Right now, 5,000 tree planters across British Columbia are attempting to plant 310 million seedlings in just a few weeks. They’re planting trees to replace what was taken in wildfires, pine beetle infestations, and harvesting. It’s the largest tree plant B.C. has ever had, and it landed right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Contractors to West Fraser aim to plant more than 60 million trees across B.C. and Alberta before the end of July.
Usually it is the mosquitoes, blisters and 10+ hours of bush days that challenge you. This year, with the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting work and travel restrictions in place, it wasn't easy to get started. When COVID hit, seedlings were already scheduled to move out of greenhouses and cold storage, and companies were facing the grim prospect of millions of trees being composted instead of planted. But with a collaborative effort between the forestry industry, contractors, government, and communities, this year's vital tree-planting season is now underway.
"This has been an excellent learning opportunity for us and everyone. There's been outstanding collaboration and cooperation between folks, all of us stronger when we work together. This is the most collaborative that it's ever been," says Julie Dinsdale, Stewardship and Policy Forester with West Fraser.
Let's go back to a few months ago when the pandemic first hit. By mid-March, tree planters were already along the coast of British Columbia and on Vancouver Island. The Western Forestry Contractors Association, which represents many tree planting contractors, in collaboration with industry and government had to move fast to pull together a plan. As an industry we knew a quick response was necessary to ensure this essential business activity could continue. A critical need was the establishment of safety protocols for the workers' camps, which are different from other Industrial camps, where workers are moved in and out of camp back to their home communities.
The tree-planting community is tight-knit and social, with many planters returning year after year. That closeness was going to have to change. Some of the safety measures include:
- Practicing physical distancing and modifying camp meal scheduling to reduce group sizes
- Close contact only with a handful of people called "work pods”, similar to a family unit
- Planters maintaining isolation in remote camps, without the opportunity to visit rural communities on days off, reducing risk of exposure to community and the planting camp
- Security enforcing "no visiting" rules for planters accommodated in motels or hotels
- Companies that plant near Indigenous communities taking additional precautions to avoid travel through the community if requested
- Many companies hired private, remote medical and physiotherapy services to avoid unnecessary trips to rural hospitals for employee strains and sprains
All of this sounds straight forward, since most of us have been living with COVID-19 restrictions for a few months. But these regulations needed to be implemented in small and rural communities, in remote bush camps and on very short timelines – while collaborating and consulting with many other partners. West Fraser's role in this has been to assist contractors, communities and government in implementing and monitoring these precautions and procedures during the pandemic. .
"We spoke with everyone to discuss what we could do to support their work and come up with some solutions," says Julie. "These small and medium-sized businesses that make up the tree planting community are a vital part of the forest industry, and their economic impact to the small communities they operate in is substantial. Part of the important communication that the government provided to concerned communities was around this impact, as well as the many protocols that were being followed to reduce the risk of transmission to communities."
The forestry industry saw this planting season as essential, especially considering the effects of recent wildfires and the pine beetle infestations. And, with a delayed start, the tree planting season is taking place in the Interior, where West Fraser operates. The crews are now battling wet weather, which may push their season a bit later. Then, many of the planters will move to Alberta to plant there.
This year was slated to be one of the largest planting seasons yet in British Columbia, and with the cooperation of the weather and a lot of tree planting hours to go, it is hoped that this goal can still be achieved. Despite the wet conditions and new COVID-19 regulations, planters have planted 250 million seedlings and will complete another 50 million. Of the nearly 5,000 people recruited to plant trees in B.C., there have also been no reported positive COVID-19 cases. Many of the planters will also soon be heading to Alberta for the start of that region's tree-planting season.