Millions of acres of public and private land in the United States are at risk of losing the native plant communities that are central to the integrity of ecosystems. As plant communities decline, the biodiversity they embody is also being rapidly lost, along with a wealth of ecosystem goods and services important to society. There is a long and growing list of threats to plant communities—invasive species, overgrazing, climate change, and altered fire regimes, to name a few—that have collectively accelerated the deterioration of natural landscapes across the country.
Ecological restoration is the process of bringing back native biological diversity and ecosystem function to deteriorated landscapes, one aspect of which involves planting seeds of native plants on the degraded site. This report examines the prospects for developing the large and sustainable supply of native seeds (as a shorthand term for all forms of native propagative plant material1) that is needed for many uses but primarily to carry out successful ecological restoration across our nation’s landscapes.
More than 20 years ago, as severe wildfires began to burn with increasing frequency and severity in the western United States, Congress urged the Department of the Interior (DOI) to move beyond sowing non-native grass seed for emergency soil stabilization and toward the rapid introduction of native plant species to rebuild natural communities and prevent invasive plant encroachment in newly burned areas. Congress requested the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture to prepare “specific plans and recommendations to supply native plant materials for emergency stabilization and longer-term rehabilitation.”2
In early 2002, the agencies responded with a 17-page plan and five action items:
- Undertake a comprehensive assessment of needs for native plant materials.
- Make a long-term commitment to native plant materials production, research and development, education, and technology transfer.
- Expand efforts to increase the availability of native plant materials.
1 The statement of task (Box S-1) specifically refers to “native plant seed.” The report uses native plant seed to encompass not only seeds but other native plant materials, such as containerized stock, bare root seedlings, cuttings, rhizomes, tissue culture, callus material, and other plant propagules.
2 House Committee on Appropriations Report, to accompany H.R. 2217, Department of the Interior and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 2002, 107th Congress.
- Invest in partnerships with state and local agencies and the private sector.
- Ensure adequate monitoring of restoration and rehabilitation efforts.
The plan cited the histories of success by US Forest Service (USFS) nurseries in the 1920s to produce conifer tree seedlings and by the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Plant Materials Centers in the 1930s Dust Bowl era to develop plant species for soil conservation.
The USFS, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Park Service (NPS), Department of Defense (DOD), and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), many states, and tribal nations have access to native plant communities on lands they manage, which provide the source material for the native seed supply. Seeds collected from these communities can either be used directly or increased through agricultural cultivation before being used as seeds or plants. A key consideration in restoration is for native plants to be genetically adapted to the specific sites or regions where they are used, so recording source locations and maintaining the genetic identity of wild-collected native seeds is critical.
A relatively small segment of the nation’s commercial seed industry produces seeds of native plant species for ecological restoration, in an enterprise that demands considerable specialized knowledge and equipment, and that requires several years of lead time to produce a specified batch of seeds. Public agencies and other users of native seed acquire most of their supply from these private growers, using requests for bids, production agreements, and off-the-shelf purchases. Currently, however, users describe the supply of native seeds on the market as severely insufficient. Suppliers describe the buyers’ unpredictable levels of demand and excessively short planning horizons as significant obstacles to being able to meet their needs.
ASSESSMENT OF NATIVE SEED NEEDS AND CAPACITIES
This report was requested by the BLM and prepared by a committee of experts appointed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. It was not commissioned as a review of the original 2002 plan, but as an independent assessment of the federal, state, tribal, and private-sector needs and capacity for supplying native plant seeds for ecological restoration and other purposes (see the abbreviated statement of task in Box S-1). This report reflects the product of phase two of the assessment, in follow-up to the committee’s interim report released in October 2020.3 That report presented an overview of the native seed supply chain,
3 An Assessment of Native Seed Needs and the Capacity for Their Supply: Interim Report. The National Academies Press. https://nap.nationalacademies.org/catalog/25859/an-assessment-of-the-need-for-native-seeds-and-the-capacity-for-their-supply.
preliminary observations of some of the challenges facing native seed use and supply, and a strategy for additional information gathering.
In phase two, the committee used the preliminary observations as the basis for two nationwide surveys, the first, of native seed and plant suppliers, and the second, of personnel from state government departments of natural resources, parks, wildlife, transportation, and agriculture.
Activities carried out in 2021 and 2022 also included semi-structured interviews with federal agency personnel, examination of agency records, presentations by participants in the seed supply chain, and reviews of the relevant scientific literature.
THE NATIVE SEED SUPPLY
Federal, State, and Tribal Needs and Capacities
Native seeds are used in pursuit of a wide range of objectives on public land. Table S-1 lists the primary uses of native plant seeds by federal and state agencies. Tribal native seed needs often parallel those of federal and state agencies. The tribes’ needs for native plants also include food, spiritual, and medicinal uses.
As mentioned earlier, many public agencies, including all the federal agencies, will contract for seed to be collected from the land they manage and use it onsite, or have the collected seed increased in a production field prior to use. The NPS almost exclusively uses this approach for park restoration projects. However, some agencies need a very large quantity of seed for restoration projects, particularly after wildfire, so the largest land-management agencies turn to commercial suppliers. For perspective, in 2020, BLM field offices purchased about 1.5 million pounds of seed (a little less than in a typical year) of which two-thirds was used for post-fire seeding on over 422,000 acres of burnt land. BLM has two warehouses for storing purchased seed on a short-term basis.
Field offices are encouraged, but not required, to request native seed genetically adapted to where it will be planted. In 2020, about one-eighth of the grasses, one-fourth of the forbs, and two-thirds of the shrubs purchased were native seed of certified (source-identified) origins. Another portion of the purchased seed (particularly of grasses and forbs) included native seed types more available in the market and at lower relative cost, but that originate from plant communities in geographic locations mismatched to the environments where the seed is likely to be planted. Similarly, non-native plant seeds, that are less expensive and more available, were a sizable portion of the seed purchased.
|Creation or restoration of wildlife habitat (other than pollinator habitat)|
|Pollinator habitat projects|
|Stream erosion mitigation or restoration|
|Restorative activity on land in a natural area or wilderness|
|Invasive species suppression|
|Roadside seeding and maintenance|
|Green infrastructure (bioswales)|
|Natural disaster recovery|
|Energy development remediation|
|Green strips (vegetative fuel breaks)|
Recently, the USFS announced plans to address the fire-prone condition and reforestation backlog across the National Forests. The USFS will use funds of up to $123 million annually4 to reforest over 4 million acres in the next 10 years. The Service’s six nurseries will produce tree seedlings and other plants, but private growers will be needed to expand the capacity for production. The USFWS, NPS, DOD, and most states have at least one nursery to grow native plants or trees for use in restoration. Several of the tribal nations have established nurseries, and more want to, but efforts to expand a network of tribal nurseries have been limited by lack of resources.
Filling the Native Seed Pipeline
The ability of the commercial sector to provide the seed needed for projects in different landscapes is important, because existing native plant communities do not produce the same amount of seed each year and can be degraded by over-collecting. The committee’s survey of state agencies and presentations by federal agency personnel suggest that buyers often settle for substitutions because their preferred seed is simply not available at any price during the timeframe in which the seed is needed. Timeframe is an issue for BLM field offices that rely on annually appropriated funds for post-fire needs that must be spent before the end of the federal fiscal year, forcing them to buy whatever is available.
Seed suppliers in the committee’s survey reported that the greatest challenges they face in supplying native seed are unpredictable demand, “difficult to grow” species, and a lack of stock (starter) seed from appropriate seed transfer zones (seed zones, for short), which are geographically mapped zones inside of which plants can be relocated and are presumed to be genetically adapted. They suggested that better communication from buyers about their seed needs, more realistic timelines for delivery that account for the time needed to acquire and propagate seed, and greater technical assistance in growing native plants would help them meet user needs.
In 2018, BLM’s Plant Conservation and Restoration Program began to address the issues of communication, timeframe, and availability of stock seeds using a native seed Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) production contract with suppliers to have them grow and increase native seed types from seed transfer zones not readily available on the commercial market. Although seed production IDIQ contracts are not a new financial instrument, the focus on seed production by seed transfer zone is a new approach for BLM. The seed given to suppliers for increase came from the Seeds of Success (SOS) program initiated by BLM in 2001. To secure the genetic diversity of native plants, BLM partnered with six nonfederal seed banks (SOS Partners)5 to store native seed collected from numerous seed zones across different ecoregions (see Figure S-1), mostly in the western United States. Although the quantities being increased are small and the funding for the new program is modest, the IDIQ approach is a significantly new approach to meeting seed needs.
State and Regional Partnerships
Because locally adapted native seed for a wide range of species has been difficult to find in the commercial marketplace, cooperative partnerships have arisen inside and outside of the federal government to develop native seed supplies for restoration and other applications, including to provide stock seed to commercial growers. For example, in the 1980s, the Iowa Tallgrass Prairie Center partnered with the Iowa Department of Transportation to collect seed from the state’s remaining stands of tallgrass prairie found along rural roadsides. The program began increasing the seed in fields and has since released stock material for 100 species of Iowa natives to commercial suppliers. In addition to prairie restoration projects, the seeds are now used on roadsides across the state, and are available to farmers and other landowners who participate in the USDA-supported Conservation Reserve Program, which puts marginal farmland into conservation use for a decade or more. The approach offers one model for supplying and developing a native seed industry on a state level.
Several regional native plant materials development and restoration programs have been established by BLM and the USFS that are broadly cooperative, involving government at all levels, the tribes, colleges, nongovernmental
4 The funds will be available through the Repairing Existing Public Land by Adding Necessary Trees Act, which was included in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, commonly referred to as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
5 Text was added after the prepublication release to clarify that the seed banks store the seed for the SOS program; they are not the seed suppliers that increase the seed.
organizations, and native seed producers. These include programs situated in the Pacific Northwest, the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin, and the Mojave Desert that collect and bank seeds, release seeds for commercialization, conduct landscape genetic studies, and carry out research on restoration techniques and strategies, among other things. Some of those efforts involve more than 30 partner organizations and demonstrate what public-private partnerships can achieve working together toward focused goals.
Such partnerships, developed on a regional basis, may have been envisioned in the plan given to Congress in 2002 in response to its challenge to build a seed supply, but the native seed supply requires transformation on a broader scale. In 2015, the National Seed Strategy, a plan “to foster interagency collaboration to guide the development, availability, and use of seed needed for timely and effective restoration,” was released by the Plant Conservation Alliance, which now includes more than 400 nonfederal organizations and 17 federal agencies.7 That Strategy is not a funded program, but under its umbrella many diverse projects have been pursued by different agencies and their partners. It is a sound blueprint for native seed development and continues to be a call for action.
Developing a sustainable, national native seed supply is not likely to be achieved for many years, however, because the ongoing efforts are focused beneath the ambitions of that goal. Moreover, current efforts have been outpaced by needs that have escalated very quickly over the last decade as the result of converging threats to
6 In 1987, James Omernik published a map of ecoregions across the United States defined by major differences in geography and climate [Omernick. 1987. Ecoregions of the Conterminous United States, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 77(1): 118–125 doi:10.1111/j.1467-8306.1987.tb00149.xe]. Subsequent refinements by the Environmental Protection Agency led to the development of more discrete ecoregions. In Figure S-1, the boundaries of ecoregions are shown by the black lines.
7 The text was corrected after the prepublication release to update Plant Conservation Alliance numbers.
natural ecosystems. Although the federal agencies collaborate productively with one another and other partners on a project-by-project basis, they could have a greater impact if they turned their focus to the bigger picture and committed to a unified agenda to develop a native seed supply that meets the nation’s diverse needs. Now more than ever is an opportunity to pursue that goal, with the recent passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (Bipartisan Infrastructure Law) (2021),8 the Great American Outdoors Act (2020),9 and fresh new thinking about the nation’s natural resources, such as through the America the Beautiful initiative (2021).10
The following conclusions summarize the committee’s investigation of the experiences of federal land-management agencies, state governments, tribal nations, collaborative partnerships, and suppliers.
Conclusion 1-0: There is urgency to building a native seed supply for the restoration of native plant communities. Developing reliable seed supplies for ecological restoration is an achievable goal by the federal agencies, but one that demands accelerated, inter-institutional commitment to a comprehensive vision, at a much more intensive level than is currently under way.
Conclusion 2-0: In some regions (at, above, or below the state level), native seed needs are being addressed by networks or partnerships that include federal agencies, states, tribes, local governments, and the private and nonprofit sectors. Further development of these regional networks, plus greater coordination among them, is a promising way to stabilize demand, expand supply, and increase the sharing of information and technology that is critical to meeting native seed needs.
Conclusion 3-0: Tribal uses for native plants parallel those of federal and state agencies and their needs include seed collection, increase, seed testing, implementation of seed zones, storage, and contracting for ecological restoration. The historic complexity of land-management issues and interactions with federal and state governments, former Bureau of Indian Affairs policies associated with cultural assimilation, and a lack of resources have constrained all aspects of tribal land management including activities to build capacity to meet native plant needs.
Conclusion 4-0: Suppliers view unpredictable demand as their leading challenge. Suppliers indicate that seed contracts with adequate lead time, clear delivery timelines, price guarantees, and a guarantee to purchase a predetermined quantity of seed of the specified ecotypes are most important to them.
Conclusion 5-0: Suppliers indicate that difficult-to-grow species and lack of stock seed from appropriate seed zones or locations are their top two technical challenges. They identified communicating demand (issues related to planning, communication, funding, and the economics of the seed markets) as key to helping them achieve success in providing seeds to buyers.
Conclusion 6-0: Many technical and scientific information gaps affect the ability of the native seed supply to function efficiently and effectively. Addressing them would inform decision making, reduce uncertainty, and improve restoration outcomes.
Conclusion 7.0: To enable more producers to enter the supply chain for native, ecoregional seed of diverse species, there is a need to expand cooperative seed cleaning facilities and humidity-controlled seed warehouses in areas where commercial facilities with specialized equipment do not exist.
8 H.R. 3684, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, see https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/3684 (accessed February 9, 2023).
9 H.R. 1957, Great American Outdoors Act, see https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/1957 (accessed February 9, 2023).
10 America the Beautiful, see https://www.doi.gov/priorities/america-the-beautiful (accessed February 9, 2023).
Conclusion 8-0: BLM is the nation’s largest user of native seed for restoration and has the largest capacity for seed storage, but many constraints currently limit its capacity to act as a reliable purchaser of native seeds and thereby to support a more robust native seed industry. The capacity and staffing of its seed warehouses are also inadequate to meet existing and projected needs.
Conclusion 9-0: BLM manages extensive areas of natural and seminatural land that constitute an important in situ repository of seed stock for restoration, but conserving this critical resource is not yet recognized as a land-management objective. The agency’s native seed needs depend on the native plant communities that are the source of seeds, adding to the urgency for recognizing and protecting native plant communities and biodiversity on BLM lands.
Conclusion 10-0: Developing reliable seed supplies for restoration is an achievable goal for BLM and other public-sector users of native seed, but one that demands substantial institutional commitment to make restoration a high-priority objective, the cultivation and empowerment of botanical and ecological expertise in decision making, and the creation of sustainable funding streams for restoration that enable long-term planning, successful implementation, and learning from experience.
Recommendation 1.0: The leadership of the Departments of the Interior (DOI), Agriculture (USDA), and Defense (DOD) should move quickly to establish an operational structure that facilitates sustained interagency coordination of a comprehensive approach to native plant materials development and restoration.
An interagency approach focused on fulfilling the long-standing congressional mandate to develop a native seed supply for public lands could unify the agencies’ independent efforts to meet seed needs for restoration and rehabilitation. This focused effort would maximize returns on investment in native plant materials development and restoration and would augment existing activities within agencies. One possible model for agency coordination on a national basis, organized regionally, is the National Interagency Fire Center.
Among the activities that could be the focus of interagency efforts are the following:
- Serve as the central coordinating platform for developing a national native seed supply.
- Assist the launch, support, and oversight of regional native seed supply development activities.
- Coordinate the prioritization of species and ecotypes to meet seed needs for different regions.
- Co-develop national policy for native seed collection, seed sharing, and seed use.
- Co-develop and share best management practices for seed choice in restoration.
- Coordinate, prioritize, and support basic and applied research such as described in Chapter 8 and other region-specific research needs identified in the National Seed Strategy.
- Review and strengthen policy guidance for the use of native seeds on public lands.
- Co-develop adaptive management approaches that use experimentation during restoration, gather data on outcomes, and use these data to guide future restoration.
- Provide a national, central data-collection platform and analytical capability.
- Serve as a focal point for training on seed collection protocols, storage practices, seed cleaning and testing, and other technologies.
- Produce information and technology for stakeholders in the native seed supply and native plant restoration.
Recommendation 2.0: Federal land-management agencies should participate in building regional programs and partnerships to promote native plant materials development and native plant restoration, helping to establish such regional programs in areas where they do not yet exist. Ideally, the existing regional programs and partnerships would grow into a complete nationwide network, assisted by the federal interagency coordinating structure envisioned in Recommendation 1.0. The size, geographic coverage, and membership of the regional
programs would vary based on regional needs and would include many existing entities such as the USDA Plant Materials Centers and Agricultural Research Service (ARS) seed banks, other seed banks, botanic gardens, public nurseries, universities, and other organizations.
2.1 Develop seed priorities. Each region has its workhorse native plant species, ones that are easily grown and highly abundant in natural communities, as well as its other priority species such as those that are important for pollinators and wildlife. Developing region-specific lists of priority species will enable suppliers to focus on developing stocks of the species, and ecotypes of these species, that are likeliest to be in high demand.
2.2 Conduct scenario planning and monitoring. To enable suppliers to anticipate and meet future needs, scenario planning at the regional level should be used to estimate the kinds and quantities of seeds likely to be in demand over multiyear horizons. Such planning scenarios would be based on estimates of current degraded land and future events likely to cause further degradation. These would be periodically updated through ongoing monitoring.
2.3 Collect and curate stock seed. Regional programs should conduct, or oversee the conducting of, the collection and curation of wildland-sourced seed to make it available for future production. Seed must be collected using protocols to record source locations, maximize genetic diversity, and protect wild populations. As banked stocked seed accessions deplete, additional wild collections will be necessary. As source populations are lost, or better ones located, ongoing monitoring and reevaluation will be needed.
2.4 Share information. Regional programs should develop informational tools derived from monitoring regional seed use practices and the success or failure of outcomes. This will inform smarter, more predictable selections of species for procurement in the regional marketplace and more effective restoration strategies.
Recommendation 3.0: The Bureau of Indian Affairs should work with the Inter-Tribal Nursery Council to promote and expand tribal nurseries. The Bureau of Indian Affairs should prioritize and support tribal native plant uses and capacities, consistent with the Bureau’s legal and fiduciary obligation to protect tribal treaty rights, lands, assets, and resources held under the Federal-Tribal Trust. Recognizing tribal sovereignty and self-determination, expanding the cultural, economic, and restoration uses of native plants by tribes will require the promotion and expansion of tribal nurseries and greater support for the Inter-Tribal Nursery Council. Additionally, tribal leaders and land managers should be fully engaged in planning, conducting, and applying results from scientific projects related to seed production and conservation, native plant restoration, and ecosystem management on tribal land.
Recommendation 4.0: The public agencies that purchase native seed should assist suppliers by taking steps to reduce uncertainty, share risk, increase the predictability of purchases, and help suppliers obtain stock material.
Recommendation 5.0: Federal land-management agencies should work with their regional partners to launch an outreach program to provide seed suppliers with critical tools and information.
5.1 Strengthen the role of the National Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) in supporting native seed suppliers. The NRCS Plant Materials Centers can build on their historical role by developing materials and techniques and advising commercial growers on native seed production, emphasizing non-manipulated germplasm and production methods that minimize genetic change.
11 The text of the recommendation was modified after release of the prepublication to clarify that the BLM IDIQ is not intrinsically tied to the working capital fund and can be supported from other funding sources.
5.2 Support information sharing on restoration outcomes. Public land-management agencies should share new research and technical knowledge on restoration in publicly available technical progress reports.
5.3 Facilitate communication with growers. To support existing native seed growers and to encourage new ones, federal agencies should provide tools such as an online marketplace, and resources such as workshops and information on propagation, seed cleaning, and other techniques.
Recommendation 6.0: The federal government should commit to an expanded research and development agenda aimed at expanding and improving the use of native seeds in ecological restoration.
6.1 Support basic research. Basic research to support restoration in an era of rapid change should be a priority for the National Science Foundation, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and the US Geological Survey (USGS). Some critical topics include restoration under rapid environmental change, species selection to promote ecological function, traditional ecological knowledge, and the economics of the seed market.
6.2 Build technical knowledge. Development and dissemination of new technical knowledge for restoration should be important priorities for the research arms of federal land-management agencies, such as the USDA-ARS, USFS, DOD, and USGS. Priority topics include improving techniques for production, maintenance of genetic integrity and quality, testing, storage, and deployment of native seeds.
6.3 Adaptive management. Public land agencies and their partners should commit to using a rigorous adaptive management approach that documents all features of the restoration plan, uses restoration treatments as experiments to address critical areas of uncertainty, gathers data on outcomes, and uses these data to guide future restoration actions.
6.4 Seed zones. USDA-ARS, USFS, and USGS, in conjunction with regional programs, should seek to develop a more uniform national system of seed zones, which will be an important step in sending clearer signals to both seed suppliers and seed users.
Recommendation 7.0: Federal agencies and other public and private partners, including seed suppliers, should collaborate on expanding seed storage and seed-cleaning infrastructure that can be cooperatively cost-shared regionally. Additional storage can improve the availability of seed ready for restoration when urgent but hard-to-predict needs arise. Greater refrigerated and freezer storage availability would protect the viability of purchased seed until its use. Seed cleaning is also a significant technical challenge for new and small-scale suppliers. Regional native seed-cleaning facilities would encourage more growers to enter the supply chain.
Recommendation 8.0: BLM’s Seed Warehouse System needs to be expanded, particularly its capacity for cold storage, and supported by staff with up-to-date knowledge of seed science to manage the seed inventory. The BLM seed warehouses belong in a national program within BLM or DOI to ensure they are funded, well managed, expanded to meet national needs, and shared among agencies. With more warehouses, seed can be kept near the location where it will be used, reducing transportation costs, time, and seed viability loss.
Recommendation 9.0: BLM should identify and conserve locations in which native plant communities provide significant reservoirs of native seeds for restoration. Public land-management agencies should actively recognize and protect the natural plant communities that provide the ultimate sources of native seeds for ecological restoration, using protective designations such as Area of Critical Environmental Concern or Research Natural Areas.
Recommendation 10.0: The Plant Conservation and Restoration Program (PCRP) should be empowered with the capacity to plan and oversee restoration and to build stocks of seed. BLM should give greater authority and resources to the PCRP to oversee seed purchasing and warehousing decisions, monitor restoration outcomes, engage in long-term restoration planning, and ensure that staff with plant expertise are available to guide restoration planners and seed purchasers across BLM. This expanded role for PCRP will hasten the pace of change toward the use of natives that is already under way. The PCRP should expand the use of IDIQ or other innovative, risk-sharing contracts to build a diverse supply of native seed in BLM warehouses.
These recommendations represent an ambitious agenda for action, commensurate to the challenges facing our natural landscapes, and to the responsibility for public-sector leadership of a coordinated public-private effort to build a national native seed supply. The committee is optimistic that the many public and private parties engaged in ecological restoration across the nation will be willing partners in ensuring this agenda’s success.
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