Forest Service Running out of Trees

running out trees

The Forest Service is running out of trees. No, it hasn’t cut them all down – it’s running out of trees to plant.

Like so much else, this all started because of climate change. Lately some pretty far-out solutions to global warming have been getting press: Blow sun-blocking particles into the atmosphere? Launch a giant parasol into space? One more down-to-earth solution is also appealing in its simplicity: plant more trees.

Planting trees to cool things down is a time-tested strategy, at scales from the backyard through the cityscape on up to the global. It yields one of the biggest bangs for the climate-mitigating buck. Recognizing that, Congress passed the REPLANT Act in 2022, more than tripling the Forest Service’s reforestation budget.

That ramps the total amount available up to an estimated $123 million for the USDA to spend planting trees all across the country. That’s a lot of trees – over a billion, with a B, over the next ten years.

Yet even this seeming silver bullet has its own pitfalls. The biggest one? There aren’t enough trees to plant. USDA has scoured the country to find enough, and come up short. Not only aren’t there enough seedlings in the nation’s nurseries, but those that can be had aren’t nearly a diverse enough mix.

“The number of seedlings is a challenge,” says Peter Clark, a forest scientist at the University of Vermont, “but finding the diversity we need to restore ecologically complex forests—not just a few industrial workhorse species commonly used for commercial timber operations, like white pine—is an even bigger bottleneck.”

Clark recently co-authored a study that measured just how big that shortfall is. A team of 13 scientists studied 605 plant nurseries across twenty northern states. Only 56 of these grow and sell seedlings in the volumes needed for conservation and reforestation.

The nurseries in the study tended to maintain a limited inventory of a select few species, prioritizing those valued for commercial timber production over species required for conservation, ecological restoration, or climate adaptation. Moreover, many areas had no locally adapted tree stock available.

“It really points to just how bare the cupboard is when it comes to the diversity of options,” says Tony D’Amato, director of the UVM Forestry Program and another author on the study, “but also the quantity that’s needed to make any meaningful impact.”

The study argues that dramatic increases in both seedling production and diversity at many regional nurseries will be central to any successful campaign to address climate change with tree planting. The authors suggest that expanded federal and state investment will be needed to boost both public tree nurseries and seed collection efforts.

“People want trillions of trees,” says Clark, “but often, on the ground, it’s one old farmer walking around to collect acorns. There’s a massive disconnect.”

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