Tree Planting in B.C.: A Muddy, Dangerous, and Addictively Rewarding Journey

Tree Planting in B.C.: A Muddy, Dangerous, and Addictively Rewarding Journey

It’s mid-July in British Columbia, and as the rain pours down, tree planter Everett Bumstead finds himself surrounded by mud in the mountainous terrain. With each step, the squelching mud clings to his boots and shovel, covering everything in its path. Yet, amid the challenging conditions, there is a certain rhythm to Bumstead’s work—a meditative process of navigating slippery slopes and carefully planting seedlings, leaving behind a trail of life.

At the end of the day, Bumstead returns to his camp covered in mud, physically and emotionally exhausted, but also with a sense of accomplishment. He is welcomed as a highballer, the planter who planted the most trees in his crew that day.

Every spring, remote tree-planting camps emerge as their own worlds in the wilderness of British Columbia. Seasonal laborers from across the country arrive, armed with shovels and tents, to replant trees harvested for the logging industry. It’s an unconventional job that appeals to those seeking adventure, a unique lifestyle, and the opportunity to live in a camp for months on end while planting an average of 1,000 to 4,000 seedlings each day.

“Tree planters are masochists,” Bumstead laughs. After four seasons of planting, he directed a documentary called One Million Trees, delving into the world of tree planting in Canada. The film explores the quirks of tree-planting culture while shedding light on the complexities of the logging industry.

The documentary features firsthand experiences of young adults who are uncertain about their next steps in life but are drawn to tree planting for its allure of money, adventure, and camaraderie. “I had student loans to pay off, and someone told me I could make a bunch of money in a couple of months,” Bumstead shares. “The second season, I went back for the people and the fun.”

In these tree-planting camps, removed from the constraints of polite society, a different kind of wildness thrives. Parties last through the night, while work continues regardless of the weather. The job takes a toll on the body and mind, but the planters, who are paid per tree planted, keep going.

“One of the most consistent challenges I faced while planting was being surrounded by bugs, like Pig-Pen from Charlie Brown,” Bumstead recalls. Swollen faces from bug bites are a common occurrence, and the physical strain can be seen in the way planters walk. But despite the hardships, there is something addictive about overcoming obstacles and persevering.

While the physical toll is undeniable, the satisfaction lies in the number of trees restored. Planting life in a cut block—a recently harvested area filled with debris—feels like a tangible achievement. However, many planters become disillusioned when they realize that these trees are replanted for an industry that will ultimately cut them down in 60 to 100 years.

“By the end of my first season, I understood that we’re not doing something special for the environment. I felt like a pawn in a bigger game,” Bumstead reflects. “It made me question the worthiness of it all and whether we’re doing the right thing. That played a part in why I stopped planting.”

Creating a man-made forest poses a contradiction—can something created for commercial purposes ever be truly natural? While tree-planting companies strive to incorporate a mix of species, it often falls short of emulating a genuine forest. “There’s plenty of biodiversity that we’re not restoring; we’re only restoring high-yielding timber crops,” Bumstead emphasizes. “So it’s not a natural forest; it’s far from the way it was before colonization.”

“Overall, forestry practices have improved compared to 30 years ago,” says Erin Bros, a seasoned planter whose parents also worked in the field. However, she acknowledges that some individuals cut corners to save costs, leading to setbacks in progress. She continues to wrestle with these ethical dilemmas, as do many others in the industry.

Despite the challenges and uncertainties, some planters find solace in being the ones who put the trees into the ground, rather than those who cut them down. “We have no idea where we’ll be in 100 years. So, I try to focus on the optimism that perhaps the spots I’m planting won’t be logged,” Bros shares.

Ultimately, what drives planters back season after season, enduring physical and mental hardships?

“Because I absolutely love it,” Bros exclaims. “I couldn’t walk away.”

For Bumstead, it’s the people. “You have your own community with its own language. There are some really impressive people there.”

To be a tree planter means belonging to a secret world—a world defined by mud and shovels, isolation and beauty. “Tree planting is technically a solitary act. But then you’re sharing this collective experience with everyone who has ever planted a tree,” Bros explains. “You’re surrounded by people who have been through it and have kept going.”

For an immersive experience into the world of tree planting, watch One Million Trees on CBC Gem. And remember, for more tips and insights on tree planting, visit Tips Tree Planting.