How millions of Ontario trees escaped Doug Ford’s cuts

The federal government has saved the province’s 50 Million Tree Program. What does that mean for Ontario forests?
By Elaine Anselmi - Published on Jul 23, 2019
On Wednesday, Ottawa announced that it would save an Ontario tree-planting program via a four-year, $15 million investment. (iStock.com/Onfokus)

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In an unpaved parking lot in the small community of Mansfield, 40 minutes southwest of Barrie, Rick Grillmayer presses a map of the Nottawasaga Valley watershed against the driver-side window of his truck. Grillmayer is the manager of forestry for Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority, which stewards a parcel of land stretching from Georgian Bay to Lake Simcoe. On this May morning, he’s driving through town checking in on his crew, who are busy planting a mix of pine, oak, and other trees on 21 private properties. This year, they’ll plant 139,000 trees across the watershed’s 3,700 square kilometres.

Planting a forest isn’t cheap. At the first property we visit, a 5.5-hectare former hay farm, it costs about $3,800 per hectare, factoring in labour, the cost of nearly 11,000 seedlings, and the creation of a forest­-management plan. That’s why, in 2008, the then-Liberal provincial government unveiled the 50 Million Tree Program, which subsidizes the costs of planting and was initially intended to encourage communities and private landowners to plant 50 million trees by 2020.

The program, which costs $4.7 million annually, was developed by the non-profit Forests Ontario with funding from the Ontario government. It reduced the cost for these landowners in Nottawasaga Valley to roughly $675 per hectare.

But, in April, the Progressive Conservative government announced that it was cutting the program. The money, the Tories argued, wasn’t being put to good use. In the 11 years since its inception, the program helped fund the planting of 27 million trees, “well short of their initial goal of 50,000,000 trees by 2020,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry told TVO.org via email. By contrast, she added, “the forest industry has planted over 1,000,000,000 trees since 2005.”

Rob Keen, CEO of Forests Ontario, disagrees with that assessment. He points out that, in 2013, the province extended the program through 2025 because the funding hadn’t kept up with the rising costs of planting. He adds that, while logging companies in northern Ontario are legally obligated to replenish what they cut, for developers in southern Ontario, “there is no such law.” Keen also argues that industry planting serves a different purpose from the kind sponsored by 50 Million Trees. Where logging companies replace cleared land, his program was intended to create entirely new forests. Its goal was net gain: not reforestation, but afforestation.

On Wednesday, the federal government announced that it would temporarily save the program via a four-year, $15 million investment — enough to plant 10 million more trees. “By funding this tree-planting program,” reads a statement from federal environment minister Catherine McKenna, “we are investing in clean air, a healthier environment, and more resilient communities as our climate changes.” Here’s what all this means.

Trees for the environment

According to Environment Canada, watersheds that have less than 30 per cent forest cover are high-risk — that is, they support less than half of their potential biodiversity and overall ecosystem health. It’s not until forest cover reaches 50 per cent that a watershed is designated low-risk. In Nottawasaga, forest cover ranges from 40 per cent to as little as 11 per cent.

John Bacher, an environmental consultant, says that the cut to the 50 Million Trees program represents a case of “historical amnesia.” In April 1937, the Thames River, in London, Ontario, rose 23 feet, flooding the city and surrounding area, killing five people, and destroying 1,100 homes. At the time, forest cover across southern Ontario was critically low — on average, 9 per cent, and closer to 4 per cent along the Thames.

Tree planting became a priority: municipalities gained more control over private clearing, and the Conservation Authorities Act, introduced in 1946, buoyed efforts to support flood management through reforestation. By 1963, 25 per cent of southern Ontario was covered in forest — roughly the level of coverage today. “It does seem to be that people have forgotten why this system was created,” Bacher says.

Given that the vast majority of land in southern Ontario is privately owned, Keen says, “if we think having forests on that landscape is important, we have to create incentive for landowners to want to plant trees on their property.”

Trees for the economy

A report from Forests Ontario released in March indicates that the 50 Million Tree Program contributes $12.7 million annually to the province’s GDP and has created more than 300 full-time seasonal jobs. The report also finds that the new forests the program has produced capture and remove 19,000 tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere each year; they also support biodiversity, pollination, water-supply regulation, and such recreational activities as hiking and bird-watching. The report pegs the value of these auxiliary benefits at $83 million annually.

In Nottawasaga, Grillmayer has gone from planting about 50,000 trees a year to, most years, more than 200,000. This has meant more business for nurseries such as Somerville Seedlings, which supplies the program with 1.5 million trees each year. Somerville’s propagation manager, Brent Forbes, says that, since 2008, the nursery has invested in land and infrastructure and doubled its staff: “We’re much more established than we were prior to the program.”

In an email to TVO.org, the ministry spokesperson points out that other mechanisms exist to encourage forestation: “Our Government continues to support good forestry management practices on private land through programs like the Managed Forest Tax Incentive Program.” This program lowers the tax rate for private landowners in eligible areas if they maintain a minimum of four hectares of forested property.

Keen says that while this may be a windfall for owners of already-forested land, it does little to offset the upfront costs of forestation. And Grillmayer says that, without the funding from 50 Million Trees, the landowners in his region might still have planted some of their property “but not all of it.”

For now, though, the funding is back. “I am relieved,” Grillmayer told TVO.org by email. “The landowners who want to plant trees next year are relieved. My technician who is coming back from maternity leave now has a job in 2020.”

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