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Can Carbon Markets Help Landowners Weather the Seedling Shortage?

Published: May 28, 2024 by Sam Castro, The Climate Trust

Reforestation efforts have been steadily expanding in the United States, but the increase in acres identified for reforestation is causing additional challenges that may cause some landowners to be left behind. As land use trends gradually shift away from natural resource extraction and agriculture, ecological restoration has become a popular tool to reclaim and revitalize lands that aren’t suitable for development. In other areas, reforestation work is urgently needed to help recover from catastrophic wildfires, pest outbreaks, and severe storms that have become increasingly common. While reforestation is always a worthwhile endeavor, the sudden increase in demand has left seedling supply chains struggling to keep up.

Reforestation can be incredibly expensive and demand for seedlings has only made it harder for many landowners to maximize planting acres. Non-industrial landowners often lack the cash reserves to entirely reforest areas that are impacted by disease outbreaks, wildfire, or other natural disturbances that rapidly degrade standing timber. Without the revenue from the expected harvest, many struggle to recover from the loss. This is compounded by lagging supply in nurseries. It takes a year or two to create viable seedlings from seed, so nurseries are always at least a year behind sudden increases in demand. When disturbances affect thousands of acres of forest, it can be incredibly difficult to find enough trees to meet target planting densities. As a result, non-industrial landowners who already struggle to replant without timber revenue, are also less prepared to compete for seedlings as they become scarce.

The Climate Trust (TCT) is working to identify partnerships where carbon projects can help landowners overcome this initial financial barrier. By taking on a portion of the establishment costs, landowners are better able to acquire seedlings, increase the rate of reforestation, and ensure that planting meets the target densities needed to create a successful, well-stocked forest. As the trees continue to grow, the sale of carbon credits helps to cover the cost of stand maintenance. This can give smaller landowners the support they need to retain their land when they might otherwise be forced to sell. For larger landowners, this can help to free up resources for investment in fire prevention, cone harvesting, or in house seedling production that relieves the stress on regional nurseries. In this way, TCT is providing early assistance for the most vulnerable landowners and indirectly helping to build capacity for the production of new seedlings.

Further Reading: Frontiers | Challenges to the Reforestation Pipeline in the United States (