Timberland owners across the West are facing a hard winter as they struggle to replant millions of acres of burned trees after 2020’s devastating fire season.
The work is hard every year; workers shovel, climb rough terrain and hack cold ground while carrying sacks of 100 seedlings around their waists. This year, fire damage presents even greater challenges, including seedling, labor and equipment shortages.
“The fires are having major ripple effects,” said Cindy Mitchell, senior director of public affairs at the Washington Forest Protection Association.
California’s fires burned more than 4 million acres of forestland last year, according to officials.
In Oregon, according to the state Department of Forestry, more than 1 million acres were scorched, including at least 250,000 acres of industrial forestland.
Clearing debris has been difficult — made more so by the fact that many logging companies lost equipment, with equipment losses ranging from $200,000 to $1.5 million apiece.
Timber companies are also facing a major labor crisis.
The shortage is not as critical as it was last summer when President Trump’s immigration ban capped the number of H-2B work visas; industry groups have since won an exemption.
But Tim O’Hara, director of governmental affairs at the Forest Resources Association, said national demand for forestry workers is intensifying, especially after the fires. He estimated that for fiscal year 2021, demand for workers is two or three times greater than supply.
Further fueling the crisis: the nation’s nursery industry has nowhere near enough seedlings to replant those forests, experts say.
Large industrial companies such as Weyerhaeuser are struggling, but industry leaders say those likely to suffer most are small woodland owners.
Jim James, executive director of Oregon Small Woodlands Association, or OSWA, said about 6,300 acres of family-owned woodlands statewide burned in 2020, half of which require replanting.
That gets expensive fast, he said.
Landowners typically plant about 400 seedlings per acre. A small woodland owner who needs to reforest 80 acres, for example, may need to plant 32,000 seedlings at an average replanting cost of $335 per acre, totaling $26,800.
A coalition including Oregon State University Extension, the OSWA and the Oregon Department of Forestry has estimated that more than 100 million seedlings are needed to replant Oregon’s small woodlands alone.
The coalition is working with the nursery industry to expand seedling production at a mass scale. But many conifer nurseries say they are already using all their available infrastructure, and most nurseries interested in growing conifers lack the necessary acreage.
Even if nurseries do scale up, it will take time before they can supply seedlings. James of the woodlands association said bare root seedlings should be planted when they are at least two years old.
This also presents a monetary challenge. Experts say the common practice is for land managers to put down a 50% deposit when they order seedlings.
“A lot of small woodland owners lack the up-front money,” said James.
University, industry and agency leaders are working to secure acreage for nurseries and discuss payment models, but they say it will likely take years to “catch up.”