The Tree Nursery Dilemma and Opportunity

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As the number of commitments being made to plant trees in the United States skyrockets, one key question often surfaces. Will there be enough trees to meet the demand?

At the moment, the answer is no. There is potential to reforest 133 million acres in the Lower 48 United States, according to The Reforestation Hub, a tool created by American Forests and The Nature Conservancy. 

A whopping 34 billion tree seedlings are needed in order to just get halfway there by 2040, focusing on the land that has the highest potential for successful reforestationBut tree nurseries in the U.S. currently produce only 1.3 billion seedlings per year. They would need to increase annual production 2.4-fold, to more than 3 billion seedlings, by 2040.  

New research done by 18 people from American Forests and elsewhere shines light on this challenge and digs into the reasons why nursery production is low. The research is based on survey responses from 111 public, private and tribal nursery operators managing half of U.S. seedling output. Follow-up interviews were done with 26 of them and 10 others involved in  reforestation (e.g., seed collectors, seed banks, foresters and tree geneticists). It is the most comprehensive look to date at the barriers to ramping up seedling production in the country.

Read: Challenges to the Reforestation Pipeline in the United States

Addressing this challenge is essential, given that forests are the best nature-based solution to slowing climate change. Fully reforesting the 133 million acres identified in the Reforestation Hub would capture an additional 333 million tons of carbon a year – the equivalent of removing 72 million cars from the road. It also would help scrub air pollution, provide clean water and reduce the risk of heat-related deaths 

Collecting seeds – as well as growing, planting and caring for all these trees – would also be a major economic boon. Every $1 million invested in nursery capacity and operations supports 14 to 48 jobs, depending on the state. Many nursery and other reforestation jobs are in economicallydepressed rural areas, where economic expansion is unlikely to occur without explicit strategies.


THE BARRIERS

While most nursery employees surveyed for this research project said they are very willing to expand, serious issues make it hard for them to do so. 

The most significant barrier is finding and keeping people who can do the work. The bulk of nursery work is seasonal. Most nurseries rely on migrant workers to fill these temporary jobs. Nurseries also struggle to find skilled, full-time employees, especially as many nursery managers and experts near retirement. It is particularly hard to find people who have expertise in how to collect, test (for diseases), process and store seeds, including ones that can withstand the impacts of climate change. 

Nurseries are also wary of the economic risk that comes with building more greenhouses, buying more land or equipment and growing more seedlings. Seedlings take about two years to grow. It can be hard to predict market demand that far in advance. To limit the likelihood of having to throw out seedlings if buyers for them don’t materialize, nurseries usually grow what is needed to fulfill contracts with owners of large pieces of land. This often means there can be a serious undersupply of seedlings, after extreme wildfire seasons and other catastrophes, for those who did not contract a grower prior to such an event. It’s a classic chicken and egg, or a seed and a seedling dilemma. Without knowing for sure that expanding will pay off, nurseries and the whole reforestation pipeline are unlikely to do so. 

Other constraints include limited access to land and water, old or non-existent infrastructure and the complicated logistics of transporting seedlings from nurseries to planting sites. Predicting how many seeds are needed also creates problems. Because nurseries must forecast demand for seeds one to two years in advance, there is often a mismatch between seedling supply and demand. Wildfires and other climate-related disturbances make forecasting even more difficult.  

Read about the
barriers by region

THE SOLUTIONS

Cover of the Ramping Up Reforestation report

Read the policy report

The research revealed that effectively addressing these barriers can help nurseries meet the demand for more seedlings. Most (76%) of surveyed nurseries are willing, for example, to expand their infrastructure if funding, supply-demand mismatches and other constraints are addressed.  

Ramping Up Reforestation in the United States: A Guide for Policymakers, a new report from American Forests, lays out solutions that can be put in place by the private and public sectors to address the nurseries challenge. 

Nature-based carbon removal is one place for the private sector to start. It is a way for entities to meet the “net zero” commitments they have made. Growth in reforestation projects funded with carbon finance will send market signals to nurseries and landowners to grow and plant more trees. This will ripple through the reforestation pipeline.   

Within government, a federal infrastructure policy package that includes funding for nursery development and tree planting projects could be created. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development business loan guarantees could help nurseries grow to meet coming demands. The REPLANT Act — introduced in March 2020 — would remove the antiquated $30 million cap on the Reforestation Trust Fund, which uses revenues from tariffs on foreign wood imports to reforest land in national forests.    

For private land, such as family-owned forests and marginal pastureland, the USDA could reinvigorate Farm Bill programs to promote tree planting for conservation. This would bring more seedling orders to nurseries and planting projects to private landowners. 

The Biden administration’s proposal to create a jobs program, the Civilian Climate Corps, also would help. If created, it would be a means to train young people for environmentally-friendly careers, such as forestry.  

A stable climate – and so much more – is at stake. Implementing these solutions is an important step to creating healthy forests for this and future generations.  

This project was made possible with generous support from the Paul and June Rossetti Foundation and Sant Foundation.

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