Photo: Oka memorial (Quebec). Many of the Mohawks buried here are from families involved in the planting of the forest which took place between 1880 and 1920. Since for most of this period there were no tree nurseries geared to reforestation, the Mohawks had to gather pine seedlings from considerable distance to the north in canoes from forests where white pines still grew. Photo credit MaryLou Jorgensen-Bacher.
In the heat of battle of the 2019 federal election campaign came one promising development: a pledge by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that if re-elected a future Liberal government would implement a Two Billion Tree afforestation program over the next ten years. Trudeau stated that “Trees are a fundamental part of a cleaner future. They are renewable. They’re sustainable. And, eventually, they recycle themselves.”
Trudeau’s announcement is a bold measure that sets a good and serious target for afforestation. Unlike reforestation, where trees are planted following logging, afforestation means planting trees where they have been absent for a considerable time. Trees are usually afforested on abandoned farmland, brownfield sites, or on heavily manicured schoolyards and parks.
Meeting the goal of two billion trees in a decade is an ambitious challenge. It will likely require the purchase of land as most easy targets on private lands vulnerable to erosion have already been converted to forest cover. The challenge is increased since the network of public tree nurseries which made possible meeting ambitious afforestation achievements in the past have been dismantled.
The challenges facing Trudeau can be seen by how many trees the Indian Head Tree Nursery operated by the federal government from 1901 until its closure by the government of Stephen Harper in 2012 was able to plant. During this time, it was able to distribute 690 million seedlings throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
Harper’s cut threatened three million tree seedlings which for a time were being buried in weeds. Since 2016 the former federal nursery has been operating at a much-reduced scale through the non-profit Help International Shelterbelt Centre. It has spearheaded new approaches to afforestation on the prairies which can be boosted by the Two Billion Tree Program. One is forested belts to buffer sewage lagoons and forest filets buffering landfills to combat water pollution.
The title of Trudeau’s Two Billion challenge appears to be derivative of my book, “Two Billion Trees and Counting: The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz” (Dundurn Press, 2015). The title however when put in today’s context shows the challenge facing the Prime Minister.
The Two Billion title of Zavitz’s biography is based on the one billion trees afforested in Ontario between when he planted his first tree in 1905, (on the then desertified Oak Ridges Moraine) until his death in 1968. During this time a billion trees were afforested stopping the march of sands from desertification that threatened to bury the province.
The second billion in the biography’s title is an underestimate of the number of trees planted as part of reforestation efforts on crown lands in Northern Ontario after logging. The two billion figure, however, also approximates the total amount of public afforestation across Canada in the 20th century.
The public nurseries of the federal and Ontario governments contributed to the afforestation efforts on the scale of two billion trees from 1901 until 1992 when under the disastrous tenure of Ontario Premier Bob Rae, the system began to be dismantled. The Midhurst nursery was turned into a playing field for the City of Barrie. The provincial park (Springwater), afforested by this work was threatened by closure and development two decades later (and stopped by public outcry). The Orno nursery, which was in the past dedicated to the task of afforesting the Oak Ridges Moraine was terminated.
The public nursery which as nonprofit became a major force for afforestation was the Howard Ferguson Station, named to honour the Conservative Premier who was a close friend of Edmund Zavitz. Zavitz also maintained a friendship with his most bitter rival, E. C. Drury, another Ontario Premier.
The Howard Ferguson station survived the cuts of Rae and his successor, Mike Harris, only thanks to the public outrage posed by the threat to development to the demonstration forest the nursery created. It is close to a commercial strip development near the booming suburb of Ottawa, Kemptville. The municipality acquired the land and made a lease agreement to the newly incorporated Howard Ferguson Nursery.
The Howard Ferguson tree nursery became the backbone of the Fifty Million Trees Program launched in 2008, which has since then planted 27 million trees. The program assisted 13,000 landowners in tree planting efforts and established 15,000 hectares of new forest cover.
The first budget of Ontario Premier Doug Ford threatened to destroy 7.5 million tree saplings by defunding. This was a major incentive for Trudeau’s government to cast a lifeline re-funding the 50 Million Tree Program on June 9, 2019. This was followed up by the federal government afforesting 120 acres of land in North West Territories. It also assisted the government of British Columbia in reforestation on land devastated by wildfires and the mountain pine beetle.
The area of Canada that cries out for massive afforestation is southern Quebec where only a tiny percentage of the land-base in fertile agricultural areas is in forest cover. Afforestation was born in Oka Quebec in the 1880s with the planting of the forest later the scene of the standoff to prevent the construction of a golf course. The treeless landscape of the fertile part of the province has become a major force in flooding disasters. Flatlands between the St. Lawrence River and the American border are among the most heavily deforested areas in Canada. Like the similarly barren lands of Essex and Chatham-Kent. The stripping of forest cover to less than five percent of the watershed compounds flooding - one of the biggest impacts of climate change in Canada. These treeless landscapes the Two Billion Tree program will be compelled to purchase on a considerable scale to have a significant impact.
Although Zavitz’s billion tree afforestation efforts curbed disastrous floods that once inundated major cities such as London, Toronto, Brantford, Kitchener, Guelph, Brampton and Port Hope, trends in recent years have reduced forest cover. Afforestation in the Upper Thames helped to end the floods that in the 1930s and 1940s inundated London. As revealed in the last report by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, urbanization and agriculture led to a loss of 8 square kilometers of forest from 2000 and 2010. Afforestation created the magnificent municipally-owned Larose Forest in the South Nation watershed east of Ottawa. However, the ECO office shortly before its termination, exposed how deforestation on private lands (not regulated by tree protection by-laws), caused the watershed to lose 53 km of forest between 2008 and 2014.
A backgrounder to the Two Billion Tree program indicates it’s intended not just to plant trees but increase forest cover. It pledges that, “We will work with provinces, territories, indigenous communities, municipalities, businesses and others, on a cost-sharing model to maintain and grow the amount of tree cover across Canada.” It calls for the federal government to fund communities to develop strategies to protect and expand forests.
The formal environmental platforms of the Bloc, NDP and Green parties are certainly amenable to having a tough and well-funded Two Billion Tree program. In this current parliament one of the biggest tests will be to have a Two Billion Tree Program that address the basic challenge of restoring significant forest cover to parts of Canada where it has been stripped away.