Thursday, October 31, 2019

Analyzing the Liberal Promise to Plant 2 Billion Trees

With the recent federal election results giving the Liberal party a win, many tree planters' minds turned to that party's election promise to ensure that Canada plants 2 billion trees in the next ten years.  Let's try to decide if that's possible, and also try to estimate how many trees are currently planted in Canada each year.

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

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Relationship between Target Density and Minimum Spacing

If you're a forester right now, you're probably trying to figure out how to manage your budget, considering that planting prices are trending back (somewhat) to be on par with their inflation-adjusted historical numbers from the 1990's and early 2000's.  Some foresters (mostly in the private sector) are cutting back slightly on volumes, others are dropping helicopter blocks from their programs, and some are eliminating fertilizer packs (tea-bags).

I'd like to throw out a suggestion that may be useful for a few foresters:  Take a close look at your planting specs.  To be clear, I'm not saying, "Let us plant shitty trees."

Instead, I'd like to take a close look at the science and math behind certain specs, specifically as they relate to spacing/density/excess.  I'm going to refer to the FS 704 system which is used by BC government offices, and also used by many private mills throughout the province and in Alberta.

One of the goals when the FS 704 was designed was to build in a "spacing tolerance" to allow the planter some leeway in picking the best microsite, or the best spot to plant a tree.  Yes, hitting a specific target density within a block is important, but the designers of the 704 system didn't want to be so rigid that planters would simply plant a tree at the perfect spacing every time, with no regard for how suitable that microsite was for the tree.  If there was no spacing tolerance, the benefits of hitting density would be outweighed by decreased yields and increased mortality from trees being planted in poor spots.  A planter might plant a tree in a pile of sticks or needles or chunky red rot, instead of planting in a microsite only 12 inches away that had appropriate soils.

In general, depending on the region, spacing tolerances usually allow for about a meter of tolerance.  For example, if the target spacing is 2.7m between each tree (thinking in both the X/Y axis, or both "ahead" and "laterally") then a simple generalization is that a tree is considered to be good if the tree is somewhere between 1.7m and 3.7m away from all of the other trees around it.  You don't want all of them to be only 1.7m away from the others, or all of them to be 3.7m away from the others; you want a healthy mix of some closer and some further, so the overall average spacing still balances out to be pretty close to the target (2.7m in this example).  However, this variability or spacing tolerance allows the planters to feel more comfortable in looking for the best microsites for the trees, without having to worry too much that they're going to get faulted for "tree too close" or "missed spot" penalties.  Having a spacing tolerance is ultimately what's best for the plantation, as long as the planters utilize the tolerance to hit the best microsites for the trees.

We've seen an increase over the past several years in the amount of FFT (Forests For Tomorrow) funding on reforestation contracts in BC, mainly due to wildfire restoration.  Traditionally, the average target spacing on BCTS and MOF contracts within British Columbia was usually in the range of 1400-1600 stems/Ha (except on the coast).  However, a lot of FFT funding is attached to projects and blocks where the target spacing has climbed to 2000 stems/Ha or even more.  And I'm not disagreeing with this change.  A lot of the wildfire damage has come in pine stands, for multiple reasons (pine is more dominant on dried ground, mountain pine beetle has killed and dried a lot of standing pine, etc.).  Pine is a species which grows better at higher densities.  If you're going to plant one stand at 2400 stems/Ha and another at 1600 stems/Ha, and you have pine for one stand and spruce/fir for the other, you're almost certainly going to plant the pine in the high density stand.

The problem is that while densities have frequently increased from 1600 stems/Ha to 2000 stems/Ha, there hasn't always been a corresponding drop in "minimum acceptable inter-tree distances" (MITD), more casually known as "minimums."  The minimum spacing on 1600 stems was usually 2.0m between trees.  Unfortunately, the minimums on some 2000 stem target densities are still set at 2.0m.

To be clear, for non-foresters who are reading this, a 2.0m minimum means that if you plant two trees and they're 2.1m apart, that's acceptable.  If they're 2.0m apart, that's acceptable.  If they're less than 2.0m apart, one of the two trees gets faulted as a "too close" tree, which gets counted as a quality fault under the FS 704 system, and a reduction in the assessed quality of the block means a reduction in payment to the planting company.

Let's look at the TARGET spacing distances that are required to meet various densities:

Under a target density of 1600 stems/Ha, all trees are supposed to be 2.7 meters apart (on average).  This means that with a 2.0m minimum, the planter has at least 70 centimeters (on the close side) to work with.  There's also a tolerance on the "further apart" side, but the method of calculating that exact distance is complex (it relates to "missed spot" assessments).  Let's just focus on the close side.  Under a target density of 1400 stems/Ha, the trees need to be about 2.9m apart, which means that the spacing tolerance before being assessed as "too close" has increased to 90 centimeters.

Let me switch focus for a moment here, and go back to the goal of hitting the best possible microsites for the trees.  On some planting contracts, foresters ask for "obstacle planting" to come into play.  This approach asks the planters to plant seedlings beside an "obstacle" to maximize growth and/or survival.  Typically, logs and stumps are viewed as excellent obstacles (unless root diseases in stumps is a consideration).  A planter can even consider a big rock to count as an obstacle if there are no stumps or logs that are close enough.  There are different reasons why obstacle planting is useful.  In cattle country, a cow is less likely to step on a seedling if it is very close to a stump or log.  In the Alberta foothills of the Rocky Mountains, a tree planted on the correct side of an obstacle is possibly protected from chinook winter winds that lead to exposure and desiccation (snow is a good insulating blanket in the winter).  Anywhere that extreme heat is a problem, a tree planted on the northeast side of an obstacle is usually protected from the hottest afternoon sun, at least for the first couple years.  Expect obstacle planting to be useful then in both cattle country and in the most southern regions of Alberta and BC.  The relative "direction" of the obstacle (in relation to the microsite for the seedling) is important when weather-related, and unimportant when cattle-related.

If a planter is being asked to seek obstacles, the spacing tolerance comes into play.  Depending on the terrain, there may be anywhere from a few to a dozen "acceptable obstacles" in a plot.  When there are less obstacles than trees, it becomes obvious that not every tree can have an obstacle.  It also becomes obvious that the planter has to think carefully about where to put trees, in order to maximize the use of any obstacles that are available.

Let's say that there are only five useful obstacles in a given "plot" (a section of the block covering 50 square meters).  Without delving deeply into the math, you can multiply the number of obstacles in a plot by 200 to come up with the expected number of obstacles in a full hectare (because 50 square meters is 1/200th of a hectare).  So if you multiply 5 x 200 you get 1000 obstacles per hectare.  You can use the same spacing chart above to see that the obstacles, on average, are about 3.4 meters apart.

If the "perfect spacing" for your next tree puts the tree in a very specific microsite, and you have a 70 cm spacing tolerance away from that spot, what is the chance that you'll be able to utilize a good obstacle if the average spacing between obstacles is 3.4 meters?  You might be close enough to an obstacle to use it, or you might not be.  You'll certainly be able to hit some of the obstacles in your piece, but not all.  The math (and spacing rules) may make it impossible to hit all obstacles.  But a larger spacing tolerance is better than a small one.

Going back to the high planting densities on FFT funded work (usually 2000 stems/Ha), the planters don't have a lot to work with in cases where the minimum has not be adjusted downward.  For 2000 stem density, the average spacing is 2.4m.  If the minimum is 2.0m, the planters only have 40 centimeters to work with.  Look down at the ground (or floor) right now, and imagine that.  If you put an "X" on a specific spot, you have only a little over fifteen inches of flexibility that you can use to move the tree from that "X" and still be within your tolerance.  What's the chance that you'll be able to find an acceptable obstacle in that very small area?

If the MITD does not allow for sufficient spacing tolerance, it leads to planters planting in bad microsites, rather than encouraging good microsites.

My camp planted a BCTS contract last year with target spacing of 2000 stems/Ha, a minimum of 2.0m, and a requirement to try to utilize obstacles.  It was terrible.  The science made it almost impossible for the planters to meet all three requirements simultaneously.  They made a valiant effort.  When I said that 2000 stems/Ha was the priority, they could do it.  When I said that no trees could be closer together than 2.0m, they could do it.  And when I said that they should try to hit obstacles, they did it.  In fact, they could even do any two of those three things simultaneously, with no problems.  But doing all three simultaneously was almost impossible.  My solution was to ask the forester what should be sacrificed.  There wasn't much movement on minimums, and I was told that obstacles were really important, so I said that my only solution would be to tell the planters not to worry much about the density.  I told them to consider obstacles and minimums to be very important.  Although a density of 2000 stems/ha was requested, there were no penalties in the contract for planting a lower density.  However, there were penalties for planting trees too close (B1, a quality fault) or not utilizing the obstacles.  In the end, we ended up having tons of trees left over after we finished planting all the regular blocks on the contract, and we had to scramble to find a number of overflow blocks to accommodate the rest of the trees.  This was a challenge, both for us and for the foresters.  But in the end, it was the inevitable choice.

I see that a lot of contracts this year, in one region in particular, are once again asking for that difficult combination of 2000 density, obstacle planting, and a 2.0m minimum.  That's unfortunate.  I would think that the industry would realize that this is a big mistake, and these specs are very problematic for planters.  And "problematic" leads to higher bid prices.  The problem could be mitigated by reducing the MITD down to 1.6m as acceptable.  Foresters would be more likely to achieve their planned densities, and there would be better utilization of obstacles.  In many other regions, minimum spacing ranges from 1.5m down to as low as 1.0m.

For this year, I've asked my employer to bid especially high on those contracts, because I don't want my camp to work there.  For foresters who are trying to manage their budgets, a bit of flexibility on these specs would lead to more competitive bidding.  In the past, I've really enjoyed working with the foresters in the region that I'm referring to.  But in the end, I have to think about the best interests' of my planters, and seek to work elsewhere.

If you want to follow public bid results on tree planting contracts within British Columbia, visit this link:

Monday, October 07, 2019

About Environmental

Earlier this year, I "started" a new company.  The goal was to plant trees, on a volunteer basis, to help fight against climate change.  I had already been planting a small number of volunteer trees each year for the past several years, but I wanted to make it more official.  I also believed that I could plant trees for environmental reasons on a much larger scale if I formalized the company.  After all, I had been receiving dozens of inquiries about this type of work every year.  Also, I've been working as a professional tree planter for a couple decades, so I figured that my extensive field experience would be invaluable in building out a large planting organization.

I decided to call the company Environmental.

Now I knew that using this name had the potential to be confusing.  After all, the original website has been the most well-known tree planting site in Canada since I started it in 1998.  It hosts thousands of photos, music, videos, training materials, a message board, and much more.  During its tenure, the website has been visited a few million times, and it has been the reason, directly or indirectly, that tens of thousands of university/college students have found summer jobs as tree planters across the country.  But the name also has incredibly strong brand recognition, and I felt that was going to be helpful in establishing the new company.

The only drawback to my main industry experience is that my regular job as a professional tree planter is just that ... a job.  The tree planting that I normally perform is intended to fill empty cut-blocks after logging companies cut down part of a forest.  To be clear, I don't work for the logging companies directly.  I work (on a seasonal basis) for a few different companies that specialize in tree planting, and those companies are hired by the logging companies or by the government.  I refer to this work as commercial or industrial "post-harvest" reforestation, because we rebuild forests after commercial harvesting.  This is the kind of work that is done seasonally by tens of thousands of Canadians.  It's the work that focuses upon.  To learn more, go to this link:

When I started Environmental, my goal was to become more involved with a different and "better" type of reforestation.  I wanted to plant trees that wouldn't be cut down in the future by logging companies. Environmental meets that goal.  Our long-term plan is to acquire land, plant trees, and build community forests that the public is allowed to visit and enjoy.  In fact, the public is welcome to visit any of our properties right now!  We're still early in the process of building our first community forests, next month (November 2019), we'll start creating complex trail systems on our first property, to enhance recreational enjoyment for the public.  These trails will be open to recreational users for year-round hiking (and cross-country skiiing during the winter).  Our goal is to have three community forest properties completely developed within three years, with each individual property being over 100 acres in size.

Thankfully, I've had some help from a few of my professional tree planting friends, including Laura, Karla, and Jon.  Although they also work for part of each year in post-harvest reforestation, they too share my goal of building permanent forests that won't be cut down in the future.

To really learn more about our company, you should visit our new website.  We launched it officially at the start of September, but we're adding new content every week as we finish building it out.  Here's the link:

Here are three quick facts:

1.  The Environmental company does NOT work for or with logging companies.

2.  We aim for biodiversity.  We do not plant monocultures.  We planted five different species in 2019, and are aiming for twelve species in 2020.

3.  Our three-year goal includes planting over 100,000 trees in 2020, and developing three complete Community Forest properties in Atlantic Canada by the fall of 2022.

If you want to support us, share the link to our website! Thanks for reading...

  - Jonathan Clark