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USU Ecology Center seminars explore tree planting, climate change

A woman kneeling and planting a small tree with a brown puppy behind her
Holl Restoration Ecology Lab

November’s USU Ecology Center seminars cover the growing popularity of tree planting to offset carbon emissions and new methods to restore forest ecosystems.

Karen Holl, a professor in the Environmental Studies Department at the University of California Santa Cruz, studies ecosystem restoration with a focus on tropical forests. Restoration can be difficult in complex tropical ecosystems, but Holl has been working to simplify and speed up the process. If trees are planted strategically, Holl said the ecosystem can help finish the reforestation process for us.

“My work in Costa Rica has looked at the idea of planting patches or islands of trees as a way to facilitate forest recovery. You plant the trees, and then they shade out the pasture grasses, they attract the birds that disperse the seeds. And that can speed up the recovery process,” Holl explained.

Holl said this idea of patch planting was inspired by looking at regrowth after wildfires.

“The trees don't recover in rows, they recover in patches,” Holl said. “Oftentimes those first species that establish, they facilitate the later species that come in, and so that got us to thinking, as an ecologist, how can we design a strategy to restore forests in a way that better simulated the natural processes?”

Tree planting as a way to offset carbon emissions is a popular practice, but Holl said it’s far more complicated than simply putting trees in the ground. She argued that planting trees isn’t a one-and-done solution, and that we need to be evaluating these planting efforts after they’ve been completed.

“We are not going to plant our way out of climate change…there's just not enough places to plant trees that aren't already being used by people and so we need to be reducing greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible,” Holl explained. “We need to be protecting intact habitat first…we're never going to be able to restore what was there before and the best thing we need to be doing is protecting the forests…and the third thing is that we're going to plant trees or grow trees we need to do it right. And that means clearly stating the goals, getting the stakeholders involved and really planning for the long term because so many of these projects just go plant trees, and they may or may not be there the next year.”

To watch recordings of her talks, visit

Aimee Van Tatenhove is a science reporter at UPR. She spends most of her time interviewing people doing interesting research in Utah and writing stories about wildlife, new technologies and local happenings. She is also a PhD student at Utah State University, studying white pelicans in the Great Salt Lake, so she thinks about birds a lot! She also loves fishing, skiing, baking, and gardening when she has a little free time.