Pandemic puts brakes on B.C tree planting season

Friday 15 May 2020

First, B.C.’s Interior forests were ravaged by beetles and forest fires, and now their recovery may be delayed by a virus. This year’s tree planting season in B.C. was expected to be the biggest planting effort ever, thanks to provincial and federal funding.

But tree planting companies were delayed in getting contracts signed this year as they waited for direction from public health officials on how to keep workers safe in remote work camps during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though they now have those guidelines, and some planters have headed into the woods, this year’s season may not be as big or as profitable as silviculture companies had hoped.

At least one Interior First Nation has banned tree planting in its territory. Some companies may have trouble attracting new planters, and others may struggle with the added costs of meeting new health and safety guidelines in remote work camps.

Thanks to additional funding from provincial and federal governments, 2020 was supposed to break a record. There is joint provincial-federal funding this year for tree planting through the Low Carbon Economy Fund, which will be followed by funding through the Justin Trudeau government’s $3 billion commitment to plant two billion trees over the next 10 years.

More than 300 million seedlings were expected to be planted this year, with 240 million to 260 million in the Interior in April through June. “Many of those seedlings will be going into restoring terrible fire years that we had in 2017 and 18,” said John Betts, executive director of the Western Forestry Contractors’ Association.

A big season for tree planting would be timely, given that so many university students who might typically work at restaurants for the summer will likely be without a job. Although tree planting contractors prefer to use experienced workers, there is always a need for new planters. About a quarter of the workforce each year is made up of new recruits, Betts said.

An average tree planter can make $10,000 to $15,000 in a season, which runs from about April to June for the Interior. Pay is based on piecework. Veterans can make $300 to $400 per day. Newbies may make $150. Betts said some companies fear some of their tree planters will sit this season out and collect the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

Companies that do manage to recruit a full complement of planters will face a lot of added costs to comply with health regulations. Planters typically work in work camps and cram into mess tents for meals and into trucks to get to their work sites.

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