Mora selected as site for massive greenhouse

By Scott Wyland



Santa Fe New Mexican


State officials have chosen Mora as the site for an enormous greenhouse that will grow millions of seedlings to restore fire-ravaged forests and help them better withstand climate change. The greenhouse will be part of a reforestation center slated to be built in a logical location, next to New Mexico State University’s Forestry Research Center in Mora. The reforestation center was announced in January 2022 as a remedy for forests scorched by wildfires, which scientists predict will grow more intense and frequent in the changing climate. Then a few months later, two prescribed burns that went awry merged into the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, the largest runaway blaze in the state’s recorded history, scorching 341,000 acres and destroying several hundred homes. The inferno validated the need for the reforestation center more vividly and swiftly than anyone involved had imagined. “We knew that these type of fires would happen, man-made or natural,” said Owen Burney, NMSU ecophysiology professor and director of the forestry research center. “It really gave us momentum, and it’s a sad truth: It took the Hermits Peak/ Calf Canyon Fire for people to see light ... to listen to us more attentively.” At an estimated 160,000 square feet, the greenhouse will take up most of the space, Burney said. The rest of the complex, made up of offices, a seed bank, processing areas and a lab, will be about 30,000 square feet, he said. In all, it will be comparable in size to a Walmart supercenter. The goal is to get far enough along with construction to begin growing trees within three years, Burney said. Crews will cultivate 3 million to 5 million seedlings a year in the greenhouse, exponentially more than the 300,000 now grown yearly, Burney said, adding the current amount barely makes a dent in the burn scars in New Mexico and other Western states. “That is a drop in the bucket for what we really need,” Burney said. About 90,000 acres must be replanted within the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire’s burn area alone, adding up to roughly 24 million new trees, he said. In all, New Mexico must replant between 1 million and 2.6 million acres, requiring as many as 390 million seedlings, according to a news release from the state Energy, Mineral and Natural Resources Department. Even with the stepped-up seedling production, “we’re talking decades,” Burney said. The center was conceived through the state Forestry Division collaborating with NMSU, New Mexico Highlands University and the University of New Mexico. Each school agreed to take on tasks for which it is best suited. The project so far has received $8.5 million in state funding, and officials plan to request $47.5 million more from the state for the first phase of construction, he said. Last year, the project’s partners requested $80 million from the federal government to jumpstart a reforestation pipeline that covers everything from seed collection to how seedlings are sown in nurseries and where they’re ultimately planted, The Associated Press reported. In the past 20 years, wildfires have burned about 5.5 million acres across the state. Because many of the fires were high-intensity, the trees aren’t growing back and, instead, are being replaced by brush and shrubs. For that reason, the forests require crews to plant seedlings in strategic patterns, foresters say. “High severity fires aren’t going away,” Matt Hurteau, University of New Mexico biology professor, said in a statement. “Planting the right tree in the right place is the only way to help regenerate forests after a high severity fire.” One approach will be to create high-density stands within meadows, Burney said. The tree clumps will provide wildlife habitat and cast shade to help snowpack last longer, he said. Researchers will use genetics to make seeds better endure climate change making summers hotter and drier, he said. Having the reforestation center on the same campus as the forestry research center will be mutually beneficial, even though they are two different entities, he said. The research branch will offer ideas on how to develop the best seedlings and make them thrive on the landscape, and the reforestation teams can collect data on how well things work in the field, he said. “They feed each other,” Burney said.