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ESA 2020: Challenges in the Tree Planting Pipeline

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Presentation from the 2020 annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), which took place online August 3-6, 2020.
Click the link above to view the recording of this presentation.


Challenges in the Tree Planting Pipeline: From Seed to Nursery to Outplanting on Post-Fire Restoration Sites

Owen Burney, New Mexico State University


Large, catastrophic forest fires are becoming commonplace in the southwestern US due to a combination of factors that include historic fire suppression, high tree densities, inadequate management, and a warming climate. In the expansive, treeless areas associated with high-severity fires, natural regeneration of native tree species is unlikely and often requires the need to reforest via tree planting. Within the last few years, there has been a growing interest to increase the use of reforestation as a tool to restore these degraded post-fire landscapes. However, there are major concerns on how to achieve such large restoration planting objectives, both in the southwestern US and globally.

With an increased interest to reforest post-fire landscapes, it is critical to discuss the resources and infrastructure required to accomplish this overall objective in the southwestern US. There are three main components to the reforestation pipeline. The first is the foundation to most restoration efforts, which is seed collection and storage. Currently this is not prioritized through any programs at the state, federal, tribal, or private level in the southwestern U.S. This is primarily due to the high costs of seed collection and the 3 to 7 year interval for when seeds are available (masting years). Without seed, there is no restoration. The second component to the restoration pipeline is the production of seedlings in a forest nursery. There are very few nurseries in the southwestern US and many are not producing high quality seedlings. The Target Plant Concept (TPC) defines the importance of matching the right seedling characteristics and qualities to specific planting sites that ensures outplanting success. Current research in New Mexico is showing promising results using seedlings that are drought conditioned (TPC) in the nursery phase that promote both higher survival and growth in the field. The third component is the act of actually planting seedlings, also known as outplanting. The outplanting effort considers issues such as site preparation techniques, planting windows, and distribution patterns across the landscape. For example, the use of a nucleation or “tree island” planting strategy is currently being studied in New Mexico as a way to restore disturbed landscapes without recreating the initial problem of high tree densities that resulted in these large, catastrophic fire. As land managers begin to plan reforestation activities, it is important to bring attention to these three components of the tree planting pipeline and the limitations that exist within.