Understanding the Differences: Environmental Tree Planting vs. Plantations

Tree planters using the classic bags and shovel method.
Canadian silviculture workers planting trees.

At Ground Truth, we believe that planted trees are good and the public has a right to know. Deforestation is among the largest contributing causes to climate change, drought, erosion, and biodiversity loss. In response to this ongoing crisis, the news is filled with stories of large-scale tree-planting projects. But not all projects are created equal. It is generally assumed that “tree planting”, is something geared at habitat restoration, or carbon sequestration, i.e. creating a mechanism for long-term carbon storage meant to combat climate change. A net win for the public! However, planting projects are carried out by a variety of different actors to fulfill many functions. In the realm of forestry and environmental science, it's crucial to differentiate between environmental planting (also known as “restoration”) and plantations, including tree farms and forestry planting. Both of these approaches have distinct purposes, methodologies, sponsors, and impacts.

Plantations/Timber Farms:

Plantations and timber farms are established primarily for direct commercial purposes. In a Canadian context, we also refer to this approach as “forestry planting”. This industry focuses on producing high volumes of wood and timber products. These areas are managed intensively to maximize yield and often involve the cultivation of a single tree species (monoculture).

Timber plantations and farms typically use fast-growing tree species like pines, spruce, eucalyptus, or acacias, planted in rows for easy harvesting. The management practices include regular thinning, pruning, and sometimes the use of fertilizers and pesticides to ensure the trees grow quickly and uniformly.

While timber plantations can provide economic benefits and reduce pressure on natural forests, they often come with environmental downsides. It is asserted that monoculture plantations reduce biodiversity, alter local water cycles, and degrade soil quality over time. Additionally, they might not provide the same carbon sequestration benefits as natural forests due to their shorter rotation periods and different management practices​. 

Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom have vibrant, regulated tree plantation industries that are aimed at reforesting areas harvested by timber mills. In Canada, there is a legal obligation to replant trees where they are cut down - all planting in harvested areas (cut blocks) is mandated by law, rather than motivated by philanthropy. It is a seasonal job that is the primary livelihood of thousands of workers across the country. In addition to the legal obligation, a liability holder will generally view the replanting of trees as a financial investment i.e. seedlings planted are owned by the timber mill and harvested for profit in future decades. 

In this model, the planting is paid for by whoever created the liability – whoever cut them down. For example, a timber mill such as West Fraser would pay to plant trees which they will later log and turn into commercially viable pulp. The area harvested will then be planted again by West Fraser…and so on and so on.

Environmental Planting

This is tree planting as popularly imagined by the majority of the public. Environmental planting primarily aims to restore and enhance natural ecosystems. This type of planting focuses on biodiversity, improving soil health, water regulation, and providing habitat for wildlife. It ideally involves planting native species that are well-suited to the local environment.

Environmental planting projects typically entail mixed-species plantings to mimic natural forest structures. Such projects may target degraded lands, urban areas, or other regions needing ecological restoration. The main goal is ecological balance rather than economic gain, which means that the most commercially viable crops are not always the focus of these projects. Wildfire restoration (replanting forests degraded by fires) is one example of this type of planting that has attracted attention as forests burn at a record-setting pace in Canada and other countries. Studies have shown that this kind of planting effort has succeeded in restoring biodiversity in the Amazon and mitigating the effects of climate change in the eastern United States.

The website of the Canadian 2 Billion Trees (2BT) initiative highlights a few crucial differences between environmental planting and plantations. Projects funded by this federal program cannot be undertaken in areas where an obligation to replant already exists, or where commercial tree planting would likely already take place - the aim is to fund planting where trees would not grow otherwise. They cannot displace existing ecosystems, i.e. planting forests in areas that would disturb the natural habitat of other wildlife.

Environmental planting projects can be driven by philanthropy and public welfare or by private commercial interests. Some initiatives are a mixture of both. They are often funded by government grants such as 2BT, the donations of NGOs, private investors looking to sell carbon credits, or corporations looking to gain credence as sponsors of socially conscious initiatives. The term “ESG” (environmental and social governance) has become inexorably linked with big brand-sponsored planting projects such as Nestlé‘s pledge to plant 10 million trees in Australia by 2025.

These endeavors often face significant accountability issues however, including insufficient monitoring, accusations of greenwashing, inadequate community involvement, and double counting of environmental benefits. When undertaken without public disclosure and oversight, such projects can even be destructive to local habitats. These problems undermine the credibility and effectiveness of such initiatives in the eyes of the public. 

Conclusion

The public's understanding of these different approaches to planting trees is essential for promoting policies and practices that ensure both environmental and economic sustainability. If forests are a public good, then the public has a right to know how their money is spent, and what their land is used for - whether the purposes are purely utilitarian or commercial, or both.

Subscribe to Ground Truth

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
jamie@example.com
Subscribe