Tree-planting season up in the air

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

It’s fair to say that no industry is unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic. So why focus on the forest industry? One reason is its importance to the local and regional economy.

Last week saw the first curtailment of production locally, when West Fraser shut down its veneer mill in the Mitsue Industrial Park for a week (“a least”). More of that sort of thing may or may not be coming.

One related question The Leader was asked had to do with tree-planting. Given the ‘social-distancing’ rules, how would tree-planting camps be able to function?

Each spring and summer, millions of seedlings are planted in cutblocks in the region. These are typically staffed by young people – students and others – who live in bush camps in close quarters for weeks at a time.

A manager in a woodlands department at a local mill said they are looking closely at what happens in B.C., since the planting season starts a month or so earlier there.

A March 26 CBC article from that province reported that the season had been postponed for two weeks, giving time for “the province, workers and contractors to come up with measures that will keep everyone involved safe from the virus, but also the communities that many workers live in and around during the season.”

A delay in B.C. could well cause a delay in Alberta, due to the same contractors being involved.

“Tree planting camps is an issue that is very much on the radar,” says Brock Mulligan of the Alberta Forest Products Association. “AFPA has flagged this issue for the Government of Alberta and are working with them on that and a whole host of other regulatory issues.”

In the meantime, the government issued a list of protocols for work camps on how to keep workers safe, and what to do if symptoms appear. They involve a tremendous amount of sanitizing of surfaces and of course keeping distance from other workers as much as possible.

Mulligan goes on to say in his email that what many people might not know is forest products go into many essential items, such as surgical drapes, lab filters and tissue and toweling products.

“Generally, our industry is working to survive through this period,” he says, “as markets on the building products side have collapsed. We’re starting to see mills reduce operations.”

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