Can the Internet Replace State Nurseries?

Despite the escalating need for replanting and restoring forests, states across the country are closing their nurseries. The closures are hitting private timberland owners hardest at a time when restocking their burned or damaged lands is more critical than ever. For decades these state-run nurseries have been their primary source of seedlings. Now they are disappearing.

California shut its only seedling nursery in February, leaving small-scale forest owners reeling in the smoke of last summer’s wildfires. Alabama, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Washington—all are among the states to shutter their operations.

“It’s a scary trend,” says Monty Maldonado, a U.S. Forest Service forester in charge of nurseries, reforestation, and genetics.

And it’s a reflection of these difficult economic times, says Richard Garrett, Maryland’s nursery manager: “We’re supposed to operate off our receipts. When the economy is down, that’s what happens.”

State nurseries have historically provided tree and other plant seedlings to the mom-and-pop forest owners who own nearly 60 percent of the nation’s timberlands. When they replant, they need tens of thousands of trees, not the hundreds of thousands grown by large-scale private nurseries for industrial timberland owners. For decades, state nurseries have filled their orders with local species suited to landowners’ specific needs. Without the local nurseries, these forest managers will have a hard time finding seedlings at the scale and in the variety they need, says Stephen Jones, California’s deputy chief for forest assistance programs.

The long-term ramifications of these closures do not bode well for forests. With limited or no access to small quantities of seedlings, many non-industrial forest owners will simply not replant their lands, Jones says. When they do, they may be forced to use seedlings that are not grown for their particular climate and elevation site. Unlike state- and federal-managed nurseries, most private nurseries do not match their stock to seed zones.

“A ponderosa pine is not a ponderosa pine is not a ponderosa pine. They’re different from Fresno County to Plumas County,” says Jones. Robert McNitt views the pattern of state nursery closures with cheerful optimism. He sees opportunity where others see catastrophe. A second-generation forester in Oregon who has worked as a private forester and consultant for 35 years, McNitt thinks the Internet can help. He has set up an online network matching private landowners who need trees with nursery owners who grow them. When a forest owner in Montana needs 6,000 Douglas-fir seedlings, for example, McNitt’s Forest Seedling Network helps her find a grower who can provide them.

The website www.forestseedlingnetwork.com lets landowners search for specific plant species to suit the elevation and climate of their specific seed zone. Growers can post their nursery stock online and search for forest owners who need seedlings. Forest Seedling Network also offers information about the correct seedlings for a given planting site as well as tips for hauling, storing, and planting them.

McNitt’s online venture is using Internet technology to take some of the guesswork out of growing seedlings. At the same time, he hopes that matching growers and landowners will help create healthier forests. “I’m a tree pimp,” he says.

If it works, Forest Seedling Network could help fill the gap left by the loss of state nurseries. And it could ease fears that private forests will decline along with the state economies that are forcing the widespread closures.

“Nobody is replanting the way they used to,” says Garrett, the Maryland nursery manager.

Give Forest Seedling Network a chance, says McNitt: “Nobody has ever tried this before. Technology is helping us solve a problem.”

- Jane Braxton Little