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Freak Cold Snap Destroys Millions of Seedlings for BC Reforestation

'It's very disheartening,' says nursery owner.

By Jonathon Hernandez 17 Apr 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Jonathon Hernandez is completing a practicum at The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter @jonvhernandez.

Provincial reforestation efforts will be delayed in southern B.C. this spring after more than 2 million seedlings were severely damaged by unpredictable weather.

According to government officials, approximately 2.5 million trees that were to be planted in the area were severely damaged by polar winds. That number represents about five per cent of the 50 million seedlings scheduled to be planted this spring by the B.C. government.

The affected trees are too damaged to be planted, putting some reforestation efforts on hold. The tree planting was scheduled to begin across B.C. this month.

Each spring, the provincial government along with private logging companies plant millions of trees in B.C. in areas that have been logged or depleted.

About 260 million trees were scheduled to be planted this year, 50 million of which fall under the province's reforestation programs. It is believed the bad weather also harmed seedlings cultivated for private logging companies, but this has not been confirmed.

This is the first time a significant portion of B.C.'s outdoor-grown seedlings have been damaged due to abnormal weather.

John Betts, who heads a B.C. organization that promotes forest management, said climate change may be to blame.

"The jet stream has been pretty strange the last few years, some would argue there's a case to be made [that] this is an outcome of the changing climatic or global weather or climate patterns," said Betts, executive director of the Western Silvicultural Contractors Association, a B.C.-based organization promoting proper forest management in western Canada.

Can't be planted

The damage was discovered three weeks ago when the seedlings entered pre-planting growth trials. The trees can't be planted because their roots had died.

"[T]here was some concern about the health of some of these seedlings," said Al Powelson, resource investment officer at the B.C. Ministry of Forestry. "[Some of them] were dead."

The weather damage occurred last November by an extreme dip in temperatures. The trees in question were cultivated last year in outdoor compounds throughout the southern B.C. interior.

Two sudden polar winds struck the area last November. The cold weather followed an exceptionally warm autumn, leaving the trees vulnerable to frost bite. The trees were then moved into their usual cold storage container, where they sat until the spring. The growers had no knowledge the trees were damaged.

"Back then there was no way of telling the effects [the weather had] on the seedlings," said WSCA's Betts.

Three weeks ago, staff in the nurseries that grew the trees discovered their seedlings were damaged. The findings surprised growers.

"All best practices were used by all of the nurseries involved," said Ron Boerboom, manager and operator at Mountain View Growers in Summerland, one of the affected nurseries.

Standard practices in nurseries include monitoring outdoor temperatures and keeping the trees well insulated in Styrofoam blocks. The trees are generally able to handle cold temperatures, so there was little concern when the cold spell hit.

Nurseries are now grasping the full extent of the damage.

"It's very disheartening because it was a really, really good year last year," Boerboom added.

The affected nurseries won't be able to sell all the seedlings they developed for this year's reforestation season.

"It's nothing that's ever happened to our nursery, [and] it's on a grand scale for all the nurseries involved," added Boerboom. "I think everybody that's had this happen is probably in shock."

Losing trees

The effects of the damaged seedlings have rippled through the rest of the provincial forestry industry.

Private sector reforesting has also found damaged trees, and while there are no numbers on the extent of the damage, early estimates from members of the Western Silvicultural Contractors Association estimate the figure could be 10 million.

As a result, logging companies and the government have reduced the contracts of provincial tree planting companies, which in turn have laid off staff.

"We went from a program of 3.6 million trees to 2.8 million," said Nick Brink, owner and operator of Timberline Reforestation, a B.C.-based tree planting company. Brink and his team have laid off eight tree planters and postponed planting operations in the B.C. interior.

Zanzibar Holdings, another tree planting business in B.C., has also been informed that they are losing trees.

"We're hoping that it will be below a million [trees]," said Tony Harrison, co-founder of Zanzibar. Harrison, also a director at the Western Contractors Silvicultural Association, is expecting at least 700,000 of his stock for the summer to be damaged.

Growers say the damaged trees represent a devastating loss to what was to have been a landmark year for B.C. tree planting.

"There are roughly 260 million trees being planted and it seems like there will be a minimum of 10 million [lost]," added Harrison.  [Tyee]

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