Forest informed
August 29, 2021

Forests in the making: how BC is adapting forest regeneration practices

From gene to seed, to climate science to tree planter, to forest

Taiji HoAoo618

Tree planting Vancouver Island, BC| Photo credit: Nik West

The workday for a tree planter starts early: breakfast shortly after dawn, before loading into the crew truck and heading to the planting site, located in British Columbia’s coastal forests. Today, the crew is working on Vancouver Island, planting a mix of western red cedar and Douglas-fir on an area harvested the previous Fall.  

Digging in

The tree planters, foresters, and scientists who help make reforestation in BC a reality

Each year, upwards of 5,000 tree planters in British Columbia have planted more than 200 million seedlings—all by hand. In fact, in 2020, there was a record 300 million seedlings planted. Specific reforestation programs began in British Columbia in the 1930s, and since that time, more than eight billion native trees have been planted across the province’s immense forested landscape to mimic and complement the biogeoclimatic characteristics of the region and local conditions.  

Tree seedlings | Photo credit: Nik West

How can I get a job as a tree planter?

Search for tree planting opportunities

In addition to planting trees, there are a range of opportunities for people interested in supporting reforestation efforts in BC, including planters, brushing, support staff, camp cooks, and more.

A day in the life

Tree planting offers an opportunity to give back

Simone Rochon has worked as a tree planter for eight years. To her, this physically and mentally challenging work is a way to contribute to sustainability by restoring forest areas that have been harvested. “Tree planting provides the opportunity to work outside and give back to the environment,” she says. “I’ve had the chance to visit some trees I planted years ago, and it is nice to be able to see them growing and doing well.” 

The terrain on today’s planting site in Vancouver Island is quite steep, meaning the tree planting rate will be lower than days spent planting on easier ground. Still, even on challenging terrain, an experienced tree planter can plant 1,000 trees per day, or more. “Tree planters can do well financially, working part of the year with time in the off-season for other projects,” Rochon shares. “The most challenging part is pushing through mental barriers, but overall, I would absolutely recommend tree planting as a career.” 

Her day starts as she loads up her tree bag with seedlings, but the journey for those small trees has been a long one, touched by numerous specialists and agencies focused on ensuring the sustainability and health of regenerated forests in British Columbia.  

Photo credit: Brudder Productions

How much money can a tree planter make in BC? 

Depending on how productive a tree planter is, their salaries can range from minimum wage to upwards of $500 per day. 

Seed Production

Science-driven programs producing healthy, resilient seedlings

The BC Government’s Forest Improvement and Research Management Branch is responsible for managing and conserving forest genetic resources in the province. With five seed orchards, two research stations and a dedicated Tree Seed Centre, this group provides important and specialized support to the Province’s Chief Forester and the forest sector in understanding and protecting the natural genetic diversity within BC’s forests. Forests cover approximately 60 percent of BC’s total land base of 95 million hectares and contain the most ecological diversity of any region in Canada—making this a significant and complex scientific and logistical undertaking. 

From its inception more than 50 years ago, the Tree Improvement Program in BC has focused on tree breeding—that is, selecting and propagating seed from trees in the wild that exhibit superior physical characteristics like disease resistance or growth rate. These selected specimens are then cross-bred with other superior trees of the same species, and the resulting progeny are then evaluated and tested. Cross-breeding trees with superior characteristics is a natural way to enhance seed stock—no genetic modification is involved in this process, and great care is taken to preserve genetic diversity. Currently, there are 50 active tree breeding programs for different species and seed planning zone combinations across the province, all of which are overseen by experts at the Forest Genetics Council of BC 

 Reforestation, top left: Seed bag | Top right: Tree plugs | Bottom: Seed removal | Photo credit: Nik West 

Where do seeds for reforesting come from?

BC's Tree Seed Centre

The BC Government’s Tree Seed Centre is the primary provider of cone and seed in the province, serving the entire forest sector with specialized services for more than 50 years. By law, any seedlings planted on publicly-owned forests in BC must be grown from seed that has been tested and registered at the Tree Seed Centre.  

The Right Tree for Every Environment

Protecting forest ecology and adapting to climate change

As BC’s Chief Forester, Diane Nicholls is responsible for providing strategic counsel to Government and the forest sector on the stewardship of British Columbia’s publicly-owned forests. This includes oversight of reforestation efforts and use of seed in the province.   

 “There is nothing more fundamental to the sustainability of BC’s forest sector than our reforestation program,” says Nicholls. “Our aim is to regenerate resilient forests that are variable and healthy, and that support all the values that society expects from its public forests.” 

Regenerating forest in Sayward, BC | Photo credit: Brudder Productions

Climate based seed transfer guidelines

Planning for biogeoclimatic zones

Under law, seedlings grown from registered seeds in BC can only be planted in compliance with the Chief Forester’s Standards for Seed Use, which mandates that only registered seed be used and forbids the use of any genetically modified seed, as well as sets specific areas of use. Originally, these areas were determined based exclusively on geography, with seed planning zones delineated based on longitude, latitude, elevation, and Biogeoclimatic Ecosystem Classification unit—a comprehensive system first adopted in British Columbia in the 1970s to classify ecosystems (see section below)—to ensure ecological suitability.  

More recently, the Chief Forester has implemented Climate Based Seed Transfer Guidelines, which introduce an ability to migrate seed and species from the parent tree point of origin based on detailed climate forecasting information—the future climate conditions are predicted out at 15 years for coastal forests and 20 years for interior forests, a conservative forecast. This system, based on assisted migration—the deliberate movement of tree species and seeds/seedlings to planting sites that will be most suited to them in predicted future climates—is intended to allow forests to catch up with an adaptation lag and improve forest resiliency in the face of rapidly changing climate conditions. 

Assisted migration | Image credit: Dr. Sally Aitken, Professor and Associate Dean – Research and Innovation at The University of British Columbia 

Biodiversity facts

Forests cover approximately 60 percent of BC’s total land base of 95 million hectares and contain the most ecological diversity of any region in Canada.

British Columbia is Canada's most biologically diverse province

As the most ecologically diverse province in Canada, ecosystems in British Columbia range from desert and dry inland ponderosa pine forests in the Interior, to Pacific coastal temperate rainforests.   

The diversity of BC’s ecosystems led scientists to create a formal ecological classification system that was adopted by the BC’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development to better inform sustainable management of forest resources.

This Biogeoclimatic Ecosystem Classification System uses information about vegetation and animals (“Bio”), soils and landforms (“Geo”) and climate conditions (“Climatic”) to classify any site across the province into one of 14 zones, as well as many more subzones and variants.  

This understanding of the interactions between climate, soils and expected vegetation that can be supported help resource managers and scientists understand the potential outcomes associated with natural and human impacts and make better resource management decisions.

Ensuring the ability for our forests to adapt to rapidly changing climate conditions is critical—sequestered and stored carbon in sustainably managed forests and the products they produce have an important role to play in the fight against climate change. In addition to informing the Chief Forester’s Climate Based Seed Transfer guidelines, scientists are unlocking other tools to improve forest resiliency and maximize carbon storage in BC’s forests. 

Biogeoclimatic Zones of BC courtesy Centre for Forest Conservation Genetics 

How to harvest

Harvesting approaches to aid regeneration

Re-establishing a healthy forest is of utmost priority when foresters design harvesting methods for forest sites. Clearcutting, which removes most of the trees from an area and leaves patches and buffers to protect other values, is often used because it mimics natural forest disturbances such as wildfires. It is also best suited to the ecology of sites with tree species that thrive in full sunlight such as lodgepole pine and Douglas-fir.  

Harvesting techniques that remove some of the trees, such as retention or selection cutting, are used in areas where soils are dry, the terrain is steep or other methods may affect scenery, wildlife habitat, old-growth areas or other values.  

Tree planting at Bear Lake, BC | Photo credit: Michael Bednar

Forest health and ecology

What is the mother tree project?

Dr. Suzanne Simard is a Professor of Forest Ecology at The University of British Columbia, leading a ground-breaking research project on the interconnectedness of trees and its role in forest health and adaptation. Known as “The Mother Tree Project,” Simard and her team have determined, through extensive field-based research, that trees are connected below ground through a vast network of fungal connections that they use to share resources and exchange chemical messages between one another.  

These natural connections have been shown to have a particularly significant impact on forest health and regeneration where trees are stressed due to climate change, habitat disruption, harvest activities and such, which has important implications for assisted migration. Early results from The Mother Tree Project, a study that will span 100 years and has been added to the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development’s experimental projects database, indicate that Mother Trees can improve the survival of migrated seedlings by 20 to 40 percent. 

Nitinaht west coast Vancouver Island, British Columbia—Coastal Western Hemlock Biogeoclimatic Zone | Photo credit: Nik West 

Looking ahead

How mother trees support forest health and new growth

As climate conditions change, and drier conditions become the norm in BC, forests—where natural connections supported by Mother Trees are maintained—could help enhance regeneration, support biodiversity, and conserve carbon storage.  

“What we are seeing is that a whole host of benefits across all the metrics we are tracking can be maintained by retaining Mother Trees to support new growth,” says Simard. “Leaving a proportion of trees to both provide and nurture seed as part of natural regeneration, as well as supporting planted seedlings, will be important for successful forest management in light of climate change.” 

With a focus on science, innovation, and cross-sector collaboration, British Columbia is leading the world in adapting its forest regeneration practices to enhance forest resiliency and carbon capture capacity. The goal today remains the same as that of forest managers who began reforestation programs in the province almost 100 years agoto ensure the health and longevity of BC’s forests for future generations. 

Sayward forest, forester inspecting tree—Coastal Douglas-fir Biogeoclimatic Zone | Photo credit: Brudder Productions

Forest Enhancement Society of British Columbia

Enhancing forest resilience to wildfire and climate change

The BC government has invested $238 million in the Forest Enhancement Society of British Columbia (FESBC), of which $237.6 million has been allocated for 269 forest enhancement projects as of March 2021. FESBC has empowered local people who want to do local projects that contribute to the achievement of our climate change goals and enhance BC’s forests through wildfire risk mitigation; accelerated ecological recovery after wildfires; wildlife habitat enhancement; and increased utilization of forest fibre.