A day in the life: Tree planting

Have you ever looked at the scarred land and thought about all those trees just, gone. Find out about the crews that replant them.

Nikolas Smithers has been planting trees for four years and as a crew manager can be responsible for up to 18 crew members depending on the number of people on staff planting. He said a tree goes into the ground approximately every ten seconds.

Have you ever driven past a clear cut area and wondered, why? I have often looked at the scarred land and thought about all those trees just – gone.

When I saw all the white trucks, and people in town started mentioning the tree planters had arrived, I saw an opportunity to find out about those clear cuts.

I managed to get permission to head out with Shawn McGrath, project supervisor with Apex Reforestation Ltd., and my opportunity to answer some of those questions; to find out what the mystery behind the secret society of tree planters was all about.

My morning alarm rang just a little bit earlier this past Thursday – 4:30 a.m. – instead of my regimented 5:30 a.m.

I was more than prepared for the early morning, I have done my fair share of 3 a.m. wake up calls while working a stint at a ranch in the Chilcotin cooking and packing lunches for exploration crews.

I had no idea what I was in for, I packed my lunch, and I had my camera bag and my pack with the essentials: first aid, TP, bug dope, jacket, hat and gloves and the most essential item – water.

I might have over-prepared; I didn’t want anyone to think this Northern girl was a newbie at trudging around in the bush.

I was ready and out the door at 5:39 a.m., and sitting outside McGrath’s motel room door being greeted by a number of tree planters preparing to start their day.

Before we sit down for a coffee and go over some safety procedures and paperwork, required for me to be out on the blocks, McGrath takes me over to the reefer, a refrigerated semi-trailer unit that keeps the trees between 2-5 degrees while being stored prior to planting.

A couple of crews are loading up the work trucks with boxes of trees that will be the days planting. McGrath says the 74 crew members currently working will plant more than 100,000 trees a day.

The 26-year-old McGrath is a great choice for showing me the work site, he’s been with Apex for seven years, starting as a planter, then a crew manager and now two years in his current position as project manager. He says the biggest portion of the crew are planting as a way to help pay for their university or college tuition.

“I started the summer I was 19,” he said. “I started my second year at college, one of my friends convinced a big group of us guys to come out here.”

Once we have coffee and go over the safety particulars for being out on site we head out to Leo Creek to the first block on McGrath’s rounds. He tells me he tries to visit each block daily to check with crews to make sure everything is going well and the product being planted gets a quality check.

As we drive out toward Tachie, McGrath shows me how the trucks are equipped with georeferenced maps  which display the blocks on a tablet and make the job of getting out to areas a lot easier and cut down on crews getting lost, which cuts into planting time he added.

“At some point when we get close enough we’ll show up as a blue dot on the map,” McGrath said.

We turn off onto the Leo Creek Forestry Service Road (FSR) and start the drive up to the first block and I get the feeling my kidneys are in for a good workout.

On the planting blocks the blackflies are out in full force. Out here a cool breeze is a welcome break and it pays to keep up a fast pace out in the slash, and not just to keep the bugs off.

A lot of the clearing has been done to stave off the Mountain Pine Beetle (MPB) infestation that has been ongoing since the 1990s.

The MPB has destroyed approximately 50 per cent of the total volume of lodgepole pine in British Columbia which continues to spread its geographic range.

Some of the fibre will be sent to the mill to be made into as much useable lumber as possible, some will be sent to be made into bio-energy or wood pellets; what remains will be burned to aide in regrowth of the forest area.

Crews are planting three species of seedlings on the block areas, lodgepole pine, blue spruce and balsam. Each species has specific requirements such as spacing and depth said Shawn McGrath, project supervisor with Apex Reforestation Ltd.

“That’s been the focus for a little while now,” he said. “That will probably come to an end in the next couple years.”

Just starting out

He said when he first started tree-planting the trees were just turning orange and he was part of a couple test projects to try and combat the pest.

“They were trying to – back then – just leave the stand if it wasn’t usable fiber and we would go and plant in the stands,” McGrath said. “They had rabbit traps everywhere … apparently (rabbits) would bite (seedlings) off. That was part of the reason that method wasn’t working.”

There are approximately 1,350 seedlings planted in a hectare McGrath said, adding that number varies based on terrain and available soil becuase much of the ground cover is deep moss.

McGrath said the employer is looking for a certain depth for the seedlings and a Canfor forester comes out daily to check on the quality of the work that the planters are doing in addition to his checks.

“When I check, I come along and make sure the laterals aren’t buried,” he said. “And I make sure the holes are closed to ensure a vapour seal.”

Different species are planted at different ratios and different elevations based on variable such as diseases that might affect the seedlings, he said.

McGrath takes BOT measurements to ensure the distance between specific areas meets the ratios set out by the employer.

The measurement is important as well as the depth to make sure the seedlings are in an optimum growth environment he added.

“It’s a measured radius that we count the trees within it,” he said. “It’s good so far what I’ve seen.”

Looking at the tiny seedlings just starting out it’s impossible for me to look at clear-cut areas in the same way ever again.


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