With the rapid approach of a forest fire, researchers from New Mexico rushed to save millions of seeds and sprouts. There is a long way to go.

MORA, New Mexico. The facility in New Mexico, where researchers are working to restore forests devastated by fires, has faced an almost brutally ironic threat: the largest forest fire in the United States is fast approaching.

Owen Bernie and his team knew they needed to save what they could. At the top of their list was an invaluable bank of millions of pines, spruces and other conifers designed to restore fire-affected landscapes in the American West.

Next were tens of thousands of tree shoots, many of which were sown to make them more drought-resistant, which were loaded onto trailers and delivered to a greenhouse about 100 miles away.

The Forestry Research Center at the University of New Mexico in the Mora Mountain Community is one of several such nurseries in the country and stands at the forefront of a large enterprise to restore more sustainable forests as forest fires burn faster and more often.

Firefighters managed to prevent the fire from the center’s greenhouses, and there is a chance to save some of the remaining seedlings. But Bernie, head of the center, said the massive fire, which is still ongoing in New Mexico, shows how far behind land managers are when it comes to preventing such fires by thinning and scheduled burns.

“The sad truth is that we will not be able to do it overnight, so we will see these catastrophic fires in a decade, two decades, three decades – it depends on how quickly we make this turn,” he said. stuck at home, watching live about the development of the fire as road blocks remained in place.

This year has been the worst start to the forest fire season in a decade. More than 3,737 square miles burned across the U.S., nearly three times more than the 10-year average.

Because there is no shortage of burn scars in the West, researchers and private groups such as The Nature Conservancy are looking for seedlings at the New Mexico State University Center to learn how best to restore forests after the flames go out.

The center has provided sprouts for projects in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Texas and California, but experts said its capacity to produce up to 300,000 seedlings a year is now insufficient and certainly not in the future as climate change and the drought continues.

The newly formed New Mexico Reforestation Center, which consists of a number of universities and the state’s Department of Forestry, last month submitted to the federal government a nearly $ 80 million proposal to launch a reforestation pipeline covering everything from seed collection to as seedlings. sown in nurseries and where eventually planted.

Matt Hurto, a professor of biology at the University of New Mexico, and his team created models to better predict the sweet spot where seedlings will have a better chance of survival if researchers and land managers try to restore forest fires in the West.

About 10,000 seedlings rescued from the Sea Forestry Center will be used for a project focused on growing ponderose pine at higher altitudes. The trouble, Gurto said, is that past traces of the fire selected for the study are back on the line of fire this year.

He also noted that modeling conducted last year on the upper Rio Grande watershed, which covers Colorado and New Mexico, suggested that forests at higher altitudes would be most affected by forest fires and climate change by the end of the century.

“Here we have the Calf Canyon (Fire on top of the hermits), and it is tearing apart these high forests, as if this is not a problem,” he said of the fire that is now burning. “I think we are constantly watching that real conditions happen sooner than our models suggest.”

Many areas will need attention, said Anne Bradley, director of the forest program The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico. The group worked with Santa Clara Pueblo to collect seeds and plant thousands of tiny trees planted at the research center over the past few years, hoping to expand the science of reforestation.

But at this rate, she admits, the work will take centuries. Part of the goal, she said, is to find ways to do it cost-effectively.

Researchers are also looking at how the forest is naturally regenerating after a fire. Experts say imitating nature, focusing on tree islands rather than dense strips of wood, can serve as a barrier against the next wave of forest fires.

“Genetics really does matter; it is important how you raise them in the nursery; it’s important where you put that hole in the ground, how you harden those trees like seedlings, ”Bradley said. “All we’re doing is trying to learn more and see what our options may be.”

Similar work is underway in Colorado, when thousands of seedlings from the center of the Sea are destined for reforestation projects.

Larissa Yokom, an associate professor in the Department of Wildland Resources at the University of Utah, has plans for thousands of aspen seedlings that have been rescued from the center. She and her team worked at the site of a forest fire in 2020 in southwestern Utah. She hopes the big fire in New Mexico doesn’t disrupt plans for a recent experiment in an old burn cabin north of the line of fire.

If the West wants to preserve its forests, politicians need to think about it from an economic point of view, which will bring significant benefits to water, recreation and rural and tribal communities that value these mountain landscapes, said Colin Huffy, health and watershed coordinator. with the New Mexico Forestry Division.

Hafi said he can see, feel and smell the dryness that covers the mountains.

It was part of a large project to relocate sections of the Hemez Mountains in northern New Mexico, where several large fires have burned over the past two decades, taking with them hundreds of homes. The latest fire is still penetrating through some old burn scars.

“Part of that is why the reforestation component is important to me because it allows us – us, our communities – to find ways to start the healing and recovery process,” he said. “After these fires, generations will be needed. But planting trees is one little thing we can do to have a big impact further down the road. ”

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