Tree Planting in B.C. during the Pandemic

Our daughter is quite the trendy, high fashion, social media savvy, big city girl, (NOT LIKE HER MOM) active in politics, social activism and academia. So with all that, why is it that she yearns to sleep in a tent in a forest in the mountains, away from internet, cell phone signals, TV and ME, all summer long?

Each summer, thousands of tree planters descend on British Columbia, Alberta and Northern Ontario to plant millions of trees. This summer, the reforestation projects were delayed in B.C. due to the COVID-19 pandemic. British Columbia was among the earliest provinces to experience the pandemic, but appears to have begun to enter the downward swing on the curve that we are all hearing about.

Now that the government of B.C. has given the go ahead for the tree planting season – about 5000 tree planters have headed to B.C. to plant 310 million seedlings. This is the largest tree planting effort ever, prompted by concerns about climate change and deforestation caused by forest fires and pine beetles.

While we don’t want our daughter off in the forest for a summer, especially during this time of COVID-19, she is an adult and makes her own decisions, and they seem to be well thought out. She is an adventurer and explorer and she questions all things, so we support her and are proud of her always. She is renowned for her childhood and teenage temper tantrums, and we dare not stand in her way when she makes up her mind. She is always right afterall…

Before she left, I thought it would be fun to interview her about Tree Planting – so that we can understand her choices better, and to share this interesting adventure.

This is her second summer tree-planting, having traveled to B.C. two summers ago by herself. Last summer she was unable to plant as she had a full time job involving politics. This year she is looking forward to working with her friends in a crew she worked with two summers ago. In the past year, the friends have kept in touch and visited back and forth across Canada.

Where did you go your first year and what was it like going on your own?

I did lots of research before I signed a contract with a tree planting company for my first year. I spoke with many people that had planted previously, I read about the different companies that were hiring, I interviewed my selected company about the camp life itself, safety and the food service. I needed to know what to pack, where to go, and whether they could support my vegan diet. There are many tree planting or reforestation companies that create camps under contract with lumber companies or with government agencies to reforest large remote areas.

I had to bring my own clothing, tent, sleeping bag and personal supplies. A dry tent, good boots and waterproof clothes were the most important items. I didn’t really choose the best items, but oh well……. It was cold at night, and wet most of the days, bugs everywhere, and I got sunburns and blisters.

You are responsible for getting yourself to the meet up point for tree planting. The companies don’t pay for your flights, so you have to take that into account when deciding how much money you will make tree planting. The flights were more expensive than I thought the first time, because I had to take a small commuter airline to get to a remote pickup area. This year I am meeting my crew in Vancouver, so the flight is direct, but I had to change my flight for Covid-19 delays, and there was a little more cost to rebooking the flight later.

A lot of people gave up and quit within the first few weeks. I loved the work and made lasting friends. I traveled to areas in British Columbia like Chetwyn, Williams Lake, Prince George, Fort St. John, etc. – but we were usually a few hours into the bush from any of these towns.

Some Facts about B.C.:

  • Two thirds of the province of British Columbia – almost 60 million hectares are covered by forests. The province also features spectacular scenery – the Rocky Mountains, the rugged coastline on the Pacific Ocean, and numerous beautiful lakes and rivers.
  • One in 16 jobs in B.C. depend on forestry.
  • 2/3 of Canada’s softwood lumber is produced in B.C.
  • B.C.’s forestry industry contributes about $12 billion to the province’s GDP every year – about half of it from softwood lumber.
  • Softwood is wood produced from conifers (i.e. pines, firs, spruce).
  • B.C.s forest have been devastated by beetles and other pests and forest fires.
  • In 2017, B.C. lost over 1.2 million hectares of forest to fires.
  • The mountain pine beetle is a native insect in the Rocky Mountains. After several warmer winters in the late 1990s, the population of pine beetles boomed and caused the subsequent loss of millions of acres of pine forest.

Why do you want to do this? Is it because you are an environmentalist and that you want to stop climate change by planting trees?

Well no, in fact I don’t really consider tree planting to be as environmentally friendly as the media makes it sound. Yes, we are planting thousands of trees, but the trees that we are planting are generally pine, fir and spruce. These are trees to replace those that have been harvested by the lumber industry, as well as lost to forest fires.

We plant large areas or blocks at a time with single varieties of trees – tiny seedlings. The blocks are big areas that have been completely cut down, – or where a forest fire has cleared everything out. We are not planting a mix of species like there would be in a forest. While other plants will naturally grow up and fill in over time, this is not the immediate effect. We are usually planting one type of evergreen – across acres and acres – depending on the contract the tree planting company has.

Lumber companies get contracts to harvest trees from Crown Land, and then they have the responsibility of reforesting the land – so that’s part of where our contracts come from. Once the land has been partially reforested/planted they have fulfilled their responsibility.

The evergreen trees that we are planting are also more flammable than broadleaf trees. It seems to me that planting single species of sap producing trees close together wouldn’t be favourable for preventing forest fires. There’s also a theory that dark forests of conifers contribute to global warming instead of preventing it.

Oh my gosh, I had no idea, I always thought it was about the environment…….

Nope. I don’t really feel that it helps the planet so much as it supports the economy of the Province of British Columbia, and allows the lumber industry to continue harvesting trees.

I choose to tree plant because of the potential to make money, the competition, the friendships that I made, and the change of lifestyle. Then there is just the spectacular scenery and wildlife. I enjoy hard work, and I’m extremely competitive, so tree planting allows me to work at my own pace and try to plant the most trees.

Well I know about your competitiveness. Is tree planting like that summer camp I never sent you on?

NO Mom, just NO….. seriously it’s hard work!

Planting more trees causes me to make more money! A tree planter can make $10,000 to $30,000 in a summer, without having to worry about buying groceries and paying rent. Working this way allows me to just focus on the work and making money, and it gives me a few months off of the social stress of school, roommates and my other jobs. There’s not too much time spent on hair and makeup and clothes and after the work is done we can just relax in a group with no responsibility – until the next day!

Why did the tree planting season go ahead?

Tree planting is considered an essential service in British Columbia, and so it was given the go-ahead. The tree seedlings had already been prepared and would have been lost if we had not gone ahead with the season. The lumber industry would not have been able to go ahead if the tree planting was not implemented.

What’s your day like tree planting? Is it all about the partying? Is that why you do it?

No Mom! Yes, there is definitely some partying around the campfire, but if you do too much of that you will never last. Every day we get up early, take turns going to the mess tent for breakfast and pack our lunches and waterbottles. Then we are taken in a truck to our planting block. We each take out own bags of trees on our backs and take a position by ourselves, but generally within sight of another planter. There is a supervisor with a truck and a gun spotting for bears, just in case.

The work is hard and repetitive, all day long. You carry your bag of trees, you are bent down most of the day, quickly make a hole in the ground, put the root in and stomp on the root to compact the earth around it – Over and over.

I guess there are no old people like me! It’s not for the faint of heart.

No. Nobody with arthritis………

Later they randomly inspect blocks of trees to make sure the trees are planted correctly. If they aren’t – you won’t be paid for your tree planting work.

There are bugs all the time, not just mosquitoes and blackflies, but wasps and bees. It’s cold at night, but can be hot and you get sunburned during the day. Sometimes it rains for days on end. At the end of a long day, you are so sore, you just want to shower, eat and sleep.

What will be different this year for tree planters?

We have all been asked to self isolate and monitor our temperature and symptoms for 2 weeks prior to leaving for tree planting. Some of us are driving across the country to get to tree planting, to avoid airplanes but require essential worker papers to drive through provinces, and obviously, we can’t take the route through the United States because of the border closings. (Our daughter flew Westjet). When we get to camp we will not be allowed to leave the camps to visit the small towns as we normally would during the summer. This year we will have to bring more of our own supplies to camp, and we will not have our weekends off to be touristy.

In tree planting we normally congregate in the mess tent when not planting. This year the mess tent will be for socially distant eating only and not for gathering, and we are only allowed to stay in the same small planting groups. We’ll see how that works.

What is camp life like?

We all pay for our own transportation and camping gear. We each maintain our own tent and household supplies. All food is provided, and the chefs are awesome. I am vegan, so they make an extra effort to support people like me who have different dietary requirements and make sure we are well fed. There are trailer type showers, and outhouses. There is not always a telephone signal in the mountains, so I don’t worry about cell phone plans. There is Wifi available for the camp managers only, but I am taking some online classes this summer, so we have agreed that I will access their internet as a condition of my employment.

How do the finances work?

We get paid based upon how much we plant. It’s “piecework”. This payment rate per tree varies based upon your experience level, the type of tree and the company we are planting for. Returning tree-planters are generally paid a higher rate per tree. This is because they will generally do a better job of planting the trees and plant more. The more trees that you plant, the more money you earn. I am extremely competitive and love the outdoor work, so I plan to make a lot of money. Basically tree planting gives you the opportunity to make a lot of money within a short period of time without responsibility for rent and groceries. Without being able to go into town on our time off this summer, we should be able to save most of our money!

Do you think you’ll do this again?

This will probably be the last opportunity I’ll have to do this as I am finishing up my Undergrad degree, and I should probably settle on a career, and I also want to travel some more. It makes me think though that maybe I should have studied forestry. I’m hoping the world we be in a better place when I finish work in August!

6 thoughts on “Tree Planting in B.C. during the Pandemic

  1. Congratulations to your daughter going back for a 2nd year, it is hard work. 2 of our 4 kids did it during the university years but only 1 did it more than once!

    1. I had never considered tree planting before for my kids, but when we bump into people and talk about it, it’s amazing how many people have tried it. She just called us the other day and said the season was going well!

Leave a Reply