White River team hunts for spruce cones | PostIndependent.com

White River team hunts for spruce cones

Ryan Summerlin
Cone collectors with the U.S. Forest Service have to wait for a window of opportunity to find cones that have reached maturity but also haven't opened up and released their seeds.

A team of spruce cone collectors from the White River National Forest has been taking advantage of a prime window to stock up on seeds. Sent to a massive nursery in Nebraska, these seeds are intended to help White River regenerate tree species for decades to come.

A good “cone drop” doesn’t happen every year, but forest personnel are always keeping an eye out for good cone collection locations and waiting for that window of opportunity, said Doug Leyva, White River’s timber and fuels program manager.

“It takes all summer for the cones to mature, then you have to get to them before they open up and the wind blows the seeds out.”

Some species of trees are better at regenerating than others, Leyva said. And there are several circumstances when a species can use a helping hand.

“You want a tree that’s growing vigorously and has a nice full crown, one that’s dominant and tallest in the stand.”Doug LeyvaWhite River National Forest timber and fuel program manager

Under natural circumstances, some trees outcompete others. Other trees, like lodgepole pines, are fire-adapted species that need the heat from fires to open their cones. And sometimes after a harvest or a fire the soil conditions are not right for regeneration.

In the Four Mile area the Forest Service recently cut out a large number of trees killed by spruce beetle. So forest personnel plan to supplement that area with two-year-old seedlings that they will pull from a stockpile.

For another example, the Lost Solar Fire, a 4,500-acre fire currently burning in the southwestern Flat Tops Wilderness, will require a good deal of time for the seeds to rain in from the sides of those burned areas, said Leyva.

Periodically collecting cones from these species gives the Forest Service a bank of seeds it uses to help regenerate such areas.

“For genetic reasons, to grow vigorous trees, we want to plant seedlings that are from the same area and the same elevation,” said Leyva.

Even though ponderosa pines grow in Arizona and Idaho, trees from those areas aren’t right for this climate and wouldn’t do well if planted here, he said.

If the Forest Service clear-cuts or harvests an area, or if there is significant tree loss from fire or strong winds, all its reforestation projects utilize locally sourced seeds.

The Forest Service will replant these collected seedlings in a 1,000-foot elevation band. In other words they can be replanted anywhere from 500 feet higher or 500 feet lower in elevation, said Leyva.

Ideally, the cone collectors want to gather seeds from numerous trees for biological diversity, said Leyva. And they are looking to gather seeds from genetically superior trees.

“We’re trying to avoid trees with any indicator that they’re less than the best genetics,” trees that have forked tops or that have a big bend, he said. “You want a tree that’s growing vigorously and has a nice full crown, one that’s dominant and tallest in the stand.”

Once they’ve found a good specimen, they knock off a sample cone to get an idea of whether the cones on that tree have opened up yet or whether any insects have crawled inside and eaten the seeds.

Because spruce are tall and flimsy they’re unsafe to climb, so collecting these cones requires that they be chopped down. The downside here is that you’re cutting down one of the best trees in the stand, but it’s a sacrifice necessary to ensure its good genes get carried on, said Leyva.

After collecting what they need, the cone hunters then strip the downed tree of its limbs and bark to help dry out its sap and avoid attracting spruce beetles.

The cones are shipped to the Charles E. Bessey Nursery in northwest Nebraska — a massive operation that stores seeds and grows seedlings for all the national forests in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming.

The seeds sent to the Bessey Nursery, from trees, shrubs and other native plants, will be kept in cold storage (some for as long as 30 years) until the forest of origin places an order for a regeneration project. The nursery will then begin growing the seedlings.

The nursery will keep track of the seed’s elevation band and location of origin to ensure that when they’re returned to the White River National Forest, possibly decades later, they’ll return to the area they evolved in.

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