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Unexpected bottlenecks slow planting seedlings in Oregon's wildfire-impacted forests

The U.S. Forest Service says its Placerville nursery, established in 1957, provides about 4 million seedlings for reforestation mainly on lands either burned in wildfires or damaged by insects.(U.S. Forest Service)

An expected shortage of seedlings available to replant after the 2020 wildfires is turning out to be not just about supply, but landowners' readiness to begin reforesting.

Woodlands and fire recovery experts last year noted a shortage of seedlings in the wake of the wildfires that ripped across Oregon in 2020. While it was expected to stall efforts to replace scorched forests, 17 months after the fires, many still aren't ready to replant.

"We're not distributing nearly as many as trees as I thought we could have," Oregon State University Extension Service Forrester Glenn Ahrens said. "The fires were such a devastating event and they have a lot of things to deal with, starting with their homes and their livelihoods, and reforestation of the trees are a bit lower on the list of priorities."

About a year ago, the Oregon Department of Forestry estimated between 80 million to 140 million seedlings would be needed for post-wildfire replanting, two to three times the usual annual need.

The 2020 wildfires burned more than 1 million acres in Oregon, with private forestland accounting for more than 400,000 of those acres. Though large timberland owners often have big seedlings orders on reserve, small woodland owners can lack the same luxury.

But an immediate demand for seedlings from small landowners did not materialize quite the way some expected it would. Demand remains still high, but it's being stretched out.

"The forecasted demand was going to be extremely significant," ODF Family Forest Land Coordinator Nate Agalzoff said. "We have more people that need them than are available, but the constraints and variables are, effectively, spreading that demand out."

Constraints and variables

The situation is now more complex than just a dearth of seedlings.

"It seems like the seedlings are available and some of the other bottlenecks are starting to play out," said Lauren Grand, a forester with OSU Extension Service in Lane County. "Nurseries and technical assistance providers expected a seedling shortage was going to be inevitable, so they prepared for that. Now we're working on the other bottlenecks that we didn't think about right away."

Many who prioritized rebuilding their homes and livelihoods over immediate reforestation found the woodlands quickly grew over with weeds and other vegetation. Young timber trees wouldn't survive that competition, so many landowners aren't ready for seedlings.

"There's still a pending reforestation need on a given property, but now you have a bunch of competition vegetation that needs to be addressed," Agalzoff said. "If you say, 'I have trees for you next week,' they say they can't get a planting contractor on short notice or they still have a lot of work left to do to get a new canvas for their planation."

Ahrens said many landowners haven't concluded salvage harvesting because loggers are busy statewide, and replanting efforts can't begin until the burned trees are cleared.

Though resources are available, Ahrens said not all landowners know about them.

"Right now, somewhat ironically, we have surplus seedlings from this effort that Oregon Department of Forestry and partners have undertaken. They ordered almost 400,000 seedlings in a hurry right after the fire," Ahrens said. "We're not able to get rid of all our trees this season because the landowners are not ready or haven't connected with us."

Nurseries react to demand

Kathy LeCompte, owner of Brooks Tree Farm north of Salem, said business is strong.

"I'm still getting calls everyday. That leads me to believe a lot of people out there are hunting for trees," she said. "We are still ramped up for large production for next year."

LeCompte said her nursery over the past year shifted some production from Christmas trees in favor of timber trees because of their more immediate need in replanting efforts.

"The Douglas fir for this year, we were prepared to sell a lot more and we booked those orders. Our crop came in surplus with extra trees and we're selling those," she said.

Timber giant Weyerhaeuser grows its own seedlings for replanting after logging, but the 2020 wildfires left significant impacts on its timberlands requiring seedlings be planted.

"You look at the fire itself, both in terms of acreage and seedling demand, it was more than twice the impact to our company as the Mount St. Helen eruption. We're looking at 125,000 acres to reforest and somewhere between 35-40 million trees to do that," said Jeff Mehlschau, Weyerhaeuser's western regeneration team leader.

Weyerhaeuser nurseries in Oregon and Washington send out about 20 million seedlings each year to customers outside the company, from small landowners to other timber companies. The nurseries supply a nearly equal amount for the company's replanting.

Mehlschau said the company wants to have its lands reforested by spring 2024.

"We had to increase our internal production." Mehlschau said. "The roughly half of our production that goes outside of Weyerhaeuser … we did not stop growing for somebody to grow more for Weyerhaeuser. We kept their space in our system available to them."