The Las Conchas Fire burned 156,200 acres of forest in the Jemez Mountains in 2011. Just one year later, the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire surpassed it in size and intensity, burning 297,845 acres and usurping its title as the largest forest fire in state history. Since then, extreme wildfires have increased in frequency across the Southwest.

Scientists fear the forest may never recover in areas where the fire raged hottest, scorching the earth and incinerating everything in its path down to the microbes and seed stocks in the ground. Across the West, high intensity mega-fires are leaving behind barren landscapes that could convert permanently to shrubby grasslands where forests are unable to naturally regenerate.

This is where human-led reforestation efforts are essential to save ecosystems, New Mexico State University Associate Professor Owen Burney explained during a June 24 online presentation called "After the Fire: Seeding New Mexico's Future," about an ambitious push in the Jemez. It's a pilot program designed to envision what should come after high intensity wildfire and whose sponsors include the Nature Conservancy; Santa Clara Pueblo and Cochiti pueblos; the US Forest Service; universities and others.

Over the next two years, they aim to plant 100,000 seedlings across 4,000 acres in the Las Conchas burn scar.

Once the monsoon season starts this summer, members will plant the first round of 25,000 seedlings in Bandelier National Monument and Santa Clara Pueblo. They'll go in the ground in clumps, or "tree islands," in an attempt to mimic the natural patterns of regeneration after a healthy, low intensity wildfire that leaves some more densely forested areas interspersed by open space.

Nearly 150 people watched online as Burney walked through the process of reforestation: collecting native regional seed stock; cultivating seedlings; planting and caring for the trees.

"It's this hopeful thing that seems to be getting a lot of people excited because this is a problem that is collectively within our span of control," Collin Haffey, conservation manager at the Nature Conservancy, tells SFR. "It feels good to bite into a problem that has a solution, even if it also has a lot of complicated challenges."

Seedlings at the John T Harrington Forestry Research Center in Mora await replanting.
Seedlings at the John T Harrington Forestry Research Center in Mora await replanting. | Colin Haffey

Those hurdles exist all along the path, Burney noted. Most are issues of scale.

For example, the "fire footprint" in New Mexico from 2002 to 2019 is approximately 5.2 million acres, of which about 2.5 million acres have been so badly burned they would need a reforestation effort for the forests there to grow back, he says. Moreover, experts anticipate devastating forest fires to increase in the coming decades, and forests provide between 58 and 77% of water used by municipalities and agriculture in New Mexico by retaining snow pack and groundwater.

Between 300 and 650 million seedlings would be needed to replant the burned areas in the state, with an additional 1.5 to 2.5 million seedlings required per year going forward to make up for future fires, Burney said.

Burney also directs the John T Harrington Forestry Research Center in Mora, where most of the seedlings for the project have been carefully cultivated. The center includes the largest nursery program in the Southwest.

Yet, even with a capacity of 300,000 trees, the nursery can only provide a fraction of the trees that would be needed for genuine reforestation efforts. There also aren't enough people trained as a workforce to meet the seedling need. Dropping one into the ground and walking away isn't enough. In order for young trees to have any chance at survival, they need to be strategically cared for and protected for years.

The greatest challenge, though, lies in collecting seeds before areas burn and creating regional seed banks to store them, a tricky proposition because many species of conifers only produce seed cones once every three to eight years.

"We cannot go back to these burned landscapes and collect seed. We need to be collecting seed from those regions before a disturbance," Burney said, calling regional seed banks an "insurance policy" for the future of forests.

But if the project works at the small scale, it offers hope for combating climate change at the larger scale as well.

Forestry scientists are experimenting with what Burney calls "assisted migration"—planting trees from lower elevations at slightly higher elevations to prepare for a hotter future when tree species will be less likely to survive at the elevations where they now grow.

In total, he said, reforestation projects need a lot more funding, programming and trained workers to make a significant impact. But what gives Haffey the most hope is the widespread interest in the project from governmental, tribal and educational entities, nonprofits and the public.

The enthusiasm was clear during last week's event, as viewers interested in helping in seed collection or tree planting poured on the comments.

Haffey says the Nature Conservancy doesn't have any volunteer citizen science projects up and running but he hopes that by 2021, anyone with a passion for the forest will be able to join a team to collect seeds, or adopt a grouping of newly planted seedlings to watch over