National Geographic | To regrow forests the U.S. needs billions of seeds—and many more ‘seed hunters’

Ponderosa pine cones. Credit: Kyla Mandel

National Geographic

Climbing trees, stealing from squirrels—skilled collectors are becoming rarer, undermining the nation’s ambitious tree planting goals.

Sisters, Oregon—Brittle pine needles and twigs snap under Don Grandorff’s boots as he crunches his way through Deschutes National Forest, the August air scented with sap and wildfire smoke. Without hesitating, he veers off the path and wades through the brush, on the hunt for Ponderosa pine seeds.

Grandorff has been a seed forager for 45 years, and he spots the signs of a squirrel’s hidden cache immediately: clusters of green pine needles fanned out on the forest floor; a newly nibbled cone; and a long, shallow dirt trail that disappears under a log.

He points to the canopy, where a gap in the needles at the tip of the branches reveal that a squirrel has been through. “Most people don’t seem to be able to [see it],” says the 74-year-old as he weaves between pines, their auburn bark scaly like alligator skin.

Grandorff’s parents taught him as a teenager how to read the forest. They were part of a niche network of cone collectors whose heyday dates back to President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. Trailing behind him enthusiastically now is Matthew Aghai, senior director of biological research and development at the Seattle-based reforestation company DroneSeed, along to learn traditional gathering skills.

Grandorff stops: “See, right down there.” Nestled between two big rocks on the bank of a brook is what he came for: a cache of pine cones worth $15 a bushel. These woody cones are in steep demand. Tucked inside each one are up to 10 pearly-white seeds, each no bigger than a lentil, which one day could grow to over 200 feet tall and absorb at least 48 pounds of carbon dioxide each year.

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Reporting for this article was made possible in part by an award from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.