Wisconsin DNR to distribute 4.7 million seedlings this year in effort to help reforestation, fight climate change

Wisconsin is about to begin distributing millions of seedlings to landowners across the state, to help with reforestation and to help combat climate change. 

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will distribute 4.7 million seedlings this year, said Joe Vande Hey, the reforestation team leader and nursery superintendent for the agency. 

Since 1911, the state’s nurseries have produced 1.6 billion seedlings to be used by landowners across the state, said Vande Hey, Most often, the trees are used in reforestation efforts after logging or other large tree removals or erosion control, wind breaks or hunters with large plots on which they want to establish better wildlife habitat.

Contract workers from Arkansas harvest three-year-old red pine seedlings Tuesday, April 20, 2021 at the Wilson State Nursery in Boscobel, Wis. Seedlings sold by the Wisconsin state nurseries are to be used for reforestation, wildlife habitat and windbreak and erosion control purposes and must be planted in Wisconsin. The minimum order is a packet of 300 seedlings, 500 shrubs or 1,000 seedlings.

Replanting trees can also be used in the fight against climate change, Vande Hey  said. As trees grow, they take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, keeping the carbon inside of them as they grow. 

‘Trees are our greatest renewable resource’

“I always say that trees are our greatest renewable resource,” he said. 

About 25% of global carbon emissions are captured by the Earth’s forests, farms and grasslands, according to information from the Clarity and Leadership for Environmental Awareness and Research at the University of California-Davis. Even after plants die, they can transfer carbon into the soil, keeping carbon out of the air for up to 70,000 years. 

Forests themselves can absorb up to about 18 billion tons of CO2 a year, according to a study by the nonprofit World Resources Institute, while deforested areas can release an average of about 9 billion tons. The trees tie the carbon up in their wood, Vande Hey said, storing more carbon as they grow larger. 

The seedlings being sold this year are a combination of hardwood and conifer trees, Vande Hey said. For the most part, the conifers will go up north and the hardwoods will go to the southern portion of the state. 

The trees were raised from seeds at the DNR nurseries across the state, put into the ground during the late summer or fall, when they’d typically fall from the branches in a natural habitat, Vande Hey said. The seeds are left to germinate the following spring and then grow for one to three years, depending on the type of tree and how fast it matures. 

Contract workers from Arkansas harvest three-year-old red pine seedlings Tuesday, April 20, 2021 at the Wilson State Nursery in Boscobel, Wis. Seedlings sold by the Wisconsin state nurseries are to be used for reforestation, wildlife habitat and windbreak and erosion control purposes and must be planted in Wisconsin. The minimum order is a packet of 300 seedlings, 500 shrubs or 1,000 seedlings.

Then the trees are plucked from the ground, organized into bundles of 25 trees, put into boxes, watered and sealed. About 100 to 1,000 trees get placed in a box, Vande Hey said. Then the boxes can be picked up at any of the three nurseries across the state — in Boscobel, Wisconsin Rapids and Hayward — or they can be shipped to any DNR county forester office for later pickup. 

The seedlings are then sold for a price based on how much it cost to raise them, anywhere from 30 cents to $1, he said. The minimum order is 300 seedlings, 500 shrubs or 1,000 seedlings. 

This year, though the bulk of ordering is done already, it’s not too late to place an order, Vande Hey said. There are still plenty of jack and red pines, white spruce, red oak, black walnut and various other shrubs available. 

“All are well suited for the soils of Wisconsin,” he said. 

Laura Schulte can be reached at leschulte@jrn.com and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura