Amidst the worst wildfires in U.S. history and the worst drought in 500 years, the American West can no longer plant enough trees to make up for those lost to the blazes.
Biologist Owen Burney is seeing this first hand. He, along with countless others, are planting sapling after sapling – but we’ve crossed the point of no return. Too may mature trees have been lost to the ravaging wildfires for the sproutlings to ever catch up.
“People get excited about reforestation, and they talk about it, but talk is cheap without action,” Burney tells The New York Post. As the leader of New Mexico State University’s forestry research center in Mora, he knows it all too well.
“That’s what we’re trying to create, the action of an effective reforestation pipeline,” he says. Running the largest tree nursery in the American Southwest isn’t cheap. Burney and his team produce a remarkable 300,000 seedlings a year. Yet this is but an infinitesimal fraction compared to the literal, untold millions of trees lost to the West’s wildfires.
Burney then cites evidence cropping up in 2021 that says we’ll never be able to plant enough trees again. Not to match what has been lost. We rely on trees to help slow climate change. Protect watersheds and entire ecosystems. House wildlife. Produce jobs and wood and countless products. Without them, we’re effectively screwed.
Some lawmakers see this, and bipartisan support is gathering to support efforts like Burney’s. But it’s too little too late.
The studies that both Burney and the NY Post cite come from New Mexico, California, and Oregon, among other states ravaged by the largest wildfires in American history. Together, they say – and know – that there are not enough seeds in existence now, nor the nursery capacity, to recover. This all comes courtesy of around two dozen officials: biologists, conservationists, and land managers alike.
To make matters worse, the US Forest Service can only replant about 6% of the land they need to be replanted after wildfires. The resources simply don’t exist for the other 94%. That’s, well, that’s awful. Especially since most wildfires burn on US Forest Service land in the states.
As wildfires grow in both intensity and girth, the USFS spends the majority of its budget on both fire fighting and prevention. So it goes without saying that – if the USFS doesn’t have the money for replanting efforts – no other public outlet will.
This leads private funders like Wes Swaffar of 1t.org to pick up the slack.
“I’m so frustrated by the fact that I have to do this job in the first place,” Swaffar tells NY Post. “I have to play this interconnector role between the public and private sectors, because neither one is able to do it by themselves.”
Through his private company, Swaffar gathers private funds for replanting. He does so by seeking out companies interested and/or impacted by wildfires, and those “seeking zero net carbon emissions,” he says.
Yet there is hope, Outsiders. Operations like Biologist Owen Burney’s will never give up. And Burney himself is, in fact, currently seeking $40 million in funding to create a reforestation center in New Mexico.
If he gets his funding, he’ll lift NM’s annual seedling output to 5 million. Here’s to hoping. Or, much more aptly, funding.