Not for Saps: Tree Planting in Alberta

On the list of all things quintessentially Canadian, the lumberjack ranks high. The image, real or imagined, is a part of the country’s folklore: there he stands, clad in a red and black checked jacket, one foot raised to rest on a tree stump. There is an axe lying on the ground beside him and the vastness of the yet-to-be-cut forest stretches far into the background. He was part of the legions of men and women (“lumberjills” took over in wartime) who fuelled the timber trade, one of Canada’s founding industries.

In more recent memory, however, a different figure of the forest has emerged. Tree planters — in terms of strength and endurance — may be the new lumberjacks. Over a century’s worth of shifting environmental policy means that today, maintaining Canada’s forests is as important as cutting them down. Tree planting is an essential part of this maintenance, and each year thousands of young Canadians trek through rough conditions and remote areas to replant thousands of trees.

The resource they’re helping to protect is immense. Canada has over 300 million hectares (ha) of forest, representing an area nearly double the size of Mexico, 10 per cent of the world’s forest cover and 30 per cent of the world’s boreal forest. Despite being the lead exporter of softwood lumber, newsprint and wood pulp, Canada harvests less than 0.2 per cent of its forest annually. Though seemingly small, this area amounts to about 600,000 ha, and while trees can now be chopped down with the help of machines, replanting must be done by hand, one sapling at a time.

Canada hasn’t always been so committed to reforestation. “We are recklessly destroying the timber of Canada,” wrote John A. Macdonald in 1871, “and there is scarcely a possibility of replacing it.” Despite this damning statement from the then prime minister, changes in forestry practice took time. In the 1980s, the federal government launched a campaign to step-up sustainable forest management. Included was a goal to more than double the area replanted every year. Today, reforestation is an unquestioned, permanent part of Canadian forestry practice.

In the summer of 2013, photojournalist and former planter Luc Forsyth set out to document tree planting in northern Alberta. His photos, featured here, add to the mythology of Canada’s forests. No longer is the lumberjack the country’s sole ambassador to the woods. Joining him are the soiled-yet-persistent men and women tasked with renewing them.