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Can Colorado’s seedling tree nursery curb forest fires and disease?

Facility has begun its resurgence with mission to be an ‘epicenter of reforestation’
Nursery technician Jack Sevier maintains and rinses seedling cells Feb. 8 at the Colorado State Forest Service Seedling Tree Nursery in Fort Collins. Seedlings from the nursery are grown to reforest areas of Colorado affected by wildfires, floods, and drought, and for other private and public projects. Up to 350,000 to 400,000 seedlings are produced annually of spruce, willows, firs and other tree species. The nursery eventually aims to produce up to 2 million seedlings a year. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

FORT COLLINS – At the base of the foothills, not far from the burn-scar reminder of the massive High Park wildfire a decade ago, Scott Godwin enters a greenhouse where warm air whispers of early summer, white sprinkler pipes dangle overhead and blue sky shimmers through the translucent roof.

In this 6,400-square-foot space, one of three on the grounds of Colorado State University’s Foothills Campus, thousands of tree seedlings poke their heads from rows of cylinders neatly arranged by type – aspen, Colorado blue spruce, alder, Rocky Mountain juniper among them – and bask in climate-controlled bliss.

Godwin points to a matrix of containers that have sprouted a riparian species called Geyer willow that eventually will be planted to stabilize stream banks along a new stretch of the Colorado River that bypasses the problematic Windy Gap Reservoir near Granby. It’s just the kind of project he hopes will revitalize not only the landscape, but the state’s 66-year-old seedling tree nursery that almost became a casualty of the pandemic.

“Once COVID-19 hit, it just kind of knocked the legs out from underneath it,” said Godwin, who started in September as the new nursery manager,

Narrowleaf cottonwood plants will be used throughout Colorado’s Windy Gap Project in Grand County, which will route a diversion dam on the Colorado River and a pipeline to Lake Granby. Other seedlings from the nursery are grown to reforest areas of Colorado affected by wildfires, floods and drought, and for other private and public projects. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

But in a time of surging wildfires that turn massive swathes of Colorado’s forests to ash, and beetle kill that has claimed still more woodlands, the roughly 135-acre Colorado State Forest Service Seedling Tree Nursery has re-imagined its future, just as its crumbling infrastructure and outdated business model forced a reckoning. Now, bolstered by wide political support that already has delivered $5 million toward long-overdue improvements – with more potentially on the way in this legislative session – the nursery is positioning itself to take a new and expanded role in reforestation efforts.

The transition marks a reconsidered approach to the nursery’s decades of service to state landowners. Until now, the work has been largely characterized by partnerships with state conservation districts or individuals with an acre of land or more who need seedlings for small-scale reforestation or a conservation project, like a creek bank or an irrigation ditch that needs stabilizing or shading. All those rows of trees planted along highways as “living snow fences,” or around a farmer or rancher’s fields to shield them from erosion – there’s a good chance the nursery cultivated those seedlings.

State forester Matt McCombs notes that the facility also has stepped up before in times of crisis – the nursery grew riparian species to help reclaim land damaged by historic 2013 floodwaters. Now, the climate change-driven triple whammy of drought, disease and wildfire has created something else that the seedling tree nursery can at least help to address – demand.

Rocky Mountain juniper plants sprout at the Colorado State Forest Service Seedling Tree Nursery in Fort Collins. Seedlings from the nursery are grown to reforest areas of Colorado affected by wildfires, floods and drought, and for other private and public projects. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

When fire or disease defoliates vast expanses of federal land – and those forests far exceed state-owned land in Colorado – the U.S. Forest Service traditionally calls on its own seedling nurseries, such as the Charles E. Bessey Tree Nursery in Nebraska or Lucky Peak Nursery in Idaho. But McCombs says there’s an expanding need that the state nursery can help fill.

“It’s a really tough competition for limited resources in Colorado, and we really feel like there’s an enormous demand for the conservation-focused species that we cultivate here,” he said. “And that we can, with the right investments, become an epicenter of reforestation in the intermountain West.”

He points to the adjacent foothills, where the High Park fire burned for nearly a month in 2012. It claimed more than 87,000 acres in the Poudre River watershed and the adjacent Rist Canyon and Buckhorn Creek drainages while claiming one life and 259 homes. Natural recovery has stalled because the sheer intensity of those wildfires continues to impact the soil health and plant regeneration, in part by consuming and nearly eliminating the seed source.

Reforestation serves as a tool to keep ecosystems intact, McCombs says, restoring forests for a variety of reasons including wildlife habitat and maintaining watershed health, which means keeping soil in place and minimizing erosion – which in turn minimizes sediment that can undermine water quality and increase treatment costs. Another critically important factor for Colorado is a multibillion dollar recreation industry predicated on healthy forests.

“And so when we lose forests to uncharacteristic – and that’s the key term, uncharacteristic – wildfire, and historic drought which weakens trees and makes it possible for bug infestation and crud infestation at scales outside of what we believe scientifically is the norm, we come in behind and give nature a helping hand to recover,” he says. “Acknowledging that much of the science suggests that human activity as it relates to climate change could very well be driving some of these substantive changes we’re seeing.”

McCombs sees the nursery stepping in to help meet the moment.

“We have a huge opportunity to be in control of our own destiny in this state and move forward aggressively with reforestation, which has huge benefits in the short term and obviously in the long term,” he says.

New business model

The seedling tree nursery remains grateful and loyal to the customers who have sustained it since its inception in 1957. But, especially for an enterprise agency that must produce its own operating capital, large-scale projects like the one that produced the young willows destined for Windy Gap hold particular attraction.

“We actually went out to the site and collected these cuttings,” says Godwin, who took over as nursery manager last fall. “So we’ve collected the local genetics to that site, brought them back here and propagated them so that they are genetically identical to the populations that are already there. We love this project.”

Technicians at the Colorado State Forest Service Seedling Tree Nursery use a rooting hormone to help seedlings, collected from the wild, produce roots and preserve the genetics native to the places they’ll be used in reforestation projects. Seedlings at the CSFS Nursery ideally are 12 to 14 inches tall before they are planted. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The science of producing suitable species to reclaim Colorado’s varied landscapes provides part of the appeal, but so does the business end of the equation. It’s a “contract grow,” a guaranteed order that can provide greater financial stability for the nursery. The facility’s recent decline in part reflected a reliance on speculative growing – producing trees that the nursery guessed, and hoped, might sell.

The nursery, which operates under the auspices of CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources, found that some lean years leading up to the pandemic presaged problems. When the COVID-19 lockdown hit the university in spring 2020, the nursery had to furlough its mostly student workers.

Years of deferred maintenance also came home to roost. Heaters failed, which led to burst pipes during a bitter cold snap. Both indoor and outdoor structures had fallen into disrepair. And the budget didn’t support the necessary fixes.

Godwin says he has been “triaging” the greenhouses – repairing the crucial, immediate problems. He points to the fans that just cycled on to modulate the structure’s rising temperature on a balmy winter day. Only one of them worked when he arrived, meaning that if the others were left broken, temperatures could easily rise high enough to kill plants in the heat of summer.

The overhead irrigation system sags, but it works. Godwin will circle back to that later, when it can be upgraded.

“We’re just kind of coming through and getting the place operational so that we can grow a crop and then we’ll come back and dress it up later on,” he says.

In the nursery’s outdoor spaces, where the seedlings eventually are moved to experience the stresses of a natural environment and develop deeper root structure, pergola-like slats atop a shade structure slump from years of neglect.

In some ways, the nursery still reflects its existential crisis. Although it vows to fulfill all existing orders for the coming spring, it has stopped taking new orders until the facility can be repaired and upgraded, and more staff members can be hired.

But until recently, it looked like the facility that has served generations of landowners and conservation districts across the state had arrived at a crossroads.

Hints from Hayman fire

In a sense, the first hint that the state needed to retool its reforestation efforts came in 2002, when the Hayman fire 22 miles southwest of Denver scorched 138,000 acres and triggered a dawning awareness of wildfire threat exacerbated by climate change.

It wasn’t just the total acreage burned. The Hayman fire burned so hot in some areas that much of the seed source required for regeneration – ponderosa pine were particularly vulnerable – also perished, magnifying the critical need for long-term reforestation. What new growth did appear tended to be in proximity to surviving trees. Elsewhere, the only reforestation option became replanting.

“Seeing the post-fire erosion, and the seed source being burned up – that really started shifting our focus,” says Kristin Garrison, who has worked more than 20 years in the Colorado State Forest Service and now serves as associate director of forest planning and implantation. “Yes, we have our traditional conservation plantings, but now we have this new need. So that’s where I kind of saw a shift.

“Then the pandemic is probably what really daylighted a lot.”

In the years leading up to COVID-19, the nursery took on a variety of projects in the region, putting in windbreaks to protect farm or ranch land. Wyoming was a big customer. But a lot of those projects were one-offs, rather than reliable customers returning year after year.

Add to that the speculative method of choosing the nursery’s crops and, Godwin says, the result was “an unfocused approach to what we were growing.”

There was also a growing sense that the nursery needed to change its business model. While the projects and plant choices were in flux, COVID-19 hit. And then the pandemic hung around.

Nursery Manager Scott Godwin shows ponderosa and pinyon pine seeds, kept in a 35 degree refrigerator to simulate an overwintering process. Due to the self-preserving nature of some tree species, a ponderosa seedling can take over a decade to mature in its natural environment, compared to just seven months in controlled conditions. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The facility’s aging infrastructure revealed its cracks, and operations ground to a halt. With the recent infusion of state money, it’s been back to square one.

“Truthfully, it’s worse than square one,” Godwin says. “We have to kind of dig out from the mess. Everything was left in place and they walked away. So you know, the weeds grew up and the bushes grew over and I got here and heaters didn’t work and lights didn’t work and so we’re having to rebuild.”

With the rebuild comes a long-overdue emphasis on modernization.

“Our processes are super labor intensive and don’t benefit from any of the efficiencies associated with modern production,” McCombs says. “And so, you can only do that for so long before literally your shade houses are falling. Wood can only last for so long. Infrastructure that was built in the ’60s and ’70s has a useful life. And when you’re beyond it, the capital improvements associated with that are substantial.”

Adapting to emerging need

Hayman reigned as Colorado’s biggest wildfire until 2020 produced three that surpassed it – Cameron Peak, East Troublesome and Pine Gulch. The next summer, the state legislature’s Wildfire Matters Review Committee assessed the impacts of the wildfires not only on forests but also post-fire erosion and started asking questions about the state forest service’s role, and its capability to aid in reforestation.

Soon conversations turned from how the seedling tree nursery could continue to cut costs and keep its head above water to how it could adapt to this rapidly emerging need. In 2022, the legislature gave bipartisan support to spending $5 million from the general fund to upgrade the nursery and expand its capacity. A little more than $4 million of that was earmarked for the greenhouses, with $550,000 aimed at improving the shade structures and $40,000 allocated for an overarching analysis of how to better respond to “wildfire, flood, insect and disease events.”

In the current legislative session, another pending bill would add $1.9 million to upgrade fields and outdoor facilities like the irrigation system, pump house and roads on the property. It would also buy a new seed storage cooler and two refrigerated trucks.

The U.S. Forest Service stands among the supporters of an expanded role for the state’s seedling tree nursery. In a letter to McCombs and provided to the state House agriculture committee, agency officials touched on some numbers related to implementation of the 2021 federal REPLANT Act (Repairing Existing Public Land by Adding Necessary Trees), part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Older ponderosa pines in a wooden shade house at the Colorado State Forest Service Seedling Tree Nursery, where they are placed after starting inside a greenhouse. This is where they adapt to natural environmental conditions and further develop their roots. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The Rocky Mountain Region, which manages more than 40 million acres in five states, pegs its current estimate for reforestation at 270,000 acres over the next 10 years, creating a potential need for more than 10 million native tree seedlings. That exceeds what the federal nurseries can supply.

McCombs said that in his conversations with colleagues from other states, he doesn’t hear much about their investments in nursery capacity – something he takes as an indicator that Colorado not only is “putting its money where its values are” but also has a leg up on federal money.

“It’s always good when states can demonstrate their own financial commitments to outcomes that have benefits not just to the state, but to the nation,” he says. “And as a headwater state where we collect the lion’s share of the water for down-basin states, there’s an explicit connection between healthy forest and healthy watersheds. I think that also makes us a very attractive investment in the long run.”

Garrison says the nursery is waiting for completion of the program review to make sure it is focusing on the critical pieces. She says about $14 million in improvements have been identified.

“Right now, we have very limited production,” she says. “We want to get our improvements done as quickly as possible, so we don’t have to go multiple years without growing or selling trees.”

The first year of the rebuild includes scaled-down production of a small crop of container-grown seedlings. Normally, the nursery splits its yield between container-grown and field-grown, but the machinery and equipment for field growing was, like most everything else, in disrepair.

A machine in need of repairs at the CSFS Nursery is typically used to seed multiple containers at once instead of relying on the nursery’s current procedure of filling containers of soil by hand. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

So this year’s game plan focuses on regaining customer confidence by restoring quality and delivering on expectations, even if it’s on a smaller scale. The nursery also wants to get the word out that it’s going to return – bigger and better – to woo back customers forced to look elsewhere when it paused production.

“We want to make sure that not only are they able to resume buying plants from us, but that our quality will exceed their expectations,” Godwin says. “And kind of maybe make up for having left them high and dry for a little bit.”

At the same time, the nursery’s new mission extends to becoming a bigger player in providing seedlings for reforestation, particularly native or regionally adapted species. Part of that mission includes a focus on regionally collected seeds that preserve the state’s native plant genetics.

“Our goal is to go from an average of 350,000 to 400,000 to 2 million seedlings a year,” McCombs says.

Colorado as a “relief valve”

McCombs witnessed large-scale reforestation as a U.S. Forest Service district ranger out of Gunnison, where he worked before becoming Colorado’s state forester. When the spruce beetle epidemic led to massive logging efforts to remove dead timber, the Forest Service planted 1.1 million trees over more than 3,000 acres across the district.

And that’s why he thinks Colorado’s seedling tree nursery can become a game changer – preserving regional genetics by cultivating a seed bank and potentially establishing a seed orchard, increasing capacity by modernizing its facilities to become “a relief valve” for the demand for seedlings nationally.

Drops of water gather on the leaves of Geyer willow plants being propagated at the Colorado State Forest Service Seedling Tree Nursery in Fort Collins. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

His colleague Arthur Haines, a silviculturist for the Gunnison ranger district, worked on the spruce beetle project and others and understands well that the demand for seedlings, especially in the wake of the REPLANT Act, will underscore the importance of partnerships with state nurseries.

“Pretty much all of the nurseries in the federal system are at capacity already,” Haines says. “So we need to reach out to other nurseries. If we can get more trees from Colorado State Forest Service, we can concentrate our trees on the national forest and their trees on the private lands right next door.”

McCombs sees several important institutions converging in Fort Collins to create ideal conditions for collaboration, including the Rocky Mountain Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service on the CSU campus, the federally funded Colorado Forest Restoration Institute and the university itself as a leader in plant genetics and research.

“I would say we are at a jumping-off point,” he says. “All of those resources are in place and perfectly designed, as well as the fluency that our political leadership has in these issues.”

Godwin, too, sees a place of great potential, built by professionals and scientists who were smart about how they laid it out. The deferred maintenance and shifting customer base led to some inefficiencies, he acknowledges, but those can be corrected, and he relishes the opportunity to make it happen.

“It’s my world and I love it,” he says. “So while this place looks rough around the edges, it’s got a lot of potential. It’s got good bones. We’ve just got to give it a little TLC to get it going again.”

That reconstruction rests on the pillars of improving quality and uniformity; adding automation where possible in a labor-intensive operation; and being nimble enough to turn multiple crop cycles. With current processes, he says, losses could reduce the yield by 40% to 50%.

His aim for this growing season is to produce 750,000 seedlings from the three greenhouses. But with improvements in quality and uniformity, he estimates he could nearly double the output.

“We can bump that number up real quick to one and a half million or thereabouts, 1.2 million maybe, just out of one turn of these greenhouses,” he says. “And by increasing how quickly we can get this crop out and the next crop in there’s a possibility of turning at least a portion of these greenhouses a second time with, say, some grasses or flowers, something that we can sow and grow and finish in a shorter amount of time than what it takes to grow one of these trees. And it’s only up from there.”

McCombs figures that with the snowpack piling up as it is, the coming warm weather and accompanying runoff will further demonstrate the incredible need for reforestation and soil stabilization efforts all across the fire scars from the past few years. Trees stand as one of the most elemental ways to accomplish that.

“One of the most heartwarming components of being a natural resource worker is knowing that, yeah, it’s gonna take probably another 150 years for those trees to become the type of trees that they were before they were impacted,” he says. “But you know you’ve left a down payment on the future, and you can go into retirement or go to your grave knowing that you’ve done everything you could to leave things better than you found them.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.