BANDELIER NATIONAL MONUMENT – Pinecones hang from tree branches and scatter the forest floor near Los Alamos. At first glance, they are nothing special. But inside those cones are seeds that can help bring a forest back to life.
This year, ponderosa pine trees in New Mexico are producing more pinecones than they will for the next 10 to 15 years – an event scientists call a “mast seeding.”
The Nature Conservancy, Santa Clara Pueblo, the National Parks Service, the Institute for Applied Ecology, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and Highlands University are collecting the abundant seeds to plant in areas that have burned in severe wildfires.
The groups set a goal of gathering 1 million seeds in New Mexico and Colorado this fall, according to Sarah Hurteau, urban conservation director for the Nature Conservancy.
“Mast seeding is an evolutionary process,” she said. “In these years, trees will produce enough seeds that animals can’t eat them all, so more seeds get the chance to germinate.”
Last winter’s above-average precipitation helped make this year ideal for a mast seeding. Ponderosa pines currently have more viable seeds per cone, which means the groups get a better selection of potential trees for reforestation.
Wildfire is a natural part of the life cycle in northern New Mexico forests. Many trees need fire to germinate. But the size and severity of recent forest fires is unusual, said Kay Beeley, a natural resource manager with the National Park Service. She referenced the forest damage done by Los Conchas Fire in 2011. The blaze consumed 156,000 acres and burned for more than a month in northern New Mexico.
“When the climate is stable and we can rely on the seed bank in the soil, the trees regenerate on their own,” Beeley said. “But we need to augment that if we want to see forests in these areas that have been burned by large, high-severity fires.”
Collecting seeds takes time. Crews lop off branches, then slice open a few pinecones to check for damage or discoloration caused by insects or mold.
Steven Sandoval, a forester for Santa Clara Pueblo, said there is a small window from mid-September to late-October for collecting pinecones.
“We can get about 1,500 seeds per pound with ponderosa pines,” he said. “Now is the time to collect the cones from the trees before they drop and open up.”
The collected seeds will grow for about a year at New Mexico State University’s John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center in Mora. Then the young trees are planted in deforested areas over several years.
Seeds that won’t be planted soon can be stored for up to 100 years in the nursery’s zero-degree freezers.
“We want to build up a stock of seeds from lower-elevation forests because they are genetically suited for drought,” Sandoval said. “That seed is precious.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal. Visit reportforamerica.org to learn about the effort to place journalists in local newsrooms around the country.