Year after year, the West continues to suffer from harsher wildfire seasons and drought. How is this affecting the forests? What can be done to reforest acreage lost to climate catastrophes? What is needed to bring back trees? Matthew Aghai is the senior director of biological research and development at DroneSeed, a company focusing on reforestation. He joins us with more on these issues and the difficulties of seed supply.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. After a catastrophic forest fire, trees often won’t grow back without human help. But that takes seeds, lots and lots of them. And there is a growing fear among land managers that we’re not collecting enough of them to do the job. Matthew Aghai is in the thick of this. He is the senior director of biological research and development at DroneSeed. That’s a Seattle based company focused on reforestation. He’s also interim general manager of Silvaseed which collects processes and sells seeds. He was featured in a great recent article in National Geographic and he joins us now. Matthew Aghai, welcome.

Matthew Aghai: Thanks so much, Dave. Glad to be here.

Miller: You have described the way trees reproduce as a numbers game. What does that mean?

Aghai: They produce a high volume of seed, when they can. And that turns over into just a few trees around them. It’s been described as seed rain. So effectively, if a tree is producing a lot of crops or a lot of cones, a million seeds may fall to the ground over the year. A million of those may distill down to 100,000 that landed in the right place at the right time. Maybe 50,000 of those might germinate. Maybe 100 of those will survive the predation of insects and all the other critters that want to chew on them and maybe 50 will survive to put a root down. Maybe 10 will survive to grow its first needles, and maybe five will survive to turn into a mature seedling. And the rest is just a matter of chance and forest vegetation dynamics to see if it will grow into a mature tree. This happens at a fairly irregular rate. That’s both an evolutionary strategy to avoid some of these risks, but also to take advantage of the right environmental conditions.

Miller: Meaning, say, every three or four or whatever years, that’s when you’d get a huge cone drop?

Aghai: That’s right. Some trees produce more regularly. They may produce every year if they’re stressed; it’s a strategy to reproduce before they’re facing some [type of] certain mortality. But, from a population standpoint, there are these bumper crops that occur on these irregular cycles, across the many different species and ecotypes. So for instance, this last year we had a ponderosa pine mast that was absolutely phenomenal. It spread across several, what are known as distinct, genetic populations of ponderosa pine across several states – maybe even half the continent. That was really a sight to behold. Every tree was hanging rich with these cones, and that might not happen again for another five or more years.

Miller: Am I right that, if we found [one of] these cones at some point, say now or two months from now, on the side of the road, it no longer has a viable seed to grow a new ponderosa pine – the time has passed?

Aghai: That’s right, there’s a very small window. What you’d be finding now could be put into the “decorative cone” category. It’s already opened up; it’s no longer tightly binding that seed inside of it, inside that waxy cone. It has already likely been blown around by the wind or bumped around on the ground, and that seed has been dispersed. That tight window can last two weeks, four weeks… depending on elevation, depending on how hot it is any given year or how cool it is and where the cone is positioned: north side of the tree, in a valley, top of a ridge. There’s a lot of dynamics there.

Miller: I’m curious what the numbers game you described, which is the result of millions of years of evolution, what that looks like in the face of climate-change-induced drought and mega fires.


Aghai: Yeah, I think what it means for us is that we need to think about every creative, ingenuitive, technological solution to kind of help nature along. Because after millions of years of evolution, now we are creating, let’s call it climate conditions and local weather patterns that are outside of the norm and maybe even outside of the evolved norm. So, absent migrating seed to new areas and hoping for the best and waiting decades for those results, the best thing we can do is collect high volumes of seed and then use those technological and creative solutions to effectively assist with the regeneration of these species. That’s called artificial regeneration, and that’s really why we’re focused on this as both DroneSeed and Silvaseed. We started as a venture that was just working on aerial seeding using seed enablement technology to assist with accessing remote areas that had been burned after fire to help with reforestation. But now we’ve expanded to capture other elements of the supply chain including seed collection and seedling production. We’re going to apply that same innovation ingenuity and really venture back scalability to the conventional side of reforestation as well and try to create a pathway to basically push back and be more effective at that numbers game.

Miller: This gets us to a trip that you took recently to the Deschutes National Forest near Sisters that was written about in that National Geographic article I mentioned. What was the purpose of the trip?

Aghai: Oh man, aside from having one heck of an adventure and a lot of fun in the forest, it was work. Basically our survey, which spans from late spring into the summer, is an opportunity for us to go out and look for cones. That survey process is effectively looking for those bumper crop situations, the mast across populations. It’s looking for maybe individual opportunities [such as] a small stand of trees that has cones. And we do something like collect some of them – whether it’s a little bit of climbing or low hanging fruit that we’re able to grab – and we cut the cones, and we look for embryos, and we look for them to ripen. That particular trip was a repeat, meaning we had come back after a survey knowing that there was a big population or a mast there. We worked to get permits with the local rangers and we set our collectors loose. The collectors, in that particular case, used a low impact technique which is age old; they’re effectively following squirrels and looking for squirrel cache where they can take a portion of that and bushel it up for taking it back to our extractary. [There] we clean the seed, process it and bank it for later redistribution.

Miller: You went with a long-time seed collector named Don Grandorff. What did you learn from him? I get the sense he’s been doing this for more than four decades and is a real expert at [chuckles] thinking like a squirrel maybe. But what was it like to watch him work?

Aghai: This is one of those things that I really love about the field of forestry wildland management. You can be the smartest, most degreed and most capable scientist, but that person who has been living and breathing the woods for decades more may have this approach and nuanced understanding that no data has been collected on yet. Don is one of those people. He was very forthright and allowed us to see some of his techniques, and they were really special. He sat us down on a log at one point and had us watch a squirrel run a cone that was like four times its size across a log, kind of look around and make sure no one was looking – of course we were – and then run down this little skid path, because it’d been going back and forth so many times, into a little cache. I had never witnessed that. I had read about it, but I hadn’t patiently sat and looked for that particular behavior. He said he’ll sit there for a whole half-day and look at these things and observe and then look for these trails. That type of anecdote turns into an opportunity for him and then for the rest of us who benefit from the raiding of that squirrel cache. And of course there are other things; that’s just a nice element of that. He also has a lot of experience with actually observing which trees might be the best to have this moderate approach to picking from, meaning low hanging branches with cones, [and] areas that might be more fruitful than others meaning particular valleys or waterways or ridgway’s. And of course he’s been doing it so long, he just has a good knack for it and can recruit populations of his friends from his communities to come along, and it’s a social thing as far as I can tell.

Miller: Seeds are a finite resource. If you take enough from an area that you could actually have a good enough chance to replant somewhere else, have you necessarily taken too many from that original area?

Aghai: Yeah, I think there is not really a risk that we’re going to take too much. That nature-based solution – meaning that evolved solution – means that so much seed is being produced and put out there that I don’t think,  unless we scale this up in a way that I don’t see happening for the next decade, we will never really make an impact in a way that the forest would feel it. Also, there is a variety of collection techniques that are employed that are very low impact and sustainable. Whether raiding caches [or] tree climbing, it’s like picking fruit, and it’s done in a way that doesn’t harm the trees or the forest. Also the purpose of the survey and then a lot of what we’re developing at Silvaseed and DroneSeed are actually strategic processes that are data based. So we’re looking at climate models; we’re looking at populations that have been impacted or not by forest fire. We’re looking at all these different dynamics that we can plug into models and actually predict what the best low-impact areas are to pick now if there’s a mast next year, if there’s a mast and so forth. So we’re actually using some pretty nuanced strategies to make the right decision with the best science and at the scale that is appropriate for the challenge that we’re facing.

Miller: I guess, as I noted at the beginning, it seems that the bigger concern at the BLM or among all kinds of foresters is not that you’re going to get too many seeds but that you’re getting too few. What’s at stake in this? I mean what happens if we don’t get more serious, both in the public sector and the private sector, in collecting seeds?

Aghai: Well, let’s just put it this way: Seeds are the currency, they’re the currency for reforestation. And, if we don’t put enough in the bank, we’re not going to be able to invest in the future of our forest. So, if seeds are the currency, we are at a deficit every time there’s a fire. And those fires are big. So, just to kind of wrap this in a way that may be palatable – or alarming, that’s how I treat it – in the 80s, we were experiencing maybe 2 million acres a year of fire. And in the last decade, 2010-2020, that rolling average is something like 7 million acres of fire a year. That’s probably the size of New Jersey. That’s a whole lot of trees that we want to replace onto the landscape.

We could rely on natural regeneration in some capacity, but because of the situation with climate change, we’re actually dealing with really high intensity fires across really large areas. We’ve all seen the news; we’ve all heard the programming. These are really things that we’re breathing in every summer that are coming from huge-scale disasters. So, in order for us to respond to that, we need to be thinking really big. We need to be collecting from populations that are still producing at high volume whenever there’s an opportunity. We need to be testing, banking and then we need to have all of the solutions, whether it’s aerial seeding, seedlings or any other approach that we come up with in order to address just the sheer scale.

Miller: Matthew Aghai, thanks very much for joining us.

Aghai: Thanks very much, Dave.

Miller: Matthew Aghai is interim general manager of Silvaseed which collects processes and sells seeds and also senior director of biological research and development at DroneSeed which collects processes and sells seeds.

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