Reforestation Is Great! But We're Running Out of Seeds

Dean Swift has gotten really good at spotting where squirrels hide their seeds. In the forests of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and South Dakota, he looks for a moist shaded area with a small grove of trees, sometimes near a ravine. Here, he will find a cache of chewed cones a few meters deep. On his hands and knees, he will dig through the mound searching for where the squirrels have hid full cones for the coming winter—the jackpot. Swift is a seed collector. He takes the best cones and seeds he can find and sells them to nurseries. (Swift makes a point to mention that the squirrels don’t suffer because he never finds all the cones—and they have many other food sources.) This is the inception point for the United States’ reforestation efforts.
“Over the years, I’ve built up a network of people in the different collecting areas who helped me with seed collection,” Swift said. “I show them how to get started. Once they understand, it’s a lot of fun.”Over the past decade, interest in reforestation has soared. Climate change, an increase in wildfires, and the need for huge carbon sinks to remove emissions from the atmosphere have increased the demand for trees and dense forests. Companies like CitiBank, Microsoft, Amazon and many others that have made net-zero carbon commitments; to fulfil these goals, they will have to buy carbon credits from organizations and nonprofits that protect or plant forests to offset emissions. In January, Elon Musk tweeted: “Am donating $100M towards a prize for best carbon capture technology.” Many of the responses can be summed up by designer Martin Darby, who tweeted in reply: “I have invented a concept called planting trees. Where do I send my bank details?”
But while there’s a huge focus on planting trees, there’s little on where those seedlings will come from. A study published in February in Frontiers in Forest and Global Change, authored by 17 environmental scientists, including ones from the Nature Conservancy, the USDA Forest Service, American Forests, and academic institutions, outlines that we are already short more than 2 billion seedlings per year—and that’s just to get halfway to meeting the reforesting potential of the lower 48 states. They estimated that there are 133 million acres to reforest by the year 2040, which would require 34 billion seedlings. According to the study, the US currently produces about 1.3 billion seedlings a year, which means a 2.4-fold increase is needed.“There were increasing public calls for dramatically scaling up reforestation,” says Joseph Fargione, science director for the Nature Conservancy’s North America region and the study’s lead researcher. “The people that work in the industry were aware that would be hard to do because of the supply chain challenges. But most people outside the industry weren’t.”
Even nonprofit carbon offset project developers like the Arbor Day Foundation, who have access to private money from companies that have made net-zero pledges, know a squeeze is coming. “We’re going to have to increase the seedling production in order to meet the demand and the opportunities at hand,” says foundation president Dan Lambe. “We see that coming in the next couple of years.”

Courtesy of Chuck Frank/USFS