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Why Ontario is struggling to find homes for 50 million trees

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In Environment
Feb 5th, 2016
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-Financial Post photo

-Financial Post photo

Nine years ago the government of Ontario vowed to plant 50 million trees in southern Ontario by 2020. It has fallen far short of its goal

Peter Kuitenbrouwer Financial Post

Anybody want a tree?

Nine years ago the government of Ontario vowed to plant 50 million trees in southern Ontario by 2020. It has fallen far short of its goal.

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The problem is not a lack of trees. The Ontario Tree Seed Plant has more than five billion tree seeds in storage, and nurseries have millions of seedlings.

For as little as 15 cents a tree, Forests Ontario, a non-profit funded by the province, will plant trees on your land, tend them a year later, and assess their survival in years one, two and five, provided you allocate at least a hectare to future forest. (The landowner agrees to let the trees grow 15 years, but that deal is void if you sell the land).

In 2008, Trees Ontario, now part of Forests Ontario, vowed in a news release that its goal was “to increase tree planting to 10 million trees every year by 2015.” Its 23 employees, including seven in the field, managed to find homes for just three million trees last year. The organization has since moved the deadline to plant 50 million trees five years into the future, to 2025.

What went wrong? Rob Keen, chief executive at Forests Ontario, blames the province. “It was just about government funding, what was available,” he says, in an interview at his office near Toronto’s Union Station.

But Bill Mauro, Ontario’s minister of natural resources and forestry, in a telephone interview from Thunder Bay, which he represents, said he knows of no program cuts.

Emily Kirk in Mauro’s office later clarified: “Our government has always maintained funding for this program.”

The province gave Forests Ontario $4.7 million last year. “However,” Kirk added in an email, “we recognize the existing capacity of our partners to deliver the program and the challenges of finding willing landowners to commit land and resources.”

This gets us closer to what appears to be the problem: many landowners have never heard of Ontario’s 50 Million Tree Program.

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“One of our biggest challenges is being able to reach out to landowners,” concedes Keen. “We need to penetrate the green noise that’s out there. To rise above it to get the message out is a real challenge.”

Others have noticed the lack of awareness. Dave Harbec is propagation manager at Somerville Seedlings in Everett, Ont., about 120 kilometres north of Toronto, the largest seedling supplier to Forests Ontario. Standing in a field with some of the company’s 20 million tiny trees poking through the snow, he says landowners frequently call him up to order, say, 3,000 three-year-old seedlings.

That can add up: Somerville sells white pine seedlings for 60 cents each and red pine for 72 cents (if you buy more than 1,000) — and buyers still have to find someone to plant and tend them.

“I’m like, ‘Haven’t you heard of the 50 Million Tree Program?’” Harbec says. “We are trying to promote this program to make sure landowners are available. The hardest thing is finding landowners.”
Laura Pedersen/National Post

Once again, Keen deflects blame to others. “Unfortunately, the public does not have a grasp of how important the natural environment is, and governments do what people want them to do,” he says. “If the public isn’t asking them for trees, then they won’t plant them.”

Ontario minister Mauro concedes that it can be difficult to get people interested in trees.

“When I was on city council in Thunder Bay, I suggested we plant 750,000 trees. They just laughed at me,” he says.

Even so, Mauro notes that the 50 Million Tree Program, which targets private land, is a small part of the province’s reforestation efforts. In addition, forest product companies planted 900 million trees on Crown land in Ontario from 2003 to 2013.

Forests Ontario, in an effort to find homes for its trees, in 2014 expanded the 50 Million Trees Program to northern Ontario and stepped up efforts to plant trees in cities.

“We have given ourselves 10 years to get one million trees in the urban setting,” Mauro says. “The benefits are huge: habitat for animals, soil retention and air quality.”

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