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U.S. Forest Service

Reforestation Overview


Historically, one of the most important challenges and responsibilities of the USDA Forest Service has been to establish forests on lands that are unstocked as the result of natural catastrophes, excessive cutting, fire, insects or farming practices of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Reforestation programs have been integral to the management of national forest resources since the Agency’s inception. The Organic Administration Act of 1897 explicitly provided for the establishment of national forests to improve and protect forests to secure favorable conditions of water flows and to furnish a continuous supply of timber. The Act provides for reforestation work in support of these aims. The Weeks Law of 1911 provided for the acquisition of forested, cutover, or denuded lands within watersheds to regulate the flow of navigable streams or for the production of timber, enabling the Secretary to conduct reforestation work on the acquired lands.

Tree planting programs conducted on the national forests during the early 1900s were primarily concerned with the re-establishment of tree seedlings following large wildfires. The Wind River Nursery was established in Washington State in 1901 to ensure a reliable source of tree seedlings to reforest large burns in the Pacific Northwest. The Bessey Nursery was established in 1902, in an early collaborative effort involving Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot and Professor Charles Bessey of the University of Nebraska to restore pine seedlings to the Sandhills region, these efforts led to the creation of what is now the Nebraska State Forest and portions of the National Forests of Nebraska.

The Knutson-Vandenberg (K-V) Act of 1930 explicitly provided for the establishment of forest tree nurseries and also authorized the Secretary to require timber sale purchasers to make deposits to cover the cost of reforestation and related work within timber sale boundaries. The K-V Act continues to be a primary means for ensuring our reforestation treatment needs are met within timber sale areas.

Timber harvested on National Forests during the first half of the 20th century utilized selective harvesting practices primarily in green timber stands. Regeneration needs within the timber sale area were commonly addressed by using natural regeneration methods and could generally be addressed using K-V deposits arising from the timber sale. The national forests were, for the most part, well positioned to address their reforestation treatment needs using these deposits and by requesting additional appropriated funds to address the needs associated with sporadic wildfire, insect and disease attacks.

Following World War II, timber harvesting practices began to shift to increasingly favor regeneration harvest methods, such as clearcutting, during the mid- to late-1960s on many national forests. Timber sale revenues remained generally sufficient to address reforestation treatment needs within timber sale areas throughout this period.

Since 1992, the use of the clearcutting method of regeneration harvest was de-emphasized on the national forests. This change, coupled with a general decline in timber sale program levels, led to sharp reductions in regeneration harvest practices and associated K-V receipts on many national forests. These reductions led to a general decline in reforestation needs that continued through the late-1990s.

As a result of the buildup of hazardous fuels over the last 100 years, unnaturally intense wildfire has become the predominant causal factor giving rise to reforestation needs on many national forests, particularly in the West. The scale and severity of these events is of a magnitude that often leads to devastating impacts to forest resources and a variety of post-fire recovery needs and has resulted in sharp increases in reforestation needs on many national forests in recent years.

Why Reforestation is Important

America's richly, diverse forests provide vital products and amenities to our society including quality habitat for wildlife, biodiversity of plant and animal communities, clean water, aesthetic benefits, and recreational opportunities. Timely reforestation following harvest or a major catastrophic event to restore forest cover on denuded lands is often important to maintaining forest ecosystems and deriving associated ecological, social, and economic benefits.

Reforestation is an element of a land stewardship ethic that includes growing, nurturing, and harvesting trees to meet specified resource objectives while conserving soil, air, and water quality in harmony with other resource management concerns. Reforestation following harvest or revegetating areas denuded by catastrophic fire or other natural disaster is often important to ensuring forest sustainability; it is a top priority for national forest management.

Restoring Forest Ecosystems After Large Scale Disturbance

Some recent catastrophic wildfires, severe wind and rain events, and other natural disturbance events have resulted in significant losses to critical wildlife habitat, imperiled fisheries, watersheds, and municipal water sources. These events also threaten the long-term productivity of forest soils, through erosion and changes in soil properties, as well as many other resources.

Restoring forested ecosystems following a large-scale disturbance typically involves a series of steps:

  1. emergency stabilization to prevent threat to life, property, and further damage to watersheds;
  2. rehabilitation of resources affected by the disturbance that are unlikely to recover without human intervention; and
  3. longer term restoration treatments, including reforestation, that span many years and are needed to restore functioning ecosystems. All of these steps are completed consistent with the direction contained in individual forest plans.

Reforestation to Meet Forest Management Objectives

On many occasions, natural regeneration can serve to meet forest management objectives. In other instances, active reforestation actions such as planting seedlings may be necessary. For example, many species of wildlife, such as quail, rabbit, deer, elk, moose, ruffed grouse and wild turkey, and some threatened and endangered species can be found using newly established forests for food, shelter and nesting. Moreover, through reforestation treatments we can hasten the development of large tree structural components in late-successional habitat areas needed by late-seral dependent species like the spotted owl.

The Forest Service reforestation program has four major goals:

  1. To maintain all forest lands within the National Forest System in appropriate forest cover.
  2. To improve the quality and yield of the timber resource.
  3. To accelerate the attainment of desired species composition and stocking objectives in a cost-efficient manner.
  4. To develop and demonstrate successful reforestation methods and techniques, and encourage their use by other landowners.

Successful reforestation involves a sequence of carefully planned treatments that begins with the selection of an appropriate regeneration harvest method that is suited to the unique ecological characteristics of the site. Regeneration success is also dependent on the establishment of a suitable growing environment for young seedlings from appropriate local seed sources. Control of competing vegetation is sometimes necessary to maintain acceptable rates of seedling survival, as well as to control damaging agents.

The tools utilized by silviculturists to determine reforestation needs and reforestation techniques, have been developed over the years by forest scientists, and this research continues as needs change. In the past, research studies initiated following major disturbances focused mainly on the most immediate recovery needs such as soil stabilization, water runoff control, ground cover vegetation and shrubs, and wildlife needs, and less on the reforestation goals. Reforestation techniques generally utilized (natural or limited direct seeding and planting) were those already well researched and readily available by implementing guidance in Forest Service Silvics and Silviculture Systems manuals.

Practices, such as salvage logging to prepare sites for regeneration and provide the funds for restoration activities, have been studied and some results synthesized. In their paper titled “Environmental Effects of Post-Fire Logging: Literature Review and Annotated Bibliography”, Forest Service research scientists, McIver and Starr reviewed the existing body of scientific literature on logging following wildfire. Twenty-one post fire-logging studies were reviewed and interpreted. McIver and Starr concluded that while the practice of salvage logging after fires is controversial, the debate is carried on without the benefit of much scientific information. They also concluded that the immediate environmental effects of post fire logging is extremely variable and dependent on a wide variety of factors such as the severity of the burn, slope, soil texture and composition, the presence or building of roads, types of logging methods, and post-fire weather conditions.

In recent years, reforestation goals on many national forests have changed to restore forests to a previous level of condition and complexity (e.g., multiple rather than single tree species, perhaps eventual uneven aged structure, emphasis on non-commodity objectives) at landscape scales. New research is needed to accomplish those objectives, and to better understand the long-term results.

One useful collaborative product emerging from Forest Service research and our National Forests Systems applications group has been the Forest Vegetation Simulator, and the Fire and Fuels Extension model that enable resource managers to visualize and project through time the development of reforested areas following wildfires and treatments.

Recent Trends and Uncertainty

In the latter half of the 20th century, reforestation treatment needs were closely associated with regeneration harvest activities connected with the timber sale program. This close association was beneficial both from the standpoint of utilizing K-V authorities to collect funds from timber sale purchasers to do the necessary reforestation work, and because reforestation programs could be planned and scheduled to coincide with harvest activities under a timber sale contract with a finite contract period. This afforded the opportunity to schedule and complete needed site preparation work, collect cones and seed from appropriate sources, sow this seed at the nursery, grow these seedlings to desired specifications, prepare them for out-planting, and plant the seedlings and complete the other work needed to assure regeneration success.

Much of this program predictability is lost when the principal causal agent creating reforestation treatment needs is a natural disturbance event, particularly those on a catastrophic scale. Since the location and magnitude of these events cannot be predicted from one year to the next, this dynamic makes the job of planning orderly programs of work to complete reforestation treatments more difficult. When the economic value of salvageable material is insufficient to cover the cost of needed reforestation treatments using K-V collections, the situation is made more difficult as forests must rely on appropriated funds that were requested as much as two years prior to the disturbance event in order to undertake this work. Moreover, this lack of predictability can also make it very difficult to secure tree seed from appropriate seed sources in sufficient quantities to address reforestation needs. Recent trends in the severity of wildfires, particularly in the West, have made it much more difficult in recent years for managers to plan and program their needs to complete reforestation treatments.

Reforestation work is time-sensitive. Without timely reforestation efforts, undesirable species can dominate, making establishment of desired tree species difficult. Once undesirable species become established, decades may pass before sufficient numbers of appropriate tree seedlings occupy the site. Delays also increase the cost of reforestation work by necessitating expensive site preparation, reduce timber yields, and may adversely affect meeting other resource objectives.

Prompt reforestation is desirable to prevent soil erosion and protect water quality in streams and lakes. Untimely reforestation adversely affects wildlife and fish species and reduces scenic quality and recreational experience. In addition, these areas are less resilient to the effects of fire and make it more difficult to protect surrounding communities.

The agency’s reforestation capacity is dependent on several program areas, as well as numerous partnerships and cooperative agreements. Knudson-Vandenberg (K-V) Act funds generally meet reforestation needs generated through timber harvest activities. However, the Vegetation and Watershed Management program and the Reforestation Trust Fund primarily fund reforestation need for areas outside timber sale areas. Corporate partners and civic groups are also contributors to the agency’s capacity for reforestation through matching fund agreements.