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Reforestation - management actions to renew tree cover by establishing young trees - can sequester carbon, bolster biodiversity, yield forest products, provide ecosystem services, protect species of concern, create opportunities for recreation, and improve habitat for wildlife. At the same time, wildfires, drought, and other disturbances are creating new needs to strengthen reforestation and replanting efforts. After disturbances like wildfire, drought, insect infestations, or timber harvest, land managers have many restoration options. Affected areas may be left to regenerate on their own, but climate, fire severity, invasive species, wildlife browsing, and other factors can determine whether an ecosystem returns to desired conditions or undergoes a lasting transition. If replanting efforts are undertaken, planting the right species in the right place at the right time can mean the difference between a thriving forest and dead seedlings. Nursery techniques and seedling characteristics also play a key role in outplanting success.

People planting tree saplings in a previously burned forest. People and burned remnants of trees are on a mountain slope with blue skies.

In some areas, climate is changing faster than trees can adapt, regenerate, or move on their own. Forest managers need to adjust which species they are planting in certain areas, planting methods, and post-establishment care to allow healthy forests to persist.

Rocky Mountain Research Station scientists are working directly on reforestation issues and solutions. Our science and tools can help managers increase the effectiveness, efficiency, and success of reforestation efforts. RMRS research is helping predict whether ecosystems are likely to recover naturally, matching projects with the right source of seeds or plants, supporting the production of high-quality seedlings, assessing the outcomes of restoration efforts, developing targeted approaches to restoring species of concern, and adapting reforestation approaches to a changing climate. Science developed at RMRS also supported the development of the National Forest System Reforestation Strategy that addresses the agency’s reforestation needs and prepares for future management scenarios.

Featured Science

  • RMRS scientists and Forest Service colleagues have acted as conveners to bring together reforestation experts to discuss potential benefits of reforestation activities in the face of mounting challenges from invasive species, wildfires, diseases, and climate change.
  • RMRS scientists are contributing to a climate-informed approach to reforestation to support long-term resilience and achieve long-term climate, carbon, biodiversity, and social goals of tree planting efforts.Jeremy Pinto measuring the physiological response of aspen seedlings to nursery treatments in a greenhouse.
  • Rocky Mountain Research Station scientists are partners in the Adaptive Silviculture for Climate Change Network, a collaborative effort to establish a series of long-term experimental silvicultural trials across a network of different forest ecosystem types. These experiments evaluate management options designed to enhance forests’ ability to respond to a changing climate.
  • RMRS scientists explore whether and how ecosystems will recover and regenerate naturally after disturbances. Recent research has focused on the factors driving regeneration of ponderosa pine, sagebrush, western larch, and other species.
  • RMRS scientists contribute to the scientific basis of the Target Plant Concept, a holistic framework that can help match a project’s objectives with the site characteristics, plant materials and genetics, outplanting tools and techniques, and outplanting window.
  • RMRS science focuses in on the nursery techniques and seedling characteristics that support successful outplanting, from drought conditioning to biochar application.
  • RMRS research explores predictors of the outcomes of active replanting and restoration efforts. A recent study shows that failing to account for invasive species may incorrectly predict restoration outcomes in arid ecosystems.
  • Beyond restoring native plants, replanting efforts often seek to support other ecosystem components and functions. This research asks whether restoration of native plant communities also restores native wildlife.

Applying the Science

  • RMRS tools can help land managers match the right seeds or seedlings with the right site. The Southern Rockies Reforestation Tool (SRRT) identifies climatically and topographically suitable sites to plant ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir seedlings after wildfire in the Southern Rocky Mountains.
  • The Climate-Smart Restoration Tool provides climate-informed seed zone recommendations for sagebrush and grassland ecosystems.
  • Innovative science-management partnerships can help select and screen seed sources for large-scale restoration.
  • A Science you Can Use Bulletin guides managers through applying the Target Plant Concept to choose plants and techniques that are best suited for management objectives. An accompanying video features insights from the scientists.
  • RMRS and the Southwest Ecological Restoration Institutes co-hosted a land manager-focused lightning talk webinar dedicated to forest regeneration and reforestation in western fire-adapted forests.
  • RMRS participates in the Great Basin Native Plant Project, a collaborative multiagency effort to increase the availability of genetically appropriate native plant stock and provides the research and technology required to successfully restore diverse native plant communities in the Great Basin.
  • The Reforestation, Nurseries, and Genetic Resources Team ensures that nursery managers and restoration specialists, including Tribal Nurseries, have access to the best available technical information on seed and seedling cultivation.
  • Over a decade of research by Rocky Mountain Research Station scientists is now providing updated guidelines for regenerating and establishing white pine.
  • The Regeneration for Resilience framework guides management decisions to offer the best likelihood of success in positioning threatened tree species to support self-sustaining populations over multiple generations.
  • RMRS, the National Park Service, and colleagues have collaborated to develop a proactive approach for limber pine conservation in Rocky Mountain National Park, including targeted replanting efforts.