Come Rain or Shine

After-Fire Reforestation: The John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center

July 05, 2023 USDA Southwest Climate Hub & DOI Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center Season 4 Episode 7
Come Rain or Shine
After-Fire Reforestation: The John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center
Show Notes Transcript

The John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center in Mora, New Mexico, aims to advance the understanding of restoration activities on forested areas in New Mexico through multidisciplinary research, education, and partner collaborations. The Center also provides science-based solutions for private, tribal, state, and federal forest managers, who face the threat of catastrophic fires due to overgrown forests and the inability of post-fire forest communities and ecosystems to naturally regenerate after fires. Photo credit: Reanna Burnett

Related Links:
John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center at Mora

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Emile Elias: Welcome to Come Rain or Shine Podcast of the USDA Southwest Climate Hub 

Sarah LeRoy: and the USGS Southwest climate Adaptation Science Center or Southwest CASC. I'm Sarah LeRoy Science Applications and Communications Coordinator for the Southwest CASC.

Emile Elias: And I'm Emile Elias, director of the Southwest Climate Hub.

Here we highlight stories to share the most recent advances in climate, science, weather, and climate adaptation and innovative practices to support resilient landscapes and communities.

Sarah LeRoy: We believe that sharing some of the most innovative forward thinking and creative climate science and adaptation will strengthen our collective ability to respond to even the most challenging impacts of climate change in one of the hottest and driest regions of the world.

The contents of this podcast are for informational purposes only, and should not be interpreted as endorsement for any of the products, technologies, or strategies discussed. 

Emile Elias: Dr. Owen Burney is the director of the John T. Harrington or JTH Forestry Research Center, located in Mora, New Mexico, and a professor at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

The center aims to advance the understanding of restoration activities on forested areas in New Mexico through multidisciplinary research, education, and partner collaborations. The center also provides science-based solutions for private, tribal, state, and federal forest managers who face the threat of catastrophic wildfires due to overgrown forests and the inability of post-fire, forest communities, and ecosystems to naturally regenerate after fires.

Dr. Burney is also a partner of the newly funded New Mexico Reforestation Center, which was awarded an 8.5 million dollars grant from the state of New Mexico in April. Owen, thanks so much for joining us to talk about the JTH Forestry Research Center and the upcoming New Mexico Reforestation Center. All right.

So to start us off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? How did you become an expert in forest regeneration? 

Owen Burney: Thank you guys for having me today on this show. So I really appreciate the opportunity. To start off yeah. I would like to share a little bit about why I got into this.

I grew up in Georgia with a deep passion for the outdoors and for science. And so it was really natural for me to pursue a bachelor's degree in forestry at the University of Georgia. And so during my summers while in undergrad, I worked with the Forest Service assisting with research in forest nurseries kind of throughout the southeast.

And so this exposure to research, to nurseries, to forest regeneration really attracted me to continue along that science vein, if you will, and pursue a master's degree at Oregon State University where my focus was on forest regeneration. I took a little time off from the world of academia, which is a really good thing to do, I think, and worked in the operational side of reforestation for a few years in Oregon.

Where I really built an understanding of the mechanics of reforestation, if you will. And after that and that time there, I, I knew that research was my calling. Even though I was in operations, I had to go back. And so, I went to Purdue University for my PhD again studying forest regeneration and reforestation efforts.

So now I've been in New Mexico for over 10 years, helping to build up the reforestation research program and the overall reforestation efforts, not only in New Mexico, but really kind of, the Western US as well. So it's been an exciting opportunity and, and I think that, you know, that's, that's my, my background.

Emile Elias: Excellent. Thanks Owen. And so now you serve as the director of the JTH Forestry Research Center, and can you tell us a little bit about that center? 

Owen Burney: Yeah, the research center in Mora, the John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center. The overall efforts of that program is really focused on forest restoration, and that's via tree planting on disturbed landscapes.

And so most of those disturbed landscapes are post-fire environments, which I think everybody is very well aware of, is, you know, becoming more and more of a problem. We do research in other disturbed areas such as mine reclamation work. And, and in some cases even like post harvest or, you know, any type of disturbance that requires forest restoration work.

But the program is really based on the main pillars of the university system. And so that's education, that's outreach and, and of course research, which is in the title. And so our, our efforts are really to improve the success of our reforestation and planting efforts, by addressing the entire reforestation pipeline.

And so what do I mean by the pipeline? Very simply, it's working with seed. And so everything surrounding that, that's genetics, that's dealing with seed preparation and storage, moving on into the nursery cultural practices, so actually how we grow our seedlings, you know, in the greenhouse for out planting.

And then the last part is actually getting those trees in the ground. And so it's, it's learning how to do that with an increase of success and also to make sure we don't just plant and walk away. We need to understand what we're doing and what activities we can do after we plant to ensure that their survival continues.

And so it's really learning about everything along that entire pipeline. And we also utilize the target plant concept in the work that we do. And really that concept can be easily defined as, developing seedlings with very specific traits or characteristics or specific locations to plant. So it is not a one-to-one blanket approach.

We are growing trees for the right site.

Emile Elias: It seems so critically important right now with so many acres, especially in New Mexico or across the west that need, need trees and need some restoration. So that center though, even though is a current problem. The center's been around, I saw online for more than 50 years now.

Being established in 1972, but at the same time, the New Mexico Reforestation Center appears to be a pretty new effort. So I'm wondering, is there a link or a relationship between this longtime research and education and outreach center that you direct and the emerging Reforestation center? 

Owen Burney: Yeah, the Research Center and the New Mexico Reforestation Center are very deeply connected.

So the efforts of the John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center that has been going on over the last 50 years are really providing the foundation of what we're developing with the New Mexico Reforestation Center. And that will continue. And so nothing is lost from what we have done in the last 50 years.

And it's really an expansion of the current program. So what makes the New Mexico Reforestation Center unique? What we're proposing and putting together is that it's a partnership. And it's a partnership between New Mexico State University, New Mexico Highlands University, the University of New Mexico, and the Forestry Division with New Mexico's Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department.

And this was officially formed on paper in 2022. So we're brand new on paper, but sadly we're still waiting to get things kind of off the ground and you know, bricks and mortar kind of started and, and actually implement what we are proposing to do. And what is it that we're proposing to do?

So the mission of the Reforestation Center is to meet the current and future reforestation needs within the Southwestern region through that reforestation pipeline. Through the comprehensive seed bank, nursery, and planting operations. And again, this is combined with those main pillars of the university system which is research, education, and outreach.

Sarah LeRoy: Thanks, Owen. Could you explain why right now it's very critically important to have the New Mexico Reforestation Center?

Owen Burney: I think it's important to understand some basic statistics of why we need to have the New Mexico Reforestation Center. So since 2012 which has included the recent fires of 2022 the Hermit's Peak Calf Canyon Fire, for example, we've had over 4.2 million acres that have burned within New Mexico and Arizona.

And as a result of these devastating fires, reforestation needs have continued to grow, and the backlog that we have for reforestation needs is unprecedented. It's all based on these high severity fires, and currently the USDA Forest Service and other national state programs just do not have the capacity to meet those reforestation needs due to significant gaps within the entire reforestation pipeline.

So we do not have enough seed collection programs and seed banks. We do not have enough nurseries, and we do not have enough of a workforce and infrastructure to plant the trees. So across that entire pipeline, we have significant gaps to meet our needs. And right now in Region three with the Forest Service only, so that is Arizona, New Mexico, the current needs are about five to 6 million seedlings per year.

For the next 10 plus years, and that's not incorporating new, large, catastrophic fires, which will likely occur. So we see these major gaps and limitations across that pipeline, and so there's a need for us to build the infrastructure up to meet those needs. So for right now, our program in Mora is the largest nursery in the Southwest, so the largest nursery in Arizona and New Mexico.

The second largest in the four corner states and our current production capacity is 240,000 seedlings per year, which is extremely short of what we need within the region. And that doesn't incorporate some of the other surrounding states. And so we still don't have the capacity to do what we need to do.

And this is just talking about the operations. I think it's important to also say, you know, we are trying to build our education program and our research program so that we can build workforces and build our research efforts so that our success rates increase. So all this is kind of working together, and that is really what the drive is with the New Mexico Reforestation Center, is to make sure that we can fill in these gaps along that operational pipeline, but also the educational and research as well.

Sarah LeRoy: Excellent, thank you. And we saw that the, the Reforestation Center, you know Emile mentioned this in the introduction, was recently awarded funds from the state. So what are the plans for the Reforestation Center? Do you know where it's gonna be located, when it might be up and running, things like that?

Owen Burney: Yeah, so we received eight and a half million dollars from the state this year. And this is really for our first phase. And in this phase it's a feasibility study. To look, to find out where we wanna put the reforestation center, where the actual facility will be, and we're doing this as a science-based approach.

There's a lot of critical factors that come into play to determining where we want to put this. Water being a huge important factor because you know, we are gonna have to irrigate those seedlings and we want to do this in a very efficient way. But there's also a need for our workforce and services and all these other things that provide the foundation to make this successful.

So some of that eight and a half million will be put into this feasibility study. It's done by a third party, so it's not driven by politics or anything else. These folks will come in and say, this is the best location for you to do this, and we will hopefully have that figured out by the end of this summer to know where we're gonna do that.

Another portion of that eight and a half million would be to purchase the land. And so if there is a need to purchase land and the water rights and everything else with it that can be expensive. Our footprint in terms of acreage, you know, I think we've got, it ranged between 10 to 20 acres. We don't need a large footprint because it's a bunch of greenhouse structures of buildings, offices, and things like that.

But this phase is not about the construction. It's about figuring out where we're going to do this. Buying the land and beginning the plans. So it's also part of that money will be in the initial design phase, if you will, with the engineers and the architects. And so that's kind of where that first part is.

The total amount that we really need, and that probably keeps moving forward with inflation, is around 64 million to about 70 million to do the full buildout. And this is not just about the facility, so that is a, a big chunk of it, but it's also the, the resources and other infrastructures that support that pipeline.

So this isn't just about being able to grow 5 million seedlings in one year, which is our target. It's also about the seed collection and the seed banking. And it's also about the planting efforts. So again, we're addressing that entire pipeline and we're looking at federal funds, state funds to acquire the remaining amount for us to, to do what we need to do.

But this is the first phase, and, and it's, you know, it's a really good effort for us to get the ball moving. 

Sarah LeRoy: Thanks Owen. Thinking back, you mentioned a lot of large fires recently in New Mexico and we had read one of those recent fires was actually pretty near the JTH Forestry Research Center and so I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what happened.

Owen Burney: Sure. The Hermit's Peak Calf Canyon fire, which were two fires that joined together, but the, the fire started in on April 6th of last year of 2022. And it moved north towards our center's location, which is kind of ironic, right? We are a research center focused on post fire reforestation and we have a fire, you know, barreling down upon us.

And so we actually were evacuated on April 24th, officially. I started evacuating folks a bit earlier and limiting, you know, our time out in, you know, in Mora just because of fear of having people trapped. And the other thing that we did was we have the largest seed bank in the Southwest. So we have these big walk-in freezers maybe like what you would see at a restaurant.

And we had, you know, upwards of about 3 million seed in that seed bank. And we knew if we lost power or whatever, we would lose that valuable resource. So we moved the seed bank to one of my staff members' houses in Las Vegas with, we bought these big chest freezers and lined up her garage. Sadly, Las Vegas got threatened and we had to move it again to Los Lunas, but, you know, luckily everything's safe and all the, the seeds are, were well protected through the whole process.

The fire did reach the property on May 1st, so we have about 120 acres. About half of it is a mixed conifer natural forest on a hillside, and that hillside burned. We did not know because we were not there to the extent of what the damage was. And we assumed everything was burned. So we came, we had an opportunity to come back when the fire subsided and we came back two days after the fire was on the property on May 3rd with a huge crew from Forestry Division from House Land Trust folks, and from New Mexico State University. So we had trucks and trailers and we came to the facility on May 3rd, and were hoping to see what was available and what was, what survived in terms of the seedlings that we had. We were growing, you know, almost a hundred thousand seedlings at that time, planning to ramp up more through the spring, but we had to walk away and, and shut things down.

So we had, you know, almost a hundred thousand seedlings. And in a period of two days, we were able to save 70,000 seedlings and take them to Santa Fe. So we came in, rescued these baby trees and hauled them over to Santa Fe where we put 'em in their temporary nursery and grew them, you know, to the best of our ability with the limited resources that we had.

So we lost, you know, a lot of seedlings, just not because of the fire, specifically or directly, but because we lost power and we lost water. So, and, and we didn't have access to it. So if you can't water your trees, you know, I think we know how that works at home. You're gonna, you're gonna lose your trees.

So we didn't wanna lose them and we, and we didn't, we, you know, we didn't lose them all and we didn't put anybody at risk. But it, you know, it was a good effort and I think, you know, it was very rewarding and I think it was a, a really good story to show that, you know, there's a little bit of a light.

In this really dark period of time. 

Emile Elias: Yeah, Owen, thanks for sharing that, sharing the silver lining and that so many people came to help. That seems to be one thing that happens around these catastrophic events. So many people mobilizing to support and I didn't know that full story at all. So thank you for sharing what happened and you were able to save some of the baby trees.

That's, I'm happy to hear that part of the story. Of course I had read about the fire before, but not those details. And there's been a lot in the news about the Reforestation Center, and one of the things we read was that it was designed to support New Mexico's reforestation goal of having the right tree in the right place for the end of the century.

And so can you talk to us a little bit about the process of doing that. Finding the right tree for the right place for future conditions. 

Owen Burney: So future conditions. When we look at the variety of models that are out there for the Southwest, we are seeing a continuing trend of warmer and dryer, which is just gonna make it really challenging for our forests to reestablish after fires.

And I would argue even for the existing forest to stay healthy, you know, at a hundred percent. So what we're looking to do moving forward is working with these models and knowing what these projections look like. We can start building our own kind of models on how we want to grow seedlings. And this goes back to the target plant concept.

And again, just for a simple definition, it's growing seedlings with specific traits for specific environmental conditions, for specific site or climatic, you know, future conditions. And so those traits can be developed, if you will, through seed source selection. So where do we get our seed? Where do we, where do we get our genetics?

And so if we look at history, what has always been practiced is using local seed sources is best. And that makes sense in in an area of time when the climate is not changing at the rate that it is now. However, now that we see what is projected moving forward, we know that potentially we need to be moving seed sources a little bit faster than they can move naturally.

And so we use the term assisted migration in our world to kind of, define moving seeds a little bit beyond where they would naturally occur, but could happen if we fast forward, you know, that timeframe. And so the idea is that we can start looking at how we can prepare for these future climates by taking seed sources from Southern locations or from lower in elevation.

Or just from locations that are already really dry and have skeletal soils or, or just under stress. And so by building up this diversity of, of seed sources that incorporate genetics that are more tolerable to these future climatic conditions, we are gonna be better prepared for the future. And that's one piece.

The other piece is the research that we do right now at the John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center is looking at nursery cultural practices that allow us to condition seedlings in that nursery phase for out planting on harsh environments, because we are already seeing really extreme conditions when we plant.

And it may not be, you know, the average. But seedlings only need to have like a day or two of extreme. Be it drought or, or heat. And so our cultural practices in the nursery are enabling these seedlings to be better adapted to those initial really harsh conditions that we see on planting sites. So combining these two allow us to start targeting what we can do now and for future conditions.

And so the idea is that these trees will now have a better chance, you know, in a hundred, 200 years under those future conditions. The idea is we don't wanna base our models on the old practices. We need to expand how we collect seed and how we grow our trees. And, and one last piece of this is, all of this is really about adaptive management.

So we do these collections in the field. We grow these trees in the nursery under these new conditions. And we plant them, but we need to know how they react. So we have to learn by monitoring and research in the field. And then that is, you know, a cyclical process. And so it, it's a feedback loop to, hey, these genetics are working or they're not.

And these cultural practices in the nursery are working or not. And so the science has to always work with it along every, you know, step of the way. So that's how we're gonna build this right tree for the right place moving forward in the next century. 

Sarah LeRoy: Thanks Owen. So there's been a lot of interest lately in urban and community forestry, especially related to funds available through the Inflation Reduction Act.

So does your center support cultivating trees for urban projects or does it focus mostly on trees for public lands and rural areas? 

Owen Burney: So our current program, most of the trees that we grow for out planting is related to restoration on public lands and natural systems. We do grow seedlings for urban projects but it doesn't make up a big portion.

But if you think about land area anyway, the land area where we be planting in these urban areas versus the needs on these natural forests that are disturbed by fire are very different. There's a lot more area disturbed by fire than there are urban areas that need trees. It doesn't mean we don't need to be promoting urban forest activities.

I'm a hundred percent supportive of it. But in terms of just allocation of effort, the greatest percentage will forever be on our, on our natural forest systems. With the New Mexico Reforestation Center, we will be, you know, contributing to urban forestry. But those seedlings that we grow for urban forestry are very different from those that we grow for reforestation purposes on natural landscapes.

So it takes a different type of cultivation to do that type of work. And as we build out our program, there may be an effort to compartmentalize an element of it that's dedicated to urban forestry, but it's not built into the system right now. So it's, it's something that we are very supportive of.

But our, I think our biggest impact right now for us is to start working on our natural lands because of the significant gap. And where we can assist with urban forestry, we will. And as that program develops, I can see us developing a permanent program for an urban forestry as well. 

Emile Elias: I'm curious if people come to you and say, I really like this type of tree, and you know, if there's, and I was thinking about this in context of urban as well, in terms of kind of how you identify the needs in a particular landscape and if that impacts what you choose to, you know, that first part you, you've got the seed bank, but then the nursery part of your operations.

Owen Burney: So in terms of our, the types of trees or the species that we choose for reforestation efforts after fire, most of what is driving that selection is based on what was already there, or you know, adjacent to those, the forest types that burned out. So for example, if it was a Ponderosa Pine forest, it's very likely that we're gonna be replanting Ponderosa Pine.

What we don't want to do is recreate the same problems that we had before. So the fires that we've had are results of a combination of factors, and one of those factors is that they're just extremely dense forests. We've mismanaged them for years. We, you know, took fire out of the equation and so the density grew.

We do not want to plant at those densities. In fact, we're promoting the idea of using nucleation plantings, which is basically tree islands. With big gaps in between. And that's a more natural regeneration pattern. So we can introduce Ponderosa Pine back into Ponderosa Pine. But having talked a little bit before about assisted migration, we also have the opportunity to not only look at different genetic sources like from further south, but also different species.

So, for example, there's interest in moving Ponderosa Pine potentially up into Douglas Fir forest types or mixed conifer. There are discussions of looking at just south of the border at Mexican Pine species in some locations here, which it would naturally migrate anyway through time. So we're not looking at doing this as a blanket approach, but more of a diversifying your portfolio, if you will.

In another really interesting direction we want to go. What I'm exploring and working with some folks out of Canada on is a species shift from conifer to hardwood. And in particular we're looking at Aspen. Aspen is a lot more resilient to fire. And so in, in these areas that are particularly on the fringe of, of, homes and, and neighborhoods and things like that. There's an interest in, in shifting a lot of that mixed conifer forest type in, into Aspen. And so, and there's a lot of work that we're doing. And the first of its kind really in North America. Well, let me rephrase that in the United States, because in Canada they've been doing this for a very long time and we've been using them as the, as the gurus of the work.

But nobody plants Aspen. It's very, it's very uncommon and the work that is done with Aspen is done from sprouts, but by planting Aspen, we, every single one of those seeds and seedlings is genetically different. So that builds resiliency into the future for whatever climate we have. So the idea of planting trees versus allowing the sprout, we would prefer to be planting trees to get these established.

So basically it's a function of, you know, we are targeting species that kind of match that locale, but also exploring other species that may work better for the future and work better for that, that WUI, that Wild Land Urban Interface, if you will. 

Emile Elias: Excellent. Yeah, it sounds like that science, art, history, all of it coming together to make these decisions and probably working with managers as well, so a lot of creativity in that space, which is really interesting and exciting.

And earlier you mentioned working in, of course, New Mexico and Arizona. And I'm and you now recently you mentioned even talking with folks in Canada, and you mentioned Mexico as well, and so I'm wondering if people from other states or countries have actually reached out to you for seedlings or if you anticipate that they will when the new reforestation center is online.

Owen Burney: Sure. So we are already growing seedlings in our small, tiny nursery in Mora for states that surround New Mexico. So we grow for Arizona, we grow for Utah, we grow for Colorado, we've grown for Texas. I think we've grown for California because the demand is there. And you know, we grow really good trees. I'm not saying that others don't, but we do a good job and there aren't enough folks doing the work.

So what I do see moving forward, with the expansion of the New Mexico Reforestation Center, if we get that thing up and running to 5 million seedlings per year, we already know and have planned out that the, the demand will come from not just New Mexico, even though that's in the title, but we know a good portion of it's gonna go to Arizona.

But we know California is gonna need a lot of trees and we can work with Colorado and Utah and Texas and really anywhere. However, what we're trying to do, and part of the reason why we have run into some issues right now, for example, the Forest Service gets most of their seedlings from Lucky Peak Nursery, which is in Idaho.

And their trees from that need to be planted here in New Mexico and Arizona are grown up in Idaho, but they have to travel all the way down. And so there's a lot of problems when you transport seedlings, greater distances. That you can begin to degrade the quality of those seedlings. So our goal is not to start spreading out, but to be more centralized to, you know, the four corner states, let's say.

But of course, if there's a need, I would rather get trees in the ground that have lost some level of quality, then no trees at all. So, you know, I think that's where we are at this point. But you know, our, my hope is, and I think we're seeing this with a lot of federal momentum and dollars, there's a big push to build out current nurseries and new nurseries throughout the west especially, and so they, they know the backlog is there.

It's not just New Mexico and Arizona. It is the entire West. So there is a need to expand our capacity by more than double, which is like o over a billion seedlings per year of production extra that we need. And so as those come online, the idea is that, you know, we're gonna have hubs kind of close to where they need to be planted, but for now, we've got what we got and we do what we can do.

Sarah LeRoy: Thanks Owen. And that actually leads perfectly to my next question. If you could elaborate just a little bit more. So you mentioned having nurseries in other states. Do you know of any other reforestation centers like this in other southwest states, or would you have advice for anyone who wanted to start a reforestation center like this?

Owen Burney: So our model of the New Mexico Reforestation Center has always been the University of Idaho. So the Pitkin's Nursery there has been a really important roadmap for us in understanding of what it looks like to have a nursery that's connected to state programs and a university that has research in all this.

So they, they are, you know, fully functional and operating at, at a level that we would like to be at. However, our future direction is gonna be a little bit different. And so, you know, that program in Idaho is really about the nursery program, and I know that they deal with seed and they deal with planting.

But our, our goal of the Reforestation Center is to really just take over all parts of that. So, I mean, be deeply involved in the seed element of that pipeline and the planting element. And so it's gonna be really a cradle to grave, if you will, or an A to Z or however we want to phrase it. But it, you know, that's what will set us apart and will make us unique.

There will be no other program like this in the country if we put it together the way we have planned it out. But kudos to the University of Idaho folks and, and the history there. Because, you know, honestly, without them, there's a lot of folks, including myself, part of my PhD research was done there.

We, you know, they have given us the opportunity to understand and learn. They are a learning nursery too. They're an education nursery. And so without that, you know, I don't think we would have a lot of the folks doing the work that they're doing today. 

Sarah LeRoy: Thanks for that. So, I'd just like to ask you, did we, what did we miss?

Is there a question that, you know, you think we should have asked you but we didn't? 

Owen Burney: I think there's one really important question you guys just didn't ask, and I'm really disappointed. And that question is, who's gonna do all this work? Right? Like, you know, we talk about building things, but you know, and so part of what our design of the, the Mexico Reforestation Center is, is to develop and train that future workforce.

And so, and I, I'm gonna keep going back to the reforestation pipeline. But if we talk about the three main elements, we've got seed, we've got the nursery, and we've got, planting. The most expensive part actually doesn't require the biggest workforce. So the nursery, you know, will not require a, a huge number of folks.

And, you know, I don't know what that would be at 5 million seedlings per year, but maybe 15, 20 people. So, I mean, that's a big, you know, operation, but it's not a, a big dent in the workforce. But the seed collection into the planting are gonna require hundreds of people, and they are gonna require skilled labor, especially on the seed collection side, because there you need folks who are certified to climb trees and know what they're doing.

And then the planting, we're gonna need a young group to do that kind of work because if you haven't planted trees on large scales in those forested environments, it's a young person's game. And I still do it and I, it takes me two, three days to recover afterward. But I think it gives a lot of opportunity for Youth Corp programs or high school students.

And out in Oregon, when I worked there, we used inmate labor and we used the combination of all of it to get it done. And I think that there's an opportunity for us to do that. And you know, could be something that, you know, an inmate takes as a skillset and can use later on to build a, a private company, which would be ideal that we do have private companies that, that's what they do is they plant trees in the planting season. And so there's a lot of opportunity for us to build this workforce, and that's what we are trying to do in parallel with everything else. But we can't get it done without it, and we don't have it here in the Southwest. We do not have that workforce and we all recognize that, that problem.

But I do see that there is an opportunity to get there. And then, wow, now we start creating jobs for folks in New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. And, and things start looking really, really good. And you know, you got really healthy kids out on the mountain side, planting trees, staying out of trouble. 

Sarah LeRoy: Thanks Owen, and I like the idea of that opportunity and that segues to my next question about hope, because, you know, what you just discussed really does give me hope. And so I wanna know what gives you hope for the future. 

Owen Burney: So I, I've been on this reforestation soapbox for a long time and, and I got here to New Mexico screaming with very few people listening.

And, you know, I, I think we finally got momentum and support from all levels. From the community level, for example, Mora all the way to the national level in D.C. And I think what it really took was this very large fire that happened last year to, to spark that movement, no pun intended, but it really did.

And, and I think that, this is the first time I have seen that. And it's interesting because I work with folks who've been doing this, you know, a lot longer than I have, and I've been doing this for 25 years and they've been doing it for 40 years. And they are saying the same thing. They, they have never seen, they're about to retire and they're like, this is, they don't wanna retire.

But, you know, I think they're just also, they've been doing it for so long. But this is the first time they've seen this level of momentum and support ever. And so we've got a lot of different, you know, initiatives coming out of D.C. with funding that supports it. You know, we just got eight and a half million dollars from the state just for our first phase.

So this is, this is my, my hope, would I have said this two years ago? Probably not. I mean, I don't know if I could have answered this. Will it continue? I hope so. I have to, because otherwise why am I doing what I'm doing? So I do have hope and I think that, I think people are starting to recognize it and I think that this momentum is gonna carry forward.

Sarah LeRoy: Excellent. So before we wrap up, just one more question for you. If our listeners remember just one thing from this conversation, what would you like it to be? 

Owen Burney: There are two words that I think are really important in any conversation I have regarding reforestation and forest restoration, and that's scale and urgency.

We just talked about hope. You know what? Do I have hope for the future? I do, but it's only if we do this at a scale that we've never seen before. At an urgency we've also never seen before. And this is not just about planting trees, which is exactly what we need, a scale and urgency. This isn't like, Hey, I just did something for 10 acres.

We need to just turn this into a mobilized army to do the work. But it's a two-pronged approach. We need to be taking care of those forests that have already been devastated by fire. And putting them back on the right trajectory for a future climate, right? So that, what does it look like in a hundred years?

But at the same time, this is the other prong, we need to be going out there and managing our force. We need to be thinning and reducing those fuel loads and putting fire back onto the ground. And they need to happen in parallel. And people wonder all the time, why are we planting trees? When we need to be thinning, I, I, I don't wanna say we don't wanna be thinning or not be planting trees.

We need to be doing both in parallel. And we can do this. We have enough science to do the work we need to do. Are we gonna make mistakes? Of course. But if we sit here and total our thumbs, we are gonna get to a point where I think we will not be able to return. And so, and when that is, I think it's gonna be a lot sooner than later.

So I really believe if people don't take this serious and we, it's a, a function of scale and urgency, I think we will fail. And so I'm going from something really happy, from my hope statement to something a little gloomy, but it's the truth. I still think we're there and we can make the change, but at the end of the day, it's scale and urgency and it's, it's at a, a level we've never seen before.

Sarah LeRoy: Thanks Owen and I, I guess I don't see it as gloomy. I see it as that motivation, you know, the urgency that you're, you're talking about, you know, we can get it done. There is that hope, but we really have to work together and I like that you talked about things happening at the same, it's not one or the other.

You know, in climate adaptation, it's, it's all of the things working in tandem together with all of the people together to make things happen. So I, I really appreciate you sharing that. So, thank you for joining us today. I had a great time talking about reforestation. I'm excited to hear how this goes for you.

And I think maybe we should plan an episode in a couple of years and like have a check back and see how it's going once things get up and running. And I, and I really hope it, it goes well at that urgency that, that you're, you're talking about. So thank you. 

Owen Burney: Thank you very much. This was a great conversation.

Emile Elias: Thanks for listening to Come Rain or Shine podcast of the USDA Southwest Climate Hub,

Sarah LeRoy: and the USGS Southwest CASC. If you liked this podcast, don't forget to rate or review it and subscribe for more great episodes. A special thanks to our production crew, Skye Aney and Reanna Burnett. If you want more information, have any questions for the speakers or would like to offer feedback, please reach out to us via our websites.