During the federal election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to “plant two billion trees to clean our air and protect our communities”. Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) applauds this initiative and would like to share some ideas and considerations in an effort to support the government in maximizing the program’s potential environmental, economic, and social outcomes.

In the past, FPAC has advocated for the development of a federal reforestation program focused on areas severely impacted by pest outbreaks and fires and that are not on a path to regeneration. It is important to note that forest products companies in Canada replace what we harvest so we can keep forests as forests forever.  Annually, we plant some 600 million seedlings.  For areas that are damaged or destroyed by pests or fire, these areas are either left to be regenerated naturally, or rely on limited provincially-funded programs to support reforestation efforts.

A recent study of forest disturbances in Canada indicated that 57.5 Mha of Canada’s forests were disturbed between 1985 and 2010 and that <1-3% of these areas were non-recovering. There exists a real opportunity to use the 2 billion trees commitment to reforest these areas, as well as to plant new forests (afforestation) on degraded lands and in our urban forests.

Tree planting programs can bring so many benefits.  Newly planted trees will help capture atmospheric carbon and help mitigate climate change, rebuild our forests after severe natural disturbances, and help cities expand and diversify their urban forests.

Tree planting programs also have the potential to help maintain and expand a healthy working forest, enabling us to produce environmentally-friendly and carbon storing wood products, and keep over 230,000 Canadians working across the country.

Considerations for Reforestation Activities

Although tree planting is generally a highly positive endeavor,  large-scale reforestation programs can encounter predictable challenges which can be addressed bearing the following principles in mind:

1. Afforestation and reforestation should both be part of a large-scale tree planting program

  • The significant benefits of afforesting converted and degraded lands closer to communities in the southern parts of Canada are well known. However, there is also huge potential to reforest large areas in the north that have been severely impacted by natural disturbances. Therefore, a program should not simply focus on one or the other but ideally contribute to restore both, while considering the pros and cons of each situation.
Afforestation Reforestation
Examples Converted and degraded lands

(e.g. abandoned agricultural lands)

Forests severely impacted by natural disturbances not on a path to regeneration
Pros Closer to communities (more accessible) Large areas (more cost effective)
Cons Smaller and more disperse areas Significant proportion in non-accessible areas

 

  • Although rural and northern regions offer a large opportunity for replanting, we also support the stated objective to help cities expand and diversify their urban forests. Urban forests provide tremendous benefits including cooling the air, filtering pollutants, regulating water flow, and improving physical and mental health. They also have the potential to help a growing urban population reconnect with nature and remind urban Canadians about the importance of maintaining and managing healthy forests.

2. The program should include measures to monitor and ensure survival of trees after they are planted

  • Monitoring of reforestation activities to ensure regeneration success is an important component of forest management. After harvesting on public lands, companies operating in Canada are required by law to ensure that these are regenerated. If natural regeneration is insufficient, planting is required. If a planting fails or burns, new measures are required until the new forest is declared “free to grow”. In sum, it is critical that we monitor regeneration and ensure success.
  • The same level of effort should be part of any reforestation program to ensure the trees planted will survive, reach maturity, and successfully deliver the environmental, social, and economic benefits envisioned.

3. The program provides long-term certainty required to increase tree planting capacities (new nurseries, tree planters, etc.)

  • In 2016, over 615 million seedlings were planted on 410,000 hectares in Canada’s forests (approx. 1,500 seedlings/ ha). Planting 2 billion more trees over 10 years would represent planting approximately 30% more trees, on average.
  • Nurseries and the silviculture industry in general will require time to meet this additional demand. It is important to remember that depending on their size, seedlings may take from 1-4 years or more to be prepared. It is also worth noting that nurseries are currently facing high demand as the cannabis industry continues to emerge. As such, if the tree-planting program is confined to a 10 year period, we can only expect a small grow to take place in the early years and then a dramatic grow would be required in following years (potentially more than a 50% increase). As such, it appears more promising to increase Canadian tree planting capacity with a long-term vision that would be maintained over time, rather than requiring the business of tree planting to manage up and down cycles.
  • It is also important to note that there currently exists a very tight labour market in the tree planting space. To maximize value for Canadian taxpayer dollars, matters related to the availability of supply of seedlings and labour will be important considerations.
  • In addition to nurseries and tree planters, there are several other professionals who are essential to the execution of a successful tree planting program. The capacity of organizations and people in the following roles should also be assessed:
    • Seed collection – including careful tracking of where seeds are coming from;
    • Site preparation and survey (to ensure that the correct trees are being planted in the appropriate sites); and,
    • Planning of reforestation activities for site conditions (requires a silviculturalist with special training).
  • It is anticipated that the 2 billion tree planting program will increase pressures on nurseries, as well as planting companies that are currently struggling to staff their operations due to the nature of this type of work which is:
    • Physically demanding; and
    • Seasonal employment, often with no benefits.
  • Additionally, finding individuals trained in silviculture can be a challenge:
    • Many of those skilled in this profession are seeking jobs in other sectors that offer higher wages; and,
    • Many silviculturalists in the forest sector are also in an older demographic and are likely retiring in the next few years.
  • As such, it will be important to build-up capacity over time to manage the ‘peaks and valleys’ of specialized individuals and businesses (over 10 years) in order prevent compounding impacts related to the cost pressures already faced by industry, provincial governments, and other groups in the tree planting space (i.e. tree nursery demand).
  • An example of a similar project is the Forest Carbon Initiative (FCI), launched in 2017 in British Columbia. The effects of this initiative have impacted forest industry costs due to increased pressure on nursery capacity and tree planting resources over a short period of time but without certainty that demand will continue over time, Investment of money and labour requires market certainty and predictability.

4. The sites and tree species should be selected to help enhance forest resiliency and consider the impacts of climate change

  • To increase the likelihood of successful tree planting, tree species selection should be informed by climate change projections. Wherever possible, decisions should be informed through a locally conducted climate change vulnerability assessment[iv]. Such assessment or using best available information might lead to reforest an area with a different species composition, with improved trees or with trees from another region (assisted migration). Provincial governments can be helpful here.
  • A reforestation program should be developed while also considering its impact on wildfire risks. For example, although reforesting closer to communities is often desirable, it may conflict with efforts to build firebreaks and manage fuels loads in the wildlife-urban-interface (WUI). On the other hand, planting less fire-prone species (e.g. deciduous trees) might contribute to reduced fire risk in the WUI. Fire experts like those at Natural Resources Canada’s Canadian Forest Service (CFS) and the team at FireSmart Canada would be great resources in supporting program development and can share additional insights on the regional realities that should be recognized.
  • To maximize climate mitigation impacts, the site and species selection should also consider reforestation impacts to the region albedo (a measure of the reflectivity of a surface). Carbon sequestration through the afforestation of non-regenerated areas due to repeated or severe fires may not always provide a climate change mitigation benefit due to a change in albedo effect. Non-regenerated areas are more likely to be covered in snow during the winter and will therefore reflect sunlight rather than absorb it. When regenerated, these northern areas will absorb more energy from sunlight as trees hide the snow cover and constitute a darker surface. To consider the albedo effect, reforestation projects in the boreal forest should focus on areas where snow cover melts fast and use species with higher albedo effect (e.g. deciduous trees which lose their leaves in winter).

5. The program should leverage and support the ongoing innovation and transformation of the forest sector

  • Considering that Canada conducts leading-edge research and development in the field of tree improvement, a national tree planting program should leverage this expertise and make use of improved seedlings accordingly. Tree improvement programs cover a large array of objectives including improving growth in height and diameter (which influences wood quality as well as carbon fixation), resistance to pest and diseases, and resiliency to climatic conditions including droughts and warmer climates. Considering these qualities will help to plant the right tree species at the right location.
  • While helping to maintain and expand a healthy working forest, the program could also contribute to growing the best suited trees for the forest sector of tomorrow. More and more research is being done not only to improve tree survival rates, but also to maximize the value that will be extracted from these trees. As Canada’s forest sector evolves and uses more breakthrough technologies such as forest biotechnology and nanotechnology, the need for growing not only the appropriate species, but the appropriate organic components within trees will be important to the future potential of the forest bioeconomy and forestry communities.
  • In sum, a national tree-planting program should be part of a broader long-term vision to create opportunities for the emerging forest bioeconomy by leveraging leading-edge research in tree improvement and contributing to develop higher-value-added biomaterials, biochemicals and next-generation building products.

6. The program should be designed in collaboration with provincial governments and organizations involved in tree-planting

  • Selecting the areas that would benefit the most from a reforestation program and determining the most effective way to deliver a new program, will require coordination with provincial governments and First Nations communities. In many cases, provincial governments and First Nations communities already have their own reforestation programs to address areas affected by pests or fire that are struggling to come back. As such, developing the program in close collaboration with these partners would create efficiency gains and avoid duplication of efforts. It will also help to adjust the program to consider regional forest realities, which vary tremendously across the country.
  • As indicated above, the logistical constraints to the nurseries and the silviculture industry in general will be important and should be considered as the program gets designed. In addition, the program can have impacts on the availability of seedlings and tree planters, which creates challenges for the ongoing regeneration efforts of the forest industry. Consequently, the organizations currently involved in tree-planting should be consulted when developing the program. Tree Canada and Forests Ontario come to mind as a couple of great groups, and pursuing the engagement and support of leading Indigenous organizations would be important as well, as a program like this could be a boon to support jobs for Indigenous peoples and residents of northern and rural communities.