B.C.'s chief forester is calling for the start of the tree planting season to be delayed until the week of May 4, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a letter issued on March 24, Chief Forester Diane Nicholls said the tree planting season will see up to 5,000 transient tree planters arriving in rural communities throughout the province, and planning is needed protect workers and residents.
"The COVID-19 pandemic is creating huge uncertainty for everyone involved in making the Interior planting season a success; the situation is fluid, and changing every day with new and increasingly stringent measures being applied to combat the potential threat of infection and protect the citizens of B.C.," Nicholls said in her letter. "One of the main concerns for all parties is that the reforestation season proceeds successfully by implementing all reasonable measures to ensure the safety of workers and the communities they work in."
An estimated 230 million seedlings were scheduled to be planted in B.C. over the 10-week period starting in mid-to-late April, she said.
"(This year) represents the single largest planting program the province has ever managed. This year’s planting program is estimated at 308 million trees in response to legal reforestation obligations, the 2017 and 2018 wildfires and the strategic use of reforestation to mitigate climate change," Nicholls said. "In a normal year the start date for most Interior contractor operations would be between April 20th and early May. Starting immediately employers would begin mobilizing crews from around Canada, begin thawing trees, booking transport and setting up camps or other types of lodgings"
In some parts of the province, planting has already begun and those contractors can continue, as long as they follow the current provincial health and safety requirements, Nicholls said.
The provincial government, BC Timber Sales, licensees and the Western Forestry Contractors Association are working collaboratively to adapt processes and develop safety procedures to allow the planting season to move ahead safely. They're also working on ways to reorganize the planting logistics to allow contractors to make up for the lost time, and examining administrative issues around contract quotas and completion dates.
"More guidance on how to address COVID-19 in field operations and camp standards will be forthcoming over the coming days and most importantly we will ensure timely communication with the silviculture contractors doing this work," Nicholls said.
"The interim start-up date will be reviewed on a regular basis with the intent to provide contractors, industry and government some security around not setting plans in motion that can not be delivered due to extended problems caused by the virus."
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development said the ministry is working with industry partners on issues including camp health and safety procedures, workforce support, communications and engaging with municipal leaders.
"It’s important for the reforestation season to successfully proceed – but it must take all reasonable measures to ensure the safety of workers and the communities they work in," the spokesperson said.