An image of a professional tree planter hard at work in British Colombia.

Professional tree planting: 'It's a combination between industrial labor and high-intensity sport'

Filmmaker and photographer Rita Leistner, who started planting trees professionally over 20 years ago, says the work is "brutal." Her new film, "Forest for the Trees," documents the hard labor and sense of community fostered among Canada's professional tree planters.

The World

An image of a professional tree planter hard at work in British Colombia.

Courtesy of Rita Leistner/"Forest for the Trees"

Planting more trees has become a popular choice these days to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. Trees clean the planet and absorb carbon dioxide, which is warming the planet.

Related: The Chinese went wild for American pecans — which may be bad news for wild pecan trees

But what is it like to plant a lot of trees? Rita Leistner spent years as a seasonal tree planter in British Columbia before becoming a war photographer and filmmaker.

Related: Is an artificial tree part of the solution to climate change? These guys think so.

Her latest project brings her back to tree planting in the form of a book and documentary called "Forest for the Trees." She explained the rigors of tree planting with The World's host Marco Werman.

Marco Werman: Rita, you spent your 20s as a seasonal tree planter for logging companies. Explain why the logging companies were hiring planters and what your typical day was like.
Rita Leistner: Well, when I started planting trees in the '80s, it was really in the very early days of professional tree planting, coinciding with the environmental movement. The Canadian government and the US government also, at the time, they started increasing replanting mandates. And it opened up to private contractors — tree planting companies. And that's who I started working for in the early '80s. And that's who's still doing the majority of planting in Canada.
And the tree companies, are they reforesting or are the trees that get planted the seedlings? Are they going to grow up and then get cut down some day?
Most of them are going to get cut down again someday, but in the regions where we're planting, it's about 80 years from now, that they'll be cut down. But those trees, I mean, they still become carbon-sequestering trees. Whether they're being cut down in the future or not, they're still going to help combat climate change. And if billions of trees are going to be planted, which is what's being suggested, it's not going to be done by volunteers, because the work itself is brutal.
Well, I was going to ask you, what does a typical day like for a tree planter?
Nowadays, you work no more than a 12-hour day. And, basically, all you do is eat and work and sleep. An average tree planter burns about 8,000 calories a day. So, that's about the equivalent of running 2 1/2 marathons in terms of caloric output. And you're doing this day in and day out. And that is because you're carrying this heavy weight, you're climbing up and down.

 

So, the tree planters themselves, they look part-Johnny Appleseed, part-marathon runner. Some of them look like they just got back from Burning Man. They are carrying around these sacks of seedlings on their back. I mean, it's not industrial work, is it?
It's all done by hand and shovel. That's one thing that hasn't changed since I planted more than 20 years ago. You have to navigate around rocks and logs, and sometimes you have to dig down a foot through like duff and debris, or maybe it's a swamp, and the quality of the trees and the distance they are planted from each other, this stuff is very regulated and quality checks are performed on a regular basis, as well. And if your quality, overall, is not 95%, you have to go back and replant those trees and not be paid for it. So, paid per tree.
How much per tree?
Varies between maybe $.10 and $.40 per tree, depending on the terrain.

 

So, what motivates these young people to go off the grid for months and plant trees? It doesn't sound like you can make a lot of money doing this.
Well, you can if you get good. So, you kind of accept that your first year, you may not really make any money, you're learning. So, you spend three months learning how to do it. And your first day out, when someone says to you, "Well, you're going to have to plant 1,500 trees to break minimum wage, and that day you work harder than you ever have in your life and you plant 100 trees and you cannot believe that you could ever plant more than 100 trees, let alone 1,500 or 2,000. But you learn how to do it. And, maybe a month in, maybe you'll hit your 1,500 or you'll hit your 2,000, and you break minimum wage and then you just get better. And it's really a combination between industrial labor and high-intensity sport.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.