When Seeds Become Trees: Rebuilding our Forests
Our seedling supply chain is not able to meet the high demand for reforestation.
America’s forests are an important natural and economic resource that maintain and enhance biodiversity, connect people to the land, support recreational economies, promote a thriving forestry workforce, and cost-effectively sequester carbon dioxide. Reforestation is an important part of rebuilding forested land after timber harvests or disturbances like invasive species or wildfires, yet the infrastructure and workforce needed to rebuild and sustain healthy forests have diminished over the last several years. What’s more, reforestation efforts can no longer rely as heavily as they once did on natural regeneration due to degraded soil, lack of water, and reduced sapling survival.
“Today, we’re unable to respond to urgent reforestation needs and opportunities. Put simply, there are not enough seeds, people to collect them, or nurseries to grow them. We need to revitalize our reforestation supply chain by growing seed and seedling supply faster, developing new infrastructure for seed collection and safe storage, expand and enhance our tree nurseries, and update how we recruit and train a dramatically expanded workforce,” said Jad Daley, President and CEO of American Forests and member of the BPC Farm and Forest Carbon Solutions Task Force.
Trees are typically transplanted from nurseries to forests as seedlings, the delicate stage after a seed sprouts and has begun growing above the soil. The U.S. needs to more than double its seedling production to reforest the 133 million acres of land that has historically been forested.
Three major barriers to a robust U.S. seedling production supply chain:
- Declines in workforce over the last several years. The work is seasonal and highly specialized for all parts of the seedling supply chain, including seed collection, processing, and storage, and nursery management. For example, a seed collector typically must be a trained arborist, able to climb trees, and well-versed in the ecology of the region. In fact, workforce shortages are frequently cited as the biggest challenge facing the seedling supply chain and reforestation efforts broadly.
“Like most industries, private nursery owners and state nursery managers rely on a highly trained workforce, which they have seen diminish over time. The seasonal nature of this work also makes it challenging to compete with other employers in the region who can offer year-round work,” said Bob Izlar, Founding Director (Retired) of the University of Georgia Langdale Center for Forest Business and member of the BPC Farm and Forest Carbon Solutions Task Force.
- Lack of long-term financial certainty for nurseries. Nursery infrastructure includes greenhouse space for container growing, land for seedbeds, storage, processing, and administrative spaces. It can take up to 2 years to prepare newly purchased land to begin growing seedlings, and then another 1-2 years before seedlings are ready for sale, but many nurseries lack predictable long-term financing or dedicated public funding for that amount of time. Additionally, nurseries need long-term market demand signals before investing in land to expand or make needed infrastructure improvements. Nursery infrastructure across much of the nation has atrophied over time, creating a backlog of maintenance needs that further complicates the challenges of nursery expansion.
- Research is needed to address adaptation challenges. Historically, forests have replaced trees naturally without the need for nursery-grown seedlings. Threats to forests – like droughts, wildfires, and pests – are becoming more common, and natural regeneration is no longer able to sustain forests affected by these threats without the intervention of foresters. Because of this, nursery grown seedlings are now required for roughly 60% of current reforestation efforts, significantly more than in the past. Nursery research is needed to develop seedlings that are resilient to pests, drought, and other stressors.
The ability of nurseries to meet capacity and reforestation opportunity is unevenly distributed across the country. There are opportunities for regions with more expansion potential, like the Southeast and Pacific Northwest, to grow seedlings for regions with more land available to reforest but without the ability to expand nursery capacity sufficiently to meet their demand.
The below chart shows the current nursery production alongside the potential for expanded nursery production for each region of the U.S.
The map below highlights the total potential nursery production by region.
Federal, state, tribal, and private nurseries
Private nurseries, which account for most U.S. nurseries, primarily focus on reforestation after commercial harvest, while public, state, and federal nurseries may focus on ecological restoration and research. Although the number of public nurseries has declined over the last several years, state nurseries play an important role by providing a contingency for private nurseries during unexpected bad harvest years. State and private nurseries frequently cooperate on nursery management and genetic research.
Tribal nurseries, like the nursery at the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, focus on many of the same outcomes – wildlife habitat restoration, invasive species mitigation – while also considering restoration of culturally or traditionally significant trees. While many state nurseries have closed over the last several years, nearly a hundred tribal nurseries are in operation, up from only 10 when the U.S. Forest Service-led Intertribal Nursery Council was founded in 2001. Around half of plants grown at tribal nurseries are for external partners such as state agencies and other tribes, while the remainder are used in restoring tribal lands.
The Future of Reforestation
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law lifted the funding cap and increased the amount of funding available to the Reforestation Trust Fund, which funds U.S. Forest Service efforts to restore national forest lands affected by natural disturbances. While this demand signal provides important certainty for nurseries, more is needed to support nurseries’ ability to build the workforce and retain the infrastructure needed to meet this demand.
Several bills have been introduced that address the seedling supply chain issues, but more needs to be done to increase research to address adaptation challenges and address the increased demand for highly trained workforce needs. The SOS for Seedling Act (H.R. 2562) and the bipartisan Trillion Trees Act (H.R. 2639) from the 117th Congress sought to establish a new loan guarantee program to address important nursery infrastructure needs and provide financial certainty to support expansion of new and existing state, Tribal, and private nurseries. In the 118th Congress, a pair of bipartisan bills were introduced that aim to address the seedling supply chain and bolster U.S. reforestation. The Seedling for Sustainable Habitat Act (H.R. 1164) would support the development of state, private, and non-profit nurseries as well as nurseries at institutions of higher education, while the Invasive Species Prevention and Forest Reforestation Act (S. 1238) aims to mitigate the threat of non-native insects and pathogens on forests and woodlands.
By taking steps towards investing in the seedling supply chain, we can ensure the longevity of America’s forests, which are an important natural and economic resource that maintain and enhance biodiversity, cost-effectively sequester carbon dioxide, support recreational economies, promote a thriving forestry workforce, and connect people to the land.
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