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News / Nation & World

‘We’re going to need so many seedlings’ for reforestation push

By Alex Brown, Stateline.org
Published: May 28, 2023, 10:26am

Over the next few years, state tree nurseries across the country will build new greenhouses, expand irrigation systems, upgrade seeding equipment and bring on staff.

They’re hoping to turn millions of new federal dollars into millions of new seedlings — part of a collaborative effort to reforest landscapes threatened by climate change.

“We’re going to need so many seedlings,” Homer Wilkes, undersecretary for natural resources and environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told Stateline. “Helping states get where they need to be is going to be cheaper and more efficient and is going to meet our goals and needs faster, than if the Forest Service tried to build these nurseries ourselves.”

Earlier this year, the department announced $10 million to support reforestation work, funded by the infrastructure law that passed in 2021. That law will provide more money for states in the years to come, as well as for federal nursery programs.

About $4.5 million of the $10 million went to 29 state and territorial nursery programs, which Wilkes called a “down payment” to kickstart seedling production and determine where future investments should be made.

Forestry experts say state-run nurseries play a crucial role in reforestation, one that has lagged because of underinvestment in recent decades. In addition to supplying seedlings for state lands, they often serve private forest landowners, who own the largest share of the nation’s forests.

Those 10 million forest landowners have typically relied on state nurseries for seedlings after timber harvests, wildfires and other disturbances. Unlike commercial nurseries, state programs often take small orders on short notice, and they grow more tree species.

But in recent decades, many state nursery programs have been shut down or reduced. Nursery managers say state leaders don’t want to run afoul of private nurseries, which are wary of state-funded competition. Many state nurseries also must meet their own revenue needs through seedling sales, a struggle on the unpredictable market.

State nursery managers say they’ve long been making do with old equipment and understaffed programs, even as wildfires, droughts, pest infestations and other challenges caused by climate change have upped the need for reforestation. Private foresters say the cutbacks in state production have made it difficult to get the seedlings they need.

But now the tide could be turning. While the feds make massive investments in national forests, they say they can’t succeed unless state nurseries start growing as well. The newfound funding, states say, will allow them to scale up and make their operations more efficient.

“We’ve been duct taping and baling wiring for a long time,” said Kacey KC, state forester for the Nevada Division of Forestry, which operates two tree nurseries. “We’ve been trying to ramp up our production, but it’s been hard because our facilities are so small compared to the need that’s out there.”

Nevada and the other states will receive $160,000 this fiscal year, with the chance to apply for that amount each of the following two years. Nevada is planning to use the first round to repair and expand greenhouses, and it plans to use future funds to hire more staff.

KC also serves as the president of the National Association of State Foresters, an advocacy group that represents state forestry agencies.

“We’re the conduit between the state and the private landscapes, and we have to make sure we’re meeting the demands they need for everything,” she said.

In Montana, state officials plan to use the initial funding to finish construction of a greenhouse, an existing project in partnership with the nonprofit American Forests and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. Future money could be applied to retrofit a cooler to increase freezer space, buy a needle seeder and pave the area around the nursery to ease transportation of seedlings.

“This will increase our capacity by a quarter-million seedlings per year, and we’ll be able to sow greenhouses and get tables moved faster and therefore extend our growing season,” said Michael Butts, nursery program manager with the Montana Department of Natural Resources & Conservation.

The state’s nursery grows trees exclusively for conservation projects, and its biggest customers are the tribal nations that oversee much of the region’s forested landscapes. The nursery currently produces 800,000 to 900,000 seedlings per year, but eventually aims to scale up to 2 million.

“The demand throughout the region for post-wildfire restoration is ever increasing,” Butts said.

American Forests, the nonprofit that has partnered with the Montana agency, co-led research in 2021 that found 133 million acres in the United States have the potential to be reforested. But even getting halfway there would require 2.4 times more seedlings than nurseries currently produce.

Amid that vast landscape, small-forest landowners have the biggest challenges getting trees to plant. That’s where state nurseries come in.

“These investments are a recognition that state nurseries are one of the primary places that private landowners can access seedlings,” said Brian Kittler, vice president of forest restoration with American Forests.

Lawmakers in Washington state approved more than $9 million this session to construct a new nursery processing facility, plan and design new greenhouses and outdoor grow pads, restore federal seed orchards through a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and create a statewide reforestation strategy. Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz has called for a 50% increase in seedling production over the next six years.

The federal funding will help, said Calvin Ohlson-Kiehn, the state’s acting nursery manager. Inflation rates, he said, have made it difficult for the nursery’s seedling prices to cover operating costs. The Department of Agriculture grants will allow the agency to purchase or replace half a dozen pieces of equipment each year.

“These investments help us to continue to provide high-quality seedlings at affordable prices for non-industrial private forest landowners,” Ohlson-Kiehn said. “Over time, they will also assist us as we look to increase our production to address the growing demand for seedlings due to wildfire, drought and other climate impacts to our forests.”

More federal money could be on the way. Wilkes, with the Department of Agriculture, noted the millions in funding available from the infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress last year.

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“There’s additional dollars we plan to put out later on as [states] determine what they can do,” he said. “Those nurseries will have an opportunity to come back in and ask for funds, as we see who has the best opportunity to help us reach capacity.”

The Department of Agriculture also said that more than half of the $10 million announced earlier this year will go to increase native seed collection, long a priority for forestry experts. State officials said seed availability is often a limiting factor in their efforts to grow more trees, expressing hope for similar collaboration on that element of the agency’s plan.

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization focused on state policy.