Seed Bank Merger
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State seed bank merger seen

This story is taken from Environment at

State seed bank merger seen

Loss of logging revenue means CDF nursery could combine its operations with a federal counterpart's.

By Suzanne Bohan -- Bee Correspondent
Published 2:15 am PST Saturday, January 1, 2005

When a judicial ruling silenced the chainsaws in a state-owned Mendocino County forest, the death knell began sounding for a venerable state program for protecting the genetic vigor of California's forests.

The state's 118-year-old tree seedling nursery operation and a seed bank harboring the genetic legacy of the state's forests had relied since 1986 on logging revenues from Jackson Demonstration State Forest. After a successful lawsuit ended the logging and the revenue stream, state forestry officials struggled to fund the operation. It was even shut for three months in 2003 until rescued by a federal grant.

"It was a mess," recalled Bill Snyder, the deputy director of resource management for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which runs the program.

The budget shortfalls appear to have finally felled a portion of the beleaguered operation. Within a few weeks, the CDF expects to announce a merger of its 40-acre facility in Davis, which houses the state's seed bank and a 5-acre containerized seedling nursery, with a 157-acre U.S. Forest Service nursery and seed bank in Placerville. The CDF will independently operate a 20-acre nursery in Magalia, which provides bare-root native tree seedlings.

The state's seed bank, which harbors 36,000 pounds of seeds gathered from native trees throughout California, is widely regarded as a "priceless" resource for perpetuating the vitality of the state's forests.

Each year, experts predict which areas of privately owned forests - almost half of the state's forestland - are vulnerable to damage from fires, landslides, insects, diseases and other natural disasters. Then "on speculation" CDF staff grows more than 2 million seedlings of tree species like Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, incense cedar, oak and Coulter pines to sell to private landowners. It's too speculative for commercial operations.

Seedlings are genetically adapted to 88 "seed zones" within the state as well as to different elevations within a zone.

Planting genetically incompatible trees can lead to death in extremes like drought or cold and also can reduce the vigor of new seedlings in the woods, as pollen from the nonlocal trees drifts into the surrounding forest. It's a cardinal rule among foresters to plant only trees genetically adapted to a specific site.

The California Public Resources Code mandates that the state maintains the seed bank and nursery.

It's the fate of the seed bank that most concerns Laurie Lippitt, who managed the bank and the Davis nursery before she retired in 2002.

The seed bank, Lippitt said, ensures that even if an entire genetic strain of a forest tree species is wiped out by a fire or other disaster, there is seed from that region so that a forest can be regrown with site-adapted trees.

Merging seed banks and one of the nurseries "is just a much more cost-effective way of streamlining operations that are so similar," said Steve Bishop, the deputy director for natural resource management for the U.S. Forest Service. The new operation would be jointly run, and CDF staff would still direct those aspects that affect state forest owners. "The way I view it is we would be partners," Snyder said.

The merged operation would shave about $100,000 in operating costs for the state, he estimated. The seed bank and nursery program budget averaged $1 million annually in the 1990s, although that was offset by roughly $300,000 in income generated annually by seedling sales. If the merger occurs, the valuable land in Davis may also be sold.

But Lippitt is skeptical that the merged operation can maintain the same superiority of stock for the seed bank.

"Quality will suffer," said Lippitt, now a restoration ecologist in San Diego County. In a year with a light cone crop, one facility could handle the state's cone processing needs, Lippitt said. "But in the years that count, which are the years of heavy crops, both facilities were extremely busy. So having only one facility doing the work of two, I don't see that it would happen."

The highly perishable seeds could begin decaying before they're processed and placed in cold storage, she explained.

Bill Libby, a forest geneticist and emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley, also questions the wisdom of storing the forests' genetic insurance account in one facility. He recalled an equipment failure at the Placerville nursery in the mid-1990s that damaged seed stock.

The CDF's Snyder said discussions have addressed concerns about that vulnerability, but he said the risk of damage is slight, particularly as the site has a backup generator.

The California Licensed Foresters Association sounded the alarm about the pending demise of the seed bank and nursery program in a February 2004 press release, describing it as a "biodiversity safety net." It also criticized the 2000 lawsuit that halted logging at Jackson as another example of "environmental overkill" that's hobbling efforts to sustainably manage forests.

But Vince Taylor, the founder of the Campaign to Restore Jackson State Redwood Forest, said, "It's great for them from a PR standpoint to blame environmentalists for stopping timber harvesting that led to the closure of the state nurseries. But nothing could be further from the truth."

It was the judge who stopped the timber harvesting after deeming the forest management plan inadequate, said Taylor, who spearheaded the lawsuit to end logging in Jackson until its management plan was revised.

"It's a public policy mistake, really wrongheaded," he added, "to tie the funding of programs which are important and invaluable on their own right with the ability to produce timber revenue in a publicly owned redwood forest."

Snyder responded that he thinks logging revenues are a more responsible way to fund a state reforestation program than requesting yearly funding from the state legislature.

The next cone crop for the state's official tree, the coast redwood, is a particularly pressing concern for Lippitt. It's been 20 years since a seed crop has come in from the slow-maturing conifer, and seed supplies are perilously low. "I think there's a very high chance that the staffing, funding and equipment in the merged operation would not be sufficient, and the coast redwood crop, when it comes, would be compromised," Lippitt said.

"Clearly the concern, first and foremost, is the seed bank and our ability to process cones," said Snyder. "We wouldn't have the same capacity to process as much seed," he agreed, "but I think an effort would be made to process as much as we could. It would be a nice problem to have."

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