Auburn forestry professors part of multi-institution study revealing U.S. needs to double nursery production

1.7 billion more trees needed to meet climate, jobs, fire recovery goals

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Two Auburn University professors have co-authored a multi-institution study indicating the nation’s tree nurseries need to increase seedling production by an additional 1.7 billion each year to realize the full potential of reforestation, a 2.4-fold increase over current nursery production.

These numbers, taken from the study co-authored by Scott Enebak and Daowei Zhang of the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, show the promise of increased nursery output as a way to fight climate change, create jobs and recover from uncharacteristically severe wildfires.

With more than 200,000 square miles in the United States suitable for reforestation, ramping up nursery production could offer big benefits for the climate. The researchers say restoring forests is an important nature-based solution to climate change and a compliment to the critical work of reducing fossil fuel emissions.

“To meet the need for reforestation, we’ll need to invest in more trees, more nurseries, more seed collection and a bigger workforce,” said the study’s lead author, Joe Fargione of The Nature Conservancy. “In return we’ll get carbon storage, clean water, clean air and habitat for wildlife.”

The study, published in the science journal, Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, was co-authored by 18 scientists from universities, nonprofits, businesses and state and federal agencies.

“Due to the research team’s diverse range of expertise, we have been effective in addressing questions related to the capacities and limitations of U.S. seedling production,” said Enebak, professor and director of the Southern Forest Nursery Management Cooperative at Auburn University.

“With this combined knowledge, the team was able to identify the pinch points and strategies that would allow the U.S. to increase tree planting.”

To illustrate the requirements for increasing reforestation capacity in the U.S., the researchers identified 64 million acres of natural and agricultural lands, nearly half of the total reforestation opportunity. Accounting for different planting densities by region, it would require 30 billion trees to reforest these lands. This equates to 1.7 billion more tree seedlings produced each year for this land to be reforested by 2040.

To achieve this large increase, investment is required across the entire reforestation “pipeline.” Additional investment would be needed to expand capacity for seed collection and storage, tree nursery expansion, workforce development and improvements in pre- and post-planting practices.

To encourage nursery expansion, low-interest or forgivable loans in addition to long-term contracts will be needed. Across the pipeline, achieving this scenario will require public support for investing in these activities, plus incentives for landowners to reforest. The investments will create jobs in rural communities, not only in nurseries but across the whole spectrum of reforestation activities—from seed collection, to preparing sites for planting, to post-planting management activities essential to growing healthy young stands. 

“The reforestation challenge is really an economic and political challenge,” said Zhang, professor and associate dean for research in Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. “Reforestation is one of the lowest cost options to deal with climate change and provide many other public benefits. How to translate these public goods benefits into private reforestation incentives is critical.”

There are several existing reforestation programs in the United States that could be scaled up to put the new study’s information to work. On public lands this includes the Reforestation Trust Fund, which can be enhanced via the soon-to-be-introduced federal REPLANT Act to fully fund reforestation of America’s national forests. On private lands, they include the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, and the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, as well as state conservation agency cost-share programs.

Given the large opportunity for reforestation across the country, the researchers say more funding will be needed, particularly for federal and state agencies that lack a stable, dedicated funding source for reforestation, such as the Department of the Interior.

They add that, in the United States, hundreds of millions of acres could potentially be reforested. Currently, most lands in need of reforestation are not being reforested. This problem is being exacerbated by the increasing need to reforest after fires—which are becoming increasingly large and severe due to a century of misguided fire suppression and climate change. Only by increasing the capacity to plant trees will this need be met.

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