While reforestation efforts are at the heart of the fight against climate change around the world, more than 11.5 million tree seedlings destined for Quebec forests were destroyed last year.

Ironically, it was extreme weather conditions that forced plant nurseries to discard those that did not meet the government’s criteria.

The significant losses, valued at $3.6 million, represent almost nine per cent of the trees that were poised to be planted in the province.

“Because the plants are produced outdoors, they are subject to increasingly frequent weather hazards in a context of climate change,” the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said in an email.

“Early frosts in the fall, a lack of snow, a mild spell during the winter or late frosts in the spring can cause significant damage to the plants.” 

A box of tree seedlings.
Tree seedlings with irregularities are rejected by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests. (Priscilla Plamondon Lalancette/Radio-Canada)

The ministry says 83 per cent of the trees destroyed in 2022 were related to extreme weather events.

Stéphane Boucher, president of Quebec’s forest plant producers, says that over the past 10 years, the weather has been the source of headaches for nurseries and silviculture companies.

“There are people who replant trees that did not get their plants. There are sites that have not been reforested,” he said.

His nursery in Saint-Ambroise, in the province’s Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region, was one of the two most affected by losses in Quebec, with two million plants destroyed.

A man poses with tree seedlings.
Stéphane Boucher’s company produces seedlings that are used to reforest Quebec forests and fight climate change. (Priscilla Plamondon Lalancette/Radio-Canada)

The most significant damage occurred in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, where the Serres coopératives de Guyenne, a greenhouse, had to dispose of eight million trees.

In total, 14 times more plants were destroyed in the province than in 2021.

“It’s still quite spectacular, the increase we see in the loss of forest plants produced by our nurseries,” said Jean-François Boucher, a professor in eco-advising at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi.

He studies the roles that reforestation and afforestation — the process of creating forests that haven’t existed before — have in the fight against global warming. 

“[These losses] challenge us in relation to the adaptation to climate change that must be done,” he said. 

Most trees were viable, says nursery owner

According to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, “when the seedlings are no longer of sufficient quality to ensure their survival and recovery on the planting site, they cannot be used.”

However, growers feel that a fair number of trees that were tossed out last year were, in fact, viable. “The department only picks up the plants that have no defects,” said Stéphane Boucher, with Quebec’s forest plant producers.

He said most of the two million tree seedlings in his nursery that he was forced to throw away in 2022 were viable. 

“It sure breaks my heart,” he said. 

A woman holds a tree seedling in a field of them.
Stéphane Boucher’s nursery was forced to discard two million tree seedlings in 2022, even though most of them were viable, according to him. (Priscilla Plamondon Lalancette/Radio-Canada)

Healthy trees end up in these piles of plant waste because they are deemed too small, Boucher says. The same goes for plants that have developed two heads following a frost or those whose roots are not sufficiently compact.

Faced with the climate emergency, producers and experts believe that many wasted trees could have been planted in forests to sequester carbon, especially since reforestation targets are still far from being met.

Professor Jean-François Boucher Boucher is calling on Quebec to rectify the situation, considering that many of the quality criteria for seedlings are not supported by science, he says.

“They must be of such and such a height, such and such a diameter, such and such a root mass and the roots must have such and such a shape,” he said.

“There are a lot of criteria that are imposed on nurseries, and in the idea of being agile with respect to climate change, I think we will have to be more flexible.”

​​​​​​Adapting to climate change

For three generations, Stéphane Boucher’s nursery has been producing seedlings for reforestation programs in Quebec’s Saguenay forests.

Technologies have evolved considerably since 1985. The germination of multi-cell seedlings is now done in a greenhouse to better control the conditions necessary for tree growth.

Plants sown indoors alternate between greenhouses and the outdoors to gain strength. To limit the risk of losses due to winter conditions and the lack of snow cover that previously protected the plants, the nursery became the first in Quebec to make the gradual shift to freezing the seedlings three years ago.

Frozen seedlings in a plastic bag.
Freezing the plants helps avoid harsh winter weather and therefore limits losses. (Priscilla Plamondon-Lalancette/Radio-Canada)

Currently, 400,000 small conifers are dormant in a cold storage facility, protected from the elements. Last fall, they were wrapped in a plastic bag to preserve their moisture, then placed in a cardboard box before being frozen. All that remains is to ship them to the field where they will be planted.

This technique is used in Sweden, Norway and British Columbia.

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