Despite pandemic, 300M trees planted in B.C.

Despite a delay in the main spring planting season in B.C.’s Interior — and additional rules, regulations and costs due to the pandemic — treeplanters are expected to come close to planting 300 million trees this year.

On defiance of those who said it would be impossible, they might do it without a single case of COVID-19 among the industry’s 5,000 planters.

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“It really has been a good news story,” said John Betts, executive director of the Western Forest Contractors’ Association, whose organization represents most of the province’s tree-planting outfits.

Betts said everything had to go right for them to reach the goal of planting more than 300 million seedlings this year, including avoiding floods, fires and frost and having all their workers show up from across the country. Then the pandemic hit, and they had to start planning how to go ahead amid the restrictions.

The $100-million industry was already planting on the Island and west coast in February — the Interior planting season tends to start in mid-April — so camps adapted on the fly, adopting new protocols for distancing and safety, and developed a template that could be used around the province.

“By March, we had protocols in place for our camps and detailed how we would stay distant from communities that we knew would be fearful of our arrival,” Betts said, noting half the 5,000 planters come from Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia.

Those outside workers, who make the trek every year for the planting season, were told to self-isolate for two weeks before showing up in B.C. They also had to keep a daily log of any symptoms and file a travel plan before turning up at work sites around B.C.

Of the entire workforce, only 30 had symptoms, and tests revealed they did not have COVID, Betts said.

“No one tested positive — we didn’t bring COVID to B.C. nor did we get COVID from the communities,” he said, adding the last of the spring trees are now being planted, with 50 million more to go to get close to 300 million.

“That’s amazing considering in the early stages of the pandemic, we were wondering if we were going to be able to get any of them in the ground.”

One of the hurdles they had to face were regions in B.C. not wanting planters, some from out of province, mingling with the community. At least one First Nation — the Nadleh Whut’en from outside Prince George — at one point banned tree planting in its territory until the threat of COVID was minimized.

Eric Nelson, one of three owners of Evergreen Forest Services of Campbell River, said it has been a roller-coaster ride.

“It started right away when COVID cropped up and it continues to be a challenge, but it has been super successful, actually,” he said, noting crews have been more productive and healthier as a result of increased hygiene measures.

Evergreen was planting on the Island when the first rumbling of COVID hit the news. While they were allowed to continue working, they had to establish new practices, such as working in small pods of planters who would stick together all season isolated from the rest of the company and the broader community.

They had to buy new protective gear, ensure only four workers were in each vehicle on the way to the planting block and hire new staff to interact with communities — buying groceries for all workers, and doing laundry and other errands.

Nelson said all companies faced a loss of work between the end of the coastal planting season and the start of the Interior season, as the province had not yet approved safety plans. That came in early May.

Despite the hurdles, the company has managed to fill its contracts on the Island and is now planting in the Kootenays and parts of the Interior.

On the west coast, Western Forest Products met its target of planting 3.6 million trees through its contractors.

The company said in addition to the contractors’ steps, Western insisted on tough health and safety protocols, such as distancing measures and protective equipment, based on guidance from health officials and experts.

A Forests Ministry spokesperson said despite all the hurdles, it appears the goal of planting 250 million spring seedlings and another 50 million in the summer might actually be reached. “At this point, it looks like everyone has done an amazing job of making the spring season a success,” the spokesperson said.

The new rules and regulations might have saved a near-record planting season — numbers that are likely to be repeated next year — but it wasn’t without cost. Nelson said he had some planters call it quits because of the added isolation.

“There has been some impact on mental health — it can be a long haul being stuck with a small group of people,” he said.

Nelson said part of the attraction of the job is the social side, spending time outdoors and in camp with a close-knit company of like-minded people.

Now when he visits camps, he can sense the subdued atmosphere. “That’s what’s missing in 2020, but at the same time, workers have bought in completely and are still earning and making tuition for next year. They understand it.”

But Betts said industry studies have shown that while that and being outdoors in isolated camps is the draw for half the workforce, the other half have consistently said that’s what they hate about the job.

The new rules have added 10 to 15 per cent to the costs incurred by contractors, who had to pay for extra hand-wash stations in camps, extra staff, more vehicles to ensure fewer people were being driven together and new safety equipment.

That has created tension between contractors and clients, notably the large forest companies that control tree-farm licences.

Nelson said contractors who negotiate with the province for contracts have been impressed with the government’s understanding of the new cost of doing business, but there are plenty of stories of licensees in the Interior playing hardball on prices.

“They have been far more hesitant to hand out any compensation to deal with the increased costs of doing business in COVID,” he said. “It definitely has been a source of contention this year.

“We have had to bargain very hard with the licensees to get a portion of the costs covered.”

He is hoping a $30-million fund recently announced by the federal government will help contractors recover some of the costs, which in turn will keep those companies around, as the next few years are expected to tax all the capacity the treeplanting industry can provide.

Nelson said the 2020 planting season has to be seen as a huge success, if for no other reason than the camps have avoided COVID.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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