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What is tree planting?

Canada is a vast country with a relatively small population. Forests stretch over 1.5 million square miles from coast to coast and cover nearly half the country. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that Canada is one of the world’s major exporters of wood products. Trees are often harvested using a controversial method known as clear-cutting — all the stems are felled regardless of size, age, or species. Logging companies are obliged to replace the trees that have been removed. Professional planters are hired to do this job. A task performed as it has been since humans invented silviculture thousands of years ago — without power tools, on foot and by hand.

Tree planting is known for its heavy physical intensity. It’s unavoidably grimy, sweaty work. The task is performed with a narrow steel spade and ergonomic seedling carriers that fit around the hips. Many university students plant trees for summer employment, but some full-time planters work through spring, summer and fall. Tree planters are migrant workers. They live in motels, logging camps and, during the summer, in tent camps deep in the woods.

Tree planters are also pieceworkers. They’re paid a variable price for every tree they plant, as little as a few cents per tree and as much as a dollar or more. Almost as many women as men plant trees. The average career lasts five years.

Tree planting is an old ecological pursuit. Many of the world’s ancient civilizations planted trees, including the Maya, the Greeks, and the Romans. Reforestation and afforestation still take place all over the world today. Some trees are planted as crops, such as palm and eucalyptus. Others are planted in rehabilitation projects designed to rescue degraded land from drought, desertification or erosion. Trees inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. Forests provide rich habitat for countless species, some of them rare and endangered. Trees store carbon in their tissues and moderate extreme temperatures, but no one knows if planting trees is a true remedy for environmental problems such as climate change.


Planting trees isn’t hard. As any veteran will tell you, it isn’t the act of sowing itself but the ambient complications. It comes with snow pellets. Or clouds of biting insects so thick and furious it is possible to end a day with your eyelids swollen shut and blood trickling from your ears. There are swaying fields of venomous plants like devil’s club and stinging nettle. There are sunburns and hornets. There are swamps rimmed with algal sludge to fall into up to the armpits. There are leeches and ticks, bears and cougars. There are infections and chafe and boils and trench foot. It’s possible to be so cold one feels dreamily warm and so hot you fall into shivers. Over time the work has the bodily effect of a car crash in extreme slow motion. Sometimes our bosses make off to Mexico with all the money. Besides that, the task itself is thankless and boring, which is to say it is plain and silent.

Forest Facts

Trees required to reforest 500 Manhattan city blocks: 1 million.

Trees required to reforest the entire land surface of Sri Lanka: 6 billion.

Estimated number of trees planted in British Columbia: 7 billion (and counting).

Estimated number of tree planters in Canada at the height of the trade: 18,500.

Estimated number of soldiers in the Canadian army: 18,500.

World record for planting trees by an individual: 15,170 in one day, by Canadian planter Ken Chaplin.

World record for planting trees by a group: 541,176 mangrove seedlings by three hundred Pakistani villagers–all were volunteers.

The largest clear cut in the world: Bowron River Valley clear cut, 50,000 hectares.

Biggest tree planting project in the world: The Great Green Wall, China.

Maximum number of seeds contained in one square metre of old-growth forest soil: 1,000.

Tallest Douglas-fir tree in the world: The Red Creek Tree, Vancouver Island, 242 feet tall.

Biggest lumber harvest ever in the province of British Columbia: 89 million cubic meters, or two million logging truck loads, in 1987.

Annual global wood consumption: 3.4 billion cubic meters, or enough utility poles to string telephone wire around the equator 4,000 times.

Weight of a grizzly bear at birth: Less than 1 pound, equivalent to one loaf of bread.

Weight of a grizzly bear at maturity: As much as 500 kg, roughly equivalent to one Harley Davidson motorcycle.

Maximum land speed of a grizzly: 55 kilometers per hour.

Average number of trees planted in a day by a professional tree planter: 1,600.

Average distance walked: 16 kilometers.

Estimated number of calories consumed: 5,000.