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.

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.

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.

Trees absorb carbon because they are carbon — of a tree’s equal parts water and solid mass, roughly half of its solid matter is stored carbon. And a young tree sequesters more carbon than an older one, essentially because its enhanced growth is synonymous with carbon storage. That’s why planting trees, especially on land that is non-forested — a practice called afforestation — makes sense as a carbon-offset strategy.

“Trees are a bit of a magic bullet,” Nielsen tells me later. Increased property values, shade and wind protection, species conservation, water-supply protection and erosion control are just a few of the benefits. Now, with the added incentive of possible financial return in any future carbontrading schemes, rural landowners are starting to listen.

The MNR estimates that planting new forests in southern Ontario with 50 million trees will absorb close to 2.5 million tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere by 2050. That works out to about 6.6 million tonnes of “carbon dioxide equivalent” (a standard measure used to calculate greenhouse-gas potential), which would be like taking about 1.9 million small cars off the road for a full year.

Ontario’s tree-planting infrastructure is as fragmented as its ecosystems, however, and in dire need of coordination. “In the past, everything was contained in government,” explains Nielsen. “From seed collection to nurseries to producing stock to arranging the site visits with landowners to planning the sites.” Although many people view tree planting as a simple feel-good endeavour, running a forestry project usually involves a 7-to-10-year process of forecasting, planning and coordinating — a huge task anywhere, but even more so on developed land dominated by private ownership.

Tree planting in southern Ontario has its roots in the agricultural sector, dating back to the late 1800s, when farmers experienced massive erosion issues on overharvested land. Long before governments got involved, organizations such as the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association recognized the importance of healthy forests.

In 1922, the province began entering into agreements to reforest and manage lands held by counties — the so-called agreement forests program, which lasted for 76 years. Over that period, the Ontario government planted more than 360 million trees on private land. That complex management system was gutted during Premier Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution, resulting in a massive reduction in annual tree planting — down to fewer than two million trees per year from a high of 20-to-25 million in the 1980s — as well as a devastating loss of forestry expertise and capacity. “We have to re-create everything that existed before the 1990s,” says Nielsen. “That’s the big challenge.”

When the MNR’s forestry division was dismantled, steep upfront costs made landowner tree planting on private lands highly unlikely. It’s estimated that planting one tree in Ontario costs about $2, everything included; at a common density of 2,000 trees per hectare, that works out to $4,000 for each hectare planted. “Not very many landowners,” says Nielsen, “are going to plant 10,000 to 20,000 trees on their land.”

The all-important incentive, of course, is money. And flowing from the province’s commitment to planting is a steady stream of dollars for new projects. But without a large-scale planting program in place to use the funding and with most prime land to reforest on private property, forestry and restoration planners are seeking creative ways to get more trees in the ground. Given the circumstances, making it cheaper for landowners to do it themselves is perhaps the best strategy. So the MNR has partnered with the not-forprofit Trees Ontario to offer a subsidy, which encourages landowners to plant on their own property by covering up to 75 percent of the planting costs.

Established in 1994 to ensure that the government’s leftover trees were not wasted in the wake of debilitating cuts, Trees Ontario has promoted planting ever since. But its role expanded overnight with the onset of the 50 Million Tree Program, which currently provides the agency with $3 million annually, though that figure is expected to increase as capacity grows. By using the increased funding to create a much-needed price break for property owners, Trees Ontario has reduced tree-planting costs to 15 cents per tree, or between $225 and $330 per hectare.

Beyond managing the subsidy, Trees Ontario has effectively taken over the MNR’s traditional oversight of the seed-to-tree process, but the system now operates in a radically different way than the all-in-one government model of the past. “We connect the dots between landowners and the planting agencies in their area,” says Trees Ontario director of operations Rob Keen. That entails everything from holding tree-planting workshops in town halls to sending out slick press releases that drum up landowner interest. Moreover, the agency must hold together a tenuous mix of seed collectors, tree-planting companies and nurseries that are all in the business of making money. From all these efforts, Trees Ontario hopes to ultimately increase annual planting in southern Ontario to 10 million trees per year.

The 50 Million Tree Program is ostensibly about sequestering carbon, but the larger goal is to enhance and diversify southern Ontario’s ailing ecosystems so that natural areas will sustain ballooning human populations and be resilient in the face of climate change. One recent MNR study ventured a conservative estimate for the value of southern Ontario’s forested areas — their so-called ecological goods and services — at more than $84 billion per year. As a trustee with Trees Ontario and the former president of non-profit conservation organization Ontario Nature, Steve Hounsell is pushing for a broader vision of planting that would take these values into account.

“The highly fragmented landscape of southern Ontario represents a unique situation,” says Hounsell. “Under scenarios of climate change — changing moisture and temperature regimes — many of those habitats are going to fundamentally change.” Isolated patches of forest will be highly vulnerable because affected species will not be able to find other suitable habitat nearby. Extreme weather events, such as drought, flood or tornadoes, could conceivably wipe out entire woodlots, devastating the habitat of already threatened niche species. Biologists and ecologists have long known that fragmented landscapes are inherently susceptible to major changes, but the issue takes on a new urgency as we enter the unprecedented realm of global climate change.

Hounsell argues for strategic tree planting that will restore threatened ecosystems by linking isolated woodlots and providing safe corridors for migrating wildlife. It’s what Baker and Struthers are doing in the Toledo area, creating a wildlife corridor by planting lakeside cedar trees. And it has become the guiding principle determining how and where these 50 million trees will get planted.

In a windowless conference room at the MNR office in Peterborough, Silvia Strobl looks a little overwhelmed. As coordinator of the MNR’s Southern Science and Information Section, she’s trying to take this project from paper to reality by working on a system that essentially maps large, connected natural areas with an eye toward their ecological sustainability. It’s an ambitious effort that’s still at the incubation stage.

Under Strobl’s direction, the MNR is using a geographic information system (GIS) to help ensure that tree planting and other restoration initiatives maximize the ecological potential in any given area. The MNR’s participatory approach — called “integrated landscape management” — incorporates the 50 million tree initiative into a broader strategy for conserving so-called natural heritage systems (networks of natural features such as wetlands, forests, river corridors, lakes and meadows that maintain air quality, safeguard groundwater, provide habitat for native species and recreational opportunities for people, among other things). By linking the programs, the MNR is, as Strobl puts it, trying to get a “bigger bang for our buck” in terms of government funding.

Borrowing aerial photography that municipalities use to map infrastructure features, such as roads and buildings, and poring over land-use statistics, Strobl’s team constantly reassesses the state of a region in flux. The next step is to assemble a diverse group of private landowners, municipal leaders, developers and conservation organizations to help decide what to protect and where. But for the purposes of the MNR’s planting program, Strobl is also interested in visualizing an “ideal” landscape, based on conservation and watershed science, which further complicates the task. The key challenge is condensing all this information into something that can be easily visualized — something that will set the stage for effective planning.

Participants start by listing the ecological ideals, or “targets,” they would like to see on their landscape. These could include anything from percentages of forest cover in woodlands to “functional” targets, such as stream and wetland preservation, that will help to purify drinking water or reduce erosion on stream banks.

Strobl walks me through a recently completed pilot project in the heavily developed Niagara Peninsula. Her series of intricate maps are colour-coded, showing diverse sections of urban and agricultural development, rivers and wetlands, plus a smattering of tiny, forested woodlots. Everything must be mapped and analyzed together in a system designed to make complex relationships look simple. Strobl uses a software program called Marxan to crunch through the huge number of possible “landscapes,” based on current information and proposed ecological targets. For example, the group assembled for the Niagara project agreed that one of its targets was larger forest patches characterized by a greater distance from the forest edge to its centre. (Landscape ecologists generally consider 100 metres from forest edge to interior to be the minimum distance that will support a full diversity of wildlife, albeit in a very small portion of the forest.) By mapping all factors together, such as forested patches of varying sizes, the program can then locate areas that, if planted, would result in larger forest patches.

At first, Strobl’s computer-generated maps look like nothing but coloured blobs, but they start to make sense when compared with aerial photos of the same land. Some areas are immediately excluded from planting initiatives because of urban or agricultural developments or because they are already protected as existing conservation areas. But by incorporating the “ideal” ecological targets into the model, the maps show specific regions where planting could restore significant areas like wetlands, create wildlife corridors and minimize fragmentation. “We’re not saying we know exactly how southern Ontario should look,” stresses Strobl. “We’re just saying we’ve got a model and data to bring to the table for consideration.”

Ultimately, it’s up to the people who live in the region to make the decisions and set the targets. And, regardless of how strategically the planting spots have been pegged, the trees still have to get in the ground. Someone’s hands have to get dirty.

Two-and-a-half hours northwest of Toronto, Grey County’s scattered woodlots, farms and apple orchards butt up to the southern rocky shore of Georgian Bay. On a blustery early-fall day, I’m looking down a row of planted trees that breaks the wind along a quiet concession road between two fields. The area resembles the land and rural flavour of Ontario’s eastern counties; I get the feeling that folks here are just as prickly about being told what to do on their own land.

Dave Taylor, the man who planted these trees, stands with his workboots unlaced and bulky jacket left open. “It’s a lot of frickin’ work,” he says, staring at last year’s cedars and red pines, which form a grid on the dry and weedy landscape. “And it all happens in a three-to-four-week window, because you have to plant when there’s moisture in the ground.” Southern Ontario’s hot, dry summers mean that prime planting conditions are packed into the spring, from roughly late April to mid-May.

Taylor started his own company, Lands & Forests Consulting, in 1996, virtually the day after being laid off from his 16-year stint managing woodlots for the MNR. He took the name from the government’s old moniker: Department of Lands and Forests, which was renamed the Ministry of Natural Resources in 1972. Last year, working on its own and with other groups, his company planted nearly 420,000 trees as part of the 50 Million Tree Program, the highest total among all planting agencies in southern Ontario.

Now considered marginal farmland by the owner, this property is flat and free of rocks and brush. For Taylor, that means using a planting machine — basically a tractorpulled device that cuts small slits in the soil where tree roots are quickly dropped in and packed over. Much of the subsidized planting so far has been earmarked for land like this, which is relatively easy to plant.

In the vast, rocky expanses of Northern Ontario’s crown land and in many other forested regions throughout Canada, tree planting is a lonely, gruelling affair by comparison. On huge tracts of land leased from the government, private forestry companies hire scruffy tree planters to replant areas that have been logged. Working by hand, some veteran planters can slug in more than 5,000 trees in a single day. Those projects — many involving several million trees a season — dwarf the efforts proposed in southern Ontario, where planting a couple of million trees a year is a feat.

Planting agencies such as Taylor’s have everything to gain by participating in the 50 Million Tree Program — they get paid for their services. But beyond the increased business, most forest managers are genuinely obsessed with turning barren landscapes into healthy forests.

To get that long-term perspective, we hop into Taylor’s truck and drive to a forest that he planted almost 30 years ago, a quiet spot consisting of neat rows of evenly spaced 14-metre-tall white pines above a bed of reddish needles. “If you just left these fields,” says Taylor, “they would take three times longer to turn back into a traditional forest. We’re simply speeding up the process.”

Conifer trees, such as spruce and pine, comprise the vast majority of trees planted in southern Ontario, even though the region’s forests are predominantly hardwood. Evergreen trees are used as a “nurse crop” to restore the forest, since they grow tall and straight and their lack of leaves means hungry deer and rabbits won’t kill them off early. Taylor points out the maple, cherry, beech and ash that seeded naturally within the gaps. Hidden from hungry animals by pines, they grow fast to reach past the canopy toward light and sustenance. After planting only white pines initially, then strategically removing rows of trees to allow sunlight to enter the forest floor, Taylor is creating the conditions for hardwoods to grow. Eventually, it will be 90 percent hardwoods, he says, with a few of the original planted white pines poking out above them — “just like it was when the pioneers arrived.”

The sun is dipping, and Taylor is eager to show me an even older plantation that’s now a healthy and ecologically diverse forest. We turn into a narrow dirt road that winds through an area that was planted strictly with white pines in 1942 and housed a minimum-security work camp until the 1970s, with prisoners pruning trees and maintaining trails. It was selectively logged a few times, providing lumber and log homes for the region, but the area is now full of natural hardwoods. The older, scattered white pines shoot high above the canopy, where hawks nest and scope out prey below. “If you just came up from Toronto, you’d never know it was planted,” grins Taylor. “We’re providing the clean air for Toronto.” He gestures up the hilly landscape, past tangled branches and colourful leaves just hanging on, to a couple of rotten “deadhead” trees. “When their branches break off or they get old — that’s when you get the wildlife,” he says. “That dead snag will be good for woodpeckers. And now with all the hardwoods in here, the deer can come and chew on them too. This is what we strive for.”

Interactive: Read tree planting success stories from Ontario communities

‘It’s like being in a box of Rice Krispies’

Virtually all the trees planted for the 50 Million Tree Program will begin their life at the Ministry of Natural Resources’ Ontario Tree Seed Facility, a 9.3-hectare seed-processing plant built in 1923 near the town of Angus, Ont., about an hour north of Toronto. Sheltered by tall pines, the fenced-in complex looks almost like a military base, mixing original buildings with newer retrofits, including an administrative office that was the MNR’s first LEED-standard building. But the sprawling plant now has only six full-time employees, down from a high of about 50 in the early 1970s.

In a cavernous warehouse, where pine cones are dried on racks stacked up to a 12-metre-high ceiling, superintendent Al Foley tells me to listen closely. “You can hear the snap, crackle and popping of the cones opening,” he whispers. “It’s like being in a box of Rice Krispies.”

Foley oversees the full process, from organizing the cones that arrive from “Kenora to Cornwall” to ensuring that each seed is stored properly. When fully dried, the cones are put in mesh tumblers until their seeds “shake” out the sides for quick collection. After a couple more procedures, the seeds are then placed in cold storage with “billions” of others that eventually make their way into the soil at Ontario tree nurseries. Foley stresses the importance of tracking the seeds at every stage — his mantra is “chain of custody” — because trees must be planted in the same zones where their cones were collected.

The seed plant, which collects seeds from about 50 different native species and produces a seed catalogue, collaborates with not-for-profits such as the Forest Gene Conservation Association to offer “seed collector” workshops for landowners throughout southern Ontario. Ultimately, the partners hope to expand seed-collection efforts to keep pace with increased planting levels while maintaining the genetic diversity of future forests.