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The Need for Seeds: Reforesting America’s Public Lands

Kelsey Shaw


  • Explains how after a megafire, a forest’s traditional recovery mechanisms are inhibited.
  • Addresses The Biden-Harris administration’s reforestation goals.
  • Discusses the Bureau of Land Management’s intention to use restoration and revegetation techniques.
The Need for Seeds: Reforesting America’s Public Lands
George Clerk via Getty Images

It’s no secret that wildfires have increased in frequency, size, and severity over the past several decades. Hazy skies and evacuation orders have become annual occurrences in many areas, particularly across the American West. These “large, intensely hot ‘megafires’ not only pose[] increased risks to local communities and economies, but ha[ve] the ability to permanently transform the ecosystems and habitats through which they burn.” After a megafire, a forest’s traditional recovery mechanisms are inhibited by the destruction of the seed bank or, in the case of short-interval reburning, any new saplings that may have sprouted between fires.

In the face of such threats, which are generally exacerbated by the effects of climate change, in 2022 the Biden-Harris administration directed the Departments of Agriculture and Interior to develop strategies to enhance the resilience of America’s forests. One year later, the Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published a draft rule regarding conservation and landscape health, and the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) released a report defining, identifying, and inventorying mature and old-growth forests on federal lands. In these announcements and in their jointly released report on reforestation goals and assessments, the agencies recognized the importance of reforestation efforts in the effort to foster resilient forest ecosystems.

Unfortunately, due largely to chronic under-investment and political and economic uncertainty, the United States currently lacks the native seed banks and nurseries needed to support such reforestation efforts. However, newly freed funds and burgeoning partnerships with nonprofits, states, and Tribes, signal the administration’s dedication to climate-resilient land management practices and, hopefully, a new era of reforesting America’s public lands.

The Biden-Harris administration began laying the groundwork for its reforestation targets on public lands with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), passed in November of 2021. As part of the IIJA, Congress passed the Repairing Existing Public Lands by Adding Necessary Trees Act (REPLANT Act), which directs the USFS to reforest 4.1 million acres of public lands by planting 1.2 billion trees over the next decade. Critically, the REPLANT Act also more than tripled the amount of funding available for reforestation projects by removing a $30 million funding cap on the Reforestation Trust Fund. With this increased funding, “combined with support from state, local, and Tribal governments as well as other partners, the [USFS] aims to eliminate the [reforestation] backlog . . . and develop the infrastructure, such as nurseries, to keep up with increasing needs.” 

On March 30, 2023, the Department of Interior announced a draft rule that “would advance the BLM’s mission to manage the public lands for multiple use and sustained yield by prioritizing the health and resilience of ecosystems across those lands.” In particular, the proposed rule would elevate “conservation” as a use on the same plane as established uses of the public lands, such as mining, grazing, and recreation, in order to better protect intact landscapes and restore degraded habitat. The BLM defined conservation to include both protection and restoration activities. Restoration, it acknowledged, “is a critical component of conservation . . . and describes acts or processes of conservation that assist the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.” And although “restoration” is not always synonymous with “reforestation,” the proposed rule clarifies that the BLM intends to use a variety of restoration techniques, including revegetation. Significantly, the proposed rule requires the BLM to include a restoration plan in any new or revised Resource Management Plan, the BLM’s land use plans. 

Not quite a month after the BLM published its proposed rule, the USFS released its much anticipated report defining “mature and old-growth forests” and providing an inventory of the country’s forest lands that meet the new definition. In conjunction with this report, the USFS issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) seeking public comment and initiating Tribal consultation on how to adapt its current policies so as to effectively and sustainably manage national forests and grasslands in the face of climate change and related stressors. The ANPRM cites wildfires as the primary cause of reforestation needs on National Forest System lands and specifically seeks the public’s input on “how the [USFS] can braid together [Indigenous Knowledge] and western science” to better inform its climate resilience management practices and policies.

In light of these individual announcements and the REPLANT Act’s reforestation targets, the BLM and the USFS jointly released a report detailing their reforestation goals and a plan to increase federal seed and nursery capacity. In this report, the agencies’ explicitly state that “[r]eforestation is at the core of efforts to ensure healthy and resilient forests.” Accordingly, the USFS is using the funding from the REPLANT Act to hire up to 200 additional staff who will focus primarily on nursery and seed facilities and on-the-ground tree planting. Over the next year, the USFS will also invest almost $80 million into Tribal, federal, and state reforestation initiatives, including seed collection, nursery expansion, and workforce development. These investments in projects and personnel are crucial to the long-term success of reforesting public lands. “Successful seed collection programs rely on skilled collectors to identify, monitor, and access appropriate collection locations,” especially when one considers the vast scope and diverse ecosystems of America’s public lands. 

Although much of the work to develop reforestation management plans is based on healing fire-ravaged landscapes, ongoing dam removal projects led by Tribes in the Pacific Northwest may provide guidance and inspiration. Though dam removals have the advantage of time and careful planning unlike wildfires, both events leave behind stark, stump-strewn landscapes with severely compromised seed beds. In the Klamath River Basin, members of the Yurok and Karuk tribes have spent years preparing to reforest as part of the world’s largest dam removal project. Led by the riparian ecologist responsible for reforesting several drained reservoirs after the removal of dams along the Elwha River in the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, the teams removing invasive species and replanting along the Klamath River are working in phases that mimic natural regeneration patterns. The Tribes and Resource Environmental Solutions, the restoration contractor managing the 2,200-acre project, aim to collect and plant up to 19 billion seeds through wild seed collection and wild plant propagation in commercial nurseries.  

The Biden-Harris administration’s reforestation goals are big and they are complex. As the BLM and USFS seek to braid together the expertise, traditional knowledge, and skills of a variety of public lands stakeholders, they should not only look to the massive Klamath River Basin project for guidance on replanting, but also for the collaboration between federal agencies, state governments, Tribes, and private organizations. With climate-driven disasters and the potential for a new administration looming, the need for speedy action is critical to ensure the constellation of funding, science, and motivation aligns in favor of a strong reforestation program on the public lands of America.