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Missoula DNRC greenhouse adds vital forest seedling capacity

The Missoula Office of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has upped its capacity to provide native pine seedlings
DNRC Missoula Seedling Greenhouse
Posted at 8:42 AM, Jun 07, 2024

MISSOULA — Thanks to recent funding, the Missoula Office of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) has upped its capacity to provide native pine seedlings to a wide variety of federal, state, tribal and private reforestation projects around the region.

On Wednesday morning, in lieu of cutting a ribbon, DNRC Nursery Program Manager Michael Butts carefully peeled a strip of tape off the door of his new greenhouse to reveal its name: “Anaconda.”

Those in attendance — other DNRC employees and representatives of the U.S. Forest Service and American Forests, a nonprofit — cheered and then walked through the 4,320-square-foot greenhouse, which was finished last fall and already shelters more than 100,000 Ponderosa pine seedlings.

“With the new greenhouse, we’re going to increase our capacity by about 20%, roughly growing 250,000 seedlings annually. That translates to an additional 1,500 acres of reforestation across the state each year,” Butts said.

The DNRC received two grants that covered most of the $230,000 needed to add the Anaconda to the existing four greenhouses already on the DNRC campus. American Forests provided a $100,000 grant and the U.S. Forest Service provided another $100,000 through the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

American Forests partnered with the nursery in 2021, around the time that a scientific paper titled “Challenges to the Reforestation Pipeline in the United States” was published.

The authors, including two from the University of Montana, calculated the huge quantities of seedlings that are needed to reforest cleared and burned areas and found far too few seedlings are available. The authors found that federal and state nurseries produce only 20% of seedlings nationally but have the greatest potential to grow.

The seedlings from the Anaconda greenhouse can be used for conservation projects on private and tribal projects as well as state and federal projects. Matt Arno, DNRC Forestry Assistance Bureau Chief, said the nursery served 830 customers, three-quarters of which were private landowners. But the highest volume of seedlings went to tribal nations.

“This place plays an important role in Montana’s reforestation pipeline. If it were not for this place, people, landowners, tribal nations would not be able to access the high quality stock to restore their land,” said Wes Swaffar, American Forests Northern Rockies director.

Missoula DNRC Seedling Greenhouse
Jennifer Hensiek, Forest Service, State, Private, and Tribal Forestry Northern and Intermountain Regions Deputy Director, left, said Montana was one of 35 states that received federal funding for forest work from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act.

Inside the plastic walls, low, dense green seedlings appeared to carpet about two-thirds of the length of the greenhouse. The 102,000 Ponderosa pine seedlings are slated to go to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe east of Billings for their post-fire reforestation program.

The greenhouse has irrigation plumbing that allows Butts to create four to six different growing zones for different tree species in different locations. At the far end of the greenhouse, a few pallets or “tables” of seedlings of different species were waiting on the new steel tracks that run the length of the greenhouse. They’ll soon be rolled out the end of the greenhouse headed for Utah.

“We do grow a little bit for other states that no longer have a nursery,” Arno said. “Wes referenced the concern that state nurseries are going away. Unfortunately, Utah doesn’t have one anymore. We’ve been growing for the state of Utah for 10 years now.”

Tim Spoelma, DNRC Trust Lands silviculturist, said DNRC now grows all of its Ponderosa pine seedlings in the Missoula DNRC greenhouses.

“It’s important for me to be able to walk out the back door and see the seedlings that are being grown here. We can try different things,” Spoelma said. “The ponderosa pine that the nursery grows now is second-to-none. We moved all our fall planting seedlings here this year. It’s so much easier to handle rather than getting them from other nurseries on contract.”

Jennifer Hensiek, Forest Service, State, Private, and Tribal Forestry Northern and Intermountain Regions Deputy Director said Montana was one of 35 states that received federal funding for forest work from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act.

“The funding that came to us allowed us to work toward ecosystem restoration goals, and one of those was to recognize the need for nurseries to produce seedlings to help restoration work across the country,” Hensiek said.

All told, the DNRC seed/seedling program received $320,000 in Bipartisan Infrastructure Act money, which went toward the Anaconda greenhouse, a cold-storage building retrofit and two machines, a needle seeder and a pot filler.

After seeds are collected, they need to be cooled and dried, but the nursery freezing units had reached their capacity. So a giant bare-root warehouse was retrofitted for the job. The two new machines speed up seed-potting processes that used to be done by hand.

The new buildings and machines have upped the DNRC’s seedling-handling capacity, but Butts isn’t done. Thanks to House Bill 5 passed by the 2023 Montana Legislature, the DNRC has $2.8 million in long-term funding for nursery upgrades.

Butts plans on building a new “head house” south of the existing greenhouses where all the seed-planting work will occur. Then they’ll be able to roll the finished seedling tables on tracks from the head house into the greenhouses. Then, they’ll build additional greenhouses that connect to the south side of the head house to eventually double the existing seedling capacity.

“We’re thinking early June next year, we’ll break ground,” Butts said.