Story at a glance
- Climate change is exacerbating droughts and leading to wildfires that burn longer and destroy more forest and land.
- To combat this, conservationists in New Mexico and Colorado are locating drought-resistant trees and collecting their pine cones.
- This year’s "mast seeding" event is providing a special opportunity to collect 1 million seeds.
Anticipating increasingly aggressive wildfires, conservationists in New Mexico and Colorado are collecting 1 million seeds to reforest severely burned areas.
“Without our intervention there is a possibility that some of those areas will never be forests again,” Sarah Hurteau, of the Nature Conservancy in New Mexico, tells The Associated Press. “What we’re trying to do is collect the seed to help reforest these areas. This is a huge effort.”
Climate change is exacerbating the high temperatures and drought conditions that lead to wildfires in the western United States, and the number of acres burned each year is rising. Last year’s Camp Fire was one of the deadliest and most destructive in California history, and experts in New Mexico pointed to the 2011 Los Conchas fire, which burned for more than a month in their state, as an example of the threats to the state’s wilderness.
This year, trees in Colorado and New Mexico are experiencing a “mast seeding,” producing more viable seeds than usual.
“Mast seeding is an evolutionary process,” Hurteau tells the Albuquerque Journal. “In these years, trees will produce enough seeds that animals can’t eat them all, so more seeds get the chance to germinate.”
Mast seeding is happening less often than it used to, according to research published in October, meaning that forests in high fire-risk environments are less and less able to recover naturally. This year’s mast seeding gives conservationists an opportunity to gather excess pine cones, remove the seeds and redistribute them.
Some of the seeds will be brought to university nurseries where they will be grown into seedlings and planted in some of the areas most affected by wildfires. Other seeds will be frozen and stored for future use.
The Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico has been hit especially hard by the impacts of wildfires and drought, but they have had forestry crews collecting seeds from local pine trees, including ponderosa, Douglas fir and spruce for the past decade. The trees in the area surrounding Santa Clara Pueblo are uniquely hearty, and foresters like Steven Sandoval recognized their importance.
“We want to build up a stock of seeds from lower-elevation forests because they are genetically suited for drought,” Sandoval tells the Albuquerque Journal. “That seed is precious.”