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This massive collection of seeds could help fight climate change

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A summer of climate disasters around the globe has many people worried about the future of our planet. Well, in northeast Ohio, some are fighting climate change with a bank of tree seeds. Ida Lieszkovszky has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

IDA LIESZKOVSZKY, BYLINE: In Kirtland, Ohio, about a half-hour's drive from Cleveland, there's a huge forest and arboretum called Holden Forests and Gardens. David Burke, the vice president of science and conservation there, says forest restoration is one of the easiest ways to help fight climate change.

DAVID BURKE: Or changes in management of forest so that the forest can sequester more carbon from the atmosphere.

LIESZKOVSZKY: That's right. Just plant more trees. Of course, things are never that simple.

BURKE: One of the things people don't recognize, I think, right now is though we want to plant a lot of trees, there's a bottleneck within this process. It's that we may want to plant a trillion trees, but we don't have a trillion tree seedlings or seeds in which to do that.

LIESZKOVSZKY: According to The Nature Conservancy, there are some 148 million acres of land in the U.S. that could be reforested. But America's tree nurseries only produce enough seedlings to plant an estimated 2.5 million acres of forest land each year.

BURKE: The seed bank is an effort to sort of overcome that bottleneck and actually provide material to the community that people need for reforestation purposes.

LIESZKOVSZKY: This seed bank is an old shipping container nestled between a couple greenhouses behind Holden's research building. It was donated by a global reforestation startup called Terraformation, which gave it a white paint job outside and a seed lab makeover inside. Its operations are being funded in part by a $335,000 earmark from the U.S. Forest Service out of last year's federal budget. The seed bank's new manager, Kimberly Lessman, has big plans for this fall.

KIMBERLY LESSMAN: We will spend the next few weeks and months of the autumn season collecting seeds and storing them in the seed bank.

LIESZKOVSZKY: In fact, she's already started.

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LESSMAN: So right over here, this is all ash seed.

LIESZKOVSZKY: Inside the seed bank, there are trays covered in seeds in various states of processing, as well as a sink and other tools of the trade, like scales, scalpels, tweezers, strainers, drying racks and refrigerators.

LESSMAN: This is kind of a holding space. And this is where all of our seeds come before they're processed, cleaned and then stored.

LIESZKOVSZKY: Some of those will be sent back out for reforestation, and some will stay at Holden for research purposes. Lessman hopes project partners and volunteers will help her fill the bank, which can store 10 million seeds. So what kind of seeds are they hoping for?

KATIE STUBLE: All of them.

LIESZKOVSZKY: This is Katie Stuble. She chairs the research department at Holden.

STUBLE: All of the native species, so that our forests can be super biodiverse so that they can be super flexible to sort of flex with the next threat. That could be warmer temperatures. That might be a new disease that's on the horizon. That could be drought. That could be really extreme flood conditions. Who knows who's going to be a winner in those conditions. And so we need everybody at the table so that the winner's there, too.

LIESZKOVSZKY: Stuble says Ohio is an ideal location for the seed bank, with plenty of young forests that need better management and lots of land ripe for reforestation. But forests are under constant threat, in part from land conversion, like those ever-expanding suburbs, and partly from pests and diseases like the emerald ash borer and beech leaf disease. Holden is working on establishing private and public partnerships all around the lower Great Lakes, partnerships that they hope will help reforest the area locally and mitigate the effects of climate change globally.

For NPR News, I'm Ida Lieszkovszky in Kirtland, Ohio.

(SOUNDBITE OF RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS SONG, "SCAR TISSUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ida Lieszkovszky

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