​ rarely return to planted monocultures precisely because of a lack of variety in setting.

Although Suncor planting projects are handled well and workers are given the time and resources they need, it's not enough to thwart the belief, even among planters, that what is happening in the tarsands is solely destructive.

Whether the intentions of Suncor executives charged with the task of reclamation are pure or tarsands reforestation projects are conducted with the sole purpose of gaining reclamation certification, or worse, are just a talking point for a widerspread, inter-oil-producer public relations battle, we'll never know, and quite frankly most tree planters working on the ground don't really care. But for whatever reason, what is known, relative to other tree planting operations, is that great pains are being taken to ensure the forests come back as naturally as possible, that planters feel safe and that they're paid appropriately for their work. 

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