A Whirlwind Tour of Western Canada


For many people, October means crisp fall days and explosions of colour among many of our favourite deciduous species.  For reforestation contractors in British Columbia, it also means “viewing season,” as the provincial government, through the Ministry of Forests and BCTS, releases contracts for tender for the following spring and summer planting seasons.

For the past few fall seasons, I’ve been involved in that process, and it has quickly become my favourite time of year.  In a five to six week stretch, I’ll travel all over BC (and probably a bit in Alberta too), driving approximately twenty-five thousand kilometres, and probably going through at least five oil changes and five or six flat tires in the process.  Many of these kilometres are on gravel logging roads.  I’ll look at trees on at least twenty separate contracts, with hundreds of blocks totalling around thirty million trees.  To say that it is an exhausting tour would be an understatement, but it’s also incredibly interesting.  I’ll visit about 95% of the blocks on each contract, although I’m sometimes limited by time constraints, especially when access isn’t possible by truck, or when dusk hits before I finish looking at an area, or when the snow comes early.

When I get to each block, my first task is to determine what time of year the block will be planted, because that will influence many other factors that I’ll be assessing.  I’ll also look at the size of the block (bigger is better) and whether or not there are other blocks very close at hand, in case a crew needs to be split up to give everyone a full day of work without the dreaded mid-day move.

There are over thirty factors that I’ll think about, albeit in rapid-fire succession.  Most importantly, I think about access.  Can we get to the block by truck, and if so, in 2WD or 4WD?  What about access on the block – truck or quad to each area?  And if the trucks can’t make it to the edge of the block, what are the alternatives?  Using quads is the most common backup plan when the trucks can’t make it, followed by helicopter.  Side-by-sides are coming into increasing use, and on rare occasions, we might use less common vehicles such as Argos, rolligons, track machines, or even hovercraft (these are more common in Alberta than in BC) or barges (commonly used on the Coast).  Access by foot is sometimes a necessary evil.  Travel time is important, so I need to figure out surface driving time (in a lumbering crummy or loaded FIST) from the approximate camp/motel location.

Next, I’ll look at several groups of characteristics.  The first might be called the Geography Group.  The average altitude affects when the snow should be melted and the ground thawed.  The altitude range is important because bigger differences from low to high ground increase the chance of seedlot complexity.  The aspect also matters for snow melt and the slope affects production numbers.  The ratio of block size to approximate total road length on the block is important, because more roadside means more “easy” places to set up caches.

Next is the Surface Group.  What is the slash load like?  How was the block processed and/or cleaned up?  How much coarse debris or litter is on the surface?  How green will the block be at the time of planting and what types of vegetation exist?  Is there moss, and if so, it is feather moss (potentially an issue) or spaghnum (which we can plant into)? Different species (alder, twinberry, fireweed, devil’s club, lab tea, or grasses) cause variations in difficulty.    What time of year was the block harvested?  A winter harvest means vegetation might have been protected by snow, and thus could be more prevalent & resilient.

Next up is the Soils Group.  Is there a lot of rock?  If so, what kind (cobble, stones, slate, or other types)?  Is there a lot of soil, or mostly black organics?  If soil, is it red/brown mineral, or powder gray, or heavy in clay content?  Is there any sand?  Is the soil well-drained, or will it hold a lot of moisture?

As for Planting Specs, what does the forester recommend for target density, and minimum intra-tree distance?  How many species are there, and in what ratios?  Do the planters need to plant “tea-bag” fertilizer packs with each tree, or add cones or stakes?  What kind of quality checking system is used?  What kind of faults might be expected to be problematic in this particular area?  What species and stock sizes have been prescribed?

The time of year that a contract will be planted is also important.  Trees that need to be planted in June will go at a higher bid price, because there is too much May and June work and not enough labour supply.  Planting companies often bid more aggressively for July trees, as they try to chase a small volume of work to keep their work force going for a longer season.

As you can see, contractors don’t just drive up to the block, stare at it while chewing a piece of jerky, and pull a number out of thin air.  Before I leave each block, I’ll rapidly scribble notes on the back of the block map, take a few photos and perhaps some video, and add it to the files that need to go back to the office.  There, the owners will study all of my notes, look at the photos, determine prices, and put together the official bid package.

It sounds like a lot of work, but most people who work in forestry appreciate the sometimes-too-rare opportunities to see some beautiful scenery, hike up and down mountains, and enjoy Canada’s beautiful outdoors.  After all, there is beauty in the clear-cut.

Jonathan “Scooter” Clark has worked as a tree planter and/or supervisor at approximately fifteen western Canadian reforestation contractors over the past few two decades, and is the administrator of the Replant.ca website.  Check out some of his photos from previous Fall viewing seasons at Replant.ca/photos