In 2021, the Federal government announced a commitment to plant 2 billion trees over the next decade as part of its goal to mitigate climate change and address biodiversity loss.

By 2023, Energy and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said the government had exceeded its planting targets.

However, an audit released that year said the program was unlikely to meet its long-term target without significant changes and a 2024 CBC report described its challenges — namely, finding enough land and seeds to fulfill the goal.

In Nova Scotia, a program aims to address these challenges by harnessing the province’s unusual structure of forest ownership.

“Nova Scotia is in such an interesting position where so much of our land is privately owned,” says Rachael MacNeil, program director for the Thriving Forests program. “We don't have as much opportunity to plant on Crown land as other provinces might.”

Working on both private and public land, the Thriving Forests program — run by the Clean Foundation — aims to plant 21 million trees across the province, working with individual landowners, organizations, Indigenous communities and provincial agencies. Funded jointly by the province and the Federal government, it covers up to 100 per cent of the cost for those groups.

MacNeil says an important part of the project is its focus on seed supply, as the initiative only plants trees native to either the Acadian-Wabanaki forest or the Boreal forest, depending on the site.

‘Native softwood [seed] is not a problem — we have a beautiful system set up to allow growth of softwood in this province,” MacNeil says. In fact, softwood seedlings are already produced in large numbers for the forestry sector.

“Hardwood is where it gets a little trickier, because the demand hasn’t existed in this capacity before,” she says.

In Nova Scotia, much of the land is privately owned, which makes reaching tree-planting targets tougher. But a new program funded jointly by the province and Federal government is working with stakeholders to meet an ambitious 21-million tree target.

To address that gap, the Thriving Forests team has been collecting seeds for native hardwoods since last fall.

“It’s come from a grassroots approach, and I think that kind of shakes up what we see as forestry,” says MacNeil. “We actually handpick the seed, which is really cool and empowering.”

The fruits of that collection are currently growing in nurseries, and this year the program is also planning to buy seeds from citizen seed collectors, focusing on red oak, sugar maple and red maple (while the Thriving Forests team sources trickier species like yellow birch and ironwood). As part of that, the project is offering training and supplies to get people started.

Hardwoods aren’t only important as a natural part of the Acadian-Wabanaki forest; MacNeil says they’re also part of creating fire-resistant ecosystems.

“There is a huge emphasis on forest fires [in the program] she says. ”Unfortunately, it's going to become a reality in Nova Scotia.”

Incorporating fire-smart forestry into the program means ensuring trees are planted far enough from homes — and from each other — to minimize the risk of spread. Having more hardwood than softwood also decreases forest flammability, MacNeil says.

“It's a really great way to focus on emphasizing biodiversity by integrating fire-smart practices and principles into plantings.”

MacNeil says the project is currently in the process of finalizing the first sites for planting, considering factors such as soil suitability, whether there’s already forest regenerating on the site and whether there’s sufficient access for planters; meanwhile, the program continues to accept new applications.

While planting 21 million trees across the province is an ambitious target, MacNeil says there’s reason to be optimistic that, by coming together, Nova Scotians can rise to the challenge.

“That is a huge goal that we have set for ourselves,” she says. “It will really depend on the amount of land that comes forward for us to plant on.”

The Climate Story Network is an initiative of Climate Focus, a non-profit organization dedicated to covering stories about community-driven climate solutions.

Keep reading