Does planting trees actually work?

My first blog dove into why I went tree planting, and some hardships of the first days as a rookie.
My second post took a deeper look into planting itself, focusing on the mental and physical aspects of planting high numbers.
This third post will focus on the logging industry itself and how planting may not be all that it seems.
These do not need to be read chronologically, feel free to hop to the post(s) you’re most interested in!

A typical cut block, with overturned dirt, dried moss, and lone standing trees.

Planters can come home and share their new personal bests, or how many trees they planted in a season, but all in all — does planting trees actually work? It’s a fair question. To understand why we even bother to plant trees in the first place, we first have to look at the flip side of the coin — the Canadian logging industry.

While I spent my season in Northern Ontario, in this post I will explore the forestry industry in B.C., which is at a larger scale, and more well-documented. Two-thirds of B.C.’s land is forested, of which 83% is coniferous and useful for logging. Of this, 1% is harvested annually, yet this 1% makes up 15% of B.C.’s economy [1]. This gives a rough sense of how economically valuable this resource is, and how much the province, and local communities rely on its revenue.

In Canadian silviculture, reforestation has been around for over a century. Initially in the early 1900s, reforestation efforts were minimal, and generally considered to be largely uneconomic. The general consensus in forestry was that the forests in Canada were an endless resource, and it was not worth the cost of replanting them.

By the 1950s, there was serious concern amongst the forestry industry and the public that clear cutting rates were vastly outstripping the rate the land could naturally regenerate at. In 1965, 18 million trees were replanted in B.C., yet the rate of logging was nearly thirteen times higher [2].

It was in the 1970s that planting began taking the form it has today. Previously a neglected anecdote of the logging industry with clunky tools and inefficient rates, planting moved from a house league team to the competitive arena, led largely by Dirk Brinkman, of Brinkman Reforestation Ltd. Bags were strapped onto planters, allowing them to carry saplings directly with them into the land, farm-like shovels were replaced with sleek Bushpros designed specifically for speed. Within a few years, tree planting became an industrial sport.

Tree planters in the 70s, with a look that has changed very little.

As such, many believe that tree planters are the athletic environmentalists of Canada’s forests. But it’s a bleak reminder that in Canada, no tree is planted until one is logged. Canada prides itself in having sustainable forestry practices and stringent rules for companies to follow them. On top of requiring logged land to be replanted, certain policies also require companies to leave a set percent of the original trees standing in the logged region to promote the growth of the next forest. On paper, policies like this make deforestation sound sustainable, but in the field itself, it’s impossible not to realize that this is wholly corporate fallacy.

Despite being the ones actively in the field, these revelations dwell in the minds of planters only rarely. When you are out in the block, the land becomes a puzzle for you to solve as quickly as possible. Fallen logs are merely obstacles, and the lack of standing trees only means you can see your piece better. ‘Bigger picture’ thoughts is known colloquially as “planting meta” and only slows you down if you think about it during the planting day. Nevertheless, there were three instances in the season where I distinctly remember falling into the planting meta mindset.

Throughout 2020, I had been following the protests in Fairy Creek, where the last remaining stand of publicly owned old growth forest on Vancouver Island is slated to be cut. Aerial photos show the scale of devastation, but no photo can show what it really feels like to be in a clear cut. The land is no longer land — without trees, it degrades into sundried moss and stones, sinking mud, or festering swamp.

I realized none of this until my first day in the field. As I grabbed my gear and started to walk down the dirt road, my boot sunk into mud with a deep squelch, liquid muck seeping through the lacing. As I tried to break the mud’s suction, I looked up. Everywhere I looked was brown wasteland; dead moss, heaps of branches, and tree trunks in varying states of decay littered the land. On the horizon, lone trees that the loggers left standing were left swaying violently in the wind, most of them dead. I thought of the accounts we read of Passchendaele in history class, this I felt, could’ve been the land the soldiers were describing.

The land we walked into on our first day.

Even so, it took me two full days to realize what the most unnerving thing about the land actually was. Even amongst the microhabitats of fallen logs and mossy swamps, there was a complete and utter void of sound and life. The only movement I saw for days were spiders scurrying amongst the debris. All bird calls were from flocks passing overhead or from those in the tree line hundreds of meters away. Even when we passed by old replanted forest, there were no sounds; no animals made their homes there. I accepted the bitter truth then that no matter how many trees we planted, we were never planting a forest.

Later in the season, on one of our drives in, we passed by a block that was being actively logged. Our crew van was dwarfed by the logging machinery on the side of the road. Gears whirred as cams clacked, engaging pneumatic pistons. Logs that had been trees a week ago were rolled in, and regurgitated out as mulch, tree dust flying everywhere. All the engineering ingenuity of humanity and this is what we chose to do with it. And here I was with my hard hat and shovel — well, I mused, ain’t this a fair fight.

Near the end of the season, our greatest health concern became the forest fires. In Red Lake, where we were planting, we worked as close as 30 km to active fires. As we ran along the cut land, slamming trees into the ground, 30 km to our north, helicopters and fire fighters tried to extinguish blazing trees. One week later, that very fire was deemed out of control, and left to burn itself out.
“Will it reach the trees we planted?” We asked our project manager one morning at the camp meeting.
“We have no control over it, 30 km is not far for a fire. Either way, the client has paid for the trees to be replanted and done their due diligence. Oh, and of course you will all be paid for those trees regardless.”
Snorts rang out amongst the planters. That’s not what we meant, but thanks.

So, does planting trees work? It depends how you define it. Once the trees reach four to five years old, they begin dropping their own seeds, and naturally re-seed the land. When you drive by a replanted cut block, you do see a thicket of trees. But what is left behind cannot be called a forest, call it a farm. The only consolation is that in 80 years, they will log this tree farm we planted, instead of going deeper into virgin forest. But who does this matter to anyways? Timber is a lucrative industry, sustains a significant part of Canada’s GDP, and there is no extrinsic economic value in leaving a virgin forest standing.

Charlotte Gill muses in Eating Dirt that perhaps people and forests were always destined to exist in inverse proportions. Perhaps our inquisitiveness is our greatest strength, but also our fatal flaw. “We don’t know how to let an opportunity go by…If it lives, we’ve got to make the best of it…We’ve got to cut it down and wring it out until the final ounce is gone.” Timber is the backbone of modern progress, and we are ceaseless in our push for more.

As I muse on these thoughts with another planter over lunch in the city, I watch as the couple across from us grab their leftover takeout containers, wad up their stack of unused brown napkins and shove it all into the garbage receptacle.

Planting does very little if we continue to consume at the rates we do. We cannot rely on the notion of replanting to ease our consciousness of losing virgin forest. Deforestation rates exist at the levels they do to meet global demand. There is much to be done in reforming deforestation policy, but there is equally as much to do in educating the general public in the effects of their current standard of living. I am convinced that if people were brought to a clear cut for even one day, their respect for life beyond merely their own species would change. Then maybe in 80 years some of the trees we planted this summer won’t need to be cut down and mulched in their adolescence, but instead given the chance to live out their full 400 year lifespans.

Throughout my season I filmed 2 seconds every day. This is the compilation of those clips.

The profound experience I had this summer and everything I learned would not have been possible without the support of those at the Cansbridge Fellowship — who cheered me on every step of the way. I am also very grateful to the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science and Mitacs for supporting this work. Last but not least, my crew and camp at Brinkman Reforestation for showing me that there are many other worlds out there.

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