Saturday, February 11, 2017

Tree Planter Training 02 - Why Do We Plant Trees?

Although this blog is predominantly focused on my music and DJ’ing career, I also want to share some information about my other career:  Canadian Reforestation.

The information in this post is part of a training series from the website.  More information can be found at this link:

I’ll put the text and audio download link from this training module below, but let’s start with the YouTube video for the module:

Section 02 - “Why Do We Plant Trees?”

This section is going to focus on two main topics.  First, we'll cover an overview of government management of the forest industry in British Columbia.  We'll look at various public, private, and government entities that hire tree planting companies to replant the cut blocks.  After that, we'll focus on a snapshot of typical people who plant trees, and people who should or shouldn't go tree planting.  After all, even though many people have an idealized vision of becoming tree planters to save the environment, the reality is that many people hate the work and quit after just a few days or weeks.  By doing some pre-season research, potential planters will gain a much better understanding of how the industry works before they accept a job, and may be less likely to quit once they find themselves in the middle of a cut-block, covered in mud and surrounded by mosquitoes.

Overview of Forest Management in BC

BC's forestry and logging industry is very significant.  Within British Columbia, 94% of the land in the province is crown land.  Two thirds of the land in BC is a forest base, so obviously, the amount of woodland regulated by the provincial government is massive.  Of the forested land in BC, 83% of that is coniferous, which is useful for logging.  Although less than 1% of BC's forested land base is harvested each year, forestry accounts for 15% of BC's economy.  It's estimated that for every mature tree logged in BC each year, three new seedlings are planted.

Let's look at the organization of timber harvesting within BC, and how that organization affects tree planting companies.  The province's forests as a whole are administered by the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations.  Historically, this organization was referred to for many years simply as the Ministry of Forests, or abbreviated as MOF.  The province is split up into eight management regions:  Skeena, Northeast, Omineca, Cariboo, West Coast, South Coast, Thompson/Okanagan, and Kootenay/Boundary.

There's a further subdivision of the province into a total of thirty-seven separate Timber Supply Areas, known as TSA's.  These TSA's cover the entire province.  There are also thirty-four Tree Farm Licenses, or TFL's.  Each individual Tree Farm License covers a single distinct area (or a few distinct areas), and the boundaries occasionally fluctuate, but the TFL's don't cover the entire province.  The TFL's account for a relatively small percentage of the total area of the province, although they provide a disproportionately high percentage of the annual harvest.

Each year, BC has what's known as an Annual Allowable Cut, or AAC.  The Annual Allowable Cut is a determination of how much wood may be harvested in a specific calendar year across the entire province.  It's arrived at by studying timber supply analysis, social and economic objectives of the government, technical reports, and public input.  The AAC is a policy decision, not a calculation.  It's not a consensus decision, rather, it's a decision of the province's Chief Forester.  Once the Chief Forester has determined the size of the AAC, a separate role is performed by the Minister of Forests in determining the apportionment of the AAC to the various parts of the province.  The AAC is measured in cubic meters, not in the number of actual trees cut.

Administration of Logging and Reforestation

Going back to the Tree Farm Licenses, a TFL is an agreement between the province and a single large private interest.  Usually, the TFL's are held by large logging companies, such as Canfor, West Fraser, Weyerhauser, Timberwest, Tolko, Western Forest Products, Tembec, and so on.  A Tree Farm License provides rights and responsibilities to manage a specific area, and to harvest their own AAC within that area.  Basically, within a TFL, the logging company may come up with a five-year plan that specifies which blocks will be harvested within their TFL in each of the next several years, and that's a work-in-progress document that is constantly evolving each year.  Within the TFL, the logging company acts as the long-term owner of the land, even though the land is owned by the province.  The rationale is that the logging company will manage that land in perpetuity, harvesting a small portion each year and ensuring over the next couple of decades that the harvested land is reforested properly so it can be harvested again a few generations later.  The amount of wood fiber harvested each year in all of the TFL's combined usually contributes to about a fifth of the AAC in the entire province, even though the land base within the TFL's is probably not much more than five percent of the land in BC.

A Timber Supply Area is an area of crown land designated by the Minister of Forests.  All land within the province falls within one of the thirty-seven TSA’s.  Within each TSA, there can be many volume based licenses.  Part of each TSA is not available for timber harvesting.  This part may be due to wildlife protection areas, old growth management areas, wildlife tree patches, riparian management areas, or a number of other reasons.  The amount of land within the TSA may be further restricted by reserves for First Nations, private woodlot licenses, private dwellings, TFL's, and community forests.  The rest of the land within the TSA can be harvested.  Organizations such as BC Timber Sales will have auctions where a small logging company can bid on the rights to harvest a small group of blocks.  BCTS oversees certain rules and regulations related to the logging of these areas, and then puts planting contracts up for bid to planting companies.  The planting contractor who submits the lowest bid price on any given contract is awarded that contract, and will do all the planting on that contract according to specifications provided by BCTS staff.  BCTS also looks after things like road-building, silviculture surveys, brushing, and so on.

The Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resources Operations also tenders contracts out.  Rather than being similar to the freshly logged areas that BCTS administers, the MFLNRO contracts may focus more on small and patchy beetle salvage areas, or on the backlog of NSR land from old tenures where there's no responsibility anymore for any specific entity to deal with reforestation.  NSR land is a designation that refers to Not Sufficiently Reforested areas, or areas where the reforestation efforts in the past have turned out to be inadequate.  Beetle salvage has been a problem for the past decade or so due to the major epidemic proportions of mountain pine beetle infestations throughout BC.  Sometimes, wood that is killed by the beetles can still be harvested and used, although it isn't as valuable as freshly logged healthy timber.

There's also a program known as Forests For Tomorrow, or FFT.  This program is government funded, and it oversees the reforestation of some lands within BC that may not have been harvested, subject to funding restraints.  The FFT program mainly takes care of natural problems, such as reforesting areas after a wild fire, or after a major pine beetle infestation.  Although there are specific government staff allocated to the FFT program, other entities sometimes help with the actual administration of FFT funded planting work, such as BCTS staff or outside consultants.

Finally, of course, smaller entities such as First Nations, municipalities, and independent woodlot owners may approach planting companies to assist with smaller reforestation projects.  Overall then, there are a wide variety of harvesting approaches within BC.  This diversity contributes to the health of BC's forest industry, and provides a wide variety of options for tree planting companies to find work.

Now that we understand the various types of entities involved in logging and harvesting in BC, and therefore have a better understanding of who hires a planting company, let's focus on the opposite, the people that a planting company hires.  We'll focus on a snapshot of some typical people who plant trees, and people who should or shouldn't go tree planting.

People Who Should Go Planting

Physical fitness is important.  Excellence in aerobic ability and excellence in brute muscular strength are not entirely necessary; however, endurance is very important.  Tree planting sucks energy out of you.  You must be able to develop the ability to keep working steadily.  You cannot easily train for planting.  Spending three or four weeks before the seasons starts, hiking for two hours per day with a twenty pound backpack, may develop your leg muscles and provide some basic aerobic conditioning.  However, you also need to develop muscles in the shoulders, arms, wrists, fingers, and back.  Your best bet to attempt some proper pre-season training is to go online and find the “Fit To Plant” training program.  There's probably nothing better out there.

The only truly successful planters are those who want to make money.  You shouldn't go planting solely for the experience, to see the world, or to meet people, and you should especially NOT go planting to save the environment, or to be with a boyfriend/girlfriend.  Most experienced foremen will NOT hire avid environmentalists or male/female combinations, unless both members of the couple already have planting experience.  Experience has dictated that the attrition rates for environmentalists and couples are often much higher than average.  If you fall into one of those categories, rather than trying to hide it, ask yourself if you're prepared to accept the fact that you may be thinking about planting for the wrong reasons.

The ability to learn is another key asset.  Be open-minded and analytical.  Tree planting, contrary to what some people believe, is NOT a mindless job.  In fact, it's one of the most intellectually demanding jobs out there, which is why veteran planters do better than rookies.  It takes time to learn.  Focus is critical.  Even if you read, memorize and think about every piece of information you find in books and on the internet, there will still be things that you have to learn as a rookie which 'cannot' be taught.  Some examples would include knowing the types of vegetation that usually grow on dirt, what vegetation usually grows on rock, how to know where to place your shovel to find dirt, and so on.  You have to pay attention to your surroundings, but you also have to watch others and learn, and ask your foreman for advice.  If you have a good foreman, he or she will also be a good planter, and the best foremen know that any time invested in the training of planters is rewarded many times over in the long run.

Anybody can eventually become a good planter, with concentration and determination.  Some take longer than others, but all it takes is drive, focus, and the ability to learn from yourself and others.  You won't be successful unless you constantly and actively try to improve your planting skills.  The fact that you're making an effort to increase your chances of success by learning the information in these tutorials is a good sign that you're more likely to succeed than someone who is apathetic about investing any time up front in pre-season training.

People Who Should Not Go Planting

Anybody with a history of back, arm, knee, ankle, or neck problems should not go planting.  Planting puts enormous physical stress on the body and can frequently aggravate old injuries, often making them even harder to deal with.  This is especially the case with knee injuries.  Veteran planters who spend years in the field will slowly wear out their bodies, destroying tendons and ligaments.  You may think to yourself that your prior knee injury from several years ago will not cause you any problems, but your body must be at 100% to do the job well.  I've known several people who brushed off prior injuries because their injury hadn't caused them problems for years.  Then, when they started planting, the injury acted up again within days, causing them to have to quit their job. All that does is cost you a lot of money and frustration as you find yourself having to quit your new summer job, and it also causes frustration for the person who hired you and who invested time in training you.  If you aren't confident in your body's ability to handle the physical demands, don't try tree planting.  You don't have to be incredibly strong.  I've seen 110 pound people who can excel at planting, but that's a due to a combination of good overall health and an excellent mental attitude.

Anybody dealing with emotional stress should not go planting.  If you have relationship hassles, depression, some kind of an existential crisis, or if you're in mourning, the bush is the worst possible place to deal with it.

Anyone recovering from a long-term illness should not go planting.  The physical stress of planting will sometimes break down your immune system and bring back the illness.  Toward the end of a three-month stint of planting, even the healthiest people can get sick easily.

If you're red/green color-blind, you're going to have a really hard time following planted trees in summer overgrowth, and you'll probably be far less successful than other planters around you.  Think twice about planting, because being color-blind will definitely have a negative effect on your quality, density, and earnings.  Apparently, about seven percent of North American males are red/green color-blind, although the number is much lower for females.

People with allergies to trees or who have hay fever may find themselves to be fairly miserable at times.  This should be pretty obvious, but some people fail to consider this when applying for a job.  However, this type of problem isn't a deal-breaker.  I fall into this category.  If you don't mind spending a lot of money on non-drowsy antihistamines, you can survive as a planter.

If you're allergic to bee, wasp, or hornet stings, you need to think carefully about what will happen when you're stung, hundreds of miles from the closest hospital.  Getting stung by one of these insects is inevitable if you plant in July or August.  If you can control your anaphylactic reaction through the use of an epi-pen, then carrying several pens might be sufficient to mitigate this risk.  But what if you're working in an area where the fastest that you can get to a hospital is five or six hours?  And what if you get stung several times in the neck after opening a ground nest?  If getting a sting is something which your body reacts very badly to, you should consider a different line of work.  At some point, you'll get some serious stings in a remote location with no medical facilities nearby.

Only a very small number of first-year planters will eventually migrate to the "pros" by planting on the coast, because you need several years of prior experience first.  Remember that it's very common in the fall coastal season to get caught in heavy slash after inadvertently knocking into or opening a nest, and you may get stung dozens of times.  This can be a weekly occurrence.  There have been several very severe anaphylactic shock cases in the coastal industry in the past few years.

If you can't see well without glasses, you need to think carefully about what you're getting yourself into.  You can wear glasses on the block, but this can be extremely frustrating when it rains.  Your glasses will definitely get badly scratched during the season, from constantly cleaning mud and rain off of them.  Some people wear contacts, but if you do this, you should wear disposables because you'll lose them occasionally.  Be aware that you're often planting in extremely dry and dusty conditions which aggravate your eyes, so you'll probably need to carry saline solution.  Remember too that you're working in mud and dirt all day, and it isn't generally advisable to stick dirty fingers into your eyes to adjust your contacts.  Again, having less than 20:20 vision won't prevent you from being able to plant, but it will decrease your efficiency and earnings slightly.

As far as physique goes, most successful planters are regular weight or slim.  Despite the fact that most planters tend to be fairly lean, a planter can also be moderately heavyset and well-built, and as long as you have a healthy physique, you can still do pretty well at planting.  If you're a heavy-set person and you really want to plant, you can try an experiment to help you decide if you can handle the physical requirements.  Find a good heavy-duty backpack, and put forty pounds of books into it.  Next, find a steep hill.  Walk up and down that hill for three hours straight, without stopping.  Now decide if you'd like to do that for eight or nine hours per day, every day, including days when it's over thirty degrees Celsius.  If you're comfortable with that idea, your physique can handle planting.

If you have a fear of heights, that's probably not a big deal.  However, you might have minor problems later in your career, if you last long enough to decide to try planting on the coast.  There's a moderate amount of helicopter work on the coast, and working on some of the cliffs on the coast can be pretty nerve-wracking, even for people without a fear of heights.  Helicopters are also used frequently on Interior jobs in western Canada, although more frequently in Alberta than in BC.  If you're scared of flying in a helicopter, this could eventually present a minor problem.

The important thing to think about when answering challenging questions like these is that if you lie to an interviewer or on an application, the person whom you're hurting the most is yourself.  Whether you like it or not, tree planting is production based, and any characteristics or attributes which have the ability to negatively affect your production will also reduce your earnings, and make you dislike the job even more.  Trying to hide past injuries in order to get a job may increase the chance of long-term injuries to your body which can affect you for the rest of your life.

Some Common Myths About Tree Planters

Some people say that the best tree planters are big people.  This is not true.  Admittedly, very short people may find it slightly more challenging to climb through heavy slash on some blocks.  Mostly though, height is irrelevant, and weight is not an issue unless you're overweight.  Females shouldn't be reluctant to plant just because you're a female.  Although reforestation has traditionally been very male-dominated, this is changing rapidly because females can absolutely be as productive as males.  Mental determination and motivation are much more important than physical size and strength.

Some people say that tree planters are insane, party animals.  This can be partly true.  The younger the crowd, the more partying.  However, the best planters tend to be older, and know the physical wear and tear of alcohol.  Where the typical night off for some companies a few decades ago might have been a beer-fest that ended with someone trying to drive a truck into a laundromat or steal a skidder, nowadays, at many companies, crews will take most of their time off to play chess, or maybe go to the pool or see a movie.  Alcohol will rob you of sleep and rest, and drugs tend to unfocus most peoples' minds.  These will affect your production in the long run.  Then again, a fun night of dancing around a campfire can make the memories of a tough shift fade away.  Just remember to party in moderation, and keep it safe.

Some people say that tree planting is boring.  This isn't necessarily true.  This depends on the person.  If you can manage a deep and intense focus on something, the time can really fly.  This applies to planting just as much as to other activities.  Some people find planting to be painfully boring, so they plant with partners, plant for a specific cause or goal, or do whatever else it takes to make them happy.  I generally find that time flies while I'm planting, and at the end of a bag-up, I often have no idea of what I've been thinking about for the past hour.  Other people go stir-crazy when left alone with their thoughts.

There are a lot of stereotypes about what kind of person goes planting.  You can fill in the blank for whatever stereotype you're thinking of.  In general, many of them can be true.  The old saying, "birds of a feather flock together" may apply.  Crews or camps often seem to be made up of similar types of people, with similar attitudes.  In my mind though, diversity is very beneficial, and the majority of the most interesting people that I've met in my life have been tree planters.


Here’s an Audio version of this material, in case you want to listen while you’re driving, running, at work, or otherwise unable to read or watch video:

Click on the down-arrow icon in the upper right corner of the SoundCloud widget to download the mp3.

Once again, for further information about this series of tree planter training information, visit:

I encourage you to share this information with anyone else who might be interested.  Thanks for your interest and support!

-          Jonathan “Scooter” Clark