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U.S. Forest Service uses Utah trees to reforest areas impacted by climate change

A cedar tree that burned in a recent wildfire, in the Mishmish forest,  Akkar, Lebanon
Sam Tarling for NPR
The reforestation efforts target areas affected by wildfires.

Seeds from trees located within Utah's national forests are helping repopulate forests with similar makeups that may have been impacted by climate change or burned by wildfires. The initiative is headed by the U.S. Forest Service. However, regulations dictate where a tree's seed can be taken and planted.

Terry Holsclaw, a silviculturist for the Forest Service in Utah, said while the program aims to repopulate forests and prepare for the future, genetics plays a big role in determining where collected seeds can go.

"A conifer such as Engelmann Spruce seed that we collect here could be used on the Manti-La Sal National Forest just north of us or on the Dixie just south of us, but not much more than an extent beyond that," Holsclaw said.

Holsclaw said over time, trees and the seeds they produce have developed niches for specific locations based on a number of environmental factors that will give them the best chance of not only survival, but reproducing, as well.

Holsclaw said the National Forest Management Act of 1976 requires the Forest Service to participate in reforesting efforts for regions across the United States. He said the program has been a success for the most part. Areas selected for re-forestation are determined based on a number of factors, areas impacted by wildfires being one of the biggest.

Holsclaw said difficulties for re-foresting efforts come from tending to the record number of acres burned by fires in recent years, but he also cites budget and staffing issues that add to the backlog of reforestation efforts the agency is facing.

"So with the number of acres that we do have as a backlog, the next step is ensuring we have enough seed to be able to deal with the backlog," he said. "You have to understand, too, that the seeds we collect, there is a shelf life for that seed."

According to Holsclaw, the agency is addressing existing needs as well as preparing for future events. While the shelf life may be long for some seed species, it is not the same for every one. He said as seeds get older they begin to degenerate.