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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

How to revive a burned forest? Rebuild the tree supply chain

Log piles smolder after being harvested and burned as part of the Marshall Woods Restoration Project at the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area in the Lolo National Forest on Sept. 19, 2019, in Missoula.  (Chip Somodevilla)
By Lydia DePillis New York Times

When it came to wildfires, 2021 was an increasingly common kind of year in Montana: Flames consumed 747,000 acres, an area nearly the size of Long Island.

About 2,700 of those acres were on Don Harland’s Sheep Creek Ranch, where ever-drier summers have turned lodgepole pines into matchsticks ready to ignite. After the smoke cleared, Harland found creeks running black with soot and the ground hardening more with every day that passed.

A former timber industry executive, Harland knew the forest wouldn’t grow back on its own. The land is high and dry, the ground rocky and inhospitable – not like the rainy coastal Northwest, where trees grow thick and fast. Nor did he have the money to carry out a replanting operation, since growing for timber wouldn’t pay for itself; most of the nearby sawmills had shut down long ago anyway. The state government offered a few grants, but nothing on the scale needed to heal the scar.

Then a local forester Harland knew suggested he get in touch with a new company out of Seattle, called Mast Reforestation. After visiting to scope out the site, Mast’s staff proposed to replant the whole acreage, free, and even pay Harland a bit at the end. Mast, in turn, was to earn money from companies that wanted to offset their carbon emissions and would put millions of dollars into planting trees that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Harland said he had his doubts about the carbon-selling part of the plan, but he was impressed with Mast’s operations, so he said yes.

Two years later, after seeds had been collected from similar trees on nearby lands, crews of planters came out with bags full of seedlings, rapidly plunking them into the ashen ground. As part of the deal, Harland signed an agreement to let the trees grow for at least 100 years, so they can keep sucking greenhouse gases out of the air as they mature.

“This is a big risk for them and for me,” Harland said about Mast. “But there isn’t a lot of options. It doesn’t really matter whether you believe in global warming, or the carbon credits, or even what your politics are – what we’re doing is the right thing.”

Sheep Creek Ranch is one of Mast’s first projects, and the company has three more underway in Oregon and California. Plenty of other companies are enrolling forests in carbon offsets, too. But Mast’s founder, Grant Canary, has much bigger ambitions: His aim is to fix the whole supply chain for reforestation.

It wasn’t always so difficult to plant trees on denuded land. In the decades when timber companies were rapidly clearcutting Western forests, they also had to rapidly replenish the supply, a need that supported a bustling industry of nurseries, seed collection and planting.

But as timber production slowed, the reforestation industry shrank with it. Nurseries closed or fell into disrepair, and skilled workers left the business.

Public funding will be part of the solution. Federal and state governments are dedicating more money than they have in generations to planting projects and the infrastructure that supports them. But the resources committed so far leave a yawning gap, and bridging it requires deciphering a thicket of economic problems along the way.

That’s where Mast comes in. It’s essentially trying to rebuild the timber industry, except with a new end product: carbon removed from the atmosphere, rather than lumber. The market signal from carbon buyers is still faint. But by listening to it, Mast is learning what it takes to scale reforestation for what’s to come.

Across the country, about 70 million acres have burned over the past 10 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Federal agencies have fallen behind in replanting; only 5.5% of their destroyed and harvested acres were reforested in 2023, compared with nearly 50% in the 1990s. The state governments and thousands of private landowners that own the rest aren’t doing much better.

Recently burned forests are the most obvious priority for reforestation, since time is of the essence; erosion alone can damage water supplies for years unless trees are able to reestablish themselves.

In the coming years, federal money from the REPLANT Act, the major reforestation measure that was folded into the infrastructure law, is expected to support an additional 1.2 billion trees over the next decade, enough to cover 4.1 million acres.

That’s a meaningful increase, and partnerships with nonprofit groups are helping magnify the investment in hard-hit places like California. But it’s also not going to fix the problem, especially for private landowners. If you, like Harland, want to plant trees on your burned-up mountainsides, you typically have to deal with a patchwork of philanthropy and public grants to get it done.

Grant Canary’s first idea for how to fix reforestation was a flop. Planting seedlings is hard labor, and recruiting people to do it, especially on remote, rugged mountains, is hard. He proposed cutting costs by dropping seeds, enclosed in nutrient packs called “pucks,” from heavy-duty drones and garnered a round of buzzy news coverage.

But there was a problem: Falling from 10 meters to the ground doesn’t give a seed as good a chance at survival as hand-planting a baby tree, so you need more of them to cover the same acreage. And with the seed supply having slowed from its heyday, there weren’t enough to waste.

So Canary decided to go back to basics. In 2021, his venture capital-backed company bought a seed extractory called Silvaseed, which dated to the 1870s and was still the largest producer in the Western United States. Then, realizing he needed a bigger funnel to reliably deliver seedlings to those replanting projects, he bought CalForest, the biggest nursery in California.

Silvaseed takes up a city block and is the largest employer in the misty hamlet of Roy, Washington. Inside, there’s a lot from the early 20th century that still works well – and a lot that Mast is bringing into the 21st.

A seedling starts as part of a cone, gathered from the 11 Western states that Mast serves. Cone collection, done by local residents who are paid by the bushel, is a catch-as-catch-can kind of business.

After collection in the late summer and fall, the cones go into a “kiln,” a giant chute that blows hot air on them for 24 hours, cracking out the seeds. Next comes a series of shakers and screens that separate the seeds from all the woody material that surrounds them. This is bespoke equipment and nearly entirely analog. Mast removed the 1950s belts and rotors, refurbished them and put them back. As far as seed extraction technology goes, it’s still pretty much state of the art.

New X-ray machines adapted from medical imaging quickly screen sample trays to make sure all of the seeds have embryos and are thus likely to sprout. The seeds are then wrapped in sacks and stored in boxes in a cavernous refrigerator, where they can remain viable for decades. The dormant seeds waft a light citrusy scent.

“The smell of money,” Silvaseed’s previous owners called it.

Information about seeds – where they were collected, who owns the land, if recent fires in the area had created a need for new supply – all goes into proprietary mapping software that allows Mast to calibrate pricing, not unlike a ride-hailing app that brings in more drivers when demand is high.

But there are limits to innovation in forestry; there are no simple shortcuts or cost-erasing technologies. In contrast to most of modern agriculture, genetic engineering is rare, and there are few ways to help the trees once they have been planted with fertilizer and pesticides. Climate change is making every step harder, with drought and heat limiting planting seasons and shifting seed zones.

That’s why so much comes down to the price of each puzzle piece – and who pays for it.

Carbon markets have been around for decades. They’re essentially an accounting mechanism: Businesses that produce carbon dioxide can pay for methods, like forests, that remove it. Removing a ton of carbon dioxide creates an “offset,” allowing the business to mitigate its climate impact, whether for public relations reasons or because regulations require it.

Offsets are an obvious, if imperfect, way to fund projects that mitigate climate-warming emissions. But for prospective buyers, the marketplace appears opaque and unstable. There are many standards for measuring what equates to a ton of removed carbon, and several high-profile examples of projects that either burned up in wildfires themselves or were outright fraudulent. Some companies – like Delta Air Lines – are being sued for claiming to be “carbon neutral” based on projects that might have happened without the offset.

Prospective carbon credit buyers are nervous about whether they can rely on seller promises, said Zack Parisa, who runs a company called NCX.

“The risk-reward calculus is upside down right now,” Parisa said. “These are the questions that people must find resolution on before these markets can scale meaningfully, because it’s still it’s unclear to many buyers whether it’s safe to invest in these assets.”

While carbon projects come together, Mast can keep some cash coming in the door by supplying seeds to other reforestation efforts, including those funded by new federal money. But their vision for the future is a stable source of private demand, separate from timber and fiber, that outlasts presidential administrations and budget windows. After all, trees think in centuries, not four-year increments.

Don Harland has a view of centuries too, in the legacy of lands that burned just over his property line 80 years ago and still haven’t recovered. For him, carbon markets are the ticket to fixing something that ought to be fixed anyway.

“You take the risk, because what if you didn’t do it?” Harland said, noting the birds and mammals that migrate across his land to Yellowstone National Park to the south. “The rest of my lifetime I’ll be seeing this burned thing, and I should’ve done something while I had the chance.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.