Rescue plan trying to take root to save three million tiny trees threatened by budget cuts

A rescue plan may be emerging to save as many as three million trees in danger of being plowed under because of cuts to an Ontario planting program.

Ed Patchell, chief executive of Ferguson Tree Nursery in Kemptville, says a rescue plan may be emerging to save as many as three million trees in danger of being plowed under because of cuts to an Ontario planting program. TONY CALDWELL / POSTMEDIA

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By Kelly Egan

A rescue plan may be emerging to save as many as three million trees in danger of being plowed under because of cuts to an Ontario planting program.

Ed Patchell, the chief executive of Ferguson Tree Nursery outside Kemptville, said there’s been a flurry of interest in the threatened trees since news broke of their possible destruction.

“I think there will be some opportunity to save some, if not all of it,” he said recently. “Even the government is showing signs of interest in coming up with a solution for the stock as well.”

Though it was too early to say for certain what the next steps are, Patchell said he’s “guardedly” more optimistic than he was a few days ago.

There was a sign Monday the government is listening.

At Queen’s Park, Natural Resources and Forestry Minister John Yakabuski told the legislature that seedlings will go in the ground this year as scheduled. It’s unclear, however, whether funding will be there for the entire three-year growing period.

In April, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry announced it would cancel the 50 Million Tree Program, which has seen the planting of more than 27 million trees across Ontario since 2008, costing about $4.7 million in 2018.

Ferguson Tree Nursery was one of the main suppliers of seedlings for the program, which through Forests Ontario saved landowners up to 90 per cent of the costs of large-scale tree planting.

The problem for Ferguson is that it makes no economic sense – paying staff, buying supplies, incurring expenses – to grow the seedlings for three years if there is no destination for the product.

“Saving the seedlings is really a minor part of it. There’s no point saving the seedlings if you don’t have a way to plant them. So, (the long-term solution) has to be the bigger story.”

The non-profit corporation grows about 45 species of trees – mostly evergreens – on 300 acres. Some of the trees are only a couple of centimetres high this summer while others are nearing the plantable size of 15 to 20 cm.

Patchell said he has a fairly small window, maybe three to four weeks, to decide whether the trees will be nurtured or destroyed by plowing them under with farm equipment.

He said these are not trees that would go to municipalities to sell in small numbers to homeowners. Instead, the distribution route would be through conservation authorities, stewardship groups and private contractors to reclaim marginal land and help to restore forest cover. The trees are not destined to be turned into lumber.

Normally the trees would go to sites with at least 2.5 acres and be distributed in the hundreds, if not thousands.

Patchell said some of the early interest has been from companies interested in partnerships or finding other funding sources.

He said the cancellation of the program will have an impact on the environment, noting it may lead to soil erosion and reduction of forest cover, air quality, water quality and wildlife habitat.

Ferguson intended to produce about a million trees a year for three years, giving it annual revenue in the $500,000 range. But now it has lost the customer that provided about 40 per cent of its revenue.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope.

“It’s so preliminary right now, it’s hard to say, but it’s amazing how much interest has been raised.”

Ottawa Citizen

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