American Forests reforests land that once had trees and also carries out projects to restore forest health overall. Tree planting is one of our main strategies, but there’s much more to growing a healthy forest than just putting seedlings in the ground.  

What is forest restoration? 

Forest restoration involves all activities, including reforestation, that help return a forest to a healthy state. These include controlling invasive species, maintaining tree diversity, returning forest composition and structure to a more natural state, and pruning or removing underbrush that competes with trees. In areas where fire is a natural part of the landscape — such as the longleaf pine forests of the southeastern U.S. or the seasonally dry forests of California — controlled burns are an important way to improve forest health and prevent future wildfires.  

Sometimes, a flourishing forest might actually be masking ill health. California’s lush, dense forests, for example, are actually dangerously overgrown — the legacy of over a century of wildfire suppression. In this case, forest restoration work can involve setting controlled burns and selectively thinning small or sickly trees. This helps big, healthy trees have a better shot at survival.  

What is reforestation? 

Reforestation involves the natural or intentional regeneration of tree cover after forest loss. Much of American Forests’ reforestation work involves planting nursery-grown seedlings after events that have resulted in the partial or total destruction of a forest. These events include severe wildfire, pest and disease outbreaks, or land clearing for agriculture or development.  

American Forests’ reforestation projects encompass not only planting seedlings, but all the activities that go into making this work a success. These include collecting seeds, growing them in nurseries, and identifying where, when and which species to plant. In Texas, for example, American Forests staff collects seeds from wild thornforest plants, while in Hawaii, we support the native plant nursery that supplies seedlings to Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge.

Controlled burns are a type of reforestation and forest restoration. This U.S. Forest Service worker is using a drip torch to start fires in Mendocino National Forest, California.

Controlled burns are a type of forest restoration. This U.S. Forest Service worker is using a drip torch to start fires in Mendocino National Forest, California.
Photo Credit: U.S. Forest Service

What is natural regeneration? 

Reforestation also involves natural regeneration. Forests naturally regrow when seeds in the soil’s “seed bank” sprout, when surviving trees produce seeds, or when wind and animals carry in seeds from surrounding areas. Certain species of tree, such as oaks, can even resprout from their stumps or roots after the main trunk has died. 

Natural regrowth is a key reforestation technique that American Forests and our partners rely on. In Southern Indiana, for example, we partner with the Hoosier National Forest to use prescribed fire to restore oak forests, which depend on moderate blazes to create sunny openings for their seedlings. In Oregon — where many aspens haven’t established new sprouts in decades — we fence in key aspen stands to protect new shoots from being eaten by deer and elk.  

Natural regeneration is responsible for meeting 90% of reforestation need across the country. But this is changing. The climate crisis is altering local weather patterns so swiftly — bringing record-breaking wildfires, droughts and storms — that forests are struggling to adapt. In our national forests, for example, natural regrowth now only covers 40% of the reforestation need. Foresters have to plant the remaining 60%. 

In these cases, forests need a helping hand — in the form of tree planting and other forest management work — to adapt to changing conditions and keep providing communities with their critical natural benefits.