When Claire Cepukas and Kevin Stackpole each applied for tree planting jobs in the summer of 2008, they had no idea the decision would change the trajectory of their lives. Not only did they find life partners in each other, but tree planting changed the way they looked at the world, and themselves.
For the thousands of tree planters yomping their shovels across unforgiving North American terrains, this story isn’t new. Tree planting is taxing, raw, and undeniably unforgettable. Whether you plant for a single season or ten, the job is likely to shift something within you.
During the spring/summer planting seasons, for some, home couldn’t seem further away, but for planters like Cepukas and Stackpole, camp becomes a type of home you crave, year after year. The community of tents, pitched bravely in the Canadian backcountry, circling around the pop-up mess hall and kitchen trailer, become a rugged if unsanitary paradise, sheltering the worn tree planters from wildlife and the elements.
In the case of Cepukas and Stackpole, at least, the tree planting experience has led to changing views around life-giving soil, and inclinations towards a new sense of forest management.
“The first year, it’s all about the bonds you make,” says Cepukas, a 29-year-old artist, and former tree planter. “Spending days together and getting broken down by the elements, the cuts, and scrapes, and bugs, you can go back home and vent your life away about it or explain what happened. You get to know people on an incredibly intimate level that forces relationships along a lot faster than it would in the real world.”
“That’s one thing that kept Kevin and I coming back for so long,” referring to the 10-plus seasons they worked in New Brunswick, Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia. On any given day, each of them would plant anywhere between two and six thousand trees a day, depending on land quality.
The brutal physicality of tree planting is fairly well-known — and there’s another dark side to tree planting that isn’t exactly a secret either. Most tree planters understand who’s providing the paychecks every couple weeks. And it isn’t Mother Nature.
In North America, the work of reforestation is typically associated with timber production, which means it’s preceded by thinning and scarifying. These processes are used by commercial timber companies to remove habitat and wildlife from a given area, usually by way of chemical products and heavy machinery. This is done in order to make space for commercial tree varieties and eliminate competition, ensuring industry tree survival and growth.
Chad Hanson, California fire ecologist, and director of Earth Island’s John Muir Project, explains further, “Thinning is an intensive and damaging logging operation the vast majority of the time. They’re killing and removing 70 percent of standing trees, both undergrowth and old growth trees.”
After scarifying and thinning, the logging process takes over, followed by more planting in order to support future harvesting and comply with provincial replanting requirements.
“[Logging] removes soil nutrients by compacting and disrupting the soils which cause them to erode when the rains come in, washing them into the streets in ways that are unnatural,” Hanson says. “After logging, that sedimentation and erosion of the soil are chronic. It’ll happen year after year for almost 20 years and that reduces productivity and the ability of the forest to regrow in full.”
According to foresters and tree planting companies, these processes are mandatory in order to eliminate competition for the trees they are propagating and to ensure individual tree survival. Some add that negative impacts like erosion and sedimentation can be mitigated.
Representatives for JD Irving (JDI), a privately-owned company in New Brunswick, Canada, involved with a number of industries including forestry services and an oil refinery, point to the business’s sustainability initiatives.
The company recently celebrated its billionth tree planted. The press release outlining the event includes a photo James K. Irving and his two sons, shovels pressed into the earth, gleaming behind newly planted pine trees. It explains how the forests planted by JDI will absorb carbon dioxide, and therefore help fight against our ever-warming climate. However, given their track record of deforestation within the province, this story isn't entirely credible.
Irving proudly claims on a highway billboard in New Brunswick, Canada that only 2 percent of the company's forests are cut each year. However, this means the majority of Irving-owned forests would be cut within 50 years, and that conceivably no tree standing would be older than 50 years of age, even though many Canadian tree species are able to live for several centuries.
Ryan Cameron, a silviculture manager with JD Irving, also speaks of the company’s involvement with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), a North American forest certification standard that offers guidelines for more sustainable timber production. He said he believes this certification will help sustain JD Irving’s forests for years to come, “so that we can provide a sustainable wood fiber source for the future.”
This certification guide, however, is fairly lax when it comes to thinning with chemicals, and doesn’t include much by the way of strict guidelines on the scarification process. Nor does the certification account for the fact that the world is losing 200 species per day and an estimated 24 billion tons of fertile soil every year due to deforestation and erosion. Not mentioned either is that soil — which is degraded by intensive forestry — is where we should be looking for major carbon sequestering.
Certified or not, at only 25 years of age, most companies’ trees, like JD Irving’s, will be harvested. While this generates income for the company and products that many rely on, it also increases the amount of soil disruption. There’s also disagreement over just how well these types of forests sequester carbon — research shows older trees sequester more carbon, and over the short term, logging contributes to carbon emissions. (Read more about how logging is the biggest forest-related driver of carbon emissions.)
In his book The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben writes, “A tree’s most important means of staying connected to other trees is a ‘wood wide web’ of soil fungi that connects vegetation in an intimate network that allows the sharing of an enormous amount of information and goods.”
It takes not only trees, but fungi, leguminous plants, and wildlife to create a strong, carbon sequestering forest that produces fertile soil and multiple ecosystem services.
When we cut our forests off from their natural communication and defense systems, as we do on tree plantations, we diminish their ability to thrive and truly provide. We also diminish their resilience to pests, climate change, and more.
As Wohlleben writes, “[Trees’] well-being depends on their community, and when the supposedly feeble trees disappear, the others lose as well. When that happens, the forest is no longer a single closed unit… Even strong trees get sick a lot over the course of their lives. When this happens, they depend on their weaker neighbors for support. If they are no longer there, then all it takes is what would once have been a harmless insect attack to seal the fate even of giants.”
Or as Hanson puts it, “A clear-cut tree plantation, with or without trees, has a lot more in common with a parking lot than it does a forest.”
Though forestry-related tree planting operations may not be the best for the environment or the climate, there is one potential upside: For many tree planters, the job allows them to connect with nature. And often, that connection shifts their thinking about the job, and the industry it’s a part of.
“I think that’s why I’m enrolled in the school I'm in now,” says arborist and former tree planter, Stackpole. “It’s changed me on many levels in terms of how I view the outdoors. You do start to look at the small things: the mineral soils, sandy soil, where fungi grow, or where there are rocks, or where moose ate during the day, or where you could see a bear, how to work with animals, and how to prepare for encounters.”
“That’s what brought confidence into exploring the outdoors on a leisurely level rather than just doing it for work,” he adds.
The world is changing. It’s not enough to plant a tree and call it a job well done anymore, nor is it acceptable to be taking from a severely depleted system. Peter Wohlleben writes that “many trees grow big when conditions are favorable.” We need to make conditions favorable again. This must be done by listening to the earth, then building a community with each other around those teachings, just as trees build community with one another.
We must take a more natural route to forestry that encompasses all parts of the natural system for the system, as opposed to our own gain. It’s only then that we can begin building real forests, strong forests that embody the inner eco-centric shift we’ve experienced as Earth’s fearless stewards.