To regrow forests the U.S. needs billions of seeds–and many more ‘seed hunters’

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Published December 2, 2021

20 min read

Sisters, OregonBrittle pine needles and twigs snap under Don Grandorff’s boots as he crunches his way through Deschutes National Forest, the August air scented with sap and wildfire smoke. Without hesitating, he veers off the path and wades through the brush, on the hunt for Ponderosa pine seeds.

Grandorff has been a seed forager for 45 years, and he spots the signs of a squirrel’s hidden cache immediately: clusters of green pine needles fanned out on the forest floor; a newly nibbled cone; and a long, shallow dirt trail that disappears under a log.

He points to the canopy, where a gap in the needles at the tip of the branches reveal that a squirrel has been through. “Most people don’t seem to be able to [see it],” says the 74-year-old as he weaves between pines, their auburn bark scaly like alligator skin.

Grandorff’s parents taught him as a teenager how to read the forest. They were part of a niche network of cone collectors whose heyday dates back to President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. Trailing behind him enthusiastically now is Matthew Aghai, senior director of biological research and development at the Seattle-based reforestation company DroneSeed, along to learn traditional gathering skills.

Grandorff stops: “See, right down there.” Nestled between two big rocks on the bank of a brook is what he came for: a cache of pine cones worth $15 a bushel. These woody cones are in steep demand. Tucked inside each one are up to 10 pearly-white seeds, each no bigger than a lentil, which one day could grow to over 200 feet tall and absorb at least 48 pounds of carbon dioxide each year.

Across the western United States, the seeds are in high demand. Over the next 20 years, the U.S. aims to plant billions more trees in order to restore millions of acres of scorched forest and help offset planet-warming carbon emissions. In the West alone, some 10 million acres of recently burned land are waiting to be replanted. In the past few decades, however, the number of skilled seed collectors in the U.S. has been dwindling, though it’s not clear by how much, since the work is seasonal; it’s also gruelling, for not much pay. Fewer collectors means fewer seeds, and ultimately, trees.

As drought and fires intensify due to worsening climate change, the backlog of land to be reforested is increasing at an unsustainable rate, experts say.

The nation’s ambitious tree-planting goals aren’t achievable, says Aghai, “unless we start thinking in a really big way about seed.”

‘A fickle business’ 

U.S. seed capacity—or lack thereof—will be brought to the attention of Congress in a report commissioned by the Bureau of Land Management, scheduled to be released next spring.

Presaging that, an interim report on native seed supply commissioned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and published in October 2020 states, “There is no agency-wide native plant restoration program … [and the] supply chain is generally inadequate to meet these large demands.”

That’s partly because of how trees reproduce.

Seeds, the embryos for future offspring, begin to form after spring pollination. As part of a species’ survival strategy, the abundance of the seeds varies by year. Seeds are energy-intensive for trees to produce, and after several low-seed years there may be a sudden oversupply. It’s impossible for animals to eat and disburse all of them, ensuring some sprout into seedlings. It’s thought that the timing of these bumper crops—known as masts—are synchronized, with the trees communicating through airborne chemical signals or via underground root networks. 

As a result, a good seed crop happens only once every three to seven years, depending on the plant species, given the irregular reproduction schedules. So 2020 was a good Douglas fir year; noble fir was big in 2016. This year across the area known as Cascadia, the tips of Ponderosa pine branches are heavy with cones.

“When there’s a mast this big … it’s quite unique,” says Aghai. “It would be irresponsible of us not to take advantage of it.”

These seeds are good candidates for restoring the more than 413,000 acres burned in July by the Bootleg fire in southern Oregon—the state’s third largest wildfire since 1900. To reforest that land with 150 trees per acre via seedlings sprouted in a greenhouse—enough, according to Aghai, to allow the trees to rebound quickly without overcrowding the forest—would require 18,000 pounds of Ponderosa pine seeds, he estimates. If the seeds were simply dumped from the sky by aircraft, a conventional method with a low rate of successful germination, it would take an estimated 400,000 pounds to ensure enough seeds would make it to adulthood.

Timing is everything, says Aghai; the longer it takes to reforest post-fire, the more likely that invasive weeds and shrubs take over. But it’s often difficult to find the right seed for a specific landscape—whether it’s the type, quantity, or quality. And it’s even harder when there’s a need to move quickly, such as after a natural disaster.

The risk is that the land isn’t returned to the same ecosystem it once was. “Failures are made again and again,” says Kayri Havens, director of plant science and conservation at the Chicago Botanic Garden, who co-authored the interim report.

Collectors must go into the wild to get high-quality seeds from enough species, which is vital for healthy land restoration. But there’s a science to doing this properly, from predicting the exact week the seeds will be ready to understanding how to collect ample supply without depleting the system.

On average, two collectors can gather 50 pounds of Ponderosa cone into at least 20 burlap sacks a day—about 10 bushels—(double that on a good day) for a total daily earnings of between $150 to $300. One bushel produces roughly half a pound of seed.

The roughly 50 collectors across 15 regional sites that work with DroneSeed, including Grandorff’s network of around six people, collected just under 10,000 bushels this season, less than half of Aghai’s goal of 25,000 bushels—a steep target for a season that lasts just two or three weeks.

The key is to grab the cone while it’s still closed with the seeds safely stored inside; if the woody wings open up and release the seeds—like most of the cones a passerby might pluck from the ground—it’s too late.

Once the pine cones are bagged and tagged to record the species, region, and elevation, they’re trucked to a processing facility—in this case Droneseed’s newly acquired Silvaseed in Roy, Washington—where the seeds will be extracted, cleaned, and stored until it’s time to plant them.

The government estimates that 100 million acres of public land need restoring. But there aren’t enough facilities to store the estimated billion pounds of plant seeds it would take to do that, says Havens. “We don’t have that capacity for restoration seed in the country right now.”

At the federal level, from trees to wild grasses, the BLM has “a total storage capacity for 2.6 million pounds of seed,” according to BLM’s interim seed report. In a bad fire year, though, the BLM needs over seven million pounds of seed to restore the burned landscape.

CALFIRE—a firefighting unit under the California Natural Resources Agency—is one of three operations responsible for the entire state’s supply of tree seed for restoration (along with the Forest Service and the company Siskiyou Seed). Aghai says the state has about 20,000 pounds of tree seed stored at the moment. That’s enough to restore more than 458,000 acres of forest with seedlings.

Outside of California, however, the bulk of seed production for restoration is done by commercial companies—which, according to that interim report, the federal government is becoming increasingly reliant on for “rapid procurement of large quantities.”

Among private operators, Silvaseed is perhaps the largest in the Pacific Northwest when it comes to conifer species. Currently, it stores about 12,000 pounds of tree seed. Four decades ago Silvaseed was one of four or five companies in the Pacific Northwest dealing with seed. But over the years the others closed, leaving it the only regional player collecting, cleaning, and selling seed to everyone from Native American tribes, timber companies, and state agencies to international customers. In March, the 130-year-old family business was bought by DroneSeed.

“It’s such a fickle business,” says Mike Gerdes, Silvaseed’s former owner and operator. The unpredictability of dealing with nature means withstanding lean years, he says. On top of that, finding and retaining skilled workers in a field that’s physically demanding and “not the highest paid,” he says, is a major challenge.

The art of seed collection is largely learned by doing. But there are programs for becoming a certified arborist, and all BLM-funded contractors receive the Seeds of Success training, according to Havens. There’s even a national tree climbing course provided by the Forest Service in Oregon. And while there aren’t hard numbers for how many skilled seed collectors exist—mostly because it’s seasonal work—everyone agrees a lot more people are needed who understand the forest and can climb trees.

The shallow labor pool includes arborists and seasonal agriculture crews, along with individuals like Grandorff, who’s been working with Silvaseed for 20 years. The rest of the year he’s busy foraging for other forest products like mushrooms or making and selling Christmas wreaths with his wife..

“Our contractor climber base is very narrow,” echoes Jessica Huang, CALFIRE’s seed bank manager. Her agency’s main hurdle is a lack of labor, meaning there’s only so much seed that can be collected, even in a good year. And often seed collection coincides with fire season, so crews who could collect are fighting wildfires instead. But rather than the various players competing for collectors, she adds, “everyone wants to work together, because we can’t keep up with the rate of fires and drought. We’re all just, all hands on deck.”

Fighting fire 

As climate change-associated drought lengthens wildfire season, the stakes are higher than ever. And collectors must balance their immediate safety needs with catching the fleeting window to collect a rare bounty.

This year’s collection season began mid-summer, with scouting missions to figure out when picking should start. In July, Aghai and his team drove around the Pacific Northwest, meeting the collectors, studying the trees and cutting open the cones to test their ripeness—if the seed embryo is too milky, it’s not ready yet. But in southern Oregon they hit a roadblock.

“The smoke was thick,” recalls Aghai. They doubled back and set up camp to regroup. “Ashes were falling on the camp, and we’re like, it’s apocalyptic,” he says—but they couldn’t stop their search. For some, the experience can be disheartening. “For me,” says Aghai, “it’s only motivating me to go faster because there’s no one doing anything about this, our climate catastrophe.”

Some sites earmarked for CALFIRE’s cone collection were also too close to the fires, says Huang. “I was uncomfortable having people in trees.”

“It’s really difficult to let go of a potential collection,” she says. “We’re really running out of seed; we can’t keep up. And as more things burn, we’re kind of like, ‘Well, now we can’t collect because there’s nothing to collect.’”

It’s a reality Grandorff has witnessed unfold rapidly. “In the hard-burned areas,” he says, “nothing lives.” It can take up to 20 years for the trees to mature and the squirrels to return.

Searching for a solution 

To help boost the amount of seed collected, Aghai envisions using average citizens in addition to skilled workers—a commercial network where collectors bring cones to third-party distribution centers, which would purchase and deliver them to DroneSeed’s facilities.

Havens suggests more government involvement, “a national system that’s a compilation of regional hubs that address the seed need for their region.”

“Seed has been really undervalued in terms of its importance as a natural resource,” she says. When she lobbied officials on this issue 15 years ago, “they kind of looked at me like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And now they’re all nodding their heads.”

By shadowing traditional collectors this year, Aghai hopes to engage them in “the technological revolution that’s going to come for reforestation.” This includes using digital modeling tools to determine seed zones and where to plant based on elevation and climate conditions, as well as deploying drone swarms to strategically disperse the seeds.

Standing in the middle of the forest with the stream rushing below, Grandorff says, “The collection itself hasn’t really changed much; it’s probably never going to change.”

That includes tracking the squirrels. “I’ve gotten six or eight bushels out of one stream cache before,” he says, illustrating the potential payoff of stealing from squirrels instead of trees.

A small black squirrel with a reddish belly scampers along fallen logs, a pine cone held tightly in its mouth. “I’ll have to remember that,” chuckles Grandorff, plotting his next raid. “He’s probably got a pocket up there.”

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