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Reseeding after wildfires is hard. UNM scientists may have a fix.

NRCS Oregon
Via Flickr

Only a quarter of seedlings planted after wildfires grow into trees. That’s a challenge forest managers are facing across the Southwest while drought and rising temperatures are causing wildfires to burn hotter and larger.

But, one research team at the University of New Mexico may have found a way to ease the hard, manual labor of reseeding by better predicting seedling survival rates.

Joseph Crockett, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Biology at UNM and a research team member, said historically researchers have been able to predict seedling survival with around 10 to 25% success.

Now, he said UNM’s Earth Systems Ecology Lab raises that number up to 63% by using an area’s microtopography.

“Microtopography is what’s really happening under our feet. Imagine you're hiking in the woods going up a mountain. And you think about the slope of that, how steep it is, how hard it is to get to the top of the mountain.”

He added their discovery could potentially help seedling survival skyrocket close to 70% in the wild.

“That’s great! That’s an amazing return," Crockett said. "That’s the difference between spending a decade trying to get an area to be reforested, versus reforesting an area in five years.”

The team, spearheaded by forest ecologist Matthew Hurteau, did this research on the charred landscape of the Las Conchas fire that swept through Bandelier in 2011.

They said this data can be used to help rehabilitate the 900,000 acres of land burned in New Mexico this past year. However, they pointed out that the amount of seed needed to reforest such large areas makes it physically impossible to replant every inch lost.

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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