Are There Enough Trees to Meet the Demand?

There is potential to reforest 148 million acres in the contiguous United States. But getting even there by 2040 — focusing on the highest-potential locations for successful reforestation — would require a whopping 5.1 billion tree seedlings annually.

Tree nurseries in the U.S. currently produce only 1.4 billion seedlings per year. To meet these ambitious reforestation goals, they would need to increase annual production 3.6-fold.

New research co-led by American Forests shines light on this challenge and digs into the reasons why nursery production is low. The research, which included surveying 111 nursery operators managing half of U.S. seedling output, is the most comprehensive look to date at the barriers to ramping up seedling production in the country.

The Challenges

The most significant barrier to increasing nursery production is finding and keeping people who can do the work. Most of the work is seasonal, which presents hiring challenges. And finding people with the right skills is difficult, especially as many nursery managers and experts near retirement. It is particularly hard to find people who have expertise in how to collect seeds, process and store seeds, and find seeds 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. This often results in a serious undersupply of seedlings, especially after extreme wildfire seasons and other catastrophes that cause a sudden demand for seedlings.

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The Solutions

One way to encourage nurseries to grow more seedlings is to create regional reforestation initiatives that have a demand for seedlings.

Also, the federal government could allocate more funding for tree-planting projects. For example, The REPLANT Act would quadruple funding for the U.S. Forest Service to restore national forests damaged or destroyed by wildfires and other threats. The proposed federal Civilian Climate Corps program intended to train young people for environmentally friendly careers, such as forestry, would also help.

These are just some of the solutions. For our full list, read our guide for policymakers.