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ONTARIO GOVERNMENT ADDRESSES DEFICIT BY CUTTING 50 MILLION TREE PROGRAM
By Suzanne Forcese
In 2006, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) launched The Billion Tree Campaign as a response to the challenges of global warming, as well as to a wider array of sustainability challenges from water supply to biodiversity loss.
Ontario's 50 Million Tree Program (50MTP) has been underway since 2007, with a mandate to encourage afforestation in the province. Under the program, Forests Ontario had provided financial support to offset the costs of planting trees on properties at least one ha in size. In return landowners were to agree to maintain their trees for a minimum of 15 years.
The program was scrapped by the Ministry of Natural Resources in the budget delivered by the Progressive Conservative Budget this spring.
WaterToday spoke with Rob Keen, CEO of Forests Ontario. The goal of the 50 Million Tree Program was to plant 50 million trees by 2025. With government support more than 4,000 landowners have been involved. Planting trees is a practical way to give back to the community and help the environment. Trees increase the value of land, improve the quality of soil, increase wildlife habitat, enhance recreational opportunities, improve the overall health of the environment and leave a lasting legacy by "contributing to overall increase in forest cover in Ontario, which is one of our most important goals."
Keen understands that the government is doing its part to reduce the deficit but at the same time feels "it is a short term gain at the cost of healthy living." Ontario's forested landscapes sustain healthy people and a healthy economy.
WaterToday contacted the office of the Hon. Yakabuski, Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry. After speaking with Mr. Yakabuski's representative, WT was later in receipt of the following statement by email:
Our Government is committed to balancing the budget in a responsible manner to protect what matters most -healthcare, education and other public services such as emergency preparedness. In order to do this we have to maximize value for the taxpayer dollar. The 50 Million Tree Program has only planted 27 million trees since 2007, an average of 2,500,000 trees per year. This is well short of their goal of 50 million trees by 2020. We are winding down our funding for the 50MTP to ensure that trees ready for planting this year get in the ground. We are happy to see that Forests Ontario is going to continue planting trees without the use of taxpayer dollars. The fact that they continue their program through existing and funding networks shows that taxpayer dollars can be redirected to what matters most to the people of Ontario. Our Government continues to support good forestry management practices on private land through programs like the Managed Forest Tax Incentive Program and The conservation Land Tax Program.
Forests Ontario is a non-profit registered charity whose mission is to be the voice of Ontario's forests by supporting forest restoration, stewardship, education and awareness. Keen emphasized that "We need at least 40% forest cover" for a healthy ecosystem. "Currently we have only 20% in Central Ontario and in some areas it is as low as 5%. These cuts will take away one of Nature's greatest tools in dealing with the impacts of flooding."
Keen confirmed the statement issued by Mr. Yakabuski's office. "To date we have planted 27 million trees. Our target is 50 million by 2025." There appears to be a conflict in time frame, WT noticed. The statement issued by Mr. Yakabuski's office had a time restriction reduced by 5 years. "This is well short of their goal of 50 million trees by 2020."
Keen added, "we provided professional help to producers and landowners significantly reducing their costs."
Keen also stressed that the 50MTP for landowners is a completely different program to the reforestation projects in Northern Ontario that covers 95% of public land. "Many people are confusing this with the 50MTP that is in Southern and Central Ontario on private land. 95% of the land in Southern Ontario is privately owned."
The people of Ontario benefit in numerous ways from trees planted by Forest Ontario. "People are employed to prepare planting sites, plant the seedlings and undertake follow-up visits to increase survival rates," Keen said. There are also other employment impacts from seed forecasting and collection to tree nurseries. Conservation authorities and forest stewardship agencies also benefit. "We provide employment for many sectors including First Nations - all working toward the success of the program. This will impact a large number of folks in rural Ontario.
According to Green Analytics, an independent consulting firm specializing integrating research and analysis, and business solutions measuring environmental values, "the number of full-time jobs resulting from Forests Ontario tree planting efforts is on average 103.8 annually equivalent to 311.4 people employed in full-time jobs over the 4 spring/summer months when tree planting typically takes place."
Keen feels heartened by the huge public response he has been receiving. "People recognize the value of our forests and it is gratifying to know they are questioning the legitimacy of this cutback."
Although the government is providing for plantings for this year Keen says that nurseries grow stock based on 3-4 years of growing. "They are growing trees in good faith on their own funding. They don't get paid until the trees are lifted. There are 7.5 million trees in the system that will have to mature over the next 3-4 years."
WaterToday spoke with Ed Patchell, CEO of Ferguson Tree Nursery in Kemptville, Ontario. The tree nursery operated by Ferguson Forest Centre Corporation uses the profits from the nursery to fund its goals of promoting good forestry as well as supporting conservation and recreation in the Municipality of North Grenville.
"In essence we have 3 years of product in the ground we don't have customers for," Patchell said. Forty percent of the nursery's annual income "was supported by this program."
Patchell admits this is a blow that has hit hard, "We really haven't had time for this to sink in. It happened so quickly and without warning."
Patchell's worst case scenario, "We will have to destroy 3 million trees. It is not what we want to do. It is heartbreaking. We are losing forest cover at an alarming rate." The nursery stocks 45 different species of conifers and hardwoods on 300 acres of densely planted land that requires irrigation, fertilizing, test controls - an expense that cannot be maintained. Patchell adds that they are able to ship privately to anyone interested.
As well as focusing on jobs and gross domestic product Green Analytics also focuses on the ecosystem services. In the report Green Analytics states "The value of ecosystem services derived from the trees is conservatively estimated at $82.7 million annually with significant benefits derived from pollination and dispersal, recreation opportunities, aesthetic/amenity benefits and nutrient and waste regulation."
More specifically, trees,
Provide a role in regulating atmospheric gases and cleaning the air
Play an important role in mitigating climate change in the sequestration and storage of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases
Increase habitat opportunities for birds and mammals
Provide filtering services by absorbing nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus that run off farmlands due to fertilizer and manure
Absorb pollutants from roads and other surfaces in urban areas
Provide pollination – without this service many crops would not grow
Work with soil reducing the total amount of runoff from a rain event
The report states that "research also shows that green/blue space contact is associated with higher health perception, lower blood pressure and reduced rates of cardiovascular disease, asthma and respiratory illness".
"The impact of tree planting in southern Ontario is estimated to be over $12.7 million annually which equates to 5.49% in GDP for every tree planted which at a cost of $1.80 per tree from Forests Ontario tree planting is a 305% return on investment."
Dollars and cents aside, what matters most to Keen and Patchell is the health of the forests, the ecosystems and the people who benefit from a service that only Nature can provide.
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