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Pinecone Hunt Underway to Help Wildfire Recovery

DNA in ponderosa pine cone seeds carries critical survival tools, including knowlege of a geographical area's seasonal shifts. (Chris Light/Wikimedia Commons) DNA in ponderosa pine cone seeds carry critical survival tools, including knowlege of a geographical area's seasonal shifts. (Chris Light/Wikimedia Commons)
DNA in ponderosa pine cone seeds carries critical survival tools, including knowlege of a geographical area's seasonal shifts. (Chris Light/Wikimedia Commons) DNA in ponderosa pine cone seeds carry critical survival tools, including knowlege of a geographical area's seasonal shifts. (Chris Light/Wikimedia Commons)
September 12, 2019

DENVER – Every decade or so, ponderosa pine trees produce massive numbers of pine cones, an event called a mast seeding year.

This year, trees along Colorado's Front Range already are producing lots of seeds, and forest managers are jumping at the opportunity to collect and store them.

Catherine Schloegel, watershed forest manager for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado, says gathering pine cone seeds is an important tool for helping restore some of the state's forests having a tough time recovering from wildfire.

"Wildfire is changing Colorado,” she explains. “We're seeing that large burn scars simply aren't recovering to forest.

“The only way that they'll recover is with human intervention. We just have to go out there and plant some trees."

The biggest fire in Colorado's history, the Hayman wildfire in 2002, burned more than 130,000 acres. And today, more than 85% of the land still is struggling to recover.

Schloegel adds that some 150,000 burned acres on the Front Range may not become pine forests again, mainly because there isn't a local source of seeds.

She says local seeds' DNA carries critical survival tools – they know when it's going to snow, and when spring is coming.

Wildfires are a natural part of a forest's life cycle, but Schloegel points to science showing that human development near forests and climate change have created larger, more frequent and more severe wildfires, which leave virtually no surviving trees that can distribute new seeds.

She adds that wildfires are projected to become even larger as the planet warms, with large sections inside the fire that burn especially hot.

"And so both of those are very hard for land managers to plan for,” she points out. “We don't know exactly when or where that will occur.

“But what we can do by collecting seeds and planning for these types of events is to be ready for recovery."

It's estimated that just 2% of burned areas along Colorado's Front Range have been replanted.

Nearly a quarter-million seeds were collected last month along the Front Range, and the U.S. Forest Service currently is harvesting pine cones in the Pike National Forest.

The goal for this year is to collect 1 million seeds.

Disclosure: The Nature Conservancy in Colorado contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Energy Policy, Environment, Water. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Eric Galatas, Public News Service - CO