Virginia needs more tree seedlings to reduce carbon
An oak acorn that started to sprout at the Augusta Forestry Center.
CRIMORA – In nine manicured fields nestled between a bend in the South River and a southern Norfolk line, a key part of Virginia’s carbon-free future is taking shape.
Here, in many places appearing little more than a green haze floating above the ground, around fifty varieties of trees slowly grow shoots towards the sun. Dozens are hardwoods, slower growing than the inexhaustible stands of Virginia pines, but particularly prized for their ecological value – their long life, the nuts and fruits they provide to wildlife, filtration of pollution and the soil stability their roots provide – and, of course, climate change – causing carbon dioxide that they remove from the air.
Policymakers and businesses across the country and Virginia are banking on trees as a vital part of achieving net zero emissions. Forests, with their potential for carbon sequestration, are one of the most powerful means available to authorities to offset the carbon that will continue to be pumped out as fossil fuels persist and in certain industries such as the steel industry remain an element. unavoidable.
But every tree begins with a seed. And as plans to sequester carbon in millions of acres of forest proliferate, many forestry experts say the current supply of seedlings is below what will be needed to meet ambitious climate change targets.
“What has become painfully obvious is that there just isn’t enough hardwood seedling capacity,” said Chandler Van Voorhis, co-founder and managing partner of ACRE Investment Management, a conservation finance investment company headquartered in the Plains. “There is a lot of pine, but pine is not what people are looking for.”
In Virginia, supply pressures are expected to be further stretched by the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. As the region nears its 2025 deadline for major pollution reductions in the country’s largest estuary, an increased push to plant forested buffer zones as a way to filter excess nutrients from runoff before it reaches the streams will also compete with reforestation projects for what may soon be limited supply of seedlings.
If half of all planned carbon and water quality projects come to fruition, “there will be a significant need for more seedlings,” said Ed Zimmer, state underforester in the Virginia Department of Forestry . “Where do they come from?”
A cradle of carbon capture
Today in Virginia, most of those seedlings come from one place: the state-run Augusta Forestry Center in Crimora, just north of Waynesboro.
Opened in 1967, the 189-acre Crimora facility is one of many state-operated nurseries. Unlike commercial nurseries, Crimora specializes in one- to two-year seedlings, of which about 70 percent go to state-sponsored conservation projects.
“The vast majority of buffer plantations in Virginia come from here,” Zimmer said. Alongside the “usual suspects” such as oaks, black walnut, flowering dogwood and red bud, the nursery also experiments each year with a few less common species at the regional level, such as lime (also called lime), black gum and the once widespread but nearly eradicated American chestnut. .
“It comes and goes,” said nursery manager Josh McLaughlin, who is one of only two full-time employees who now works in the field at Crimora.
Facilities like the Augusta Forestry Center once thrived across the country, but in recent years have seen a wave of closures due to limited budgets following the 2008-09 recession and reluctance in some places to compete with private companies. West Virginia closed its last state-run nursery this spring.
Virginia, too, has at times struggled to keep its nurseries afloat, which are supported by income from seedling sales.
“Several years ago there was a discussion about whether we were going to keep Augusta open,” said Josh McLaughlin, manager of the Crimora Nursery. Not only were recession-era finances strained, but continued slowdowns in coal production had also dampened part of the market for restoring old mine sites, a job that heavily uses trees for reforestation.
The acceleration of carbon markets has helped relieve the straits of the nursery, McLaughin said.
“It was the perfect offset,” he said. If that hadn’t been the case, “this would probably have been the year we closed”.
Today, not only is the Augusta nursery still in operation, but 2020 has seen its orders double compared to the previous year. In total, the facility produced 4.2 million seedlings, more than a quarter of which are hardwoods. Garland Gray Forestry Center in Sussex County, which is mostly loblolly pine, has grown 30 million seedlings.
“Evidence suggests Virginia grows 20 percent of all seedlings in state-run nurseries” nationwide, Mr. Zimmer said.
Carbon markets are only growing. The last legislative session of the Virginia General Assembly approved a proposal to form a task force to explore the potential of carbon sequestration. President Joseph Biden’s administration has included “carbon sinks” linked to forests and agriculture as part of its plans to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent. cent from their 2005 baseline by 2035. And this spring, first-year US Representative Cliff Bentz (R -Ore.) proposed the Solving Our Seedling Shortages Act, which would create a “national strategy reforestation ”and would devote $ 1 billion to a loan program for federal, state and tribal nurseries.
Large companies have been particularly keen to enter carbon markets. One of ACRE Investment‘s companies, Green Trees, annually sells credits for more than one million metric tonnes of carbon sequestered in 130,000 acres of deciduous forest in the Mississippi Delta to companies such as Norfolk Southern. , Duke Energy, Microsoft, Shell and Bank of America.
“What is fundamentally changing is that these big companies are realizing that by taking these net zero commitments… there are two ways to get there, and you really have to employ them both,” said Mr. Van Voorhis. One is to reduce actual emissions. The other is to compensate them.
“Think of nature as a technology. Think of trees as technology, ”he said. Then it’s just a matter of scaling the technology – planting more trees – to absorb more and more carbon.
The foresters who work in Augusta are well aware of what is to come.
“People engaged in the (carbon) market have told us that east of the Mississippi in the United States, they see the availability of these types of seedlings in the 20 million per year range, which is a very , very small number, ”Zimmer said. “We would need a lot more plants than that just for the initiatives people have in Virginia.”
Expansion is already underway in Crimora. The biennial budget adopted by the General Assembly and signed by Governor Ralph Northam this spring allocated an additional $ 290,000 to the Forestry Department to expand the operations of the nursery. Mr McLaughlin said the plan was to increase the number of acres planted in Crimora from 18 to 20 this year, with another jump to 25 next year. A facility in New Kent where the agency conducts research and propagates seeds could also serve as space for more fields if needed.
“We have the potential to bring the New Kent fallow fields back to seedling production again,” Zimmer said. “It would take a lot of investment to get there, but given that we have the land and we already have the infrastructure, that would probably be the cheapest way to do it.
Virginia is not alone in the potential it sees for the tree seedling industry. A joint study by American Forests and Nature Conservancy identified 133 million acres that would be suitable for reforestation for carbon capture. Many of these are in the southeast, where soil and weather conditions combine to produce greenhouse conditions for many trees and where most of the land is private, allowing faster growth of the l ‘industry.
“That doesn’t mean there won’t be activity in California, Oregon and Washington. Absolutely, there will be pockets of stuff, ”Van Voorhis said. “But when you talk about a massive (expansion), where the numbers are going to increase, it will be in the southeast.”
Without the seedling nurseries that will fuel this growth, “everything is for nothing,” he added.
“This is where the rubber meets the road, because someone actually has to start cultivating the material so that companies like us can go out and plant the material.”