Environment

The Dark Side of Reforestation Programs: Planting 7,000 Trees a Day in Brutal Conditions

"78 Days," a compelling documentary by Canadian filmmaker and former tree planter Jason Nardella, reveals the dark side of reforestation labor.

Reforestation and tree planting is a tricky topic for many environmentalists. Every year, several billion trees are harvested for fuel, construction and paper products. While alternative products like hemp and bamboo can solve part of the problem, as can recycling paper products, curbing the effects of the behemoth logging industry takes time and resources. For ordinary people concerned about deforestation, it doesn't take much to buy some carbon offset credits or a voucher to replace a tree or two. But it takes an extraordinary amount of resources to actually plant and nurture all those new trees. And behind the scenes of every good faith voucher purchase is a whole other industry focused on regrowth -- not always with optimal results that actually reduce CO2 levels.

Some critics also argue that carbon offsets, or taking steps to neutralize our carbon footprint, can be ineffective or even harmful because they are only a short-term solution. Others contend that all carbon emissions are not created equal. Burning fossil fuels simply can't be compared with biological tree carbon. All of this controversy doesn't even take into account how carbon offset programs -- let alone the simple demand for lumber -- could potentially be fueling the grueling work conditions for tree planters.

78 Days, a compelling documentary by Canadian filmmaker and former tree planter Jason Nardella, reveals the dark side of reforestation labor. Nardella focused his lens on a 2008 tree planting crew in remote northern Alberta. Over the course of four short months, the small crew of mostly veteran hardworking planters was tasked with planting an astounding 10 million trees regardless of climate or injury. It wasn't some sort of unusually intense planting season. On the contrary, these planters toil every summer planting season under such extreme conditions and deadlines.

It's worth noting that the extreme conditions associated with the tree planting season are documented online if you go searching for planter diaries or warnings about the potential dangers of the job on tree planting job boards. What Nardella depicts isn't atypical, especially in the remote upper regions of the Canadian wilderness.

Shot on a mix of video and grainy Super 8 film, 78 Days focuses on the workers as they convene in the spring in High Level, a secluded town near the border of the Northwest Territories that seems to exist primarily for seasonal laborers who pass through the area. The planters work for Wildwoods Reforestation, whose clients include Tolko Industries and La Crete Sawmills. In a mere 65 days scheduled for the planting season, with only 28 planters on the job, they will plant an astounding 9.6 million trees.

78 Days touches on the politics of tree planting but focuses largely on labor conditions and the type of isolated piecework that attracts people searching for ways to push back against social norms about work, money and liberation. As one worker narrates over beautiful b-roll of the forest in the film's opening sequence, "A little discomfort can grant you a lot of freedom."

There's a running joke among the planters; as much as they love the freedom their job provides the rest of the year, they dread the actual work. "Every year before I come planting, I start buying lottery tickets the month before as the last ditch [effort]," says Tim, a planter in his ninth season. Like the other planters, Tim has had no formal training for the work. As he and the other seasoned planters have aged, they've also begun to consider alternatives to the grueling 10-hour-plus days of manual labor the time-sensitive seasonal work demands.

"Every other job I work after planting will be easy," says one unidentified planter. Another describes it as "a three-month tour of duty." Adam complains of trench foot after a day of wading through knee-high water. By midseason, many planters suffer from painful heat rash on their legs. That's really only the beginning of their physical difficulties out in the sequestered wilderness.

Extreme weather accounts for some of the hardship in the northern region. A retrospective of the 2007 season shows the planters waking one May morning to find their camp covered in seven inches of snow. As the 2008 season wears on and the ground becomes muddier, a muskeg-ready vehicle known as the Marsh Master ferries the planting crew and bushels of saplings over the marshlands into remote bogs. It may be a vital vehicle, but the Marsh Master is extremely loud and without suspension. "There are many days you get off with a headache, a sore body, stiff hips because you've been sitting all day," explains Adam, one of the Marsh Master controllers.

The physical challenges extend beyond the health of the workers. Mathilde and Jean-Simon, two seasoned planters, bring their sons, baby Xavier and toddler Manu, along for the four-month adventure. When the infant gets an ear infection, the family waits it out. It isn't the first time they've hoped an illness would pass. There's no way to easily get to a clinic or hospital, and the planters are on a strict timeline.

Other couples use the time away to their advantage. Corey and Marie-Eve are both speed skaters who spend the rest of the year training to skate professionally. During their four months in the forest, they get a grueling workout and make enough to eat well and be able to focus on their sport the rest of the year.

Several workers, including one of the few woman, Alexandra, talk about how they've been trying to get out of the work for several seasons. Tatiana describes the sheer boredom of the isolating work. A ninth season planter, Vinny, says he keeps track of 15-minute increments. "If I can get through 15 minutes, I know I can get through the next 15 minutes." But conversely, many explain that due to the intensity of the work, other work is also extremely boring and alienating. "When I was working customer service, I felt like I was from another planet," Alexandra says.

Most of the planters have no illusions about why they do the work. On sight, many might be pegged as stereotypical outdoorsy environmental activists with unkempt hair, comfortable outdoor-ready clothing and hiking boots covering layers of woolen socks. But few take time out from their work to extol the virtues of potentially reversing the effects of climate change. "You come out here with that idea of, 'Wilderness. This is gonna be great. I'm gonna love it. I'm gonna save the world,'" Tim says as a mix of mosquitoes and deer, sand and horse flies buzz around his head. "But this is the reality of nature, OK? It's very nice, it's green, it's lush, it's full of life. You know what? Some of that life is super-small and sucks blood out of people."

Alexandra is more blunt. "Yes, I want the forest to be beautiful and all that," she says. "But the reality is, I'm doing this job for the money." Even for first-season planter Marie-Eve, two days of work pays a month's rent. "That's a big deal," she says.

The amount of trees planted is just as big of a deal as the conditions under which it's done. Planters typically go through dozens of boxes of saplings on a good day, and from that standpoint, the math is rather simple. One box contains 270 tree saplings. Twenty-five boxes of saplings equal 6,750 trees. Ten cents a tree equals $675 a day. Multiply $675 by 78 days, and that's over $50,000 a year for four months of work. While the money is good, a tenth season planter named Jonathan points out that he's been paid the same rate per tree planted for the entirety of his career. The industry remains competitive, and even workers like Tatiana and Yohann, who winter cheaply in Latin America, surfing and eating tacos on the beach in Mexico, return the following year to build back up their savings.

Even with occasional days off, some planters pack up early with several days left in the season. It's unclear why this is allowed, and while those staying behind are distressed, there's no record of griping at the people who leave early.

The full-time cooks Amy and Kaeli even get worn out as the season drags on and joke about how much food everyone eats. Over the course of the 2008 season, they cooked over 700 pounds of bacon. Those numbers are indicative of the fact that most of the planters are burning upwards of 6,000 calories each day.

With so many workers shipping out ahead of the deadline, the season is extended by two weeks, and injuries are suddenly more frequent and serious. "It's hard to come out here and plant 4,000 trees a day for 70 days," Adam says. He estimates that this season alone, he's planted two million trees. Doing the same bending motion repeatedly, he worries about his aching body. "I want to get out of here before something pops," he says. He likens tree planting to running a marathon, "but for 70 days," he says. Thus, the planting of the final tree, "is a huge emotional conquest."

The highs and lows of the group's experience are evident in the ways they speak about focusing on positive thoughts and trying to forget the monotony of the daily grind. Many talk about their lives away from planting, like Adam, who shoots surf photography all winter and works to have his photos published in several magazines. Looking forward to leaving, the most intense experience seems to be each worker's immense relief at the end of the summer. "Anyone who leaves planting -- it's one of the best days of their life," explains Corey. Alexandra leaps for joy when her last tree is planted and vows she'll never come back.

It's unclear from watching the film whether or not the planters' reforestation efforts are effective from an environmental standpoint, though there's clearly more than enough annual work to be done. Inspections are performed, and some trees have what is known as J-root, when the roots take hold at a horizontal angle instead of vertically. When trees are planted sideways or don't take hold in a variety of soils, peat and inhospitable clay, planters have to double back and make up for the poorly planted trees. While the emphasis is clearly on quantity, not always quality, management doesn't allow for sloppy planting that makes it impossible for saplings to take root.

Clocking in at just over an hour, 78 Days is a remarkably intimate look at how vital forests continue to flourish and how regrowth is possible. Next time you chip in a few extra bucks for some carbon offset planting, remember that the worker planting the sapling makes 10 cents for each tree you purchase, and that simply planting trees might not be enough to reverse the widespread effects of climate change.  

Brittany Shoot is a writer and editor based in San Francisco. Find her at brittanyshoot.com.