Reestablishing a thriving Northwoods through assisted migration
In the Northwoods, the climate has been changing rapidly. Since the 19th century, average annual temperatures have risen more than 3.6° F (2º C) and extreme weather patterns have become more common. Because many trees are unable to adapt to fast change, studies predict serious alterations to forest biomes and vegetation. As Northeast RSDP executive director David Abazs warns, without human intervention, the Northwoods could become grasslands as soon as the 2060s. But people can help them prepare for a changing climate by collecting a wide diversity of tree seeds from sources in warmer climates, including from species most able to adapt to and survive climate change, to plant there. It’s a practice called assisted migration, and Abazs says it’s necessary to pursue since human-caused climate change is at the root of the problem. We must intervene in order to retain the many ways we interact with and benefit from the varied resources – economic, environmental, even social – our beloved Northwoods provide.
The Forest Assisted Migration Project, supported by a 2020 IonE Impact Grant and Northeast RSDP, is an ongoing five-year initiative that aims to cultivate “climate-smart” forests that will continue to support tourism, the forestry industry, and wildlife alike. The team comprises Dr. Julie Etterson, department head of UMD’s Swenson College of Science and Engineering (SCSE) and director of the Institute on the Environment Duluth, Dr. Briana Gross, associate department head of SCSE, and Abazs, who is knitting together the different aspects of the project. In order to reestablish forest resiliency and boost the regional economy, they’re building a seed collection program called the Farm and Forest Growers (FFG) network, establishing partnerships and seedling purchase agreements with reforestation agencies, and continuing research on tree species that are predicted to survive a warming climate. So far, they’ve engaged more than 150 individuals – including UMD students, AmeriCorps members, and key folks such as Nature Conservancy lead scientist Meredith Cornett – and 30 institutions such as the Greater Mille Lacs and Lake Superior chapters of the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota.
By collecting and studying seeds from a genetically diverse selection of trees common in Central and Southern Minnesota, including some that can also be found in the Northwoods, the team has been able to identify which have traits that will help them to survive – even flourish – in a changing northern climate. Some species – paper birch, aspen, and spruce, for example – are expected to struggle in predicted climate scenarios, while species such as northern red oak, yellow birch, black cherry, silver maple, and white pine, are expected to do well. Regardless of how the climate changes, introducing a broader variety of genetics will increase the adaptability and resilience of the forest overall.
In their first year, the Farm and Forest Growers network has established a sturdy network of 15 farmer seed collectors and seven seed buyers, including Minnesota Power and the Nature Conservancy, proving the work is highly beneficial for farmers and environmental organizations alike. And they’re looking to grow.
Interested farmers with forested land can still participate as seed harvesters, an income opportunity that relies on existing tools and resources and doesn’t require additional investments. To sign up for an introductory meeting on the seed collectors network scheduled for July 15, 2021, email David Abazs or Joel Bransky, an AmeriCorps VISTA member working with Northeast RSDP on the project. In your message, please include the location of your farm, which species are currently found there, and your contact information.
Abby Hornberger is a recent graduate from CFANS and an IonE Communications Assistant.