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Don't Thank Me for Being a Tree Planter

The longer I do this work, the more I'm convinced its green public image is undeserved.

Alana Friend Lettner 2 Nov 2023The Tyee

Alana Friend Lettner is a writer and tree planter. She lives on the unceded traditional territory of the K'ómoks First Nation.

I began tree planting seven years ago when I was 24 and approaching the end of a prolonged undergraduate degree in English and creative writing. I was told by various experienced tree planters that I was a little old for a first season, in the same way that I imagine a person beginning a gymnastics career at the age of 13 might be cautioned against doing so.

In the spirit of an earnest adolescent gymnast, I threw caution to the wind and went north at the end of April 2016. I flew from Vancouver to Prince George in a small plane that brought together two demographics employed by the forestry sector that are, I later learned, often loath to meet: loggers and tree planters. I was excited and nervous. I was not ethically ill at ease.

It’s difficult to remember now what exactly I believed I was doing out there that first year, tenting with over 100 people in a gravel pit a few hours outside of Prince George and commuting by a convoy of company trucks to the cutblock, where my crew and I planted thousands of commercially bred pine and spruce saplings for 10 hours a day. It’s difficult for me to remember much of anything from that first year: I was a very slow planter and was reminded of this often, and somewhat mercilessly, by an older planter who liked to say to me as he planted past me: "Stop gardening!"

Eventually, I learned that we were not there to garden; in fact, we were there to farm.

Tree planting is one of several practices that comprise B.C.’s silviculture industry, once defined by the BC Forest Service as “the establishment (regeneration) and tending of forest crops.” Silviculture includes site preparation, brushing, juvenile spacing, thinning and fire mitigation work, as well as tree planting.

A more straightforward way of saying this is that silviculture is tree farming. And perhaps it goes without saying that tree farming in B.C. has always been inextricable from tree harvesting.

The first attempts at reforestation, also known as tree planting, occurred in coastal B.C. during the late 1940s in direct response to decades of completely unregulated and unrestricted logging. Amendments to the Forest Act were introduced in 1947 and 1948 that outlined a policy of “sustained yield” for B.C. forests to encourage logging companies to adopt reforestation practices. But the policy language itself implies that reforestation has always been less about replacing forest ecosystems than about ensuring a reliable yield of cash crops for future logging. Silviculture has its roots not in ecological restoration but in resource extraction, and by extension so, too, does tree planting.

‘These trees can’t grow here’

I did eventually stop gardening. In my fifth season as a tree planter, my camp was based out of Burns Lake, about a two-hour drive west from Prince George. My crew was assigned to "close" — tree planter speak for “finish” — a particularly unpleasant block. It was a hot, windless day, which meant the bugs were terrible.

But this wasn’t why the block was unpleasant. The block was unpleasant because the land was difficult to plant, and the land was difficult to plant because there was almost no soil to speak of. My piece — the part of the block I was assigned to plant — was extremely wet; most of the holes I opened filled immediately with water. And where there was no water, there was only rock. It was very slow going. Usually it takes me around 40 minutes to plant all the trees in my bags, but on this block it was taking me an hour and a half.

Oftentimes, when planters encounter blocks like these, blocks that are too wet, too rocky or too ecologically degraded for saplings to survive, we are seeing the direct consequences of the forestry industry prioritizing resource extraction over ecosystem health. “This should never have been logged in the first place,” I remember a co-worker saying at the time. “These trees can’t grow here.”

Planting trees that you are not convinced will survive is not an uncommon experience for tree planters; nearly every planter I know has a similar story. Last fall, Briarpatch Magazine published an article called “Planting Trees in a Coal Mine” by Jennie Long and Caleb Cohen. I met Long through a friend a few years ago when she was doing her MA in political ecology at the University of Victoria. At the time, she’d been writing her thesis about endemic and under-reported incidents of sexualized violence in tree planting camps. Now, Long and co-author Cohen were writing about their recent experience of planting a 203-square-kilometre open-pit coal mine on Ktunaxa territory in southeastern B.C. The planting company they worked for had been commissioned by Teck Coal as part of Teck’s recently expanded “reclamation project,” for which they had hired around 80 additional planters and staff to meet their goal of planting 3.5 million seedlings each spring.

But reforesting an open-pit mine is not the same as reforesting a typical clearcut. A clearcut, Long and Cohen explain, still has signs of life: “fawns and baby rabbits and birds’ nests; toads and turtles.”

A clearcut, however devastated, is often home to plants like trailing blackberry, devil’s club, alders, berry bushes, columbine and fireweed. A planter on my crew once discovered a nest of three goslings that followed them around for the rest of the day; a few years back I came upon a fawn sleeping beside a slash pile. There were no such signs of life in the coal mine.

“The reclamation program,” Long and Cohen explain, “involves rebuilding the former mountain from the pieces of blasted rock that have already been stripped of their prehistoric coal deposits.” It was their job to plant into these rocks. They describe “[scrambling] around the jagged piles, tucking root-plugs into the pockets of finer gravel and smaller rocks between boulders.” As they attempted to plant spruce, pine, wild rose, saskatoon berry, fescues and wheat grass into the bare rock, they heard dynamite blasts “echo across the barren landscape.”

There are few things more demoralizing than sensing acutely the futility of your labour. As they worked, Long and Cohen wondered: “Without any soil, water, nutrients or shelter, surely... most of what we were planting would die?” Over the course of the season, morale among the planters dropped lower and lower; the writers attribute this camp-wide depression to eco-grief.

Reading this, I was reminded of a story another planter told me during my first season. He’d been working his piece when suddenly he heard a huge thud. He looked around and saw in the distance the forest being actively logged on an adjacent block. All day he heard the saws and the sound of trees being felled as he planted seedlings into the ground.

"It was a hard day" was how he put it. He’d laughed, but we both knew it wasn’t funny.

Tree planting’s green public image

Over the years I have on many occasions been on the receiving end of praise for my good work. I have been applauded for my tenacity, my guts, my grit. Alongside these adulations, I am also applauded for my civic duty. I have heard variations on this theme: "It’s a hard job, but someone’s got to do it." I have heard: "Good for you." Several times, I have been thanked.

When these well-meaning people express gratitude for my virtuous labours, I will often have flashbacks to an average planting day. I imagine waking up in the morning and having breakfast in the mess tent, throwing uneaten food into the garbage because there isn’t infrastructure for composting the exorbitant amounts of food waste that a planting camp produces each day. I imagine loading into the company trucks, huge Ford F-350s, to drive to the block. I imagine getting to my cache and bagging up my trees, unwrapping each bundle of 10 or 20 seedlings from its plastic casing, so that by the end of the day my crew alone has accumulated bags and bags of single-use plastic garbage. I imagine the warnings printed on tree boxes against handling the seedlings without gloves because of the presence of pesticides and herbicides.

I imagine planting thousands of genetically improved trees into an ecosystem that is attempting to regenerate on its own, marking nearly every tree with blue flagging tape that takes anywhere between six months to two years to decompose. I imagine how months from now, during brushing season, workers will arrive with chainsaws to cut back the growth of any economically undesirable plants, including broadleaf trees like alders, that might impede the success of the seedlings I planted.

I imagine helicopters flying over the planted cutblocks and spraying glyphosate — deemed in 2015 by the World Health Organization as “probably carcinogenic to humans” and certainly carcinogenic to other mammals — to deter alders and berry bushes from growing. I imagine any number of planted forests I have walked through, monocultural tree farms completely devoid of an understorey or biodiverse plant life, the trees growing so close together that no light can reach the forest floor.

I imagine all of this as I am thanked.

What I gather from these interactions is that there is a huge gulf between how many Canadians perceive tree planting and what tree planting actually is. While tree planting falls within the forestry industry, its public image has remained relatively unexamined and unscathed even as forestry practices have come under fire. It seems to me that many people do not perceive tree planting as actually being a part of the forestry industry, but rather as standing in some significant way against the forestry industry.

Tree planting is seen as an attempt to ameliorate the impacts of logging for the good of a region’s ecology, rather than as a greenwashing measure used by various extractive industries to continue business as usual. In my experience, people are often reluctant to let go of this perception even when confronted with the facts. Once, after I outlined the many unsettling aspects of silviculture as a whole and tree planting in particular to a friend, she sighed and then insisted: “Well, it’s better than nothing.”

Two billion trees

I wonder if this generalized support for silviculture that I have personally encountered so often since becoming a tree planter is partly enabling the industry to remain as it is, without significant reforms.

In 2019, Justin Trudeau promised to plant two billion trees by 2030. While critics have pointed out that the Liberal government has, so far, failed to deliver on this promise — by July 2022 only 29 million additional trees had been planted, approximately 1.5 per cent of the government’s purported goal — I have seen no inquiry into exactly how these trees will be planted. What tree species will be chosen? What factors will foresters consider in determining species ratios and densities for different regions? Will these planted trees be indefinitely protected from resource extraction, or will they eventually be harvested for lumber?

Additionally, Trudeau’s promise relies on the presumption that planted forests are better or as good at achieving certain environmental goods — carbon sequestration, for example — than naturally regenerating forests, a presumption that is hotly debated within the scientific community. In 2019, Nature published an article asserting carbon sequestration in naturally regenerated forests is potentially 40 times greater than in plantations, depending on site selection.

I don’t mean to suggest that planting trees is never an ecologically meaningful measure. What I am suggesting is that Trudeau’s promise relies on the assumption that planting trees is good no matter how it’s done, as well as an obfuscation of what tree planting actually looks like on the ground. Tree planting is not, as it turns out, always better than nothing.

A ‘box-checking activity’ for industry

I asked my friend Emily Bishop, a policy analyst for the BC Green Caucus and a former tree planter, whether or not silviculture is being discussed in government at the provincial level as a possible avenue for forestry reform. From Emily’s perspective, the province's priority continues to be harvesting timber while purporting to protect old growth. Revolutionizing tree planting practices is not high on the list.

“Silviculture feels absent from the conversation about provincial forestry reform,” she told me. “It still feels quite extraction focused.” Emily explained that logging companies are generally left to their own devices to replant deforested areas, and there aren’t many examples of these companies replanting purely for the sake of ecosystem health. Without applying any meaningful political or public pressure for reform, logging companies will continue to replant forests for the sake of future revenue.

Tree planting, Emily said, is often just “a box-checking activity” for industry.

Emily and I met during my first season of tree planting and her fifth. We were both having a terrible time, but for different reasons: I couldn’t get the hang of planting and she was bored of it. I would go on to work another five seasons, eventually falling in love with the physicality of the work, the people I worked alongside and the land itself, albeit in a complicated way.

But Emily says she’ll never plant again. I asked how her understanding of B.C. forestry policy has affected how she thinks about her time in the bush.

“It provides a lot of understanding and context, especially around how the communities that we were working in, and out of, came to be that way,” she told me, referring to B.C. communities like Mackenzie and Houston that were built by and for their mills.

But she also expressed a sense of regret. “You and I have walked through a natural forest, and we see that there’s an understorey and there’s diversity of species and there’s ferns and there’s salal. And then we’ve walked through a plantation and it’s devoid of life. And so I feel saddened to have perpetuated some of that, that scarcity of —” She paused to find the right words.

“To have perpetuated the opposite of abundance,” she said.

Making a living off the exploitation of the land

In the last few years, I have taken it upon myself to disabuse people of the notion that tree planting is good for the environment. If I speak against the silviculture industry, maybe my complicity in it will be slightly diminished.

This is a cowardly wish made more cowardly by the fact that I have not yet given tree planting up — I finished my sixth season this past July and might plant again next year. It is because of tree planting that I have no student debt; it is because of tree planting that I have been able to write. Another way of saying this: I have been able to write because of the utter destruction of forests I never saw while they stood. I have come to know these forests only through their traces, their stumps and slash piles.

In June of last year, for example, half of my crew was assigned a fertilizer contract for a three-day shift. I’d never done a fertilizer contract before; all I knew was that the tree prices were higher and the going was slower. As I discovered, the going was slower because instead of opening one hole per seedling, we had to open two: one for the tree and one for the little pouch of fertilizer intended to boost the tree’s growth.

We were told not to put the fertilizer into the same hole as the seedling, otherwise the tree might become overwhelmed and die; we were also told not to eat, drink, smoke or touch our bare skin or eyes after handling the fertilizer pouches without washing our hands first. These warnings were nothing new: whenever planters are handling trees treated with pesticides or fungicides, similar precautions are recommended. But how planters might go about washing their hands remains unclear: there are no sinks or running water on the block.

We cut one-litre plastic milk jugs in half to use as makeshift fertilizer pouch containers and bolted them onto our planting bags, and then got dropped off at our caches. My cache was at the edge of a huge hill, and in the distance I could see a mine in full operation, its massive trucks and excavating equipment reduced to the size of toys.

The block was overgrown and green, having been harvested a decade or so ago; my piece was steep and criss-crossed by huge fallen poplars that I had to clamber over, carrying 300 trees at a time. In a recently harvested block, it’s hard to feel like you’re in the woods, but here I felt as if I was in something resembling the wild, surrounded by roses and devil’s club and limned in by a dense treeline. And yet all day I was accompanied by the soundtrack of the mining industry, the beeping of trucks backing up, engines revving, rocks hauled and dumped and crushed.

The front of my piece was hellish and steep, but the back flattened out and was easy to move through, with good soil. I was planting fast to make up for lost time. I was thinking about how much money I could make at this speed, at this price; I was hustling. Then, in the periphery of my hearing, as if from the corner of my ear, I heard a raven. I stopped. I stood, fertilizer pouch in one hand and shovel in the other, and listened. The raven was sitting on a branch of a poplar tree just overhead. Undesirable as lumber, poplars are often left by loggers as residuals on cutblocks. The tree, loosely rooted in the eroded soil, swayed in the wind; from the branch the raven cawed and cawed. I felt suddenly sickened. For then I understood that the raven was screaming, and that the raven was screaming at me.

There I was, injecting pouches of fertilizer too dangerous for me to touch with my bare hands into the bare soil. What impact would the fertilizer have on the land? Would it leach into the groundwater and run off into some nearby lake, spurring an algal bloom? Would it find its way into roots of the rose bushes and then into their rosehips, and then into the bodies of bears and birds? How would my actions on this one day in June affect this landscape for decades to come?

And yet out there on the block, like nearly everywhere else on this earth, time is money. The raven cawed and I closed my piece. I made nearly $600 that day, but I knew at what cost.

Five seasons later, I can say with some confidence that I know what it is I’m doing out there, on the block. Like the loggers employed by Conifex or Canfor, like the labourers working on the Site C dam or Teck Coal miners, I, too, am making a living off the exploitation of the land. Speaking about our complicity in resource extraction, a planter friend once remarked to me: “If I had to choose, I’d rather be planting trees than cutting them down.”

I’m not sure there is much good in differentiating these acts; the way I see it, planting and logging are two sides of the same coin.  [Tyee]

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