First, let's break it down into an annual number. Two billion trees over ten years is 200 million trees per year. Now I don't think that we're going to see 200 million extra trees flooding the market next year. The planting industry isn't prepared for that, and the forest nurseries across the country might not even have that much spare capacity right now. The forest nurseries in western Canada are probably operating very close to capacity, and I don't know if the nurseries elsewhere in Canada are in the same situation. Also, if the federal government is concerned about budgets, they will probably not front-load that spending commitment. IF they follow through on their promise, they would probably prefer to spend small amounts in the first five or six years, and then reluctantly ramp up their financial commitments near the end of that 10-year period. That's what politicians like to do. Of course, if they do their research, they'll learn that a gradual but consistent ramp-up would be the best way to achieve their goals in light of labour and growing constraints from industry.
Due to the absence of details associated with this election promise, it's not inappropriate to ask, "What did they mean by this?" Are they saying they will plant an average of 200 million per year, or are they saying they will plant an extra 200 million per year on top of what is already being planted? I can answer that, based upon simple logic. Two hundred million trees per year sounds like a big number. It isn't. Right now, the province of BC is expected to plant slightly over 300 million trees in 2020. In that context, we've answered our first question: Trudeau has implied (whether intentionally or not) that these two billion trees are extra trees above what is already happening. Otherwise, he's promising a number that would be a reduction from current levels.
I've been trying to figure out what the biggest challenges with this promise will be. Off the top of my head, I can think of three, and I've already mentioned two of them. Three challenges will be labour supply, growing capacity, and where to put the trees.
Labour Supply shouldn't be a problem. It's true that a lot of people don't really want to plant trees once they find out what is involved, because the work is quite physically and mentally demanding. But to plant an extra 200 million trees per year would require perhaps only another four thousand seasonal (summer) tree planters, if those planters average about fifty thousand trees apiece per summer. Recruiting that many people won't be easy, but if the wages are fair, it's an achievable goal. And for any planters who think that an average of 50,000 trees per planter per season is low, remember that I'm taking attrition into account (people quitting after a week) and also considering that some of the land may be more difficult than what most planters are currently accustomed to working on.
Growing Capacity at forest nurseries would likely be a problem if the industry ramped up to 200 million in year one. However, that's not likely to be the case. The forest nursery industry on Canada's west coast has dealt with growing pains (pardon the pun) for the past two years. The record-breaking wildfire years in 2017 and 2018 made many nursery owners realize that they needed to build more greenhouse space, because otherwise, the industry wouldn't be able to grow enough trees to meet demand. And they did expand to meet needs for the 2020 season. Going forward, with 24 months' notice, the national forest nursery industry will be able to accommodate demand.
Finally, Where are the trees going to be planted? There's a big difference between reforestation (replanting logged areas) versus afforestation (planting vacant land, such as old pasture land). A lot of reforestation needs are already being taken care of by the existing patchwork of regulations in various provinces. In those cases, either provincial governments or private industry (and public mills) are taking care of reforesting the recently logged areas. The main opportunity then will probably come from planting three specific types of land: forests burned by wildfire, forests ravaged by insects or diseases, and vacant land or unused farm/pasture land. To be clear, the first two of these three options are just additional types of reforestation, even though they aim at post-disaster targets instead of post-harvest activities.
I've been told that the estimated budget for these two billion trees is three billion dollars. If that's the case, then that works out to $1.50 per tree. Any tree planters who are reading this probably just had their eyes light up! But settle down, that's not the windfall that it sounds like. Many tree planting companies are accustomed to receiving perhaps 40 to 75 cents to plant each tree, and they manage to survive. But remember that the federal budget of perhaps $1.50 per tree will also have to cover land acquisition costs (probably averaging over 60-80 cents per tree, if the government starts buying land), seedling costs, compliance costs, and administration costs. The government could also pay for planting on private properties (for example, by funding regional woodlot owners' associations), but then there is no guarantee that the trees won't just be cut down in 50-60 years. If we're going to plant two billion trees to help fight climate change, we can't just cut them down in a few decades. They need to be protected by law.
There may be some non-planters who are reading this, who think that this is a good time to start a tree planting company. If that's the case, I would urge extreme caution. The planting industry is much more complex than it appears on the surface. If you're reading this post and think that you should start a planting company, and you don't have prior experience as a seasonal post-harvest tree planter in Canada, I would highly, highly recommend that you try tree planting for a few seasons to give yourself a chance to start to understand the industry. Otherwise, you're going to lose your shirt (speaking in a financial sense). Having said that, there may be opportunities for many experienced planters to start their own small companies over the next several years. The greatest opportunities for these individuals will probably be in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec. BC and Alberta are quite saturated with a mature planting industry.
Incidentally, my estimate of how many trees are planted in Canada each year is 666 million. Check out this blog post to find out how I arrived at that number.
- Jonathan Clark