Author: Ethan Perry
By now most of us in northern Minnesota have heard the predictions of what’s going to happen to our forests as the climate warms over the next century. Some of our iconic Northwoods trees will get baked out by summer heat and droughts, or fall victim to surging pest populations. Other trees that are currently minor components of the forest may benefit from warmer conditions, but given the limitations on natural seed dispersal, many people worry these trees may not expand fast enough to keep up with the retreating boreal species. If shrub thickets and invasive species take over in the meantime, they may hinder the establishment of a new forest for many decades.
On Sunday March 26 Liv Jascor and Sydney Trimble spoke to us about a project designed to prevent this scenario from playing out. They serve in the Climate Impact Corps, an AmeriCorps program, helping the Forest Assisted Migration Project, which was created in 2020 by the University of Minnesota’s Northeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership with support from The Nature Conservancy. Their goal is to establish a more resilient northern forest by creating a market for small farms and nurseries to produce climate-adapted tree seedlings.
To explore the related goal of capturing atmospheric carbon, The Nature Conservancy, along with American Forests, developed the Reforestation Hub tool, which identified over 2 million acres of reforestation potential in Minnesota, mostly on private land. They set a goal of planting trees on 1 million of those acres, which would require over 43 million seedlings per year. Current production in Minnesota is 6 million. The Forest Assisted Migration Project aims to fill that tremendous gap.
The Forest Assisted Migration Project began seed collection in 2021 at a small scale, providing seed to 17 growers in 2022, with the plan to ramp up in coming years. They described learning techniques for collecting prized items also targeted by countless birds and insects (i.e. seeds), and testing their viability with Tetrazolium, a pink dye. They are piloting tracking batches of seeds from collection all the way to planting. To compare seedlings from northeast and central Minnesota some oak seedlings were planted in experimental plots between Duluth and Ely. In general the central-origin seedlings had better survival and held their leaves longer, suggesting they may be better adapted to the current climate than their local cousins.
The group had a great discussion about the risks of moving genetics around and the desire to maintain some of our familiar boreal trees, which have cultural significance for indigenous people as well as the wider population. There is a partnership in Minnesota that aims to do that in places where the microclimate may allow them to hang on. Liv and Sydney continue the seedling production project by training students in seed collection and using a new grant to increase refrigeration capacity and improve their seedling tracking database. Soon we hope to see growers producing millions of seedlings for new expanded tree-planting programs.