Reforesting, one tree at a time
Paul Luke, The Province
Published: Sunday, June 20, 2010
Brinkman & Associates plants billionth tree, expanding to Asia, Africa
Call Dirk Brinkman a visionary and he'd probably hate it. Call him a raja of reforestation and he'd like that even less.
But whatever you do, don't suggest he's an old hippie.
"It used to vex me to no end that I was being called a hippie," the president and co-founder of reforestation outfit Brinkman & Associates says.
"I'm a redneck workaholic. But I have a completely life-affirming set of values and I'm an environmental entrepreneur."
Brinkman, 64, has grudgingly learned not to protest too much when others drag him into hippiedom. After all, his company's own website describes how it was started in 1970 by Brinkman "and some adventurous hippie friends."
In the early 1970s, Brinkman and his buddy, the late Ted Davis, had scant use for razors as they raced around the Northwest, planting trees, building boats and scaling mountains.
But the New Westminster-based company would never have become what it is today had its boss been little more than a green-thumbed, counter-culture layabout.
Last week, the privately held company marked the planting of its billionth tree with ceremonies in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Central America.
Brinkman employs more than 1,000 full-time and seasonal staff, plants or tends about 30,000 hectares a year and manages more than one million hectares of forest land.
In Costa Rica, Panama and Honduras, it looks after more than $100 million of private investments in high-value hardwood plantations. It's currently in talks with European institutional investors for individual plantation projects of more than 10,000 hectares.
The company is owned 74 per cent by Brinkman and Joyce Murray, the Vancouver Quadra Liberal MP who is its co-founder and Brinkman's wife. The mid-sized Canadian company has annual revenues of about $25 million.
Judged by scale of operations, however, Brinkman has grown into one of the world's leading reforestation operations.
"We're the largest in the Americas, that I know of," Brinkman says cautiously. "We're larger than anyone in Europe. There are probably some larger organizations in China. They're almost all state structures."
Brinkman regards the billion-tree mark as a stepping stone rather than an ecological trophy.
Reforestation remains the company's largest operation but it's sending shoots in several other directions. In recent years, it has acquired a depth of expertise in services ranging from renewing disturbed eco-systems in urban areas to restoring wetlands and grasslands.
It also manages timber and non-timber resources for First Nations in B.C. and abroad. In Panama, Brinkman is assessing resources for the Embera and Wounaan indigenous peoples in the remote Darien province of eastern Panama.
It's also expanding its theatre of operations. The company, best known at home for its green troops of tree-planters in B.C., Alberta and Ontario, is now dipping its toes into Southeast Asia and Africa.
The diversification is driven by Dirk Brinkman's belief that healing the world's eco-systems is an indispensable part of avoiding planetary catastrophe as the climate warms.
"We've got big challenges ahead, globally," he says. "Our mission is to restore the health of terrestrial eco-systems and increase the removal of carbon."
Brinkman knows tree planting from the ground up. In 1970, he and Davis were contracted to plant 100,000 trees just north of Cranbrook.
Brinkman, Davis and another friend managed the astounding feat of planting 96,000 trees in three weeks, before snowfall intervened.
The company, which began its ascent in earnest when Murray joined in 1975, has worked its way into Canada's cultural fabric.
While the forestry downturn means it will hire far fewer planters this year, Brinkman has provided well-paid, if arduous, work for thousands over the years. Among its former employees is author Yann Martel, who took charge of joe jobs at a northern Ontario camp in the 1990s, writing whenever he could.
In the 1980s, many work crews self-organized along religious lines, Brinkman says. The country's regenerating forests owe a debt to bands of tree-planting Christians, Sufis, agnostics and devotees of little-known spiritual figures.
The hard work of planting trees gives young people an opportunity to find their physical and mental limits -- and to extend those limits, Brinkman says.
"Thousands of people have come of age in a way they could never have otherwise," he says. "I can't tell you how many parents have told me they didn't recognize their children when they came back from working in reforestation."