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Road to slow reforestation takes root near Sarnia

A Ford F150 drives the winter road from Norman Wells to Fort Good Hope, in the early dawn--at about 10:30 in the morning. The road is barely a road at all, in use only during the coldest months of the year. It cuts through otherwise untouched boreal forest, just south of the Arctic Circle, and roughly marks the route of the proposed Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

On a 10-kilometre stretch of a Southwestern Ontario thoroughfare, 5,300 spruce seedlings are taking root. They're a new addition to Highway 402, planted this spring in reaction to a fierce snowstorm in mid-December that trapped hundreds of motorists in the bone-chilling cold near Sarnia.

Snow squalls aren't uncommon on a highway near a large lake, but the havoc caused by this storm was particularly immense. Trees, it turns out, were one factor: There weren't enough of them to shield the highway against violent winds and drifting snow.

The newly planted seedlings are a small representation of the billions of extra trees needed around the world to replace forests lost to development. The pace of deforestation has slowed globally, but it remains alarmingly high in Africa and South America, the United Nations noted in a report released Sunday to mark World Environment Day.

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Thirteen million hectares of tropical forests, an area about the size of Greece, disappeared last year, down from 16 million in 1990. Forest cover has increased in some regions of the world, such as Europe and Asia, where China has embarked on a massive afforestation effort.

But the UN contends greater forest-protection efforts are needed, particularly as greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Forests consume billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide, but they also help store and filter groundwater, they supply food and building materials, and they are a vital source of fuel and income in many countries.

"Under a business-as-usual scenario, there would still be a steady decrease in forest cover," said Amy Fraenkel, regional director with the UN environment program in North America. "It's not enough to sit back and not take action."

Ms. Fraenkel will be in Toronto on Monday to make a pitch for more government and private investment in forests. (Toronto is the North American host city for this year's World Environment Day.) The international body is calling for additional annual spending of $40-billion (U.S.) on forestry worldwide to halve deforestation rates by 2030, to increase tree planting 140 per cent by 2050, and to remove as much as 28 per cent more carbon from the atmosphere.

Ms. Fraenkel said expanding forest cover is essential to developing a green economy and new jobs. The UN is advocating for a mixture of economic instruments, such as financial incentives, to persuade farmers to protect forests on their land.

Stewart Elgie, chairman of Sustainable Prosperity, a green economy think-tank based at the University of Ottawa, noted that Canada makes less use of economic instruments to drive environmental change than most other developed nations. A new report from the Sustainable Prosperity, released Monday, argues the country should calculate the financial, health and social value of its ecological goods and services and factor that value into policy decisions. In Britain, a government-led effort to place a monetary value on the environment is under way.

"We tend to think of conserving nature as essential for our ecology, but it's equally important for our economy," said Prof. Elgie, who teaches law and economics at the University of Ottawa.

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Canada has the world's third largest forest resource after Russia and Brazil. The boreal forest, which stretches from Yukon to Newfoundland, provides about $700-billion in services to the world annually, according to an environmental lobby group.

Despite vast forest resources nationwide, commercial and residential development in Southern Ontario has left the region with too few trees. Federal guidelines recommend 30 per cent forest cover to maintain healthy watersheds, but that figure stands at only 17 per cent in Southwestern Ontario. In some regions, such as Essex County, forests span just 5 per cent of the landscape.

In 2007, the McGuinty government pledged to plant at least 50 million trees by 2020 in Southern Ontario. It's one of several tree-planting programs in the province and remains one of the most ambitious efforts in North America.

However, the province's Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller noted in his annual report last year that tree-planting programs are suffering from insufficient government direction on where, what and how many trees should be planted to restore woodlands. He also urged the Ministry of Natural Resources to boost its target to one billion trees.

So far, 8.5 million trees have been planted under the province's 50-million tree pledge. Rob Keen, CEO of Trees Ontario, a non-profit organization that works with the government, conservation authorities and landowners, said the overall target remains achievable, with ramp-up plans already drafted.

Natural Resources Minister Linda Jeffrey concedes there have been challenges. Even though government funding and donations greatly reduce the work and cost involved with planting trees for private landowners (to between 15 cents and 30 cents per seedling), connecting with landowners hasn't been easy. About 90 per cent of land in Southern Ontario is privately owned.

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"It is a challenge because at the end of the day you can't just plant a tree anywhere. You want it to be successful," Ms. Jeffrey said.

This summer, farmers along Highway 402 near Sarnia will be getting a visit from Steve Shaw, a conservation specialist with St. Clair Region Conservation Authority. Although 5,300 spruce seedlings were planted in the spring, many more trees are needed to trap drifting snow and help prevent a repeat of last winter's whiteout, he said.

Most of the land buffering the highway is privately owned. Mr. Shaw expects the offer of subsidies will bolster his pitch.

"If it wasn't for the incentives, I wouldn't be able to persuade them to do it," he said.

Global forest initiatives

Costa Rica: Targeted interventions such as tax incentives and payments to landowners for their ecosystem service have led to a dramatic increase in forest cover. In 1995, forest cover in the country was 22 per cent. Last year, the figure stood at 51 per cent.

Ecuador: The local government in the town of Pimampiro pays local farmers between $6 and $12 (U.S.) per hectare to conserve forest and natural grassland near the town's water source.

Indonesia: Thanks to a $1-billion grant from Norway aimed at reducing deforestation, Indonesia has announced a two-year moratorium on new permits to clear natural forests and peat lands.

Vietnam: Restoration of natural mangrove forests in Vietnam, at a cost of $1.1-million, yielded annual savings of $7.3-million in sea-dike maintenance.

Source: United Nations

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