Experimental pine seedlings poke from the rocky New Mexico earth, the only living evergreens on a hillside torched by one of the U.S. West’s drought-driven wildfires.
These climate-smart sprouts about 30 miles (48 km) east of Taos are part of a push to increase the dramatically lagging replanting of U.S. forests after fires.
To condition trees for life in the Southwest, now suffering its worst drought in 500 years, biologist Owen Burney takes the scraggly seedlings to the point of death and back several times by starving them of water in the nursery.
Burney wishes he had funding to mass produce the seedlings and expand his tree nursery, the largest in the U.S. Southwest. With wildfires growing to monstrous proportions, the nursery’s output of 300,000 seedlings a year does not come close to replacing torched trees.
“People get excited about reforestation, and they talk about it, but talk is cheap without action,” says Burney, who heads New Mexico State University’s forestry research center in Mora. “That’s what we’re trying to create, the action of an effective reforestation pipeline.”
Reforestation supporters say planting trees helps fight climate change, protects watersheds and creates jobs — arguments that help generate both global enthusiasm and U.S. bipartisan support. Lawmakers are seeking extra federal funding for such efforts. Some public-private partnerships committed to growing trees have been launched.
Still, evidence suggests replanting campaigns cannot keep up with blazes.
Even with efforts in New Mexico, California and Oregon, there is not enough seed collection or nursery capacity, according to nearly two dozen land managers, biologists and conservationists Reuters spoke to since June.
Federal replanting remains underfunded and poorly coordinated with the private sector. State, tribal and private landholders struggle to find sufficient seedlings, they said.
Wildfire is a natural part of a forest’s lifecycle, but climate-fueled fires are so ferocious they incinerate entire stands together with seeds that start regrowth.
That destruction also poses problems for the 180 million Americans who rely on national forests to filter drinking water and the 2.5 million employed in forest industry jobs.
Most U.S. wildfires burn on U.S. Forest Service land. The agency replants around 6% of its land that needs replanting after wildfires.
“Our systems just haven’t kept up,” said David Lytle, the service’s director of forest and rangeland management and vegetation ecology. “The change to these larger, more severe wildfires has dramatically ramped up our reforestation needs.”
Tree-planting fervor peaked in 2020 when the World Economic Forum launched its One Trillion Trees initiative, or 1t.org, to grow, restore and conserve 1 trillion trees globally. Former President Donald Trump backed the plan. U.S. corporations and foundations pledged 50 billion trees.
Yet visit any Western national forest outside the Pacific Northwest, which still has timber harvests that require trees to be replanted, and there are no major planting efforts, says Collin Haffey of The Nature Conservancy (TNC).
Read more: Why climate change matters in Election 2021
“It seems to be an afterthought of forest management,” said Haffey, the group’s conservation coordinator in New Mexico.
According to Lytle, the problem is not tactics or expertise, but funding. The U.S. Forest Service spends over half its budget fighting and preventing fires. Last year, Congress granted it $7.4 billion in discretionary appropriations. Meanwhile, the amount available for post-fire replanting has not grown since the 1980s. The agency says it does not have enough money or resources to fully reforest burn areas.
To boost replanting, lawmakers have included legislation — called the Repairing Existing Public Land by Adding Necessary Trees (REPLANT) Act — within the infrastructure bill Congress is considering. It would help the service plant 1.2 billion trees on 4.1 million acres of national forests hit by fire, pests and disease over the next 10 years by removing a $30 million annual funding cap to roughly quadruple spending.
With limited public money, Wes Swaffar of 1t.org tries to channel private funds into replanting. That can mean teaming companies seeking zero net carbon emissions with projects that sequester carbon.
“I’m so frustrated by the fact that I have to do this job in the first place,” Swaffar said. “I have to play this interconnector role between the public and private sectors, because neither one is able to do it by themselves.”
A small success story is growing 85 miles (137 km) southwest of Burney’s test site. With some money from the public-private Rio Grande Water Fund, around 4,000 acres of burned-out forest near Los Alamos are being replanted to mimic “tree islands” left after moderate fires. Developed by the TNC, the project has 400 moisture-rich sites, some at higher, cooler elevations to help seedlings survive future, higher temperatures.
“If we’re trying to do anything related to climate change, carbon sequestration, then trees need to be in the ground,” said Burney, who is seeking $40 million to create a New Mexico reforestation center and help lift state annual seedling output to 5 million.