In 2007, University of Nevada, Reno biologist Elizabeth Leger and a team of researchers set out to restore a commercial alfalfa field to a thriving community of desert plants. Their first step was to seed native perennial grasses, which would prevent weeds and wind erosion. But while their Nevada test site received only a few inches of rain each year, the most suitable grass seeds the team could find on the market were for varieties that had evolved in cooler, wetter climes—technically native plants, but collected from as far away as Montana and Canada.
“That’s the only thing you can get,” Leger says. She and her colleagues bought the seeds, including grasses known to be drought-resistant, and hoped for the best. At first, the plants grew well—if the scientists used the former farm’s irrigation system. But within a couple years of shutting off the water as part of the restoration process—it was a desert ecosystem, after all—the grasses disappeared, leaving mostly barren earth. “They just dried up and blew away,” Leger says.
According to a recent report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS), of which Leger is a coauthor, land managers across the country face the same problem: Buying locally adapted seeds in quantities needed for ecological restoration is very difficult—and often impossible. That’s especially true for federal agencies, in particular the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), that are restoring large swaths of land. In 2020 alone, BLM purchased over 1.5 million pounds of seed, mostly grasses to re-seed areas burned by wildfire. Just one-eighth of the grass seed came from native plants adapted to the sites where the seed would be planted. Some, like Leger’s ill-fated seeds, were native species from mismatched locations. Much of the rest was non-native grass seed.
Diverse communities of locally adapted plants are often better than non-native species at resisting stresses like drought and wildfire—and demand for them will only grow as climate change spurs more such disasters. Native plants form the foundation of entire ecosystems, supporting birds, mammals, and other animals, but Leger says plants are commonly overlooked. “I think people have this idea that they’re always going to be there, and you don’t need to worry about them,” she says, “So this report is really trying to highlight that these are national resources that are declining, and they need to be conserved and restored.”
Federal land managers like BLM want to use more native plants—especially local varieties—for ecosystem restoration, according to the report, but too often the seeds are simply not available, at any price. The demand is there, and so are the potential suppliers, “and yet the two aren’t meeting in the middle,” says Susan Harrison, a plant ecologist at the University of California Davis and chair of the committee that produced the report.
The native seed shortage has been on the national radar for at least two decades, as federal agencies increasingly recognized invasive plants were helping to fuel growing wildfires in the western United States. In 2001 BLM launched a native seed collection program, and a National Seed Strategy followed in 2015 to coordinate public and private action. Despite these steps, the nation’s supply is still far too limited, the new report found. Produced at BLM’s request after a years-long investigation, the report’s recommendations chart a path toward improving the ecosystem-restoration supply chain. The authors found a fundamental mismatch between the typical timeline of restoration projects—especially ones driven by government funding—and the realities of plant biology.
“Way too much of it right now is reactive,” Harrison says. After a large wildfire, for example, BLM must spring into action. “The emergency funds are going to expire in three months, so we need 30,000 pounds of seed, and we need it yesterday,” says Harrison, explaining how federal restoration projects typically unfold. “That just doesn’t work.”
Finding and cultivating plants adapted to a region and habitat can take years. If seed suppliers can’t predict what and how much seed land managers will want to buy in the future, they have little incentive and a lot of risk for their effort. Harrison can easily summarize the report’s suggested actions: “Ninety percent of it comes down to: Plan your restoration.”
If federal agencies and other groups set long-term restoration goals and commit to buying the native seeds needed to meet them, it would significantly bridge the gap between supply and demand. The report also calls for more facilities to process and store seeds to ensure supplies in case of disasters like wildfires.
That’s especially important in the western United States, where a vicious cycle of bigger, more frequent fires fueled by encroaching non-native grasses consumes vast tracts of land each year. At risk is the sagebrush ecosystem and the hundreds of plants and animals it supports, including the Greater Sage-Grouse, which has lost 80 percent of its population since 1965. These birds require open space and diverse communities of native plants to thrive. “When BLM needs to buy seed after a big fire in the Great Basin, that puts a strain on the whole seed supply system,” Harrison says.
The report also stresses a regional approach, both to ensure seeds are locally adapted and to recognize that outside the West, in parts of the country with less federal land, needs will vary. Jonathan Young, who manages a native seed program in Arkansas as the field projects manager for Audubon Delta, says the Southeast was once “a patchwork quilt of grasslands, woodlands, and wetlands.” Prairies boasted some 200 species of flowering plants, which supported pollinators and birds like the Northern Bobwhite, Bobolink, and Dickcissel. Non-native turf grasses with little ecological benefit now proliferate in many places.
To turn back that trend, volunteers collect seeds in undisturbed plant communities across Arkansas, and then Young works with farmers to grow native plants on their land. Seeds from those cultivated crops go to seed suppliers, where they’re available for purchase. Previously, Young says, “We did not have a local seed source for any of the restoration work that people wanted to do. It was really a bottleneck.”
The project, however, has faced many challenges. Collecting seeds from wild-growing plants across dozens of sites is a huge undertaking, and cultivating them into a sellable product takes years. Someday, Young hopes, the native seed market will be robust enough to meet demand, and the farmers he works with will be able to operate independently. But he says getting there will take more investment on every level. “It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight,” Young says. “This is more of a turning of the ship in the way we look at doing restoration.”
Some new investment is already on the books: The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law directed up to $200 million toward the National Seed Strategy, and last year’s Inflation Reduction Act provides more support. The new NAS report is a call to better coordinate and scale up existing efforts and to recognize the “high stakes” of the work.
One of the report’s key solutions is also relatively cheap: conserve natural spaces where native plants grow wild. These undisturbed areas serve as reservoirs for seeds while supporting other wildlife. Harrison calls wild landscapes “the ultimate sources of native seeds” for ecological restoration, and says preserving that wealth will be become even more crucial. “It may seem unnecessary now,” Harrison says, “but we all know how fast things can change.”
Things can change quickly for the better, too. Young says the farmers he works with see immediate effects of growing native plants on their land. One farmer told him about the return of a “fork-tailed bird” he saw as a kid but hadn’t spotted in decades, which Young recognized as the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Now, the farmer reported, “They’re everywhere.”