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390 million seedlings: Mora reforestation center sets sights on restoring NM forests


390 million seedlings: Mora reforestation center sets sights on restoring NM forests

Apr 17, 2024 | 5:45 am ET
By Patrick Lohmann
390 million seedlings: Mora reforestation center sets sights on restoring NM forests
Researchers with the John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center give a tour of one of two 4,000-square-foot greenhouses on Tuesday. Federal and state officials gathered to mark the two-year anniversary of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire and outline plans to greatly expand the center to grow up to 5 million seedlings annually, up from 300,000. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

MORA – State and federal forestry officials marked the two-year anniversary of the biggest wildfire in New Mexico history by outlining an ambitious plan to transform a small forest research facility in the burn scar into a vital source of drought-resistant tree seedlings for burned forests across the Southwest.

Swaths of forest across the state are still blackened by recent wildfires and those that burned decades ago. Millions of trees were destroyed by high-intensity wildfires in the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. Without intervention, researchers said Tuesday, it will take centuries for the forests to return. 

State Forester Laura McCarthy said New Mexico needs between 150 and 390 million seedlings to restore forests in burned areas. An additional 26 million seedlings are needed in the burn scar of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, researchers said. 

So the vision for the New Mexico Forest Reforestation Center, with the help of state and federal money, is to grow five million tree seedlings a year in Mora to be strategically planted in burn scars on public and private land across the Southwest. At the moment, the center produces just 300,000 seedlings annually.

Xochitl Torres Small, the Las Cruces-raised deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, spoke at the small facility for the event Tuesday at the base of fire-scarred mountains in Mora. She said the $11.5 million federal dollars for the center will help it put a dent in the tree deficit accumulated over years of high-intensity fires in a drying Southwest. 

Xochitl Torres Small, deputy USDA secretary, speaks in Mora on Tuesday (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)
Xochitl Torres Sma

She also apologized on behalf of the agency for the wildfire, caused by federal Forest Service crews in two botched prescribed burns that combined almost exactly two years ago. (The USDA oversees the Forest Service.)

“There’s of course symbolism in the fact that we are talking about seedlings in the nursery,” Torres Small told attendees. “When it comes to rebuilding, the hardest part of rebuilding is trust, especially when our relationships have never been perfect when it comes to USDA. And yet, every year we show up to do the work to try to make that relationship better.” 

The federal money includes $10 million from the USDA and an additional $1.5 million via Sen. Martin Heinrich’s office. Over the last two legislative sessions, state lawmakers approved $22.5 million for the center, according to the budget legislation. 

But it will cost about $100 million to equip the center with new greenhouses and additional technology for testing drought-resistant saplings, researchers said. The researchers come from the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University, New Mexico Highlands University and the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. 

Mora selected for future reforestation center

To fill the funding gap, the state is finalizing a request of $69 million to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Dylan Fuge, EMNRD deputy secretary. FEMA is overseeing a $4 billion fund Congress approved to compensate victims of the federally caused wildfire.

The state’s request for the reforestation center funds will be part of a claim submitted on behalf of all state agencies for losses they endured in the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. In an interview with Source New Mexico, Fuge could not say when the claim would be sent, except that he hoped to sign off on his department’s portion within a week.  

“New Mexico state government and our partner agencies in the federal government are here to help, and the governor’s administration will continue pushing our federal partners and related state agency agencies to provide the relief funding to impacted communities,” Huge told the audience on behalf of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who was scheduled to attend the meeting but canceled Tuesday morning. 

Stress tests for trees

If the center receives necessary funding, researchers hope to build 160,000 square feet of greenhouses by 2028. That’s 20 times the 8,000 square feet the center has now. They also hope to invest in research technology to identify the most drought-resistant ponderosa pines and other tree species to give them the best shot of survival in burned, dry forests. Current capacity allows the center to re-plant 1% of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire burn scar, said research director Owen Burney. “That doesn’t include other fires or future fires,” he said. “So we are not in the capacity we need to be in for the backlog.”

But growing the seedlings isn’t enough. The seedlings also have to survive in an increasingly arid, wildfire-prone landscape, and they’ll have to take root in areas of severe burn, with charred soil and little shade. To improve the seedlings’ odds, researchers subject some seedlings to drought conditions and select for re-planting strains that can handle the heat. 

For a study published in December 2022, researchers at the center planted about 2,000 pine, aspen, locust and other seedlings in area of high-severity burns in the scar of the 2011 Las Conchas Fire to measure the effects of things like climate, topography or biology on whether seedlings survived and grew. 

Owen Burney, director of research at Forest Research Center
Owen Burney, research director, holds a seedling while describing the vision for the new reforestation center Tuesday. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

The average survival rate after a three-year period was 20%, according to the paper, but researchers said they emerged with a better understanding of the typographical features, stressors and other factors that could help seedlings thrive. That means paying close attention to micro-climates and planting on northern and eastern hillslopes, among other things, researchers said.

Fuge, the EMNRD deputy secretary, said the model scientists developed could increase the survival rate of seedlings from about 25% to between 60% and 90%. 

One unique factor that could complicate replanting trees in the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, researchers acknowledged, is the widespread aerial reseeding of grasses across public and private forests. 

The Forest Service dropped tons of seeds from helicopters to stabilize the soil against post-fire flooding, but lingering grass and rye from that effort could compete with baby trees, researchers said. It’s one of many factors they’ll have to consider when it comes time to plant. 

Expanding the number of seedlings and ensuring their survival will require additional funds, but researchers said it is a vital effort to sequester carbon, restore watersheds and return fire-scarred landscapes to thriving forests within a human lifespan.