Will tree planting fix Canada’s forests? Not without serious changes

 Tree planting is an often used tactic by the logging industry to greenwash the great harm they do to the environment.
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Flying out to the middle of the “bush” every summer to plant a few thousand tree saplings every day, for three months straight – it has been a classic coming-of-age experience for young Canadians for more than 40 years. Tree planters stay in remote camps in Canada’s vast forest lands for the summer, making a few cents for every sapling they put in the ground. The work is physically demanding and can be mentally crushing. 

Tree planting companies, or the “reforestation industry,” are largely contracted by logging corporations. Provincial regulations across Canada that require companies to restore the forest land that they chop down. 

Tree planting companies are also hired by government wildlife and environmental agencies. Now, more tree planters than ever are needed to meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s campaign pledge of planting two billion trees to tackle the climate crisis. 

But are young Canadians’ yearly pilgrimage to the Canadian bush really an altruistic act of giving back to nature, like famed Canadian actor Will Arnett suggests

Maybe not. Forest restoration initiatives are far more friendly with the logging industry than meets the eye. 

Reforestation hand in hand with logging industry

The reforestation industry is composed of contractors that hire tree planters and manage replanting operations – AG Reforestation, Summit Reforestation, Coast Range Contracting, and Folklore Contracting, to name a few.

The reforestation industry’s clients are usually logging companies themselves. Various provincial regulations across Canada require companies to replant the forest lands that they’ve chopped down. 

Tree planters’ work, albeit indirectly, enables one of the worst carbon-emitting industries in Canada. Replanting efforts have not done a whole lot to mitigate the logging industry’s carbon emissions. 

In Canada, data shows that forest lands’ net carbon emissions have been increasing at an exponential rate since 2001. Forest lands are emitting more and more carbon than they sequester. Logging operations, decaying biomass those operations leave behind, along with increasing wildfires and insect outbreaks, all factor into this increase. 

Plus, that statistic does not even take into account the 1.5 billion-plus tons of carbon that recent wildfires have released into the atmosphere.

READ MORE: No, wildfires are not the ‘normal’ result of climate change

Inadequate provincial regulations

Provincial regulations require logging operations to restore chopped-down forest land to the way it was before. But the policy lacks attention to detail.

“The idea is to regenerate the same forest type that was reharvested,” explained University of Toronto Forestry Professor Jay Malcolm. “We have not been very good at that though.”

Much of Canada’s natural forest lands are coniferous – populated by evergreen species like the black spruce. After logging companies chop down a section, planters will come and plant black spruce saplings to replace it. 

But there is a strong chance that most of those saplings will die, Malcolm explained. The large swaths of wide open, clear cut land left behind by industrial logging operations expose the dirt and sunlight and air. Those growing conditions are far more favourable to aspen than black spruce.

A survey of 414,000 hectares of forest land in Northwestern Ontario, which had been replanted with black spruce, found that the species made up just 15 per cent of the surviving growth. “Which means all those little trees that the planters planted, just died,” Malcolm noted. 

The difference in species is bad news for biodiversity, throwing off the balance of species in the ecosystems in Canada’s boreal forests, putting species like caribou in critical danger of extinction.

But regulatory bodies have not imposed responsibility on logging corporations for the botched replanting efforts. 

“Seven years later, people come in, see what the density of trees is, and if it’s high enough, then they walk away. It doesn’t really matter what the species composition of the [area] is,” Malcolm said. 

Goodbye, old-growth forests

Then there is the matter of age.

In theory, governments aim to regulate forestry practices so that they imitate “natural disturbance regimes,” Malcolm explained. For example, empirical evidence from studies of tree rings, fire scars, and historical fire recordss as well as lake sediment indicate that forest fires naturally occur about every 166 years in a given region of forest land in Ontario – that is, in the absence of human-induced climate change and large-scale logging operations. 

This 166-year period is what determines the age of the trees. Around seven per cent of a given region of natural Ontario forest will be over 166 years old, Malcolm noted. When loggers cut down too many trees too frequently, however, they bring the average age down.

And the age of a forest’s trees is important. Having a healthy distribution of old and young trees mitigates wildfires and supports the biodiversity of plant and animal species. 

Regulatory bodies captured by industry

This is why Ontario’s provincial regulations – technically – outlaw systematic reductions the age distribution of the forest. But logging companies have gotten away with it anyway. 

“How’s that? You wonder? Because of the bamboozling, basically,” Malcolm said. 

He explained that the Ontario regulatory body uses “virtual reality” model of the natural forest to inform how often it would hypothetically burn, as a guide. 

“That model burns the forest like crazy,” Malcolm said. “And as a result, the average age is quite young.” 

And regulators refuse to look up from the screen, and see that natural forests’ average age is actually much older, according to Malcolm.

Industry capture is rife among the forestry industry’s regulatory bodies. Malcolm recalled his own experience sitting on Ontario’s forest technical committee. 

“Industry certainly had a stronger voice at that table than anybody else. And the regulations basically came to us, already written by the government. And you were hard pressed to get them to change a single word. That’s why I quit the committee after a year. It was a waste of time,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Trudeau government’s 2019 commitment to plant two billion trees by 2030 is one apparently genuine attempt to address environmental concerns – despite the overwhelming hurdles it has faced thus far. 

But at the same time, the Trudeau government has aggressively lobbied to remove itself from international bills that would interfere with Canada’s export of logging products that degrade forest lands. The move has attracted international criticism. And Canada’s commitment to the forest industry remains blatantly clear.

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