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Forests Ontario boss 'humbled' by lifetime achievement award

Life comes 'full circle' for former local resident Rob Keen as the organization moved its Toronto office to Barrie in August 2020

Rob Keen capped off 2022 with a lifetime achievement award.

He was the only one of five Canadians from Barrie and the only one recognized for his work with trees.

The five recipients represented different sectors, yet all were involved with sustainability and climate change.

“It was very humbling to be even considered for such an award,” said Keen, who is the CEO of Forests Ontario, a charitable organization based in Barrie. “It’s certainly not me. It’s the incredible number of people I’ve had the privilege of working with and the passion of so many people in the forestry sector that has moved the yardstick along so significantly for what we’re doing now for tree planting in Ontario.

"I’m only one of many people who were part of that.”

The annual Clean50 award marks the accomplishments of 50 leaders, senior and emerging, who have done the most to advance climate action and develop solutions in Canada. It also recognizes 25 innovative sustainability projects and five lifetime achievement awards, selected from more than 1,000 nominations from across the country.

Clean50 executive director Gavin Pitchford said the range of ingenuity by the individuals and projects has made a significant start towards Canada’s long-term goal to eliminate 730 megatonnes (MT) of carbon pollution.

“If we have any hope of hitting our committed targets, it is people like these Canadians we will need to thank,” he added.

Keen’s interest in trees began when he was a child when he would walk with his father in the forest and accompany him on visits to various mills and operations. His father was a forester who was involved in different aspects of forestry throughout his life, from equipment sales to working for the federal government where he served as director of the Petawawa National Forestry Institute.

It inspired Keen to follow in his footsteps, starting with the University of Toronto’s bachelor of science in forestry (BScF). After graduating in 1982, he started his career as a consultant, taking on various projects from tree planting with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, tree marking, and writing management plans for owners, along with other forestry activities including working with Crown land.

He was based in Barrie, but moved to other locations, such as Aurora and Huntsville, as his work changed. Keen marked a full circle moment when he relocated the Toronto-based office of Forests Ontario to downtown Barrie in August 2020. Because of the pandemic, the official opening didn’t take place until last year, National Forest Week in September.

“It’s really worked out well,” said Keen. “It’s a very central location, very easy for a lot of our planning partners, nurseries, and field advisors to meet at our office.

“My wife and I, the first place we rented was in Barrie years ago so it’s just come full circle on us.”

Despite the pandemic, it was also successful for the 25 staff. For many, working from home brought them closer to where they needed to be rather than a central office. Their work ranged from promoting forestry to Forests Ontario’s restoration project to increasing tree planting capacity in Ontario and across Canada as well as the management of it including Crown land, working with individual landowners, and communities, educating, protecting, and ensuring sustainability.

Currently, Keen is living in Huntsville and commutes to Barrie once or twice a week. The move back to Huntsville coincided with his wife’s retirement. The couple had lived in Huntsville for 20 years and had their children there. Their second grandchild was born late last year.

Their sons, ages 35 and 31, have followed Keen into similar fields — the oldest is a certified arborist in the Toronto area and the youngest is working with lake surveys for the Ministry of Environment.

Forests Ontario’s current focus is tree planting to create new forests across Canada. The major focus is on southern Ontario where a lot of the forests were removed decades ago for agricultural purposes and the land is currently either fallow or under-produced.

The Barrie-based organization is also involved in co-ordinating seed collection and storage, which is especially needed since the Ontario Tree Seed facility in Angus closed.

“It’s funny, you know. People talk about planting trees so often, but they forget about — well, what about the seed to grow the tree that you’re going to plant,” he said. “So it’s kind of an important component.

“We have some 200 million seeds in storage and continue to employ seed collectors — an incredible group of people who go out and collect seed to restore what gets sown every year," Keen added. 

The seeds are provided to nurseries that grow the seedlings, a two- to four-year process, that are planted in agricultural fields and other places. The goal is to create a healthy forest.

For more on Forests Ontario’s projects and programs, and to donate to the Canadian charity’s work, see