Jake Good, a nursery technician at Virginia's Augusta Forestry Center, looks for pin oak acorns that have germinated. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

CRIMORA — In nine neat fields tucked between a bend of the South River and a Norfolk Southern line, a key piece of Virginia’s carbon-free future is taking shape. 

Here, in many places appearing as little more than a green haze floating above the soil, some 50 varieties of trees are slowly poking shoots up toward the sun. Dozens are hardwoods, slower growing than Virginia’s inexhaustible stands of pine but especially prized for their ecological value — their long lives, the nuts and fruits they furnish wildlife, the pollution filtration and soil stability their roots provide — and, of course, the climate change-causing carbon dioxide they remove from the air.

Policymakers and companies both nationwide and in Virginia are banking on trees as a vital component of achieving net-zero emissions. Forests, with their carbon sequestration possibilities, are one of the most powerful ways officials have to offset the carbon that will continue to be pumped out as fossil fuels linger and in some industries like steelmaking remain a fixture. 

But every tree starts with a seed. And as plans to sequester carbon in millions of acres of forest proliferate, many forestry experts say the existing supply of seedlings falls short of what will be needed to meet ambitious climate change goals. 

“What’s become painfully obvious is there’s just not enough hardwood seedling capacity out there,” said Chandler Van Voorhis, co-founder and managing partner of ACRE Investment Management, a conservation finance investment firm headquartered in The Plains, Va. “There’s plenty of pine, but pine’s not what people are looking for.” 

In Virginia, supply pressures are set to be even further stretched by Chesapeake Bay cleanup. As the region nears its 2025 deadline for major pollution reductions in the nation’s largest estuary, an increased push to plant forested buffers as a way to filter out excess nutrients from runoff before it reaches waterways will also compete with reforestation projects for what may soon be a limited supply of seedlings. 

If half of all the carbon and water quality projects planned come to fruition, “there’s going to be a significant need for more seedlings,” said Ed Zimmer, deputy state forester for the Virginia Department of Forestry. “Where are they coming from?” 

A cradle of carbon capture

Today in Virginia, most of those seedlings come from one place: the state-run Augusta Forestry Center in Crimora, just north of Waynesboro. 

Opened in 1967, the 189-acre Crimora facility is one of a host of tree nurseries operated by states. Unlike commercial nurseries, Crimora specializes in one- to two-year-old seedlings, of which roughly 70 percent go to conservation projects encouraged by the state. 

“The vast majority of buffer plantings in Virginia are things coming from here,” said Zimmer. Alongside “usual suspects” like oaks, black walnut, flowering dogwood and redbud, every year the nursery also experiments with a few less regionally common species, like basswood (also called linden), black gum and the once-widespread but nearly eradicated American chestnut.

A pin oak acorn that has begun germinating at the Augusta Forestry Center. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

“It waxes and wanes,” said nursery manager Josh McLaughlin, who is one of only two full-time employees who today works in the field at Crimora. 

Facilities like the Augusta Forestry Center once flourished nationwide, but recent years have seen a rash of closures due to constrained budgets in the wake of the 2008-09 recession and reluctance in some places to compete with private enterprise. West Virginia closed its last state-run tree nursery this spring. 

Virginia too has struggled at times to keep its nurseries, which are supported by seedling sales revenues, afloat.  

“Several years ago there was discussion of whether we were going to keep Augusta open,” said Josh McLaughlin, manager of the Crimora nursery. Not only were recession-era finances tight, but ongoing slowdowns in coal production had also dampened some of the market for restoration of former mine sites, a job that uses trees extensively for reforestation. 

The acceleration of carbon markets helped ease the nursery’s straits, McLaughin said.

“It was the perfect offset,” he said. If it hadn’t been for that, “that probably would have been the year we shut down.” 

Today not only is the Augusta nursery still in operation, but 2020 saw its orders double over the prior year. Altogether the facility produced 4.2 million seedlings, more than a quarter of them hardwoods. The Garland Gray Forestry Center in Sussex County, which predominantly turns out loblolly pine, grew 30 million seedlings. 

“The evidence would suggest that Virginia grows 20 percent of all seedlings in state-run nurseries” nationwide, said Zimmer. 

The carbon markets are only set to expand. Virginia’s General Assembly last legislative session signed off on a proposal to form a task force to explore the potential of carbon sequestration. President Joseph Biden’s administration has included “carbon sinks” linked to forests and agriculture as part of its plans for reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent from their 2005 baseline by 2035. And this spring, freshman U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ore., proposed the Solving Our Shortages for Seedlings Act, which would create a “national seedling strategy” for reforestation and put $1 billion toward a loan program for federal, state and tribal nurseries. 

Big businesses have been particularly eager to jump into carbon markets. One of ACRE Investment’s companies, Green Trees, annually sells credits for over a million metric tons of carbon sequestered from 130,000 acres of hardwood forest in the Mississippi Delta to companies including Norfolk Southern, Duke Energy, Microsoft, Shell and Bank of America. 

“What’s fundamentally changing is that these big companies are realizing that as they make these net-zero commitments … there’s two ways that you get there, and really you need to employ both of them,” said Van Voorhis. One is to decrease actual emissions. The other is to offset them. 

“Think of nature as a technology. Think of trees as a technology,” he said. Then it’s just a matter of scaling up the technology — planting more trees — to absorb more and more carbon. 

Expansion

The foresters who work at Augusta are keenly aware of what’s coming down the pike. 

“Folks engaged in (the carbon) market have told us that east of the Mississippi in the U.S., they see the availability of these types of seedlings in the 20 million per year range, which is a very, very small number,” said Zimmer. “We’d need a lot more seedlings than that just for the initiatives folks have in Virginia.” 

Already expansion is under way at Crimora. The biennial budget passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam this spring allocated an extra $290,000 to the Department of Forestry to expand operations at the nursery. McLaughlin said the plan is to increase the number of planted acres at Crimora from 18 to 20 this year, with another leap to 25 next year. A facility at New Kent where the agency conducts research and propagates seeds also could serve as space for more fields if needed.

Augusta Forestry Center manager Josh McLaughlin talks about tree seedlings. (Sarah Vogelsong /Virginia Mercury)

“We do have the potential to bring currently fallow fields at New Kent into seedling production again,” Zimmer said. “It would take a fair amount of capital investment to do that, but given that we have the land and we have the infrastructure already, it would probably be the cheapest way to do that.” 

Virginia isn’t alone in the potential it sees for the tree seedling industry. One joint study by American Forests and the Nature Conservancy identified 133 million acres that would be suitable for reforestation for carbon capture. Many of those are in the Southeast, where soil and weather combine to produce hothouse conditions for many trees and where most land is privately owned, allowing more rapid industry growth. 

“It doesn’t mean there’s not going to be activity out in California and Oregon and Washington. Absolutely, there’s going to be pockets of things,” said Van Voorhis. “But when you’re talking about massive (expansion), where the numbers are going to roll up, it’s going to be in the Southeast.”

Without the seedling nurseries that will fuel that growth, “everything is for naught,” he added.

“This is where the rubber meets the road, because someone has to actually start growing the material so that companies like us can go out and plant the material.”