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To tackle climate change, more tree seedlings are needed than nurseries can provide right now

Cones on a jack pine in a state forest east of Grayling, Michigan.
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Cones on a jack pine in a state forest east of Grayling, Michigan.

The U.S. Forest Service has an ambitious push to plant almost a billion trees during the next nine years to absorb carbon dioxide to help curb climate change. Some states, counties, and cities also have their own smaller tree planting projects planned.

There’s a problem.

A study out of the University of Vermont found there are only 56 nurseries in 20 northern forested states to handle such reforestation efforts. That's not enough. Plus the nurseries don't offer the necessary species diversity and genetic diversity.

“So all these factors along this supply chain are really factors that will have dramatic influence on our reforestation efforts into the future,” said Peter Clark, a post-doctoral associate at the University of Vermont and lead author of the study published in Bioscience.

Peter Clark

Clark explained that forests can help sequester carbon out of the atmosphere and also provide critical ecosystem services in terms of recreation, timer, flood resilience, cooling streams, and many more.

Right now, most reforestation efforts concentrate on producing timber and that means just a handful of species are being planted. Additionally, the seeds gathered often come from trees in a limited area which means little genetic diversity.

“What we know from a legacy of planning uniform monocultures is that oftentimes they can actually be a bit more vulnerable to disturbances, insects, pathogens, and really can produce ultimately less biomass which equates to carbon,” he said.

The goal should be to plant more resilient forests that can withstand the effects of climate change and the migration of pests and pathogens they might bring.

“We could be doing more harm than good by planting more monocultural ecosystems rather than a diverse forest,” Clark added.

Of the states surveyed, the study found Michigan was producing the greatest volume of tree seedlings.

“Michigan really has tremendous capacity in terms of the nurseries that are there. And anecdotally, working with those nurseries, we’ve really found that there is an interest in supplying the number of seedlings (needed) and diversifying,” he said.

The study concludes to meet its goals, the U.S. government will need to support the nurseries’ expansion and encourage a greater variety of tree species and seedling sourcing.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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