USDA Forest Service

Pacific Southwest Research Station

Pacific Southwest
Research Station

800 Buchanan Street
Albany, CA 94710-0011
(510) 883-8830
United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. USDA logo which links to the department's national site. Forest Service logo which links to the agency's national site.

Research Topics Fire Science

Planting Strategies for Reforestation

Close-up view of hands surrounding a freshly-planted pine tree seedling.
Close-up view of hands surrounding a freshly-planted pine tree seedling. U.S. Forest Service photo.

Forest managers may allow natural regeneration to reforest an area following a fire, but often choose to plant trees to restore the ecosystem. Managers must make a number of decisions to plan for these plantings.

Planting strategies

There are a number of factors that guide decisions on whether or not to make the considerable effort of actually planting trees after a fire such as a) how severe was the fire? b) what was growing before the fire? c) how close are trees that could naturally regenerate the burned areas, d) how long ago was the last fire? and e) what are the objectives for the burned area in the future? Costs and benefits of planting must consider these any many other factors.

If forest managers have decided to plant trees, they must decide what seeds to plant. This includes a choice of what species to plant, in addition to what seed source within a species to use. These decisions must take future climatic change into consideration.

Several approaches can be taken to respond to climate change in forest management. These approaches range from resisting climate change, which may be appropriate in the short term for high-value resources, to intentionally accommodating change rather than resisting it. Accommodating change could include relaxing seed zone rules and potentially assisting species migration (for example, moving species that currently grow in a warm climate into an area that is projected to be warmer under climate change). Managers must decide on the valued resource to conserve, whether it is a particular tree species or forest type or simply the presence of a forest in an area, regardless of species composition.

Potential results of planting

Recent research highlights some potential results of these decisions. Recent research efforts modeled the choice of species in reforestation efforts after a fire in Colorado and projected the success of different restoration approaches (no planting, planting with local species, and planting with climatically suitable trees species regardless of their origin). Their models showed that planting with climatically appropriate species resulted in the most standing trees in 100 years. Another recent research effort modeled tree growth of lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) in British Columbia in areas planted with local sources, vs the best adapted (i.e. more suited to projected future climates) sources. They found tree growth was greatest when the most adapted sources are planted into each location.

Together these results highlight the importance of the choice of tree seeds in ecological restoration. Managers must consider uncertainties in climate models when making planting decisions. Much more research is needed to shed light on this complicated challenge.

Publications and references:
  • Buma, B.; Wessman, C.A. 2013. Forest resilience, climate change, and opportunities for adaptation: A specific case of a general problem. Forest Ecology and Management. 306: 216-225.
  • Millar, C.I.; Stephenson, N.L.; Stephens, S.L. 2007. Climate change and forests of the future: Managing in the face of uncertainty. Ecological Applications. 17(8): 2145-2151.
  • Wang, T.; O'Neill, G.A.; Aitken, S.N. 2010. Integrating environmental and genetic effects to predict responses of tree populations to climate. Ecological Applications. 20: 153-163.