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Photo of dozens of tree seedlings growing in a tray.
Seedlings Needed Study shows gaps in reforestation pipeline. © Scott Warren

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New Study: U.S. Needs to Double Nursery Production

1.7 Billion More Trees Needed to Meet Climate, Jobs, Fire Recovery Goals

In order to realize the potential of reforestation in the United States, the nation’s tree nurseries need to increase seedling production by an additional 1.7 billion each year, a 2.3-fold increase over current nursery production. Currently the nation produces 1.3 billion seedlings per year.  These numbers, taken from a new study, show the promise of increased nursery output as a way to fight climate change, create jobs, and recover from uncharacteristically severe wildfires. 

With more than 200,000 square miles in the United States suitable for reforestation, ramping up nursery production could offer big benefits for the climate. Restoring forests is an important nature-based solution to climate change and a complement to the critical work of reducing fossil fuel emissions. 

To meet the need for reforestation, we’ll need to invest in more trees, more nurseries, more seed collection, and a bigger workforce.

Joe Fargione Lead Scientist, North America

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“To meet the need for reforestation, we’ll need to invest in more trees, more nurseries, more seed collection, and a bigger workforce,” said the study’s lead author, Joe Fargione of The Nature Conservancy. “In return we’ll get carbon storage, clean water, clean air, and habitat for wildlife.”

The new study, published in the science journal Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, was co-authored by 18 scientists from universities, nonprofits, businesses, and state and federal agencies. 

To illustrate the requirements for increasing reforestation capacity in the U.S., the researchers identified 64 million acres of natural and agricultural lands, nearly half of the total reforestation opportunity. Accounting for different planting densities by region, it would require 30 billion trees to reforest these lands. This equates to 1.7 billion more tree seedlings produced each year for this land to be reforested by 2040.

Graphic showing the need for growing and planting more seedlings.
Reforestation Pipeline The reforestation supply chain has opportunities and challenges from seedling to post-planting.

To achieve this large increase, investment is required across the entire reforestation “pipeline.” Additional investment would be needed to expand capacity for seed collection and storage, tree nursery expansion, workforce development, and improvements in pre- and post-planting practices. To encourage nursery expansion, low-interest or forgivable loans in addition to long-term contracts, will be needed. Across the pipeline, achieving this scenario will require public support for investing in these activities, plus incentives for landowners to reforest. The investments will create jobs in rural communities, not only in nurseries but across the whole spectrum of reforestation activities- from seed collection, to preparing sites for planting, to post-planting management activities essential to growing healthy young stands. 

There are several existing reforestation programs in the United States that could be scaled up to put the new study’s information to work.  On public lands this includes the Reforestation Trust Fund, which can be enhanced via the soon-to-be-introduced federal REPLANT Act to fully fund reforestation of America’s national forests. On private lands, they include the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), as well as state conservation agency cost-share programs.

Given the large opportunity for reforestation across the country, more funding will be needed, particularly for federal and state agencies that lack a stable, dedicated funding source for reforestation, such as the Department of the Interior.

In the United States, hundreds of millions of acres are potentially reforestable. Currently, most lands in need of reforestation are not being reforested. This problem is being exacerbated by the increasing need to reforest after fires – which are becoming increasingly large and severe due to a century of misguided fire suppression and climate change.  Only by increasing our capacity to plant trees will this need be met.

Photo of tree seedlings in pots outside.
Awaiting Planting Investment is needed to expand capacity for seed collection and storage, tree nursery expansion, workforce development, and improvements in pre- and post-planting practices. © Joshua Lott

Quotes from contributing co-authors:

“Nurseries are critical to our national carbon removal ambitions, but they face serious labor and funding shortfalls. New “green recovery” proposals from the Biden administration, such as the Civilian Climate Corps, could grow the country’s reforestation workforce. At the same time, removing the outdated cap on the Reforestation Trust Fund would free up more money for the U.S. Forest Service to grow and plant trees.”
Brian Kittler, Senior Director of Forest Restoration, American Forests, bkittler@americanforests.org

“The area burned each year in the western US is rapidly outpacing the capacity of government agencies to reforest these lands. Each year the gap between what needs to be replanted and our capacity to do that work grows steadily into a chasm.”
Solomon Dobrowski, Professor, Franke, College of Forestry and Conservation, University of Montana, solomon.dobrowski@umontana.edu

“Seed collection, seed handling and seedling production require specialized skills and training. Much of this expertise has been lost with the closing of nurseries and plant material programs over the last several decades, yet it is critical to reaching reforestation targets and protecting investments in the reforestation pipeline. Funding for programs that provide hands-on training for seed collectors, seed extractory personnel, and nursery growers is critical to ensuring that a trained workforce is available. Opportunities to integrate workforce training between the federal and private sectors also exist.”
Olga Kildisheva, Project Manager, The Nature Conservancy, olga.kildisheva@tnc.org

“We are at a pivotal moment in time where we can make a huge impact on the battle against climate change. Sadly, the greatest tool we have to fight this battle is incomplete. Therefore, it is critical that we invest in the entire reforestation pipeline to address the urgency and scale of the climate problem while simultaneously supporting water resources, forest products, wildlife habitat, recreation, and many other valuable resources forests provide.”
Owen Burney, Director of Reforestation and Associate Professor, New Mexico State University, oburney@nmsu.edu

“Wildfires and insect outbreaks are being exacerbated by climate change and natural tree regeneration is being limited by the size of these disturbances.  Planting is the only way we will reestablish forest cover in many of these areas and our lack of national nursery capacity is going to create a real bottleneck in seedling supply.”
Matthew Hurteau, Associate Professor, Department of Biology, University of New Mexico, mhurteau@unm.edu

“The reforestation challenge is really an economic and political challenge. Reforestation is one of the lowest cost options to deal with climate change and provide many other public benefits. How to translate these public goods benefits into private reforestation incentives is critical.”
Daowei Zhang, Professor and Associate Dean for Research, School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, Auburn University, zhangdw@auburn.edu

“As director of the Southern Forest Nursery Management Cooperative, I knew that the southern US produces over a billion seedlings annually and that reforestation/afforestation could be one way to mitigate carbon sequestration, but there are unknowns. What is the US capacity for seedling production? What are the limitations and what is the available land base to do so? This research team has been effective in addressing those questions due to their diverse range of expertise. With this combined knowledge, the team was able to identify the pinch points and strategies that would allow the US to increase tree planting.”
Scott Enebak, Director of the Southern Forest Nursery Management Cooperative, Dwain G. Luce Professor and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, Auburn University, enebasa@auburn.edu

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.