In 2020, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released An Assessment of the Need for Native Seeds and the Capacity for Their Supply: Interim Report (NASEM, 2020), completing the first of a two-phase study of the national need for and supply of native seeds for ecological restoration and other purposes. The National Academies appointed an ad hoc committee of experts to conduct the study at the request of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which needs large quantities of native seed to meet its public land-management responsibilities, particularly in the aftermath of wildland fires.
The interim report provided an overview of the participants in the native seed supply chain in the United States, made preliminary observations about the dynamics of the seed supply, and proposed an information-gathering strategy for the second phase of the study to obtain deeper insights into the nation’s capacity for providing the seeds needed by users with various objectives.
This final report presents findings of the information-gathering process carried out in 2021 and 2022. During this period, the committee sought information from, and about, various actors in the native seed supply chain including federal, state, tribal, and municipal agencies, private landowners in conservation programs, native seed collectors and suppliers, seed testing associations, seed banks, land trusts, environmental groups, and other nongovernmental organizations.
Using surveys and interviews, presentations to the committee, expert consultations, and the considerable experience of its own members, the committee explored the diverse set of needs and activities in the native seed supply chain to identify opportunities for progress. Based on its findings and conclusions, the committee offers a set of recommendations for increasing the supply of native seeds to meet the increasing and evolving demand for native seeds.
To guide the assessment, the committee was given a statement of task (Box 1-1) which focused the committee on a list of straightforward questions: What entities use native seeds, how do they use them and at what scale, what shapes their decisions, how do seed buyers and suppliers communicate, and what is the nature of procurement? How does seed availability for restoration relate to other agricultural, land-management, and conservation activities? What activities make up the seed supply chain and how well are they working to meet seed needs?
Simple answers to these questions were not as straightforwardly obtained, however, and there were limits to the committee’s ability to obtain a complete picture of the native seed supply. In addition, the questions in the
statement of task belie considerable nuance and complexity, beginning with the term “native seed,”1 which, in addition to its natural history, can be defined by many distinguishing characteristics that are important to seed buyers who plan to use them in restoration projects. Apart from the fact that native seed in the United States comprise a diversity of species and of forms (trees, shrubs, grasses, forbs), factors such as where exactly the seed or its progeny was sourced, the populations from which it was collected, and the way the seed was developed into the final product offered for sale vary significantly.
1 The statement of task (see Box 1-1) specifically refers to “native plant seed.” The report uses native seed as a shorthand term for seed and all other “native plant materials” such as containerized plants (see Glossary). These terms are used separately in Chapters 4 and 7, in the results of surveys in which questions were asked specifically about the use or production of either native seed or native plant materials (such as nursery stock). Native seed is obtained from terrestrial and aquatic plant species that have evolved and occur naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat. Species native to North America are generally recognized as those occurring on the continent prior to European settlement (PCA, 2015).
Buyers of native seed, whether in the public or private sector, are not monolithic in their preferences for seed characteristics. Describing a “need” for native seed therefore requires a frame of reference relative to the view of the user with respect to the activities in which seed will be used. They might describe their “needs” for seed in terms of soil stabilization, creation of pollinator habitat, or stormwater mitigation. Native plants are regarded as inherently valuable for providing essential ecosystem goods and services that support users’ objectives, but users may not consider their objective as one of ecological restoration. They may be willing to use native plants manipulated by breeding or selection which would not be acceptable to others or for other applications (or even qualify as “native” by some users).
An important frame of reference for the assessment are the needs of federal agencies such as BLM and the US Forest Service, and those of some state agencies, charged with the mission of managing public lands for multiple uses, like grazing, recreation, wildlife habitat, and hunting, and for responding to the effects of major disturbances, such as wildfire. These agencies use thousands of pounds of native seed every year for these activities. Because agencies have finite resources to address their land-management responsibilities, the “needs” for native seed are partially defined by priorities handed to them—first, to address post-fire emergency stabilization; second, to support ongoing priorities (sage-grouse habitat) and other multiple uses of the land; and finally, to address restoration and conservation needs. Decision making in large agencies is distributed, and the basis of seed choices and outcomes of seed use are not routinely documented, thus making it challenging to pin down users’ perception of needs. The point here is that seed needs are shaped by a broader context.
Preliminary Observations as the Context for Phase Two
The committee’s interim report included eight preliminary observations about the native seed supply (Box 1-2), which were used as an informal set of hypotheses that shaped the questions developed for the information-gathering phase. In this respect, they provide a useful context for the findings from all the chapters but particularly semi-structured interviews with federal agency personnel (Chapter 3), and the results of the survey of state agency personnel (Chapter 4), and native seed suppliers (Chapter 7).
It is important that readers of this report be aware of a broader context for the native seeds assessment that includes the historical efforts to build a native seed supply, and the high stakes, which some might argue, are existential in nature, to achieving that goal, as well as recent opportunities that offer an optimism for success. Described here, they played a role in shaping the committee’s deliberation for actions that might be taken to supply native seed needs.
The Congressional Mandate for a Native Seed Supply
In June 2001, with increasing acres of public land affected by wildland fire, Congress urged the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation program to go beyond emergency stabilization and toward the rapid use of native plant species to prevent invasive species encroachment in newly burned areas. In the committee report accompanying the House 2002 Appropriations Bill for DOI and Related Agencies, the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture were directed to report jointly to Congress by the end of 2001, “with specific plans and recommendations to supply native plant materials for emergency stabilization and longer-term rehabilitation.”2
The response to Congress was prepared by BLM and three other land-management agencies, the US Forest Service (USFS), National Park Service, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, with input from the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Agricultural Research Service, along with the DOI’s US Geological Survey, and the Office of Surface Mining. The plan conceived by the interagency group put forward three elements key to the success of a long-term program for native plant materials development:
- Support for Federal, State, and Tribal Production, Development, Storage, and Research Facilities
- Public-Private Partnerships
- Education and Outreach
The report to Congress (DOI, USDA 2002) cautioned that the infrastructure to build a native seed supply was in its infancy but pointed to the achievements of the past as evidence that the nation could address the challenge. The report noted the history of successful plant material development by USFS nurseries in the 1920s with conifer tree seedlings and by NRCS Plant Materials Centers in the 1930s Dust Bowl era with plant species for conservation.
The 17-page plan put forward 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.
- Invest in partnerships with state and local agencies and the private sector.
- Ensure adequate monitoring of restoration and rehabilitation efforts.
Twenty years later the plan submitted to Congress in 2002 seems rational, but the continued shortages of native seed suggest that its aspirations are not yet realized. The final paragraph of the 2002 report to Congress alluded to the potential for inertia, mentioning the need to recognize the “different missions” of agencies and the reality that the infrastructure needs of one agency “are not necessarily shared” by others. The National Seed Strategy developed in 2015 by the Plant Conservation Alliance, a coalition of public and private partners dedicated to native plant conservation, included the establishment of a Memorandum of Understanding between 12 federal agencies to work that signified a willingness to coordinate separate ongoing activities of the agencies and to pursue
2 House Committee on Appropriations Report, to accompany H.R. 2217, Department of the Interior and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 2002, 107th Congress.
opportunities for cooperation. There are many productive activities taking place under the umbrella of the Strategy, but not necessarily at the scale needed to meet the needs. The next section of the report provides a lens through which the high stakes of this national effort should be viewed.
The Dual Crises of Biodiversity Loss and Climate Change
As part of an ongoing human-mediated biodiversity crisis, organisms face many threats, not only fire, but water and air pollution, climate change, the negative impact of introduced species, and disease. The destruction of natural habitats in the United States as well as worldwide is a major threat to the survival of species (Pimm et al., 2014; International Union for the Conservation of Nature3). Biodiversity loss is a major threat to ecosystem function and human well-being. One widely accepted estimate is that extinction rates (largely human mediated) are now 1000 times higher than what would be considered a typical background rate (De Vos et al., 2015; Pimm et al., 2014). Similarly, the “broad footprint” of climate change ranges from alterations in fine-scale genetic variation to entire ecosystems, with impacts on every ecosystem on the planet (Scheffers et al., 2016).
The assessment of native seed needs and capacity has taken place over sequential years in which climate change has become a major influence on the environment. The release of the interim report in October 2020 coincided with one of the most expansive western wildland fire seasons on record, with large fires consuming more than 10 million acres (NICC, 2021). That summer was also the most active Atlantic hurricane season of all time, with 7 major hurricanes out of 14 total in 2020 (NOAA, 2021). In 2021, the western United States and Canada experienced a record-breaking heat wave unprecedented in the region’s history, with temperatures above 113 degrees F for consecutive days, and during which British Columbia recorded a record high of 115.8 degrees F. This year, 2022, the long-term drought in the western United States continued through its 23rd year, a time span of dry conditions not believed to have occurred since the year 800 AD (Williams et al., 2022), while deadly flash floods in the spring and late summer swept across Yellowstone, Las Vegas, St. Louis, Kentucky, and Death Valley.
These extraordinarily severe events reflect a widespread shift in the norm of weather patterns. Extreme events can and do damage landscapes; wildfire is after all one reason public land managers seek native seeds. Intact native plant populations have evolved to be resilient, however, and are thought to be able buffer the impacts of climate change on ecosystems and support recovery of animal species. Land-management priorities have not always considered the fact that native plant communities are a key natural resource underpinning different uses of the land. Thus, conserving and restoring the integrity of native plant communities has emerged as an important, if neglected, ecological “need,” particularly on the millions of acres of public lands experiencing environmental degradation.
From a land-management standpoint, conserving and supporting the integrity of existing plant communities across environmentally diverse landscapes is relevant to climate adaptation and mitigation, and gives additional urgency to the conservation of plant communities as an important genetic resource and a source of seed to assist plant community restoration elsewhere in the future (Havens et al., 2015).
As a final point of perspective, the Seeds of Success4 (SOS) program initiated by BLM in 2000 to collect seed from wild stands of native plants nationwide is estimated to have collected and placed in storage approximately one-third of the nation’s native plant biodiversity (5,600 species of 18,000). A recent analysis of the location of fire incidence relative to SOS collection in the western United States documents where collection sites have been burned. It predicts that 14 percent of the sites of SOS collections will have burned by 2050 if fire frequency follows the trajectory it has taken since 2011 (facilitated in part by the spread of invasive grasses that support an accelerated fire regime). While recovery after fire is possible, the stored collections may be the only source of seed representing the genetic variation if wild stands are lost (Barga et al., 2020).
Land Ownership and Native Seed Needs
Land ownership is also a relevant lens for the assessment. The committee focused largely on understanding of public-sector (state and federal) seed needs. As shown in Figure 1-1, almost 40 percent of the 2.3 billion acres of land in the United States is under public ownership or management. Federal agencies control 27.1 percent of US land, or about 640 million acres. The other major public landowners are state governments (8.0%) and tribal governments (3.0%).
Ninety-two percent of all the US land under federal control is in the 11 western states of the contiguous United States and Alaska (Figure 1-2), and with Hawaii, amounts to almost 51 percent of all those states combined (Vincent et al., 2020). Important native plant resources are distributed across the intertwined land holdings under federal, state, tribal, and private ownership.
Preliminary Observation 2 of the committee’s interim report postulated that the native seed market in the western United States is strongly affected by decision making by the large land-management agencies, such as BLM and USFS. The survey of state agency personnel partially supported this hypothesis, as seed shortages were associated with bad fire years, but another federal program, the USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was also shown to play a strong role in how suppliers anticipated the demand for native seed (see Chapter 7). That may be because 63 percent of privately owned land in the nation is occupied by farms and ranches, and CRP funding produces a relatively consistent demand for seed mixes with stock material for production available to seed suppliers.
In eastern states, there are fewer federal lands (4% of total land) and a greater percentage of state-managed land. The amount of state land differs by state (for example, New Jersey, 21%; Florida, 16%; Pennsylvania, 14%; Michigan, 13%; and Minnesota, 11%). The assessment could not discern if there are more suppliers in the West than in the East because of a federal presence to support a larger industry, but observations about the federal use of native seeds and their impact on the supply chain may differ in the eastern states.
New Opportunities for Ecological Restoration
A final contemporary context for the native seed assessment is the significant development during the past 2 years of national directives that recognize the value of natural assets in relation to jobs and the national economy. At no time in recent legislative history has the US Congress been more supportive of calls to protect natural areas and their biodiversity. Bills passed in 2021 and 2022 include the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (Bipartisan Infrastructure Law5), which includes $200 million for the National Seed Strategy ($70 million for the DOI, and $130 million to USDA) in the next 5 years, as well as the Repairing Existing Public Land by Adding Necessary Trees (REPLANT) Act, providing up to $140 million annually for reforestation on National Forests. The Great American Outdoors Act6 will provide up to $1.9 billion for the next 4 years to maintain infrastructure at national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and recreation areas, and $900 million in annual funds to the Land and Water Conservation Fund to allow federal and state acquisitions of recreational land. The current executive administration has put forward ambitious plans for nature-based solutions to climate change (America the Beautiful7) and to take stock of the contribution of natural capital to the national economy (Earth Day Executive Order for a natural capital accounting8). With the resources allocated by these initiatives, federal, state, and tribal agencies have an unprecedented opportunity to conserve and restore the natural assets that underpin multiple uses of public lands.
5 Text modified after the prepublication release to correct the allocation of funds to DOI and USDA for the National Seed Strategy from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: Public Law 117-58.
6 Great American Outdoors Act: Public Law 116-152. Footnote added after the prepublication release for clarity.
7 See https://www.doi.gov/priorities/america-the-beautiful (accessed February 14, 2023).
8 See https://www.whitehouse.gov/ostp/news-updates/2022/04/24/accounting-for-nature-on-earth-day-2022/ (accessed February 14, 2023).
A list of Acronyms and Abbreviations and a Glossary are included in the Front Matter of the report before the Summary. Chapter 2 provides an overview of the information-gathering strategy described in the interim report, including the methods used to identify target populations for surveys of state agencies and seed suppliers, and of semi-structured interviews of a sample of federal agency personnel.
Sitting at the end of the native seed supply chain are the users of native seed. They are a diverse group, with the federal government the largest. Chapter 3 focuses on the five agencies managing the most federal land. Chapter 4 explores the uses of native seed in state programs, and the activities surrounding that usage, through a survey of state staff discussing seed use, decision making, and concerns about the supply chain. Chapter 5 looks at native seed uses on tribal lands, along with a description of historical factors that affect tribal native seed capacities. Chapter 6 examines cooperative partnerships for native seed and plant development, some involving federal agencies, and others pursued at the state and regional levels. It also describes the effect of federal programs on the use of native seed on private lands. Seed suppliers, their activities, and their concerns are the focus of Chapter 7, with results from the survey of seed suppliers. Additional science is critical in support of restoration and seeds, and Chapter 8 discusses specific areas of basic and applied research that are needed to fully support the native seed supply. Chapter 9 provides important conclusions and overarching recommendations for actions to strengthen the native seed system.
The appendixes include committee biographies (Appendix 1); the federal agency interview tool (Appendix 2A); the state survey invitation letter (Appendix 2B), survey questions (Appendix 2C), and tabulated summary responses (Appendix 2D); the supplier invitation letter (Appendix 2E), survey questions (Appendix 2F), and tabulated summary responses (Appendix 2G); and the list of presentations made to the committee since the inception of the study over the years 2019–2022 (Appendix 2H).
Conclusion 1-1: Native seed needs are defined by both the characteristics of the seed desired by users for ecological restoration and other purposes, and by the overall goal that requires their use.
Conclusion 1-2: In 2002, the Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture put forward a plan for developing a native plant seed supply involving greater interagency coordination, partnerships with states and the private sector, and monitoring of restoration outcomes. Native seed shortages continue to be a barrier to restoration, and the aspirations of the plan, which is conceptually sound, have not been fulfilled.
Conclusion 1-3: The nation’s native seed needs depend on the native plant communities that are the source of seeds. There is urgency to the need for conserving the biodiversity that is present in existing native plant communities and, therefore, for building a native seed supply through seed collection, plant development, and restoration, because climate change, extreme events, and destructive human activities have put these genetically and ecologically valuable natural resources at increasing risk.
Conclusion 1-4: Because more than half of the land in 11 western states is under federal management, it is likely that federal seed purchases, especially after wildfires, have a major influence on the native seed industry in the western United States.
Conclusion 1-5: Recent congressional legislation and executive orders have provided an unprecedented opportunity to address the nation’s natural heritage on public lands.
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