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Study: U.S. and Minnesota Need to Boost Nursery Production

Far more trees needed to meet climate, jobs, fire recovery goals.

Two bags of green seedlings waiting to be planted.
Minnesota's iconic confer The Nature Conservancy is strategically planting 100,000 trees to create strongholds where native conifers will thrive even in anticipated warmer, drier conditions. © John Gregor

In order to realize the full 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 2.4-fold increase over current nursery production. In Minnesota, the challenge is even greater: public and private nurseries would need to grow more than 10 times the number of seedlings they do today. 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 200,00 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 compliment to the critical work of reducing fossil fuel emissions. 

A man kneels to place protective mesh around a seedling.
Forest restoration in action Brian Ronquist, Forester, Compass Land Consultants, placing cones and mesh to protect newly planted seedlings. This tree planting was on state property near Finland, Minnesota and administered under Minnesota’s Aquatic Management Area program to protect critical shoreland habitat and provide access to land managers and anglers. The Nature Conservancy's Plant A Billion Trees campaign is a major forest restoration effort with a goal of planting a billion trees across the planet. Finland, Minnesota. © David Bowman

Reforesting 1.4 million acres in Minnesota by 2040 would store about 2.2 million tons of carbon annually—equivalent to removing 495,000 passenger cars from the road. It would require an additional 61 million new trees per year. Currently, the state produces about 6.1 million seedlings a year.

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

The 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 seedlings produced each year for this land to be reforested by 2040.

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 U.S. 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 U.S., hundreds of millions of acres are potentially reforestable. Currently, most lands in need of reforestation are not being reforested. The 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.

 

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 72 countries and territories: 38 by direct conservation impact and 34 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.