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The recipe for restoring damaged lands is missing one key ingredient: seeds

When the fires die down, the mud stops sliding, the drought lets up or the rain quits pouring, land managers must decide: Can damaged land grow back on its own, or will it need some help?

That help often comes in the form of seeds: millions and millions of seeds, delivered by a plane, machine, or even foot. But too often, there aren’t enough to go around, according to an expansive new report.

That means that restoration is likely to be slow or not happen at all. And that can lead to soil erosion or encourage invasive species to take hold. Invasive grasses and shrubs are hard to control, offer little to no food value to wildlife or livestock, and in some cases can fuel faster fire cycles, leading to yet more invasive species.

The 222-page study, commissioned by the Bureau of Land Management and published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in January, shows that “millions of acres of public and private land in the United States are at risk of losing the native plant communities that are central to the integrity of ecosystems.” The authors cite various problems, including fluctuating demand, lack of supply, storage capacity, gaps in coordination among agencies and plant experts, and money.

The Bureau of Land Management alone has purchased more than 54 million pounds of seed in the last 25 years — the equivalent of about 400 loaded train cars. But the agency estimates it needs another 1 billion pounds to restore issues on lands it oversees, Peggy Olwell, plant conservation and restoration program lead for the BLM, wrote in an email to HCN.

When native seeds are available, ecologists must choose from a relatively short list of varieties. Species from desert regions are particularly lacking, said Jill Randall, a wildlife biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

And any old seed won’t do, even if it belongs to the same species.

Plants develop strategies for local conditions, including water shortages — “even the frequency and length of droughts specific to their area,” Olwell said. “Using the wrong seed could mean the plants don’t survive.”

In 1987, for example, researchers planted Wyoming big sagebrush seeds from 13 geographic locations in southern Idaho. More than 20 years later, about 95% of the plants from local seeds had survived and only about 35% of the plants from other populations still lived.

Plenty of private companies sell native seeds and plants, but they can’t keep large quantities of every variety of native seed on hand, said Alex Tonnesen, co-owner of Western Native Seed in Coaldale, Colorado. “Being in the seed business is not to keep seed forever,” he said. He tried that years ago and found himself with an oversupply of seed and no demand for it. Now he and his wife sell mostly to homeowners and smaller projects.

So how could agencies address the problem? First, the federal government could plan restoration projects ahead of time, use what is needed, and stockpile the extra seed in properly air-conditioned warehouses, said Susan P. Harrison, an environmental science professor at the University of California Davis, who chaired the study. Right now, agencies generally wait to buy seeds until after an emergency. Every region has its most common plants. Agencies could guarantee they’ll buy a certain amount of seed for a predetermined price, especially since they can count on emergencies happening with increasing frequency.

“Restoration too often is treated as the last step in some other process,” she said. “We want it to be treated as more of an end in itself.”

She’d also like to see BLM create even stronger policies supporting native seed use. Reseeding with non-native seeds drives down demand for native species and contributes to the ongoing biodiversity crisis.

Second, the native seed industry needs more technical support, like the support the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service provides to farmers.

“There’s a lot of species out there, and every single one, you have to figure out how to grow it, how to make it germinate,” Harrison said. “You have hundreds of growers out there, each having to solve that problem individually.

Finally, agencies could build more seed warehouses and boost staffing at existing ones. Hundreds and even thousands of miles in a hot truck can be lethal to seeds. The report also highlighted the role tribal nations could play by expanding current nursery systems and taking on a bigger role in restoration.

Ultimately, however, Harrison said, the solutions begin with treating the native seed shortage with the seriousness it deserves.


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