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magazine / jun10

June 2010 issue

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Biodiversity: Ontario Tree Planting

50 Million Trees   (Page 1 of 5)

Ontario’s government has an ambitious plan to reforest the most populated part of Canada. First, it must grapple with libertarian landowners and fragmented landscapes — and the fact that it got out of the business of planting trees.

By Fraser Los with photography by Eamon Mac Mahon and Tobin Grimshaw
'An old-growth forest is not just a collection of trees frozen in time like a photograph. It contains a history of what came before and the potential for what is to come.'“An old-growth forest is not just a collection of trees frozen in time like a photograph. It contains a history of what came before and the potential for what is to come.”
Photo: Eamon Mac Mahon
Photo essay See lush photos of Ontario’s remaining old-growth forests and the effort to replant them.

Click to view photo essay
Interactive Map Read success stories from Ontario communities racing to plant 50 million trees.

View now
Multimedia Discover videos, interactive features and photos on the ideas, science and communities behind our biodiversity issue.
View now
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  • Citizen Science

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  • 50 Million Trees

    Ontario has an ambitious plan to reforest the most populated part of Canada. But first it must grapple with landowners and fragmented landscapes. Read more »
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Along the back roads of eastern Ontario, among the sleepy towns, antique shops and touristy locks that squeeze the Rideau River south of Ottawa, “Back Off Government” signs pepper a mixed countryside of cattle farms and small woodlands. Landowner pride runs strong here, although many traditional farms have given way to properties bought up by transplanted urbanites escaping the city and relishing the natural scenery.

Tree planting success stories from Ontario communities
Read tree planting success stories from Ontario communities.

The morning air is muggy as I approach the crossroads hamlet of Toledo, which sits halfway between two wetlands and is the focal point for the Bellamy to Irish Lake Connectivity Project, a tree-planting and conservation strategy. Just south of the village intersection, I park and walk up to an old stone schoolhouse that’s a regular meeting place for Garnet Baker and Dwayne Struthers, two lifelong Toledo residents who initiated the project. “By the time we’re finished, there won’t be any area around the waterways between these two wetlands that’s not covered,” says Baker, who learned how to swim in the creek that slices through his old farm and connects the two lakes.

In order for it to work, planners are banking on sophisticated computer models to help them plant strategically to connect isolated patches of forest.

Both retired after careers in the region — Baker was an elementary school principal, and Struthers owned a furniture store across the road from where we’re chatting — they now volunteer much of their free time to the Leeds County Stewardship Council, a community organization that works to preserve the natural landscape. So far, they’ve helped plant more than 155,000 trees throughout the project area’s roughly 3,000 square kilometres, a swath that includes the properties of more than 40 farmers and other landowners who initially did not have to pay but now cover part of the cost of planting trees on their land.

On a sawdust-covered table, we unfurl satellite maps to view the project’s progress, and I ask the men how they convinced landowners that it was worth their effort and money. “The first time, we invited people to the Legion,” recalls Struthers. “I just said, ‘Look, folks, you know me. If this wasn’t a good idea, we wouldn’t be doing it.’”


This project, and dozens of similar initiatives elsewhere in the province, received a major boost after the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) announced its commitment of $79 million to plant 50 million trees by 2020, predominantly in southern Ontario — a densely populated strip that hugs the Great Lakes all the way to the Quebec border and is bounded to the north by the Canadian Shield. Conceived in 2007, the tree-planting effort is the largest contribution of any participating jurisdiction in North America to the United Nations Environment Programme’s Billion Tree Campaign.

Since trees absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, the 50 Million Tree Program started primarily as a carbon-sequestration scheme in Ontario’s battle against climate change. It will also help restore southern Ontario’s degraded ecosystems and provide corridors for wildlife. But that clear sense of purpose is one of the few straightforward things about the project. The effort requires nothing less than the reconstruction of a tree-planting infrastructure that was all but lost in the mid-1990s due to government cutbacks. And, in order for it to work, planners are banking on sophisticated computer models to help them plant strategically to connect isolated patches of forest. What’s more, rural residents must be convinced to get on board in a region that’s about 90 percent privately owned.

Although Baker has been volunteering for the stewardship council for 15 years — and, by extension, working with the MNR — even he remains leery of government. “They tell you one thing and then do another,” he says. “Landowners have been trained over the years,” he adds. “If government says to do something, they’re not going to do it.”

Anti-government sentiment is rife throughout rural Ontario. In Lanark-Frontenac-Lennox and Addington — the riding just west of Leeds-Grenville, which contains Toledo — Conservative MPP Randy Hillier, one of the founding members of the fiercely libertarian Ontario Landowners Association (OLA), was elected, in part, for his strong stance against government interference on private lands. The OLA argues that rural Ontario is under “systematic attack by government bureaucracy and false environmentalism.” Under this kind of scrutiny, eco-initiatives can face stiff resistance.

From its main office in Peterborough, a 90-minute drive northeast of Toronto, the MNR relies on local stewardship councils and conservation authorities to counter that resistance. The arrangement makes logistical sense, since these agencies are intimately aware of their regions’ landscapes, but perhaps more important, it also builds trust. Stewardship councils function primarily through the leadership of volunteers such as Baker and Struthers, but regional coordinators are also employed by the MNR to act as conduits for government-based information and resources. It’s a relatively hands-off method that allows the government to promote responsible land care in rural communities.

In the drawn-out cold of mid-winter, Gary Nielsen, coordinator of the MNR’s climate-change program in southern Ontario, is taking that message to an audience of farmers and landowners at a woodlot conference in Kemptville, about 60 kilometres south of Ottawa. As a former stewardship coordinator whose territory included the Toledo area, Nielsen helped conceive of the Bellamy to Irish Lake project with Baker and Struthers. But here, he’s representing the big, bad government to a skeptical crowd.

The gym at the University of Guelph Kemptville Campus is filled to capacity, and portable chairs squawk on the concrete floor. “Climate change is likely the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced,” flashes a PowerPoint slide, which features graphs that depict global carbon emissions and average temperatures increasing exponentially. While recognizing that it is only one small cog in a larger strategy that involves reducing fossil-fuel use and promoting renewable energy, Nielsen makes sure to stress that new provincial funding will translate into drastically reduced costs for planting trees.

Continued on Page 2 »

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Related content and resources:
Photo Club
View a gallery of Eamon Mac Mahon’s photos of Canada’s forests and read a one-on-one interview with the photographer.
The International Year of Biodiversity
Learn more about the International Year of Biodiversity and what you can do to contribute to this U.N. initiative.
50 Million Trees
Get involved in your community with Ontario’s 50 Million Tree Program. Donate or organize your own plant, because every tree counts.
Return to the Wild
Explore and learn more about the diversity of Canada’s wildlife in the Return to the Wild project.

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Comments on this articleView all comments (13) | Leave a comment

Teachers and environmental outreach coordinators can run their own Citizen Science project using free online tools at

Submitted by Paul on Friday, March 25, 2016

Citizen scientist can submit wildlife and plant sightings into community database at 'Wildlife & Plant Sightings'

Sightings data are organized into basic reports and easily searchable.

Amateur to professional can contrinute their citizen science here.

Submitted by Paul Lindgreen on Monday, January 24, 2011

This story requires the eyes of an ornithologist on the water counting birds. Birds as indicators tell us about the world below. Having just returned from the Jordan Basin region I can attest to the rich Biodiversity that I saw as I counted birds. Dovekie, N. Fulmar, Greater Shearwater..... This Bioregion is important to both the United States and Canada. It behooves all of us to work together diligently to understand this region of the Ocean. Remember also that it is our RIVER Ecosystems connected to the Gulf of Maine that ultimately determine the biodiversity of the GOM.
Pollution in the GOM is a death sentence. Dioxins and mercury must be removed from the Penobscot River and all streams and culverts must be reconnected to the SEA-RUN FISH.. These are the Keystone Species of the GOM and determine the Health of both the United States and Canadian people.

Submitted by Michael J. Good, MS on Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Good article, but most professional foresters will recongnize that most of the photos do not depict an old growth forests, but a variety of second growth or fire-origin sites.

Submitted by collin on Sunday, June 20, 2010

With respect to the statistics Candace quotes from the Int'l Union for Conservation of Nature Red List Is it 12% of all birds or 12% of all species of birds. Quite a different number I would think.

Submitted by Collin on Sunday, June 20, 2010

The excellent article by Fraser Los entitled “50 million trees” is welcome. While the article focuses on Ontario Government plans to reforest Southern Ontario the author also mentions efforts being undertaken in Northern Ontario. To expand on these remarks…

The Forest Health and Silvicultural Section of the Ministry of Natural Resources advises “in 2008, approximately 92 million trees were planted in Ontario, with 49.8 million of these in the Northwest Region”. Survival rates for Pine Spruce are typically 80 to 85% in the Thunder Bay area and are affected by lack of rain, higher temperatures and frost. Tree plant numbers for 2009 will be available in March 2011.

As one flies or takes a survol by Google over the vast expanse of Northern Ontario, one can’t help but wonder about the sustainability of the Boreal Forest. For example, in some areas notably near the Ogoki reservoir, there are any number of 10,000 hectare clearcuts. Huge areas are unplanted and without sufficient seed trees left standing for natural regeneration. Considerable piles of over cut and uncollected wood lie north of Armstrong. As forest tenure is being renogiated, often with the same companies that have left this mess, Northerners can’t help but wonder if there will be any improvement?

Also, the deplorable conditions experienced by many tree planters, mosty Canadian students, needs examining. Migrant workers picking crops in Southern Ontario have much better accommodation, food and standards than experienced by northern tree planters who are often forced to work in cold rain and snow while sleeping in tents. Certainly miracle planters might attain 5,000 trees under ideal conditions, however most struggle to plant 1,000 or 2,000 trees to meet their camp costs, clothing, travel and to have meagre savings for education.

A article on the future of the Boreal Forest and sustainable forestry in Northern Ontario would be welcome.

Submitted by Paul Filteau on Friday, June 18, 2010

Evolution happens with or without our consent or assistance. Yet it's hard to see the good in some of the growing numbers of invasive plant species. Good article, thanks.

Submitted by Tina on Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Informative and well-written article. Nice to see attention being paid to this important, though sadly neglected, issue in Manitoba.

Submitted by Tom Penner on Friday, May 28, 2010

Here is a slideshow from this year's Guelph Rotary Forest tree planting at wich about 1,000 people helped plant trees:

Submitted by Janet Baine on Thursday, May 27, 2010

We should cherish and protect the old-growth rain forests and what's left around us.

Submitted by james on Thursday, May 27, 2010

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