Along the Burnt Mesa Trail in New Mexico, a crew outfitted with spurs, ropes, and hard hats scrambles to collect pine cones. They’re well equipped to scale hefty tree trunks. They use long clippers to snip branches loaded with prickly ponderosa pine cones. The seeds inside each cone will be cleaned and sorted, and then saved or grown into seedlings. In either case, the seeds will help bring new life to fire-scarred hillsides. Project participants hope to collect one million seeds.
Pines produced a bumper crop of cones this year. The bounty is evidence of God’s design working to guarantee future propagation, or new growth. Every decade or so, trees produce extra seeds. The excess is a welcome gift to other species—including people! The extra seeds are vital to new plant growth—especially in forests ravaged by hungry predators and natural disasters such as fire.
Sarah Hurteau works with The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico. She knows how important seed collection is for reforestation. Hurteau says, “We’ve had so many large, high-severity fires in the state, and without our intervention there is a possibility that some of those areas will never be forests again.”
Some trees depend on forest fires for growth. God uses something that seems harmful to a forest for its own good. For example, Jack pine trees have thick, hard cones covered in dense resin. The resin seals the cone’s seeds inside. When fire consumes the cone, the intense heat breaks the resin seal, releasing the seeds. Sequoia trees also benefit from this fire-stimulated seed release. But many other trees and their seeds are devastated by flames. That’s why so many forests struggle to recover from fire damage.
For years, people have helped manage forests by collecting, saving, and propagating seeds. In New Mexico, the Santa Clara Pueblo community has gathered seeds from about 2.5 million trees! The group maintains a seed bank of ponderosa, Douglas fir, spruce, and other pine variations. South Dakota, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah have similar seed banks.
Of course, there’s a science to cone picking. Pine cone collectors look for perfect samples. They don’t collect cones that are bent, curvy, broken, sappy, or full of holes. Trees loaded with cones can take significant time to harvest. But that’s OK. It’s what’s inside that matters. Precious seeds are worth the investment.