Leveraging old idea, new national effort will save seeds — and landscapes

Bureau of Land Management
Seeds for the right grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and trees are often in short supply, because their ecological importance may not translate into commercial value for seed producers.

As another horrible wildfire season burns on, an interesting new national effort has gotten under way to restore the resilience of plant communities on damaged public lands – with a novel seed-saving network at its heart.

“The right seed in the right place at the right time” is the guiding principle of the National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration.

But that’s far simpler to say than to do in the wake of big fires and hurricanes, not to mention prolonged drought, extreme rainfall events and other consequences of a changing climate.

For one thing, the wrong seed is usually already waiting to put down roots, having hitched a ride into new territory not only on the wind, on birds and on tourists, but also – and in large quantities – on firefighters and their heavy equipment.

For another, seeds for the right grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and trees are often in short supply, because their ecological importance may not translate into commercial value for seed producers.

That’s a problem well known to Minnesotans in the vanguard of bee-friendly perennial plantings, who for a few years now have been waiting for supply to catch up with demand.

But for the dozen federal land and natural resource agencies united in the new restoration initiative, the shortages problem is just huge. And there’s no time to lose.

Seeds, and time, are scarce

“Large, disturbed areas must be replanted quickly to avoid severe erosion or colonization by non-native invasive plants,” Steve Ellis, deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management, said on Monday in announcing the initiative his agency will lead.

But “in many cases, it has been difficult to obtain and deliver adequate quantities of the appropriate seed to meet a region’s particular need.”

“Our national grasslands and forests are threatened by an ever-increasing occurrence of wildfire and invasive plants, and need to be restored,” said Carlos Rodriguez-Franco of the U.S. Forest Service. “Native seeds for wildflowers, trees, shrubs, and grasses are essential to restore lands damaged from wildfire and to restrict advancement of non-native plants to create resilient, adaptive landscapes for wildlife to flourish.”

BLM’s collaboration with the Forest Service, National Park Service and other big federal land managers is just the beginning of what Ellis called “an unprecedented level of collaboration and commitment” by potentially 300 more state agencies, Indian tribes, private companies, universities and nonprofit organizations “to further enhance the nation’s supply and distribution of the right seeds.”

Many of those nonfederal groups are organized into the Plant Conservation Alliance, which played a leading role in developing the new strategy; its Minnesota membership includes the Leech Lake Tribal Council, the American Bear Association, the Truax Company Inc., Bonestroo Natural Resources and Great River Greening.

(And just because it’s interesting, here’s the list of other federal agencies engaged with the National Seed Strategy: Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, USDA Agricultural Research Service, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Federal Highway Administration, Smithsonian Institution and U.S. Botanic Garden.)

An idea old as agriculture

For all its scope and the complexity of challenges it faces, the National Seed Strategy is leveraging an idea as old as agriculture:

If seed-saving by small-scale farmers and backyard gardeners was sufficient to preserve an array of prized heirloom vegetable varieties,  the planners reasoned, perhaps the same thing could work for the native perennials – and on a landscape scale.

The Strategy also calls for the coordinated establishment of a nationwide network of native seed collectors, a network of farmers and growers working to develop seed, a network of nurseries and seed storage facilities to supply adequate quantities of appropriate seed, and a network of restoration ecologists working on the ground.

While the use of native seed is encouraged, the Strategy does not preclude the use of non-native seed in the instances where it is appropriate.

Indeed, a key objective of the strategy is to engage researchers in determining what new additions to a plant community might be compatible with native species, but even more resistant to such foreseeable future pressures as extended drought, intensified rainfall and the relentless encroachment of undesirable invaders.

The spread of invasive and undesirable plants – think cheatgrass and knapweed – was damaging native plant communities in the American West even before the accelerating wildfire patterns of recent decades.

But wildfire has broadened and accelerated the trends by clearing off native vegetation and opening the soils to invasives before the natives can recover. Especially burdened is the Great Basin region, which spreads across California, Nevada, Utah, Oregon and Idaho and is a prime focus of the new effort.

In 2012, more than two million acres of sagebrush habitat burned in four western states. Now, worsening landscape scale disturbances, like wildfires and drought, have exacerbated land managers’ need for mechanisms that build a natural defense against a changing climate.

Hurricane damage, too

Other parts of the country have their problems, too – shortages of native seed for East Coast beach and shoreline replantings have been a serious difficulty in the wake of hurricanes, and destructive wind events along the Pacific Coast present similar challenges.

In the East, Hurricane Sandy caused widespread damage to native plant habitats that stabilize soils, filter water and absorb storm surges. A chronic shortage of native seed for restoration purposes left those landscapes vulnerable to hostile species and erosion, while undermining their ability to build up resilience, support wildlife and economic activity.

While the project’s effort to engage small-scale savers and seed producers is interesting and admirable, it would be a mistake to conclude that the new strategy will rest entirely on their contributions.

When the strategy had its official rollout on Monday in Boise, the scene selected by BLM was its seed warehouse where, according to the Spokane Spokesman-Review, the agency has “800,000 pounds of precisely targeted native seed stacked to the ceiling in huge bags, ready to send out to specific fire locations.”

That’s but a drop in the hopper.

Rita DeMasi, an Oregon seed producer who chairs the American Seed Trade Association, told the paper that growers brace themselves for “requests that often call for millions of pounds of diverse seed species on short notice.”

Meanwhile Greg Mueller, chief scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, told of his organization’s decision to field more than 100 interns across the West this summer, gathering seeds that can be identified as “winners” over their invasive competitors and handed off to growers for mass production.

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A full description of the National Seed Strategy, in PDF format, can be found here.

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