The first section of this chapter provides a high-level view of what is driving native seed needs of the federal land-management agencies, the scale of the need, and how each agency is attempting to address those needs. The second part provides a summary of collective insights from individuals working in those agencies to shed light, from a boots-on-the-ground perspective, of the day-to-day challenges related to native seed used in ecological restoration and other purposes. The information in the first part is derived from public presentations by agency representatives and public information about agency activities. The second part is based on semi-structured interviews with agency personnel. The chapter ends with a discussion of the significance of the findings and the committee’s conclusions.
The Committee’s Interim Report identified the five largest federal land-management agencies with management responsibilities for more than 600 million acres (Table 3-1), the amount of land each manages, and provided a brief description of the mission of each agency. Each of these agencies makes direct purchases of native seed. The four largest agencies have a major environmental focus as part of their missions.
Bureau of Land Management
As its name implies, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM; within the Department of the Interior) is the federal government’s largest land manager and uses the largest quantities of native plant seed in the nation. Thus, it is particularly important to the Committee’s work. BLM manages extensive regions in the western states, and oversees approximately a tenth of the overall land area in the United States. Its mission directly relates to sustaining and utilizing natural resources on that land.
BLM’s Plant Conservation and Restoration Program (PCRP) operates out of the Bureau’s Resources and Planning Directorate to ensure that seeds are available for the projects of over 100 BLM field offices in 11 western states. Most of the seed purchased by BLM is through Consolidated Seed Buys which typically take place three or four times a year.1 The procurement process begins with the development of a list of seed types and amounts requested from the field offices, which is then put out for public bid. The winning bids are paid from a Working
1 Text was modified after the prepublication was released to correct number of BLM offices with seeding projects and the number of Consolidated Seed Buys annually.
|Bureau of Land Management (BLM)||244,391,312|
|US Forest Service (USFS)||192,919,130|
|US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)||89,205,999|
|National Park Service (NPS)||79,045,679|
|Department of Defense (DOD)||8,845,476|
|Total for Five Agencies||615,311,596|
Capital Fund, which is then reimbursed from field offices or other project-specific sources. The purchased seed is stored temporarily in one of BLM’s seed warehouses until used.
Native Seed and Wildfire
Wildland fire is the major driver for native seed needs for BLM, and for other federal land-management agencies, as well as for all state and tribal land in the West. As Table 3-2 shows, wildfire is a frequent occurrence and has significant impacts on all public and private lands in the West, with more than 9.5 million acres burned in 2020, and over 1.1 million on BLM land.
After wildfires, seeds are used to establish vegetation to stabilize and protect soils and assist the process of natural recovery. Because the number and severity of wildland fires vary from year to year, the total annual seed purchases from the Consolidated Seed Buys fluctuates annually, for example, from a high of 7.5 million pounds in 2007 to a low of approximately 300,000 pounds in 2009. BLM estimates that on average, 2.4 million pounds of pure
|All Lands||BLM Lands|
SOURCE: Public Land Statistics 2020, Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management. Available at https://www.blm.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2021-08/PublicLandStatistics2020_1.pdf (accessed February 9, 2023).
live seed are purchased each year through this process, at an average annual cost of $20 million. About 30–40 seed suppliers each year respond to the Consolidated Seed Buys (Ricardo Galvin, presentation to the committee).
In a presentation to the committee, Molly Anthony, the Program Lead for the BLM Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation (ESR) program noted that in 2020, the field offices of the ESR program purchased $14.9 million in seed and conducted post-fire seeding on over 422,000 acres of burnt land. Anthony explained to the committee the institutional limitations on the effectiveness of post-fire emergency stabilization and rehabilitation, which accounts for fully two-thirds of BLM seed procurement. Seed purchases for this program are dependent on funds allocated for the current fiscal year, not future years. Further, federal spending rules curtail purchasing for the current year in a black-out period before September 30, the end of the federal fiscal year, even though most seeding is conducted in fall. These institutional restrictions limit the capacity for advance planning and procurement and make the program dependent on seed supplies that are already in warehouses or commercially available. In turn, desired seeds are often unavailable, and substitutions of less-desired seeds are common.
Seeds purchased through the Consolidated Seed Buys are grasses, forbs (small flowering plants that are not grasses), and shrubs. The major portion of seed purchases is grasses, of which more than half (by weight) of seed requests from field offices have been for native species. In contrast, the large majority (by weight) of forb seed purchases are of non-native species. Field office requests for native forbs have exceeded what is provided in the purchases. Purchases of shrub seed (mainly related to sagebrush) are about two-thirds native (Patricia Roller, personal communication, based on historical BLM seed purchase data).
Seed Transfer Zones and Source-Identified Seed
BLM does not have an agency-wide requirement that seed purchased by the field offices be native plant seed, although its Best Management Practices call for the use native seed of known origin when available (BLM, 2008)2 and its use is encouraged by program offices, such as the ESR unit. The PCRP would prefer that field offices request and buy native, certified Source-Identified (SI) seed, for which the geographic location of the origins of the seed was verified by an official seed certification agency. Having that information increases the likelihood of selecting a seed type from a location or “seed transfer zone”3 that is appropriate for where it will be used, using guidance developed by the US Geological Survey, US Forest Service (USFS), and other research agencies that have studied the genetics of plant species across the landscape.
However, it is unlikely that the field offices will or can meet this preference. In 2020, BLM field units purchased 1.4 million pounds of grasses, 220,000 pounds of forbs, and 110,000 pounds of shrub seed. Of these seeds, about one-eighth of the grasses, one-fourth of the forbs, and two-thirds of the shrubs were native SI seed (BLM Seed Purchase data). The rest of the seed was either non-native seed or seed of released native germplasms or cultivars.4
It is quite possible that the type of seed desired by the field offices is simply not available from suppliers, so buyers have had to accept substitutions, as Anthony described. However, the choices made between different types of seed (native vs. non-native, grass vs. forb, cultivar vs. source-identified) also appear correlated with the costs per pound of these types, so price is likely to be a factor in the decision making of BLM field offices.
Proactive Stockpiling of Native, Source-Identified Seed with the IDIQ
The PCRP has no authority to require that field offices purchase native seed or native SI seed, and until recently, has had no budget with which to stock BLM warehouses with native, SI seed in advance of post-fire operations and other uses. However, in 2018, BLM created a seed production component of its Working Capital Fund and established an Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) procurement vehicle designed to streamline
2 The text was modified after the prepublication release to clarify the BLM policy on the use of native plant seed.
3 Seed transfer zones are geographically distinct areas within which seeds can be sourced and introduced with low risk of maladaptation (Bower et al., 2014; Breed et al., 2013), and minimal loss of biodiversity (Malaval et al., 2010).
4 Most of the native releases are genetically non-manipulated (not created through selection or breeding), but due to their greater availability and less expensive pricing in the marketplace, they are often planted in geographic areas not matching their geographic source; that is, they originate from a different seed transfer zone than the one where they will be used.
contracting for seed increases.5 As a result, contracts were awarded to produce SI seed collected by the BLM Seeds of Success program (discussed in Chapter 6), with a focus on native grasses and forbs from six ecoregions.6
The goal of the program is for the seed increases to be completed over 3–5 years, and then stored in the BLM warehouses for future purchase by field offices when needed. Currently, there are six suppliers holding IDIQ contracts and the award has a 5-year cap at $49 million total, significantly less than the approximately $20 million average each year spent on the Consolidated Seed Purchases.
It is a significant first step toward the proactive stockpiling of native seed to meet the Bureau’s needs. Between 2019 and 2021, purchases through the IDIQ included 42 species and 94 combinations of taxa and seed zones, of which approximately 94,200 pounds of seed are expected to be delivered in the next 3 years (PCA, 2022). Anne Halford, BLM Idaho State Botanist, told the committee that the IDIQ contract structure is meant to increase the supply of priority native forbs and so-called workhorse species (widespread, quickly establishing, native plant species) for targeted seed zones. She stated that about 85 percent of BLM’s seeds are used in three7 seed zones in the Great Basin. That fact, she noted, underscores the importance of improving seed source protection of the wild plant populations that exist in these seed zones, and for collection of seeds from these areas for seed banking and future increase.
The IDIQ initiative is promising, though it is unclear at this stage how far the initiative can be expanded to meet the Bureau’s growing needs. In addition, if BLM were able to upscale native seed and plant material supplies, the current National Seed Warehouse System would soon be inadequate in terms of physical climate-controlled capacity, staff, and expertise. Currently, BLM has two major warehouses, one staffed, state seed warehouse in Boise, Idaho, and the other in Ely, Nevada, which combined can accommodate 2.6 million pounds of seed (Patricia Roller, BLM, presentation to the committee). There is some refrigerated storage space at the Ely site. The Ely warehouse was not staffed earlier in 2022 (BLM, personal communication).
Other Needs for Native Seed Within BLM
Although post-wildfire stabilization and long-term rehabilitation purchases the most seed through the BLM seed procurement processes, there are several other important units that also need seed to fulfill their targeted missions in BLM, including accompanying fuels reduction; wildlife habitat, including pollinators; forest and riparian areas; rangeland; recreation; mines; oil and gas wells; and other energy development.
In a presentation to the committee, Anne Halford, BLM Botanist in Idaho, emphasized the different ways in which plant conservation and restoration activities contribute to revenue generation for the Department of the Interior and BLM, from the $23 million in recreation fees in 2017 that brought visitors to witness the “super bloom” of native wildflowers, to supporting the preferred native habitat for fish and game species on which $348 million is spent annually, and the increased productivity of rangeland on which ranchers in the West rely.
An important consideration related to the current biodiversity crisis is the ecosystem value of native plant communities as food and shelter for the iconic sage-grouse or other rare species. Plant materials are also needed to address orphaned oil and gas wells on federal lands, for which BLM has taken the lead with remediation funds of $250 million in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.8 There are massive numbers of orphaned wells in the country
5 The text was modified after the prepublication release to clarify that the Working Capital Fund can support the IDIQ but the two are not intrinsically linked.
6 The Environmental Protection Agency (Omernik, 1987) created a map of ecosystems (ecoregions) across the United States defined by major differences in geography and climate. Subsequent refinements of the map have led to more discrete ecoregions.
7 Development of a climate-smart restoration tool led researchers to suggest combining provisional seed zones for sagebrush in the Great Basin into three zones, making it easier to source seed appropriate for the Great Basin region.
8 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (Bipartisan Infrastructure Law), see https://www.blm.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2021-05/Congressional_20210415_HR2415.pdf (accessed February 9, 2023).
(over 130,000 by one estimate9) that dot the national landscape (see Figure 3-1). The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) includes $4.4 billion for the Department of the Interior to provide grants to the tribes, states, and private landowners to plug the wells and restore the soil and habitat, at an average cost of $25,000 per well pad. One study estimated that to address the 1 to 4 percent of west Texas land with well pads and pipelines between now and 2050 would require between 247,000 and 1,330,000 pounds of seed of native grasses valued between $10 million and $57 million (Smith et al., 2020).
US Forest Service
The mission of the USFS (within the US Department of Agriculture) is to sustainably manage national forest land for multiple uses. The agency also supports management of forest land under private, state, and tribal ownership. Trees species are the major focus of the agency’s seed collection, development, and seedling production activities, but in the last decade that has expanded to include grasses and forbs.
Wildfire and Restoration Needs
Like BLM, wildfire is driving the restoration needs of the USFS. In 2020, the USFS Pacific Northwest Region 6, home to 17 National Forests across Oregon and Washington, experienced the worst fire season in a century. According to a Rapid Assessment Team10 report evaluating the Slater Fire in the Rogue River-Siskiyou
9 See https://iogcc.ok.gov/sites/g/files/gmc836/f/documents/2022/iogcc_idle_and_orphan_wells_2021_final_web_0.pdf (accessed February 9, 2023).
10 See https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd887614.pdf (accessed February 9, 2023).
National Forest, a half million acres of USFS-managed land was burned by wildfires in 2020. Seventy-five percent of the trees in the core fire area (about 200,000 acres) were killed. The report said the event would “more than double our existing reforestation needs in the region and will put a strain on seed or seedling availability for some forests.” The report added that the USFS Region 6 Geneticist (Vicky Erickson) had already reached out to develop agreements with other land-management agencies from which seed might be used or purchased and was working with other USFS geneticists to identify genetically appropriate tree seed sources that might be acquired.
The pressing need for an adequate supply of tree seeds for restoration after wildfire is reminiscent of the challenges that BLM faces annually. The USFS has generally preferred to allow burned forest to recover naturally and has previously lacked the resources to address its 4-million-acre backlog in reforestation needs—the USFS estimates that only 6 percent of current reforestation needs are met annually.11 In 2017, the agency reported that more than half of its budget (including non-fire programs) was used to fight wildfires.12 In the wake of two extreme fire years, in January 2022, the USFS released Confronting the Wildfire Crisis Strategy, a 10-year plan to dramatically increase fuels removal and forest health activities on millions of forested acres, which was followed in July 2022 by the National Forest System Reforestation Strategy, a plan to address the reforestation deficit (see Box 3-1).
Seed Acquisition through the BPA
To address seed needs, Region 6 has in-house capacity for tree production at the Clarno Propagation Center, and production of conifer trees, grasses, and other plant types at the J. Herbert Stone Nursery. Because many more trees and other native plants will be needed, production and other activities will need to be scaled up to engage many more public and private nurseries and growers.13 In a presentation to the committee, Erickson said Region 6 uses a Blanket Purchase Agreement (BPA) to commission this work, having switched from an IDIQ in 2017. The advantages of the BPA over the IDIQ it used previously included no up-front obligations, a higher dollar spending limit ($10 million), and the ability to add new vendors over the 10-year term of the agreement. She added that the USFS BPA is available to other federal agencies, and overall provides a relatively fast and easy mechanism for accessing vetted contractors and quickly obligating funds as they become available.
11 See https://www.usda.gov/sites/default/files/documents/reforestation-strategy.pdf (accessed February 9, 2023).
12 See https://www.fs.usda.gov/sites/default/files/fy-2017-fs-budget-overview.pdf (accessed February 9, 2023).
13 See https://www.americanforests.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Ramping-Up-Reforestation_FINAL.pdf (accessed February 9, 2023).
Work orders under the BPA list grow-out specifications for each species. The pool of qualified growers can submit proposals on a one-page form. Seed stock is provided by the agency, either collected on USFS land by agency staff or via contracting, following guidelines for obtaining genetic diversity and recording of the collection site data. Growers are normally paid per pound, but per-acre prices can be used for higher-risk species or small quantities. Production data are maintained to guide future seed increase. Compared with previous contract structures, Erickson said the BPA is better in recruiting good producers (though there are still not enough of them), being flexible and fast, reducing risk to producers, maintaining quality control, and building expertise. The USFS uses its BPA to contract for a wide range of services, such as invasive plant treatment, cone collection, monitoring, and other tasks.14
Erickson noted that an important goal is for seed production to benefit rural economies, both through long-term partnerships for the USFS and through secondary markets (commercial seed sales). For example, the White River National Forest in Colorado initiated a native grass seed development program through collections and increases that ultimately resulted in the release of certified SI seed of two grass species (slender wheatgrass and mountain brome) to commercial suppliers in Colorado, which are now able to grow these grass species in large quantities to sell to private landowners and to land-management agencies.
The USFS has an institutional policy directing the National Forests to cooperate in developing and using native plants. However, each National Forest has decision-making autonomy and its own priorities. Forests vary in their approach to native seeds. Region 6 has a national reputation for a well-functioning native plant and genetics program that plays a strong advisory role to the National Forests in its region, which includes developing projections of seed needs in the National Forests as the climate changes, assisting in the collection of seed from the National Forests, and the processing, storage, and planting of seeds and seedlings. The USFS does not have large seed warehouses like BLM, but in Region 6 there is some ambient storage at the Bend Seed Extractory (in Bend, Oregon), which is a seed cleaning and conditioning facility that extracts conifer seeds from their cones and cleans the smaller, tiny seeds of more than 3,500 other native plant species prior to seed viability testing. The Bend facility is available to clean seed for other public agencies and is the seed cleaning facility of choice for the BLM Seeds of Success (SOS) program.
US Fish and Wildlife Service
The USFWS (within the US Department of the Interior) currently holds title to the chair position of the Federal Committee of the Plant Conservation Alliance and participates in many activities that contribute to the fulfillment of the National Seed Strategy. The USFWS administers the National Wildlife Refuge System, consisting of more than 560 wildlife refuges and administers the Endangered Species Act of 1973. A key regulatory and advisory function of the USFWS is carried out through consultations with public and private entities to moderate activities that might affect threatened and endangered species (TES) of plants and animals.
The Service uses native seeds for conservation activities, such as developing pollinator habitat, and conducting post-wildfire restoration, and invasive species removal in the refuges. The Service frequently works in partnership with other public and private organizations to carry out its activities related to protecting habitat. It uses voluntary conservation easements on private lands and other tools to assemble conservation areas to unite fragmented habitat and can acquire land and easements through the Land and Conservation Fund, which was recently bolstered with an annual appropriation of $900 million through the Great American Outdoors Act. In addition to wildlife, many native plants are themselves TES. There are 876 plants on the federal TES list that the Service seeks to conserve.
Wildfire and Climate Change Threats
Unlike the BLM and USFS, the National Wildlife Refuges are not concentrated in the West but spread across the entirety of the Unites States. More wildfires occur each year in the Midwest and the eastern United States (35,000 in 2021) but at much smaller scale (1.0 million acres) than in the West (23,000 fires, 6.2 million acres) (CRS, 2022).
14 This section was modified to clarify that the USFS BPA is being compared to its previously used IDIQ, not the BLM IDIQ.
The USFWS reports that 398,000 acres of land under its management burn annually on average, but also notes that a large proportion of the wildlife refuges are fire adapted, that is, their ecosystems have evolved along with periodic, moderate fires that play a role in habitat regeneration and maintaining a balanced ecology. The Service conducts prescribed fires on many refuges as a fire management tool. It also carries out post-fire, Burned Area Rehabilitation (BAR) projects on the refuges in partnership with other organizations and volunteers that assist in the production and installation of native plants, seeding, and other rehabilitation activities. One example is the current activity on the Keālia Pond National Wildlife Refuge following the 2019 central Maui fire, in which the USFWS has commissioned a local nursery to produce “1000 native plants per month for the next three years” to be installed by Americorp volunteers on a weekly basis.
Just as wildfire is challenging, so are the daunting and complex impacts of climate change to the National Wildlife Refuges, given the variation and degrees of impact of climate change that will be unique to each refuge. The Service is adopting a Resist-Accept-Transition framework to help it chart a management course, that among other decisions, will affect its habitat restoration and TES decisions, both with implications for native plant seed and materials.
USFWS Partnerships in Support of Native Seed
The total amount of seed and plant materials procured across all the National Wildlife Refuges used for BAR projects or other, non-fire-related restoration projects is unknown, in part because the activities are widely distributed. The Department of the Interior (DOI) has received $325 million over 5 years (2021–2026) to expand BAR activities on lands of all the DOI federal land-management agencies.
The USFWS does not have its own seed production or storage facilities but does contract for seed collection on the National Refuges, uses the seed banking capacity of botanical gardens, such as through the Center for Plant Conservation, and collaborates with different nurseries, depending on the project, such as the Southern Highlands Reserve, for the collection and propagation of red spruce.
In 2022, the USFWS announced that $2 million in funds from the 2021 BIL will help it launch collaborative activities for the collection of native seed following SOS protocols. Notably, in partnership with the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative, the Service will collect and bank seed from across 10 states in the southeastern United States in a new SOS-Southeast program.
National Park Service
The NPS (within the Department of the Interior) manages over 400 individual parks, monuments, and other units with the mission of conserving these natural and historic lands and their wildlife to make these available for future generations. According to NPS Management Policy, Chapter 4, the Parks “will try to maintain all the components and processes of naturally evolving park ecosystems, including the natural abundance, diversity, and genetic and ecological integrity of the plant and animal species native to those ecosystems.”15
National Parks in the western United States are increasingly at risk for high-severity fires. In 2020, 30,000 acres burned in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, killing more than 7,500 sequoia trees, about 10 percent of the sequoias in the Sierra Nevada. The 2021 Dixie Fire, the largest single wildfire in California history, burned almost a million acres, of which 73,240 acres were in Lassen Volcanic National Park. In 2022 wildfires occurred in Yosemite and Yellowstone, and a wildfire of 18,000 acres in New Mexico threatened Bandelier National Monument and Valles Calder National Preserve. Such events are wholesale change to forest management by reintroducing low-level fire into these landscapes.
15 Page 46, NPS Management Policy, see https://www.nps.gov/subjects/policy/upload/MP_2006.pdf (accessed February 9, 2023).
Native Seed Use
The National Parks use native seed for roadside seeding, revegetation, erosion control, and wildlife habitat. Most seed used in National Parks is collected from the parks by staff and increased by growers under a BPA. The committee could find no source of information on the total scale of use by the National Parks, which operate as independent units. One estimate was that cost of seed collection and increase at a National Park would be approximately $1 million annually, while commercial purchase of native seed will not likely exceed $10,000. SI seed is preferred, and non-native seed is never used. In some cases, Parks have seed-sharing agreements with surrounding counties. In addition, in the past, National Parks have relied on the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Plant Materials Centers (PMCs) for small increases of seed collected from the parks, and for their ability to help growers produce native plants.
Department of Defense
The DOD does not have a direct environmental mission but manages nearly 9 million acres of land in over 440 military installations in the United States (and many more overseas). DOD lands play a significant and perhaps outsized role in maintaining regional and global biodiversity. Many DOD sites contain significant habitats and surviving populations of species in decline or extirpated from other public lands, and over 500 federally listed TES of plants and animals, and at least as many that are considered at risk, more than on any other federal lands. Additionally, the Army Corps of Engineers maintains more than 600 dams, 12,000 miles of commercially navigable inland waterways, and harbors. Much of the Corps’ work impacts federal and all other lands, and contributes to the demands on the native seed supply in ways that are significant to this report but are not specifically quantified here.
The DOD has different internal authorities for the use of native seed on military installations, for example, one for remediating disturbances caused by training activities, and another for natural ecological restoration, thus, the size of projects varies greatly. Natural resource managers at the installations operate under the framework of the Sikes Act,16 passed in 1960, to ensure conservation of fish, wildlife, and natural resources on military lands in the context of ongoing military operations. The Act requires that a collaborative 5-year Integrated Natural Resource Management Plan (INRMP) be developed between installations and the Department of the Interior, typically the USFWS. The INRMP is updated annually and contains a limited number of projects.
Wildfire and Climate Change
The INRMP provides a source of budgetary predictability to the trajectory of restoration activities. However, different sources of funding within DOD are used to address impacts of wildfire, flooding, and other natural disasters each year. Some projects are supported by funds from the USFWS and other agencies. The DOD has developed guidance for its natural resource managers with respect to the incorporation of climate adaptation in the INRMP that incorporates planning, risk assessment, evaluation of implications of options, and adaptive management, including monitoring and adjustment (Stein et al., 2019).
Military installations obtain seed in several ways, including purchases from the commercial market and commissioned collections of seed from installations for both direct use and increase. Because the INRMP is a 5-year plan, advance preparations can be made to acquire seed when needed; however, because some military bases are ecologically unique, some seed types are not available on the commercial market. The DOD has one native seed nursery, on O’ahu, Hawaii, at the Makua Military Reservation.
16 16 US Code § 670 et seq., as amended.
The collective view of the native seed activities of the five large land-management agencies is that of a diversity of approaches to acquiring and using native seed. One key attribute shared by all the federal land agencies is the distributed nature of their decision-making structures. The BLM Field Offices, USFS National Forests, USFWS Refuges, each National Park in the NPS, and individual DOD military bases are the units that ultimately determine seed needs and how to respond to them, what species to use, how much to purchase, and how to implement restoration and revegetation. The federal land agencies also resemble one another in facing several common threats to their natural resource base, in particular the growing frequency and severity of wildfires. Because fires cross jurisdictional boundaries, there is a history of interagency collaboration on projects related to wildfire.
Beyond these similarities, there are also considerable differences among the agencies that are reflected in divergent patterns of procurement and use of native seeds. The USFWS, National Parks, and military bases are focused on activities related to ecological restoration, are generally oriented toward the use of genetically appropriate native seed, and pursue their needs on a project-by-project basis. These agencies appear to have the leeway to seek native seed proactively, or at least to have a longer planning horizon for obtaining the specific native seeds needed for their projects. The INRMP process used by military installations is an example; one of its key features is a strong role for scientific guidance, in that military bases are required to have the oversight of the USFWS on their seed choices. The partnership of the USFWS with local nurseries to provide plants and volunteer organizations to conduct restoration activities also suggest that such projects are implemented through relationship building over time.
In contrast, the two large multiple-use land agencies, USFS and BLM, are concerned with ensuring a supply of seed for a variety of needs. The USFS, with its history of forest commodity production, has developed in-house capacity to meet its own needs for plant materials for ecological restoration (as well as for reforestation) in at least some regions. It is also committed as an agency to ecosystem-based management and has a hard requirement rather than a soft guideline to use genetically appropriate native species in restoration, so the use of non-natives and cultivars in USFS is minimal. Burned forests are allowed to regenerate naturally in many cases.
BLM is committed to a wider range of land uses than USFS, with a greater emphasis on livestock grazing, energy and mineral production, recreation, and other uses, in addition to wildlife conservation and other ecosystem-based activities. Because BLM manages enormous areas of sagebrush, where novel large wildfires made possible by the introduction of cheatgrass are threatening irreversible loss of habitat for sage-grouse and other wildlife, BLM faces a tremendous need to implement post-fire restoration to protect endangered animal species. However, ecological restoration activities within BLM are generally highly intertwined in practice with other activities such as improving forage for livestock. There are no programs within BLM dedicated to ecological restoration as the primary goal, as opposed to being an aspect of programs dedicated to other uses of the land. The expert advisory function is also weakest within BLM; for example, some of its field units and state offices have restoration ecologists, but many do not.
It is very difficult to get a clear picture of the extent of ecological restoration that is pursued by each agency on an acreage basis. The BAR program offers the opportunity to pursue plant community restoration a year or more after a fire, but it is not clear how much restoration has been supported (recognizing that BAR funds have been very limited until they were recently increased through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law).
Finally, although each of the agencies is working toward building the stocks of native plant seed for their respective needs, their activities do not clearly relate to the methodical fulfillment of the plan put forth to Congress in 2002 to provide for a native plant supply to meet emergency stabilization and longer-term rehabilitation.
This summary of the seed needs of federal land-management agencies is a high-level overview of the current and potential magnitude of native seed uses, and reveals, in part, the directions in which the agencies, or parts of them, are moving with respect to native seed use and capacities. To broaden its understanding of the decision-making process of the agencies, the committee wanted to obtain the bottom-up perspective of agency staff who carry out activities related to native seed use, native seed and plant materials development, research, restoration, and other work.
|Purpose of Use|
|Creation or restoration of wildlife habitat (other than pollinator habitat)|
|Pollinator habitat projects|
|Stream erosion mitigation or restoration|
|Restorative activity on land in a wilderness or natural area|
|Invasive species suppression|
|Natural disaster recovery|
|Energy development remediation|
|Green strips (vegetative fuel breaks)|
The Committee used a series of semi-structured interviews of personnel from the five major federal agencies that make direct seed purchases. Each respondent talked about the specifics of typical projects involving the use of native seed. This information helped inform the Committee’s understanding of the process, and the diversity of paths used in developing and funding a project, selecting and obtaining native seeds for use in that project, and understanding whether the project goals were met. In this section we provide a summary of key topics raised in those interviews. Appendix 2A contains the protocol for the interviews.
These semi-structured interviews of staff from five federal agencies used a somewhat similar line of questions to those asked in the survey of state agency personnel (see Chapter 4). This proved to be difficult to administer because of the widely divergent roles of federal agency staff, which ranged from researchers to natural resource specialists, with many job titles and work locations. The interviews did provide insights about projects within these agencies including the approval process and contracting methods used in purchasing seed, how the seed supplier was identified and selected, and whether the projects had follow-on activities to monitor survival. However, it is important to stress that this process looked at a snapshot of projects with a relatively small number of participants in federal native seed activities and is not considered comprehensive and conclusions should not be drawn to reflect opinions across these agencies.
A list of possible uses of native seeds (Table 3-3) was read to agency staff. They were asked if they had used native seed for any of those purposes in their work.
From the list given to them, no respondent identified green infrastructure as an activity for which native seed was used. But for all other purposes, native seed was used. However, the committee notes that the Army Corps of Engineers, which is increasingly focusing on mitigating the impacts of climate change, stages many projects on and off federal lands that include at least a component of green infrastructure; for many of these efforts, native plant materials are required (Windhoffer et al., 2022). Agency staff noted that leaseholders of grazing permits on federal land were responsible for carrying out agency management prescriptions, which may include seeding activities, with a list of approved plants. It was also pointed out by some respondents that restoration, as a matter of their agency’s policy, is conducted on natural areas but not in the wilderness.
When asked for the most common application for using native seeds, the answers included
- Rehabilitation to prevent soil erosion and non-native grass incursion
- Wildlife habitat restoration of invaded habitats, pollinator habitat restoration
- Range improvement and rehabilitation
- Natural disaster recovery including post-wildfire restoration
- Restoration after disturbance (construction projects, military drills, etc.)
- Stream restoration for native salmon
The typical sizes of projects mentioned ranged from one acre to tens of thousands of acres. The amount of funds spent annually ranged from “no more than $5,000” to more than $1,000,000, which included the cost of seed. Most respondents did not have a good estimate for the amount they spent on seed annually. Topics that arose during various interviews with agency personnel, and some of their observations, can be summarized as follows:
- The populations of native plant communities on land under agency control are important as a supply of seeds for future restoration needs.
- There appears to be a lack of interest by some decision makers in the agencies to pursue ecological restoration relative to other priorities.
- There is a benefit to having a planning horizon of 3 to 5 years, which enables seed to be acquired (or wild collected and increased) and projects implemented according to plans. This allows the ability to anticipate and budget for seed needs annually.
- The typical duration of monitoring the outcome of seeding projects was 2–3 years, though experimental projects (which tended to be smaller in scale) are monitored indefinitely.
- Success in restoration and rehabilitation projects was frequently defined as the amount of “coverage” resulting from the seeding, but this metric may not capture the progressive structure of successful native plant restoration.
- Funding obtained from multiple sources, including grants, funds from the USFWS, and Pollinator Pathways and other sources enable projects that would not happen otherwise. There is no shortage of projects that needed native seed if funding could be found.
- Cooperative efforts exist among botanists, as a group, to prioritize, collect, and develop supplies of seed of non-workhorse species on an annual basis.
- There is a need for more wild collections and increases of native seed to bring more species into use for restoration projects.
- There are labor shortages throughout the agencies, in nurseries, as scouts, and in all manner of fieldwork.
- There is a need for expertise in botany and ecology to inform seed selection and restoration success in different applications. Sources of expertise include the USFWS, PMCs, university extension, and seed producers. Botanists are not equally distributed in all units and regions of the individual agencies.
- There is a need for growers specializing in native plant production for specific environments (e.g., high altitudes or arid) and a need for more growers generally.
- There is a need for more long-term monitoring of restoration efforts to better assess the performance of various natives.
- The performance of natives is not consistent, nor is it de facto accepted as superior by everyone.
- There is some ambiguity about the definition of “local” when purchasing seed from the commercial market. Not all seed purchased is certified Source-Identified.
The personnel interviewed for this chapter generally expressed satisfaction in the outcome of their seeding projects. Although not necessarily reflective of all personnel in the land-management agencies, many of the interviewees described, as a natural part of their work, how they pieced together different sources of funds to pursue their projects—funds from different authorities within their agencies, funds from other agencies, and funds from external partners, which supported the committee’s perception of the lack of dedicated program funding for ecological restoration of native plant communities. The committee observed that native plant communities are the source of seed that underpins many of the activities for which public land is managed, from wildlife habitat creation to
oil and gas well pad rehabilitation—and that a central function of land management should elevate the protection and restoration of plant communities.
The committee heard from advocacy groups who commented on BLM challenges in meeting seed needs for restoration. Representatives from Defenders of Wildlife said that there is no single institutional unit that has a budgetary mandate and responsibility for undertaking plant conservation and restoration in BLM, which leads to inadequate long-term planning and accountability for outcomes of seed projects. Advocates from the Western Watersheds Coalition added the need for stronger policy direction to preserve seed sources, perhaps using the Areas of Critical Environmental Concern designation. These speakers described USFS as being more effective in restoration than BLM and attributed this to USFS’ adoption of a strong ecosystem management paradigm.
Staff from some but not all agencies pointed out difference in attitudes among decision makers about native seeds, which were attributed to reliance on past practices, or strongly held ideas of what works and what does not, and, with limited funds and time, no inclination to change. All noted that there was much more to be done than funds available. Despite many challenges, agency personnel were optimistic given new federal legislation related to the conservation, restoration, and reforestation of public lands. The personnel interviewed expressed both dedication to land management and concern for the natural resources on public land.
Conclusion 3-1: The federal government is a major user of native seed, and its uses of native seed have many purposes along the continuum from restoration to rehabilitation and revegetation. Approaches to seed acquisition differ among federal agencies, and these are focused on providing for immediate needs.
Conclusion 3-2: The federal land-management agencies are not prepared to provide the native seed necessary to respond to the increasing frequency and severity of wildfire and impacts of climate change. If this challenge is to be met, the agencies will need to move quickly toward an expanded, proactive effort to develop a supply of native seeds for emergency stabilization and long-term ecological restoration.
Conclusion 3-3: Existing native plant communities on public lands that are managed for multiple uses are an essential resource for developing a native seed supply, but those plant communities are at risk, and their conservation has not been a priority relative to other uses.
Conclusion 3-4: Developing reliable seed supplies for ecological restoration is an achievable goal for large federal agencies, but one that demands substantial institutional commitment to elevating restoration to a high-priority objective, cultivating and empowering ecological expertise to inform their decision making, and creating sustainable funding streams for restoration that support agency personnel to carry out planning, successful implementation, and learning from experience.
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