These nurseries grow thousands of seedlings to keep any number of native tree species at a healthy population. (Credit: USFS Region 5)
Wildfires are not the only natural events that damage national forests and grasslands. Maldonado ticks off a long list: hurricanes, tornados, insect infestation, floods. Restoring these areas is also part of the agency’s new mission, he says. Longleaf pine seedlings harvested from national forests helped regenerate lands in Mississippi after Katrina. Several hundred acres were replanted with Forest Service seedlings in Wisconsin after a devastating tornado. Seedlings sprouted in Forest Service facilities are growing native grasses to plant along highways. The nurseries are providing willows and wetland species to restore eroded stream banks, and shrubs and trees to reclaim mine sites. Silviculturists are adapting the storage and classification protocols they developed for commercial conifers to these new plants.
The diversification has expanded the mission of the National Seed Laboratory in Georgia. Opened in 1952 at the beginning of the timber production boom, the lab’s initial priority was to make sure tree seeds had the ability to regenerate. Scientists developed methods for testing that became established protocols, now widely adopted by federal and private nurseries in this country and abroad. Seed certification remains the Forest Service lab’s focus, says Bob Karrfalt, its director, but the seed types have expanded dramatically. Formerly called the National Tree Seed Laboratory, the 16,000-square-foot Forest Service facility with seven employees has been dealing with any and all native plant species since 2005.
“We have so many more plants on our palette now, all for restoration,” Karrfalt says. “We want to ensure that every restoration project gets a good start with viable seeds.”
One of the lab’s newest challenges is testing seed stock to restore the tallgrass prairies native to central North America. Indiangrass, big bluestem, and switchgrass ecosystems, which once waved six-foot tassels toward the sky, have been devastated by agriculture. Restoration at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois uses seeds certified at the Forest Service laboratory for each specific planting site.
The lab is also playing a crucial role in restoring longleaf pine forests, which once occupied over 90 million acres from Virginia, south to Florida, and west to Texas. Agriculture, industrial timber plantations, and fire suppression have reduced these fire adapted ecosystems to less than three million acres. Today the laboratory in Georgia is testing the genetic identity of seeds from species that include bunchgrass and wiregrass as well as longleaf pines themselves. The goal is to ensure that the seedlings eventually planted are adapted to the site to help restore one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, Karrfalt says.
The increase in plant diversity has not caused the Forest Service lab to shun trees, its original focus. It has identified four species hard-hit by insect infestation for particular conservation efforts: ash, hemlock, butternut, and five-needle pines. The success of these programs and reforestation projects worldwide depends on high-quality seedlings, says Karrfalt. “And that’s our job.”
The National Seed Laboratory and the network of Forest Service nurseries are all part of a commitment to restore and retain natural biodiversity for future forests and grasslands, says Maldonado. With wildfires on the increase and climate change affecting where individual plants thrive, it may not be enough to protect all of the natural wonder federal lands now offer. But knowing where each seed originated is a good scientific start, he says. It ensures that natives will be planted where they belong. And having the seeds from an immense variety of native species means that species will not be lost despite the inevitable damage from natural and man-made events.
“We know these offspring will be planted at the right location, with no ecological imbalance,” says Maldonado. “We love and cherish these forests. This is how we take care of them today.”
— Jane Braxton Little writes from Plumas County, California
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This article was published in the Summer 2010 issue of American Forests magazine.