ALONG THE BURNT MESA TRAIL, N.M. — With snow ready to fall, the scramble was on to collect as many ponderosa pine cones as possible.
A crew outfitted with spurs, ropes and hard hats scaled hefty tree trunks and used long clippers to snip branches loaded with the prickly orbs.
The cones being gathered in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico represent the fruits of a bumper crop. Every decade or so, the trees turn out more seeds to ensure future propagation as a hedge against hungry predators and whatever other hurdles nature might throw at the species.
The cones will be dried, their seeds cleaned, sorted and grown into seedlings that can be used to reforest fire-scarred hillsides. Similar work is ongoing in Colorado, South Dakota and other places in the U.S. West.
With warmer temperatures, more frequent drought and the severity of wildfires on the rise, scientists say seed collection and reforestation efforts are becoming more important.
“We’ve had so many large, high-severity fires in the state, and without our intervention there is a possibility that some of those areas will never be forests again,” said Sarah Hurteau with The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico. “What we’re trying to do is collect the seed to help reforest these areas. This is a huge effort.”
The goal: 1 million seeds.
It might sound lofty, but those helping with the project in New Mexico and southern Colorado are looking to take advantage of a rare bumper crop this fall that has resulted from back-to-back summer and winter seasons of average to above-average rain and snow. This doesn’t happen often in the arid Southwest, and scientists say it could become more infrequent as the climate changes.
Kyle Rodman, a post-doctoral research assistant at the University of Colorado Boulder, studied the density of seedlings that sprouted following fires between 1988 and 2010. In a study published this month, he and his colleagues found the absence of viable seeds can drastically hamper a forest’s ability to recover and that some burned areas were more vulnerable than others.
“The ability of trees to produce seed has a huge implication for natural recovery,” he said. “If the seed is not being produced, then it can’t get to the places that are disturbed, then the chances for the ecosystem to recover to that forested state are obviously pretty low.”
In comes Steven Sandoval and his forestry crew from Santa Clara Pueblo, one of dozens of partners in the seed collecting effort. Sandoval’s crew has been charged with scouting parts of Bandelier National Monument to locate those ponderosa stands with the greatest potential.
Cone picking is a science, much different than a leisurely stroll through the woods to collect cones from the forest floor. Crew members are looking for the perfect cones — no curves, no sap, no insect bore holes.