B.C. forest industry hit with shortage of tree planters

Increased global lumber demand and fallout from pine-beetle crisis creating silviculture job boom, but decades-old pay rates turning off labourers

Tree planters’ wages are based on the number of trees they plant

BC reforestation companies are struggling to find enough tree planters, leaving the industry ill-prepared to plan for future demand.

“What some companies began to notice [this season] was that they were about 20% short of what they would have liked to have had for a full complement crew,” said John Betts, president of the Western Silviculture Contractors Association (WSCA).

The crisis has been building over the past few years. It has come as a shock to the contractors, who in the past could always rely on a steady supply of university students and experienced planters who came back annually to work the brief four- to six-month planting season. Industry insiders say demand for silviculture work will continue to grow, which will exacerbate the current labour shortage. As the U.S. housing market slowly recovers, demand for B.C. wood is growing. In addition, more reforestation work will likely be needed to combat the impact of the mountain pine beetle infestation.

Despite the availability of work, tree planters “are working harder to earn the same or less money,” said Betts, noting that according to a WSCA survey conducted last year, about half the tree planters reported making around $20 an hour. Factor in inflation, and Betts said the wages planters are paid has actually declined about 30% since 2000. With the skyrocketing cost of university tuition, it no longer makes as much sense for young people to spend the spring and summer doing hard physical labour for 10 hours a day.

Tree planters are paid per tree they plant, a price that varies depending on how challenging the terrain is. That price hasn’t gone up in the past 20 or 30 years, said Chris Akehurst, who started out as a tree planter in 1975 and now owns A&G Reforestation in Vancouver.

Akehurst points to a shift in the late 1990s to explain the price freeze. During a downturn in the forest industry, forestry companies started setting the price for reforestation contracts, instead of the other way around.

“Our clients would collect stats on us for our production and then they’d say … we can only afford to pay you this much,” said Akehurst. “In a declining market, lots of us took that.”

Contractors’ cutthroat underbidding hasn’t helped.

“[Contractors] tend to be owner-operators,” said Betts, “and they tend to have a short-term view of things.”

There’s also an absence of hard data about why tree planters aren’t returning to the job. The provincial government has given $500,000 in funding to the BC Silviculture Labour Market Participation Group. With participation from contractors, the WSCA and tree planters, the group plans to close the data gap and create tools to help employers attract and keep workers.

The health of B.C.’s forests is at stake, said Suzanne Christensen, chairwoman of the group.

“If silviculture work doesn’t get done well, the forests don’t grow,” she said, “and if they don’t grow they don’t produce everything from two-by-fours to cedar shakes to biomass for energy production.”

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