Tree planters wearing face masks pause from planting for a photo. (Photo submitted)

Tree planters adapt to working during pandemic

Tree planters in B.C. doing essential work in awkward places

Sweat sticks, clogged with dust. Mosquitoes whine madly. Muscles are knotted, feet burning, a 20-pound sack of tree seedlings rubs a hip with every trudging step, building on a nasty, season-long blister. It’s been nine hours on this mountainside, with every planted tree worth 17 cents.

Step. Dig. Plant. Step. Dig. Plant.

Finally back at the truck, a mask has to be put on a grimy face, and then it’s back with the same three people as yesterday. And the day before. And the 20 days before that. Tomorrow will see it all repeated.

This is tree planting in the time of COVID-19.

Tree planting was already underway on Vancouver Island when COVID-19 arrived. By March, towns invaded by tree planters were calling for the season to be cancelled. Policy reports announced that 314 million seedlings would go to rot.

The year of 2020 was supposed to be the largest tree-planting season in B.C.’s recent history.

Planters had to figure out what physical distancing would look like in a tree-planting camp, and quick. They came up with a ‘family’ system – the same people you lived with, you worked with. You would eat, sleep, work and drive together. Never get in different truck. Stop going into town on days off. Limit interactions with people in camp.

“The whole season was at stake,” said Roland Emery, a reforestation contractor based in Port McNeill.

If the Vancouver Island planters hadn’t figured out a safe way to plant in the time of COVID, there was a chance the rest of the season, which moves east as the weather warms, would be scrubbed. No less than 5,200 planters would be out of work, and areas decimated by the worst forest fires in B.C.’s recorded history would continue to erode and dry out.

But their efforts showed promise. By the time the provincial health authority looked at the industry, planters could say, “Let us plant, we know we can do it safely.”

The province agreed, and those protocols developed by coastal planters became regulation.

Now in June, there are more than 5,000 planters in the Interior — with some of the 400 from the coast who have migrated east — and there hasn’t been a single case of COVID among them. They’re also seeing less gastrointestinal diseases and colds than usual, thanks to unusual cleanliness in camps.

Security guards have been hired to monitor crew activity, preventing mingling in town and at camp.

Emery has gone so far as to isolate his 15-person crew’s laundry from the town they’re in. He hires someone to pick up bags of dirty laundry and has them cleaned at a laundromat he rents for a half-day.

The problem is that tree planting is hard and stressful on a good day, but now you’re stuck with the same few smelly people every damn day, and you’re about to go crazy.

Camp social life is needed to help balance out physical and mental stress.

“Tree planters are known to work hard and play hard. The play hard part is pretty tame this year,” Emery said.

The Western Forestry Contractors’ Association (WFCA) is asking the provincial health authority for permission to enter their own ‘phase two’ of easing restrictions.

John Betts, WFCA executive director, figures their workforce has proven to be responsible, and deserve to shake loose — just a little. They’ll still isolate from the general public in towns, where the risk of COVID-19 is far higher than in camp.

“But we want to let people mingle within camp a little more. Switch trucks to work with people you’re more suited with, or maybe sit a little closer around the fire at night.”

RELATED: B.C. tree planting season delayed until early May due to COVID-19 precautions

RELATED: B.C. rethinks tree planting after wildfires, beetles deplete forests

On top of all the COVID-19 concerns, it’s a record season for planting. There are 314 million seedlings, up from a normal 260 million. The increase is due to the catastrophic, record-breaking 2017 and 2018 fire seasons.

“Some areas are so badly damaged because of the severity of the fire, they’ve destroyed the seed bed. Healthy forest fires help rejuvenate a forest, but these fires were so bad they caused terrible damage. If you don’t get new trees planted and get water back into the soil, you’re on your way to a desert climate,” Betts said.

Other areas where forests have died from pine beetles, or largely cleared by logging, are at risk of invasive, opportunistic species.

“We need to restore healthy forests and we need to do it very quickly.”

Getting 314 million seedlings planted in one season, with physical distancing, is possible, but it will be costly. Crews are seating three to a truck where they’d normally fit six. All the vehicle costs are doubled – fuel, insurance and safety equipment. Then there are the security guards hired at motels to monitor crew activity. Suddenly, costs are 10 to 20 per cent above normal.

The province has agreed to cover extra costs, but some licensees — logging companies who are obligated to reseed forests they harvest, like Western Forest Products — are trying to get reimbursed before paying their tree planting contractors. This is difficult for contractors, who have often paid the increased costs upfront. This disagreement is ongoing.

The WFCA has applied to the health authority for some slack in camp regulations, but in the meantime, thousands of tree planters will get up tomorrow, don their masks, and continue to step, dig and plant.

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An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that certain logging companies were refusing to pay increased costs; in fact they are trying to get reimbursed by the province before paying invoices from contractors.

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