Restoration projects site difficulties sourcing stock they need
By Zachary Matson
The East Branch of the Ausable River in Jay has a new bank. But it still needs to be dressed.
Twigs hardly a foot high stick out of bare dirt, cobble and coconut fabric spread across wide sections. While the sticks look dead, fresh growth has sprouted from their base and narrow willow leaves unfurl toward the sun.
In May, volunteers with the Ausable River Association (AsRA), which restructured the river and its banks at the site in 2021, pounded more of the willow twigs into rocky ground and surrounded them with fresh mulch. The program is part of a trend to repopulate areas with native plants—if planters can find the plants.
At the Ausable, other natives set for planting included red osier and silky dogwoods, witch hazel and a handful of white spruce.
Each time the river overflows its channel, fallen branches, dead plants, sediment and rocks wash onto the embankment. The material will gradually break down and build up a soil base. And the coconut fabric and other handiwork of the river association will be hidden by the natural forces of the river. But the willows, dogwoods and their progeny will live on.
Helene Gibbens leads meditative walks in the cool waters of the Ausable River. Working with a team of military veterans from St. Joseph’s Treatment Center in Saranac Lake, Gibbons helped plant the site’s east bank. She imagined what the place would look like from the river in five or 10 years: Lush.
Conservationists working to restore streams and rivers think in layers as they plant reconfigured riverbanks. First, a carpet of native grass and wildflower seeds, then woody shrubs and bushes and, finally, tall canopy trees that can cast shade across the water and provide respite to trout and other aquatic life. The river’s native plant species evolved over millennia to form a web of roots that stabilize the shore, absorb floodwaters and host pollinators, birds and other wildlife—the keys to Adirondack survival coded into their genetics. So, the closer the plants are grown to the restoration site, the better.
While funding in coming years could bolster the reach of restorative projects across the Adirondack landscape, the supply of native plant material—seeds, cuttings and bare root plants—has emerged as a potential bottleneck.
A national issue: Lack of native plant supply
Carrianne Pershyn, AsRA’s biodiversity research manager, said funding and obtaining plant material can be a challenge.
“Certain species are always running out, and we need to get our orders in faster and faster,” Pershyn said.
The problem is national: In the western United States, vast swaths of federal land add to a backlog of areas burned by forest fires in need of restoration planting. The U.S. Forest Service has plans to spend over $100 million annually to reforest 4 million acres in the next 10 years.
Respondents to a survey of native plant users east of the Mississippi River reported their most popular seed vendors were over 360 miles away on average, while their second choices were more than 800 miles away, much further away than most preferred.
The Lake Champlain Basin program this spring devoted $1 million in federal infrastructure funding to support proposals from organizations involved in growing and selling native trees and shrubs for conservation projects. The grant aims to “build or grow tree nursery capacity and reduce the cost of stems for conservation planting projects” in New York and Vermont.
The money could help bolster the region’s existing conservation nurseries and fledgling efforts to expand the native plant supply.
To spur native plant supply
- Improve federal coordination
- Develop regional partnerships
- Encourage tribal nurseries
- Create predictable demand
- Share seed collection/plant storage
- Protect seed sources on public land
- Increase propagation research
Source: National Academy of Sciences
The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe in 2020 started construction on the tribal government’s Native Plant Nursery. It supplies tribal restoration projects and aims to protect traditional practices and knowledge. The nursery worked with an ethnobotanist to write a guide detailing how to propagate scores of important plant species.
The Ausable River Association last year planted a small plot of willows and dogwoods at the Uihlein Farm in Lake Placid. As the plants fill out, they will supply cuttings for use in future projects.
“It won’t meet our demand but augment it, fill in the gaps,” Pershyn said.
A 2022 report from the National Academy of Sciences found that nationally the supply of native plant material was “severely insufficient” and recommended concerted effort among federal and state government agencies to expand the supply.
‘Not fast work’
The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe’s environmental staff work to restore streambanks on the Saint Regis, Raquette and St. Lawrence rivers, removing phragmites, an invasive reed grass that has taken over riparian and wetland areas.
At first, they hoped that after removing the invasive plants, native plants would quickly recolonize. But they learned it was more effective to replant the areas to help establish native plant cover.
“Native plant restoration work is not fast work,” said Jessica Raspitha, the tribe’s land resources program manager who oversees the nursery. “It’s a very slow-moving process.”
A working group that consists of community members focused on traditional foods and medicines, beekeepers, foresters, arborists and others interested in native plants meet quarterly to guide the nursery’s goals. They also surveyed the broader community.
“To be as cohesive and comprehensive as possible, we need that broad cross section of the community,” Raspitha said.
While the nursery’s first plants have been used at restoration sites, long-term goals include preserving medicinal plants and food sources and enabling the continuation of traditional practices like basket weaving.
“A lot of our work is focused on trying to restore the reciprocal relationship between Akwesasne and its people,” Raspitha said. “There is a historic link between Mohawk people and our environment. What we are trying to do is restore the availability of those species … so [traditional practices] can continue to be taught and passed down.”
Emerald ash borer has devastated one of the tribe’s most prized trees: the black ash. The tree is central to Mohawk basket making but is now at risk to the invasive forest pest. The tribe’s environmental specialists have started to identify high-value ash trees to focus protection efforts, while removing hazardous ones and replacing them with alternative trees to renew canopy cover.
Since the tree species is currently under threat, the nursery is not growing replacement ashes, but they plan to maintain a seed supply for the future.
“If the resource is gone, the cultural practice that is tied to it can be lost also,” Raspitha said, noting they had to be flexible in starting the nursery, working around pandemic constraints and learning each day what works. They also learn from residents how nursery-grown plants compare to what they are used to in the wild.
The nursery plans to add new species each year and gradually expand their capacity to manage more plants. The need isn’t going anywhere.
“I don’t think there will ever be a time we don’t need more native plants,” Raspitha said.
Intervale Conservation Nursery
AsRA purchases most of its bare root shrubs and trees from the Intervale Conservation Nursery in Burlington, Vermont, one of the region’s largest native plant nurseries.
Each year, the nursery, created in 2002 as part of a larger nonprofit devoted to community food, supplies thousands of stems to restoration projects across Vermont and in parts of neighboring states.
The nursery’s small team collects seeds from private and public land before raising the plants at their nursery site in the floodplains of the Winooski River. They sell them to government agencies, nonprofits, water conservation districts and private landowners when the plants are one or two years old.
Christine Cramer, the conservation nursery coordinator, said the nursery sells around 25,000 stems of bare root plants every year and plants around 45,000 stems into their field each year. At any given time, the nursery will have around 70,000 plants growing for future use, Cramer said.
“We are always looking for seed sources,” Cramer said. “The demand is definitely there.”
Kiana French, Intervale’s sales and propagation coordinator, said the nursery has worked with some private New York landowners and Essex County in recent years. Since Intervale sources its seeds from within an hour’s drive, the nursery’s plants are better suited to grow in the Adirondacks than many other conservation nurseries. AsRA buys its seed mixes from a large nursery in Pennsylvania focused on conservation planting.
“Something grown in the Champlain Valley at the nursery is more fit for a planting site in the Champlain Valley,” Cramer said.
During the past two decades, the Intervale Nursery has grown its capacity. They added a packing and storage facility in 2019 and built a greenhouse last year. A position funded by Vermont aims to coordinate native seed strategies across the state.
Cramer said the nursery is always looking to increase their efficiency to keep prices down. They also try to communicate with their customers as much as possible, sharing details about their supplies and gathering information about their customers’ future projects. They expect demand to continue to grow in coming years.
“[More projects] are coming and even bigger than what we are looking at right now,” Cramer said.
Mother Nature’s nursery
The goal is to restore ecological balance and let nature take over the responsibility for plant propagation.
AsRA staff monitors project sites for years after completing the initial work, checking for new native plants and invasives and continuing to plant shrubs and trees to build up the riparian layers.
At an AsRA restoration site along Haselton Road in Wilmington, known to anglers as the Dream Mile, a thin but growing soil base had grown and a green carpet of grasses and perennial flowers shrouded the stone embankment. A bustling nursery emerged in the greenery: cedar and white pine saplings poked above the grass or nestled into a downed log, willows reached toward light on the river’s edge and a turkey’s nest held a clutch of eggs a few feet from the water.
Nature had started to take over the restoration work. “It doesn’t take much,” Pershyn said.
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