• Terra Observer

Non-profit tree planting initiatives facing a lean year, thanks to COVID-19

When it comes to the challenges facing Ontario’s tree planting initiatives this year, volunteer power takes the front seat. COVID-19 regulations make the teamwork required to plant trees tricky, Co-Editor-In-Chief Jade Prévost-Manuel reports.

Jade Prévost-Manuel, Co-Editor-In-Chief

A government-mandated two-metre distance makes volunteer planting efforts tough. (Andrew Spencer / Unsplash)

It’s hard to imagine a world without trees—the leafy green giants that manufacture the oxygen we breathe, draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, cool down sweltering cities and provide irreplaceable habitat to Earth’s creatures.

That’s why tree planting operations crop up around Ontario each spring, reforesting clear-cut or degraded land—as well as private land—in an effort to support the province’s unique biodiversity.

But Ontario’s tree planting season is off to a rocky start this year, with private forestry companies and conservation authorities taking precautions to keep out COVID-19 while still trying to reach their planting goals.

Stephanie Rochemont is the Community and Forest Success Manager at One Tree Planted, a non-profit organization based in Vermont that plants trees all over the world. In Ontario, they fund projects that plant native species like sugar maple, red oak, bur oak, white spruce, white pine and cedar. Their cost for planting a tree in Ontario averages around one dollar.

Rochemont says they were hoping to plant 500,000 trees in the province this year, but that number has dropped to around 75,000.

One Tree Planted reforesting an area in British Columbia, May 2018. (One Tree Planted website)

“When COVID hit, a lot of our funding got put to a halt,” Rochemont says. “Originally, Ontario wasn’t on our radar, but when Doug Ford cut [provincial] funding, we got all these donors reaching out saying they wanted to help Ontario.”

One Tree Planted partners with five of the province’s conservation authorities, including the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority, the Otonabee Region Conservation Authority, and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. Rochemont says that with 36 in the entire province, conservation authorities are some of the primary stakeholder representatives in the province’s reforestation efforts.

When the Ford government announced last April that it would be cancelling the 50 Million Tree Program, an initiative that began as an effort to remove carbon from the atmosphere, it was met with public outrage. Up until its cancellation, the program had funded more than 27 million trees since 2008 with the goal of reaching 50 million by 2025.

The funding was reinstated a few months later in June when the federal government committed $15 million over four years to fund the project, matching the annual budget the program had initially worked with. Despite the regained funding, the Ford government’s scrapping of the program created the donation momentum conservation authorities needed to fund important planting projects across the province.

Canada is no stranger to deforestation. The Government of Canada reports that 0.01 per cent of the country's forests are lost to deforestation annually. Over 70 per cent of this amount is caused by the mining, oil and gas, and agriculture industries.

And while 65 per cent of Ontario is forested, only 9 per cent of these forests fall within designated parks and protected areas. The majority are on Crown lands, publicly owned lands that don’t necessarily enjoy the same protections and can be developed upon the approval of a forestry project.

That’s why the tree planting initiatives of conservation authorities play an important role in the province’s reforestation efforts. Much of the planting for the authorities relies on volunteer planters who need to work in pairs—but with social distancing requirements making group work difficult, Rochement says it’s going to be a difficult year for planting.

“A lot of these projects are being postponed because they didn’t have enough time to do the site prep, and you also can’t have as many people all at once at the site,” Rochemont says. “Most people will drive to a site together in a truck, right? Now you’re not allowed to do that. It has to be one person.”

In tree planting camps, it’s somewhat of a different story. Infrastructure changes to the camps include more hand-washing stations, isolation trailers and extra dining tents. Taviana MacLeod, a project manager at One Tree Planted who has planted around 500,000 trees herself during the North American planting seasons, says there are also social changes to the camps.

Normally, tree planters can expect a remote experience if they sign onto a season, which usually lasts six to eight weeks and permits town visits. This year, planters are banned from town visits and will spend the full season within the camp.

“Forestry has been considered essential in all provinces, so the volunteering is a little bit more questionable [for non-profit efforts],” MacLeod says. “But the forestry industry has quite a bit of power and funding to take the right precautions.”

Canada’s forest industry is a major contributor to the country’s economy. In 2017, it earned the Canadian economy nearly $25 billion in revenue. In Ontario alone, the industry supports 155,000 jobs.

Just last month, Ontario Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry John Yakabuski announced $3.5 million in funding to implement protective measures for forestry workers during this planting season.

Yakabuski said this funding will help the forestry industry expand existing facilities and ensure a safe working environment for Ontarians working in the industry. He also announced that 70 million trees will be planted this year in Ontario's forests. Yet some forestry companies are worried that more people might be sitting this season out.

With the cancellation of group, volunteer-based efforts, some landowners are taking the planting into their own hands. When one of One Tree Planted's partners had a wrench thrown into their plan to reforest a plot of private land with 5,000 trees, the landowner took it upon himself to supply the volunteer power.

“The landowner did all the site prep by himself and the planting with his family members,” Rochemont says. “It was successful, but it took a lot longer and one of the biggest challenges has been the length of time it takes to complete a project.”

When it comes to checking on the saplings the non-profit has already planted, Rochemont says it looks as though a lot of their monitoring will be held off until either the pandemic or social distancing measures subside. One Tree Planted monitors its saplings for the first five years, after which their survival rate is high.

Satellite monitoring might be the reality for tree check-ups in the near future, though it comes with its own set of disadvantages.

While Ontario’s planting season hasn't been called off by any means, it's certainly facing unprecedented challenges. The future of volunteer tree planting will depend on how Canada's response to COVID-19 evolves over the summer, and perhaps the next year.