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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU studying ponderosa pine tree seed sources for future forest management

MORA – A warmer, drier climate is predicted to be the norm for the already historically arid forests of the Southwest.

Man standing among pine trees
New Mexico State University’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences is researching which ponderosa pine seed source can thrive in the changing environment of northern New Mexico. Owen Burney, NMSU associate professor, is looking at the one of the 3,000 pine trees in the study at the John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center at Mora. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

Climate change is a natural occurrence. Plant life has been able to adapt to that pace of change genetically and with a natural migration of plants to environments where they can survive. Seed dispersal and the rate of climate change were once in sync.

However, the influence of humans through the burning of fossil fuels, releasing of methane gases, and other activities has accelerated the changing climate. Most plants and trees are unable to keep up with this rate of change via seed dispersal.

New Mexico State University’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences is conducting research in many areas to help agriculture and forestry professionals adapt to the changing climate.

A seven-year study at NMSU’s John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center at Mora is providing land managers and researchers with data regarding seed source selection as they restore forests after severe wildfires.

Ponderosa pines from 75 source locations ranging from southern New Mexico and Arizona to British Columbia have been growing in the northern New Mexico environment. A total of 3,000 seedlings were planted at the research center.

“The idea of the project is to build an understanding of how the movement of seed sources will work in a changing climate based on this northern New Mexico location,” said Owen Burney, NMSU associate professor and superintendent of the facility.

“This study will go far into the future and will additionally aide forest land managers in assisted migrations projects. These projects examine the movement of seed, via tree planting, from southern locations to northern ones in order to put seed dispersal and the rate of climate change back in sync.”

The study was originally developed by the late John Harrington, who during his 20 years of research helped develop forest regeneration and restoration in New Mexico.

Preliminary results are showing that the southern sources are doing better than the northern seeds.

“Trees from the southern sources are, on average, significantly larger than both the local and northern sources,” Burney said of the trees planted at the agricultural experiment station and in natural environments in the region.

“Trees from the northern sources have begun to show a decline in growth with some mortality,” he said. “As we look at a future climate in the north that is warmer and drier, which will maybe match northern New Mexico’s present climate, we now know that the Colorado to British Columbia sources are not going to do very well.”

The study is being used by federal and state agencies across the southwestern United States to develop seed transfer guidelines regarding the range of environment that various source seeds can tolerate.

“This information will be used by land managers to assist in the restoration of burned landscapes,” Burney said. “As they take into consideration the present climate and changes in the near future, they need to figure out where they are going to get their seed.”

Seed collection and the production of these seedlings in nurseries are critical to the restoration needs around the world, including the Southwest.

“A lack of seed and nurseries around the world as well as the Southwest limit any assisted migration and restoration effort,” Burney said. “As we continue the research on where to plant trees, we still need to build up the seed collection and nursery systems to support these efforts that will only continue to grow into the future.”