Wanted: One Billion Trees

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Afforestation and Tree Planting in Southern Ontario

During the spring of 2010, Grand River Conservation Authority tree planters laboured to establish a floodplain forest in an old cornfield. Approximately 15,000 native trees – black walnut, silver and sugar maple, white and burr oak, cottonwood, white cedar and white pine – were planted on nine hectares of land in south Kitchener. The project is just one example of many tree planting initiatives occurring across Ontario.

To say that trees are important is an understatement. They provide habitat, shelter and food for animals, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, provide shade on hot summer days, prevent soil erosion, provide timber, pulp and paper and increase property values. Unfortunately, approximately 80 per cent of the original woodland cover in southern Ontario has been removed for farms, timber and urban development. Woodlands have been transformed from their original state by 200 years of land clearing and re-growth, woodland management practices, and the depredations of introduced species and disease. Today’s woodlands are smaller and younger than those of the past. Since most of the land in southern Ontario is owned privately or by municipalities, the provincial government decided that the most effective way to maintain and restore forest cover is to work with landowners.

Afforestation in Ontario

Afforestation – the establishment of a forest on land that has not recently been forested –has been carried on in Ontario since the late 1800s. In 1871, the Ontario government passed the first piece of legislation to encourage tree planting, in this case along highways in the province. Early afforestation programs focused on abandoned or marginal farmlands that suffered soil erosion or reduced productivity, the result of extensive forest clearing during that time.

Historically, Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) was responsible for many of the afforestation programs on private lands in Ontario. For example, under the Agreement Forest Program, the Department of Lands and Forests (now MNR) entered into long-term agreements with landowners (e.g., counties, Conservation Authorities, townships and municipalities) to reforest, develop and manage “wastelands” or lands no longer fit for agriculture but suitable for trees. Through the program, which began in 1922, 147.5 million trees were planted on over 120,000 hectares of land in southern Ontario. In addition to these “agreement forests,” MNR operated a number of nurseries across the province, providing landowners with trees at no cost until 1980, when a nominal fee was introduced. Between 1905 and 1996, MNR nurseries supplied landowners with 792 million seedlings.

Since the 1990s, MNR’s afforestation role has changed significantly from its early roots. MNR slowly began to negotiate the termination of agreement forests with landowners in 1994 and eventually discontinued the program in 1998. MNR also closed and sold its nurseries between 1993 and 1999. Today, only one MNR seed production facility remains, the Ontario Tree Seed Plant near Angus, which was established in 1923. MNR also supports Ontario Stewardship councils, who planted 5.5 million trees between 2004 and 2009.

Conservation Authorities (CAs) also have a long history in tree planting and afforestation. Since the 1940s, CAs have provided planting services to landowners, including those that did not qualify for provincial programs. Over the last few years, on average, CAs have planted over 2.5 million trees each year.

With MNR stepping back from afforestation planning and operations, many other agencies and organizations became involved in tree planting programs on private land. These include Trees Ontario, the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, the Ontario Forestry Association and the Wetland Habitat Fund.

To support wildlife species, conserve biodiversity, and maintain water quality and quantity, Environment Canada recommends that all watersheds should have at least 30 per cent forest cover. Forest cover in southern Ontario is on average 22 per cent, although some areas have much less. For example, southwestern Ontario has only 17 per cent forest cover and Essex County has about 5 per cent forest cover. The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority estimates that at the current rate of tree planting, it would take 175 years to reach 30 per cent forest cover in the West Humber, Lower Humber and Black Creek subwatersheds. To achieve 30 per cent forest cover, Trees Ontario estimates that over one billion more trees need to be planted.

Provincial Policy Statement

The Provincial Policy Statement (PPS), made under the Planning Act, identifies that development and site alteration are not permitted in southern Ontario’s significant woodlands unless it has been demonstrated that there will be no negative impacts on the natural features or their ecological functions. However, the PPS provides a very broad definition of significant woodlands and does not specify who is responsible for evaluating or identifying them. Unlike provincially significant wetlands, it is the municipality’s discretion to evaluate or identify significant woodlands, as MNR has no formal role. Although MNR’s Natural Heritage Reference Manual includes recommended criteria for municipalities to identify significant woodlands, municipalities may choose to develop their own criteria. In our 2008/2009 Annual Report, the ECO reported that the PPS does not provide sufficient safeguards to protect the province’s significant woodlands and recommended that MMAH, during its 2010 review of the PPS, introduce effective mechanisms for protecting significant woodlands, including mechanisms for woodland evaluation, designation, tracking and reporting.


Managed Forest Tax Incentive Program

Managed Forest Tax Incentive Program (MFTIP) is an MNR program under which landowners receive property tax reductions for managing forests on their land; such tax reductions provide incentives for land owners to conserve their existing or newly planted woodlands. In our 2004/2005 Annual Report, the ECO reported on an Environmental Bill of Rights, 1993 (EBR) application requesting that MNR review how properties are assessed for taxation purposes under the MFTIP. MNR conducted a review of the program and produced eight recommendations as a result. In November 2009, the ECO requested that MNR provide an update on the implementation of these recommendations.

MNR appears to have made good progress on implementing the recommendations arising from the EBR review. For example, a MFTIP Implementation Committee was created in December 2004 to investigate and address the concerns brought forward by the EBR review. Based on the committee’s investigation and recommendations, the MFTIP program was subsequently amended to: ensure that eligible woodland properties are assessed similar to farm lands; increase the planning term to 10 years; and enhance the provision for eligible areas.

Between June 2004 and January 2009, landowner participation in the MFTIP increased by 1,500 properties (14 per cent) and 169,000 hectares (24 per cent). MNR informed the ECO that it will continue to “explore ways to further enhance the MFTIP… to support initiatives that result in responsible stewardship and expand opportunities to increase the greening of Ontario….”

One of the recommendations that came out of MNR’s review of the MFTIP was that the ministry work with the Ministry of Finance to address how changes to the MFTIP could support government initiatives for the “greening” of southern Ontario. On this subject, the ECO asked MNR whether it might consider updating or expanding the goals of the MFTIP to reflect the government’s greenhouse gas reduction targets and biodiversity goals. MNR responded that the program “already includes these objectives” and, therefore, changes to the MFTIP have not been made to specifically address these goals.

Loss of Woodland Biodiversity

The biodiversity of southern Ontario’s woodlands is currently under attack from invasive alien species and disease. In our 2003/2004 and 2004/2005 Annual Reports, the ECO reported on how infestations of invasive species have caused the loss of biodiversity and native tree species (e.g., ash and maple) in Ontario’s woodlands. The ECO requested that MNR provide an update on how it addresses the loss of biodiversity and native tree species caused by infestation and disease in its afforestation programs.

MNR responded that in 2005 and 2006, it provided $1 million in funding to local tree planting agencies to mitigate the loss of biodiversity from invasive species, including the emerald ash borer and Asian long-horned beetle, in the Toronto area. In those projects, MNR promoted diverse and locally adapted planting to help mitigate the loss of biodiversity. Additionally, MNR identified that in 2009/2010, it initiated a collaborative project with the Canadian Forestry Service to examine impacts on forest stand structures, habitat quality and biological communities when an invasive species is introduced, such as emerald ash borer.

50 Million Tree Program

In August 2007, MNR announced that it would partner with Trees Ontario to plant 50 million trees in Ontario by 2020. The goals of the 50 Million Tree Program are to “sequester carbon, enhance and diversify southern Ontario’s landscape, increase the capacity to withstand climate change, and increase wildlife habitat.” MNR, through Trees Ontario will provide funding for local tree planting agents (e.g., CAs, Ontario Stewardship Councils, forestry consultants and First Nations) to deliver the program to landowners and plant trees on private and public lands. By June 2010, over 5.7 million trees have been planted in Ontario by local planting agents through this program. In 2013, MNR’s target of two million trees per year will increase to five million trees per year to achieve the 50 million target by 2020.

With provincial facilities – other than Ontario Tree Seed Plant – out of operation, planting agencies were left with no option but to acquire seedling stock from private nurseries. MNR identified that the number of trees planted during the program’s first year did not meet the target because neither sufficient nor appropriate native species seedlings were available. This shortfall occurred because seedlings must mature for three years before they are ready for planting, and nurseries would not run the risk of increasing production to meet the program targets without a guarantee that seedlings will be purchased. To address this problem, MNR is creating a Nursery Stock Production Incentive Program within the 50 Million Trees Program. Under this fairly complex program, MNR, through Trees Ontario, will provide a rolling loan to nurseries to guarantee that seedlings of the right species and seed source will be available to planting agencies. MNR advised the ECO that the program will not be publicly announced because it is administratively complex in nature.

MNR identified to the ECO in January 2010 that demand for the 50 million trees program exceeded supply for the 2010 planting season. While one might assume that ‘supply’ is tree seedling stock, the ECO learned that ‘supply’ actually refers to MNR’s financial budget for the program. MNR would not fund planting agents to plant more trees than the two million per year target established, despite ability and interest to plant more. Planting agencies were allocated the same amount as they planted in 2009.

Seed Stocking

When MNR closed its nurseries in the 1990s, MNR also withdrew from seed collection coordination forcing private nurseries to obtain their own seed, not necessarily from local genetically appropriate stock. The Ontario Tree Seed Plant is MNR’s last remaining connection to seed collection in Ontario. In our 2002/2003 Annual Report, the ECO recommended that MNR “ensure that the Ontario Tree Seed Plant maintains sufficient seed stock of all native species from across the province’s seed zones.”

MNR updated the ECO that since 2003, it “has been engaged in a strengthened cone collection program across the province … and has successfully maintained and increased native tree seed inventories.” For example, between 2002 and 2009, MNR increased its annual seed collection from 61,400 to 156,200 litres of seeds, 99 per cent of which were native species. MNR stated that Tree Seed Plant continues to communicate and work closely with growers and end users to ensure there is an ample supply of seed to meet current and future requirements. In addition, MNR stated that it has been directly involved with seed orchard collections to build an additional inventory of improved seed.

ECO Comment

Afforestation has been a major part of Ontario’s forest management history for at least the last 140 years. MNR is involved in a number of afforestation initiatives and projects on which the ECO has commented in the past, including the MFTIP. The ECO is pleased that MNR has made good progress on implementing recommendations to the MFTIP that resulted from an EBR application for review of the program. MNR’s review of the MFTIP and subsequent implementation of recommendations demonstrate the value of the application for review process under the EBR. The ECO is disappointed, however, that MNR will not update or expand the MFTIP goals in light of the Ontario government’s greenhouse gas reduction targets or biodiversity goals.

The ECO is generally pleased with the overall goals of MNR’s 50 Million Trees Program to enhance and diversify southern Ontario’s landscape, increase the capacity to withstand climate change, and increase wildlife habitat through afforestation. While the idea of planting 50 million trees over 13 years (an annual average of 3.8 million trees per year) may seem ambitious, it pales in comparison to previous efforts. Prior to the 1980s, an average of 20 to 30 million trees per year were planted in Ontario through afforestation programs. Today, on average, three million trees are planted annually. The ECO does not believe that the target of 50 million trees planted in Ontario by 2020 will provide Ontario with sufficient forest cover, mitigate woodland biodiversity loss from invasive species and mitigate the effects of climate change. Trees Ontario, the organization with which MNR is partnering to implement the program, believes that the province’s target of 50 million trees falls far short of the one billion trees that need to be planted in Ontario to achieve desirable forest cover.

For over 100 years, the provincial government was heavily involved in reforestation and afforestation initiatives; its withdrawal during the 1980s has had a significant impact on the landscape. When MNR guided afforestation initiatives in the province, more trees were planted, plantations were larger and native seedlings were readily available and affordable through provincial nurseries. Fewer trees are now planted, plantations are smaller and the availability of native seedling stock is inconsistent.

While there are a number of afforestation initiatives in Ontario, there is currently little if any overall provincial strategic direction for tree planting programs in Ontario. With no overall provincial direction, funding is variable and planting agencies use a range of planting approaches and delivery mechanisms. To ensure consistency and success in Ontario’s tree planting efforts, the ECO believes that MNR should develop a southern Ontario woodland strategy that is biodiversity driven, planned at the landscape level and addresses adaptation to climate change. The strategy should include sufficient policy and programs, to:

  • coordinate tree planting on private land;
  • ensure the availability of seed and seedling stock; and
  • coordinate landowner incentives to maintain and conserve woodlands.

The strategy should set provincial planting targets, require that appropriate native species be used, set out priorities for key planting areas (such as watersheds with less than 30 per cent forest cover), and incorporate climate change mitigation and adaptation considerations. The ECO also urges MNR to measure and report on the overall progress of afforestation and tree planting efforts in southern Ontario.


Recommendation 2:

The ECO recommends that the Ministry of Natural Resources lead a coordinated afforestation strategy for southern Ontario, with a target of planting 1 billion trees of native species, to address the long-term ecological function of natural heritage systems and the impacts of climate change.



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This is an article from the 2009/10 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.


Citing This Article:
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2010. "Wanted: One Billion Trees." Redefining Conservation, ECO Annual Report, 2009/10. Toronto, ON : Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 37-41.