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More than 1,500 tree planters prepare to head west to reforest B.C. Interior

More than 1,500 tree planters from Quebec and Ontario are expected to travel across the country to the B.C. Interior in the next two weeks to help plant millions of seedlings in the midst of a pandemic.

They’ll join thousands of B.C. planters who are preparing to work on a major provincial reforestation effort, planting more than 300 million seedlings in the B.C. Interior this summer.

The government’s plan to mitigate wildfire damage and address the impacts of climate change by replacing lost trees took shape well before the pandemic.

Silviculture, or the growing and managing of trees, “is an essential service, because it’s considered an essential step to maintaining continuity in the global supply of pulp and paper,” said Jordan Tesluk, the B.C. forestry safety advocate who co-ordinates COVID-19 prevention strategies for silviculture in the province.

Last year, a similarly large reforestation project in B.C. was delayed and nearly cancelled over community concerns tree planters would bring COVID-19 to remote communities. 

But after B.C. officials gave the go-ahead, there was not a single COVID-19 case, said Tesluk.

last tree
Silviculture, including tree planting, is seen as an ‘essential service’ during the pandemic, to maintain a supply of forest products like pulp and paper. (Submitted by Connor Johnstone)

‘Zero reports’

Tesluk says the migration of treeplanters to B.C. forests during the pandemic is no different than trades people from across the country flying in and out of the province’s industrial megaprojects.

The difference, he says, is the silviculture sector has done a far better job of keeping its workers safe. 

“In B.C., there were zero reports of any outbreaks, zero reports of any positive cases. It is zero, and we have done many, many tests,” said Tesluk, a former tree planter who has also done post-doctorate work in bioethics.

jordan tesluk
Forestry safety advocate Jordan Tesluk said there was not a single COVID-19 outbreak in B.C.’s tree-planting industry last summer. A former tree planter with a post-doctorate in bioethics, Tesluk develops COVID-19 prevention strategies with silviculture companies and government. (Submitted by Jordan Tesluk )

Tree planter Cara MrKonjic, along with hundreds of other Quebecers, is heading west to put seedlings in the ground, replenishing forests devastated by wildfires and the mountain pine beetle.

In her apartment in Montreal, MrKonjic is filling a backpack and giant hockey bag with her pink tree planting shovel, along with summer clothes and camping gear.

She plans to leave Quebec on Monday for the four-day drive west to Barriere and Prince George, B.C.

‘A little bit nerve-racking’

There are a number of provincial travel restrictions on her route; the first one is a police checkpoint on the Quebec-Ontario boundary.

With a letter in hand from her employer, a Quesnel-based silviculture company, MrKonjic expects she’ll be waved through but is still anxious.

“We have the right documentation,” she said. “But it’s all a little bit nerve-racking.”

cara mrkonjic driving to tree planting
Pictured here outside Calgary, Cara Mrkonjic drove across Canada last summer to reach her tree planting work in the forests near Nazko and Prince George, B.C. (Submitted by Cara Mrkonjic)

After crossing into Ontario, MrKonjic and a tree-planting friend plan to drive straight through to B.C. in a van already stocked with food and supplies, stopping only at gas stations.

“My friend is actually in the process of quitting her coffee addiction, so we don’t have to stop in any drive-thru or anything like that,” MrKonjic said.  

MrKonjic also planted in B.C. last summer during the pandemic. She said she has confidence in the safety measures.

tree planters travel
A group of tree planters from out of province stop their cars in the Rocky Mountains on their way to work in the forests of B.C. during the pandemic last summer. (Submitted by Cara MrKonjic)

Tougher COVID-19 rules 

This year, the rules at the camps and the cutblocks will be even stricter, said Tesluk.

He said silviculture companies worked directly with B.C.’s Ministry of Health to adopt tougher protocols.

They include stringent monitoring of workers before they arrive on site, a complete lockdown during their first weeks on site, the separation of planters into distinct pods and the isolation of camps. 

Tesluk says remote locations and the nature of the close-knit tree-planting culture will help keep people safe.

“They are committed to each other,” said Tesluk.

“They share so much that they have to be extra careful for their co-workers. There’s no going home at the end of the shift, so the stakes for them go much higher.”

cara mrkonjic
To reach her summer tree planting job in the B.C. interior this summer, Cara MrKonjic says she will drive for four days from her home in Quebec, stopping only to get gas and sleep in a friend’s van. (Submitted by Cara MrKonjic)

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