The federal government promised to plant two billion trees. How’s that going?

30 March 2024
The federal government promised to plant two billion trees. How’s that going?

Just off a country road in rural Ontario, a short drive from Barrie, Kerry McLaven’s decades-old machinery is revving up for the summer.

The “machines” are trees — rows of white pines, cut and grafted from the best trees McLaven and her predecessors could find, now put to work in this eight hectare plot near Lisle, Ont.

“They are beautiful and they provide a habitat … but their real role is to produce seed and so they are seed machines,” said McLaven, CEO of Forest Gene Conservation Association of Ontario, which manages this seed orchard.

The trees produce high-quality seed for a Canadian forestry sector that can’t get enough. Forestry in Canada is big business and commercial foresters plant hundreds of millions of trees each year.

Now the federal government wants to get in on the act. Ottawa has promised to plant two billion trees by 2031 by providing funding to provinces, territories, cities, Indigenous groups and non-profits.

That effort will require a vast amount of seed. For two billion additional trees, McLaven said, you need at least four billion seeds — likely more, depending on which species is being planted.

Seed production is the first of several chokepoints confronting the 2 Billion Trees program (2BT), according to experts and industry participants who spoke to CBC Radio’s The House as part of a special episode on the program. Securing seeds, building up nursery capacity, finding enough land — the federal government and its partners have a lot of work ahead of them before they can be confident of meeting the 2031 commitment.

McLaven said she’s not sure that enough work has been done so far to boost the broader capacity of the tree industry and prepare it for the two-billion target.

“There does have to be that reality check because people can’t just turn these things on overnight,” she said.

Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told The House the government understands the scope of the challenge and is working to meet it.

“We all knew there were going to be some growing pains … It was always going to be an ambitious thing and we certainly didn’t say we had all of the answers at the beginning. It’s been an evolution and I think it’s been a positive evolution,” he said.

“We’ve had to work through a bunch of issues, but I would say we’ve made enormous progress.”
A short drive down the road from the seed orchard, Somerville Seedlings represents the next step in the planting process and another potential supply chain bottleneck: the nursery.

From seeds to seedlings

In many ways, Somerville looks like any other farm. But instead of corn or soybeans growing in furrows, there’s white pine, or varieties of oak, hickory or cedar at various stages of growth.

Brent Forbes, a manager at the nursery, told The House that Somerville typically produces something like three million seedlings a year for sale in Ontario. He said Somerville will supply about 1.2 million seedlings destined for the federal government’s tree-planting projects over the next few weeks.

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Forbes said that for nurseries like his, long-term planning is key. Trees take years to grow into seedlings that will survive replanting; Forbes said his business needs to know that once it ramps up production, the demand will still exist.

“We need long-term, stable, predictable funding … to see the program continue and know that when we put a seed in the ground and we’re going to grow it for three or four years, that when that tree is ready to go … it’s going to have a home,” he said.

Big country, little space

Through bilateral negotiations with the federal government, provinces and territories will be responsible for planting a substantial portion of the two billion trees. Many of them will be planted on vast stretches of public land.

But many 2BT projects are planting on private land — and in places like Southern Ontario, there’s not enough of that land to go around, experts told The House.

Doug Hevenor, chief administrative officer with the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority, said that in Simcoe County there’s competition between agriculture, residential development and forestation projects.

His organization recently used 2BT funding to convert land previously used for farming to a nascent forest, and it works with other landowners in the area on similar projects. Not everyone is game to take on big projects, he said, but small-scale work can still be beneficial.

“I’m a grandfather,” he said. “I want my children to be able to come and see green parts of Ontario and Saskatchewan and Alberta and British Columbia and Quebec and New Brunswick — all the way across our country. And I’m not alone. There’s lots of people out there like me that really want to see this happen, and we’ll make it happen.”

A worthwhile goal?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the idea of the 2 Billion Trees program during the 2019 election campaign and has pledged $3.2 billion to the cause.

The initial announcement, and the Liberal 2019 platform, said the program would help reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions through carbon sequestration.

Aakash Maharaj, policy director with Nature Canada, and biologist Christian Messier of the Université du Québec à Montréal told The House that the program’s emissions benefits were overstated in its early stages.

“We will not mitigate carbon emissions by planting two billion trees. I think that has to be very clear,” Messier said.

Both also agreed that the goal of planting more trees is still a good one — if it’s done right. Maharaj argued that there are flaws in the program that need to be addressed before it can succeed.

For starters, not all of the trees being planted through the program are protected from being cut down later. And not all of the tree-planting projects are using a diverse range of species.

Wilkinson told The House that while the program did not initially include requirements to keep trees in the ground, many agreements now being signed include language on tree permanence. He said the “bulk” of the two billion trees will be planted with that requirement.

“Certainly as we move forward, the focus is on ensuring that the permanence is defined so that it’s not that you can plant a tree and five years later you can cut it down,” he said.

Messier said encouraging biodiversity should be the real goal of the program — rather than meeting an arbitrary target of two billion trees.

“We should avoid monocultures, we should diversify with species that are well adapted to the current and future climate. And I think if we achieve this, then this will have been maybe a precursor for even a better program” to come, he said.

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Maharaj said the government needs to acknowledge that the 2BT project faltered out of the gate, and commit to implementing the necessary changes.

“The problem with the program is not that the goal is not laudable. It is that the program has not really been designed to achieve its goals,” he said.

“The program has been designed to meet a slogan — ‘two billion trees.’”

While Wilkinson acknowledged that the program’s carbon sequestration benefits won’t materialize by 2031, he said they will be “significant” by 2050. He added that trees provide significant benefits in other areas of the environment, such as biodiversity.

‘Everyone knows we need to do something’

Further south, along the banks of the Grand River near Brantford, Ont., some of the program’s capacity building efforts are in action.

Kerdo Deer, ecological team lead for Kayanase — a greenhouse and ecological restoration facility that’s part of the Six Nations of the Grand River — showed The House how early 2BT funding allowed his organization to repair and modernize his greenhouse. Deer is now hoping for another grant to kickstart tree seedling production and reach Kanayase’s goal of a million seedlings a year.

Deer said his community faced many of the same challenges for land as the rest of Ontario; the restricted footprint of the reserve meant competition between housing and tree planting.

Like many of the experts and industry workers who spoke to The House, Deer said he was taken aback initially by the two billion target when it was first announced. He said he’s still confident the industry can rise to the task.

“Everyone knows that we need to do something,” he said. “As we grow and expand and organize ourselves, I think people are going to make it more accessible to people that are going to jump on.”

Source: cbc

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