Planting time

The native-seed business is blooming, but can a restoration economy take root in the West?

  • STALKING THE WILD WHEATGRASS: Geneticist Tom Jones searches for bluebunch wheatgrass at the USDA research lab near Logan, Utah, where scientists are working to improve plant stocks for use on Western rangelands

    Jack Dykinga, USDA/Agricultural Research Service
  • THE NATIVES: Seed heads of native grasses, from left, Western wheatgrass, Snake River wheatgrass, Indian wheatgrass, Great Basin wildrye, squirreltail and green needlegrass

    Courtesy Bitterroot Restoration Inc.
  • FUZZY ROAD BLOCK: A car makes its way through a herd of sheep on their way down from the range in Duchesne County, Utah, circa 1942

    (John Vachon, Library of Congress FSA-OWI Collection
  • SIZING UP THE NATIVES: Charting plants in an aspen and fir zone at the Great Basin Experiment Station in Sanpete County, Utah, circa 1929

    Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library
  • Native seeds are gathered using everything from a tennis racket and a tarp to specialized tools, then propagated in greenhouses or in cultivated fields

    Courtesy Bitterroot Restoration Inc.
  • ASSISTING NATURE: Native grasses are grown on a coconut-husk fiber bed at Bitterroot Restoration, then rolled up and shipped for planting in the wild

    Courtesy Bitterroot Restoration Inc.

LEHI, Utah — Once you’ve caught the seed bug, it’s tough to shake it. It must be a mild form of the gold fever that pulled prospectors across the Great Plains and the Rockies, turning ordinary men into obsessive seekers — always scanning the hills for some glint or glimmer, some hint of mineral in the rock.

Don Bermant obviously has the seed bug. He scans the hills as he drives through Utah’s outback, looking for nuts, fruits and seed pods — some sign of riches on the drab, high-desert hillsides.

“A good seed collector can look across the valley and tell you what’s growing on that slope,” he says. You can tell sagebrush is going to seed by the texture: “It gets these giant buds on it.” With some plants, a slight variation in color — a tint of yellow or brown — will betray a stand going to seed. And with others, you just have to know exactly where, and when, to look — you have to have “been all over that country,” in Bermant’s words.

What’s the allure? Like gold, seeds hold the promise of payback. Bermant first saw that promise back in 1978, as a student at Utah State University. Congress had just passed a law requiring coal mines to reclaim — and replant — their diggings. The mining companies needed seeds, and Bermant, who was studying range management, knew where to find them. He rounded up a few fellow students, directed them to ripened stands of grasses and shrubs, and promised to pay by the pound for any seeds they collected. Soon, he had a small team of college kids beating the bushes — literally — with tennis rackets and brooms, knocking millions of tiny seeds into bags and onto dropcloths, for drying, cleaning and sale.

Names out of Mermant’s botany textbooks became inventory items for his budding business: bottlebrush squirreltail (Elymus elymoides), muttongrass (Poa fendleriana), bluebunch wheatgrass (Elymus spicatus), skeleton buckwheat (Eriogonum deflexum), coyote tobacco (Nicotiana attenuata), mountain hawksbeard (Crepis acuminata), broom snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae).

“I’ve always been kind of an entrepreneur,” says Bermant, who now owns the biggest seed-distributing company in the West. His company, Granite Seed Co., is located just outside of Lehi, an agricultural town sandwiched between Salt Lake City and Provo, in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains. Bermant won’t say how much he’s worth, but his three large warehouses currently shelter 3 million pounds of seed, from both exotic and native plants. Last year, he sold 5 million pounds of seed mix to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to rehabilitate land burned by the Rodeo-Chediski Fire on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona. Half of that was native seed, and some of it, such as antelope bitterbrush, can fetch as much as $40 per pound.

Bermant doesn’t do any of the actual collecting anymore. He hires contractors to do the legwork, while he keeps an eye on the business and a finger to the political winds in Washington. Politics are important, because federal agencies, such as the BIA and the Bureau of Land Management, are some of his biggest clients. He follows trends in the mining industry closely, too. “Like everyone in a supply business, you have to have a system for predicting what you have to stock,” he says. “You need to be able to predict the future.”

Bermant isn’t the only person making a good living from native seeds. Thanks to a series of government regulations and programs over the last 25 years that promote reclamation of mine sites, road cuts, pipelines and wildfires, businesses dealing in native seeds and plants have blossomed in all corners of the West. Nobody can say exactly how big the industry has grown, but last year, 73 producers attended a native-seed symposium in Boise, Idaho. “It’s a small industry that has shown consistent growth,” says Mark Mustoe of Boise’s Sun Mountain Seeds. But the industry rests largely on the agencies that oversee the public lands — and their political bosses. Although local land managers seem to be jumping on the native seed bandwagon, funding has been sporadic. Most restoration money is earmarked for emergency, stopgap projects to control erosion or stem the spread of noxious weeds. Congress and the administration have yet to grasp the larger picture — that native plants make for healthier ecosystems. Consequently, despite its steady growth, the native-seed business remains unpredictable.similar to those who harvest many of the West’s agricultural crops. “It’s only been the last couple of years the Hispanics have showed up. Before that, it was primarily locals,” says Ed Schoppe, with the Forest Service’s Sanpete Ranger District. “It’s just like picking peas or anything else.”

Collecting seed is hot, dirty and dusty, says Christensen: Workers contend with wind and sun, and flocks of birds or sheep can blow through and clean out a crop that’s been ripening for weeks. Mountain mahogany is particularly unpleasant to harvest, he says. The shrub’s seeds are covered with tufts of a white fuzz not unlike fiberglass insulation: “When the temperature gets above 90 degrees and you’ve got that itchy stuff all over you, it’s terrible.”

Competition from other seed collectors is also becoming fierce. In the early days, “everyone had their secret patches, and competition was scarce,” says Christensen. “Nowadays, there’s so many people out there.”

The Sanpete Ranger District, which oversees the northern third of the Manti-La Sal National Forest, sells about 350 seed collection permits each year. Those permits bring in $12,000, at 25 cents per pound of seed; that means that collectors are hauling away 24 tons of seeds annually, enough to fill a 53-foot long truck. Officials have no idea how much seed is being poached.

Range scientist Neil West wonders if this intensive seed gathering might be depriving wildlife of an important source of food. There is little research on what impact seed collecting has on wildlife, or on the neotropic birds that return to the same areas year after year to refuel for long-distance migrations. “What are the cumulative effects?” asks West. “No one knows. I’m wary of unregistered harvest of seeds, willy-nilly.”

Sanpete District Ranger Tom Shore believes the permitting process should be standardized throughout all national forests and BLM lands. Each district should develop its own collecting regulations, following National Environment Protection Act guidelines, he says.

The Manti-La Sal Forest, now in the process of rewriting its forest plan, is considering some alternatives for regulating seed collecting. One of them would institute a rest-rotation plan for some harvest areas. Another would treat harvest areas much like grazing allotments, leasing them to the highest bidder.

“We need to strike some balance between collecting the seeds, and protecting special areas,” says E. Durant McArthur, project leader at the Shrub Sciences Laboratory in Provo.

A roller-coaster industry

Despite its steady growth over the past three decades, most people in the business say the native seed trade is likely to remain a relatively small-scale enterprise, run by independent operators, and posing little threat to plants or wildlife. Many shrubs and forbs are difficult to grow, so their seeds must be collected in the wild, but most native grasses are now cultivated in farm fields for their seed. So far, the demand for native seeds is neither big enough nor consistent enough to interest large corporations. Local seed markets dry up during slow fire seasons, and even in big years, you have to have the right seeds in stock. If you can’t “predict the future,” in Don Bermant’s words, you’re out of luck.

Because some seeds only last for a year or two, they can’t be stored until demand rises. And the market is unpredictable: Buzz about a “hot” seed can send collectors and cultivators scrambling, causing supplies to soar and prices to sink. Recently, the price of bluebunch wheatgrass dropped to $2.25 from $12 per pound, because of overstocking. “For a truckload of seed, that means the difference between $99,000 and $500,000,” Bermant says. “The price fluctuations are incredible.”

To compensate for the feast-or-famine nature of the industry, many seed distributors have broadened their bases, hanging part of their businesses on the one thing that can be counted on in the West today: suburban growth. Bermant, for example, grows non-native sod for lawns and golf courses.

Others, like Montana operator Pat Burke, have moved beyond plants to whole-landscape restoration. Burke started growing native plants in 1986, after landing a lucrative contract with Peabody Western Coal Co., which was reclaiming huge strip mines in central Montana and on the Navajo Reservation (see story below). He used the initial down payment to purchase an old farm near Corvallis, Mont., where he built his first greenhouse, which was soon followed by many more, along with cooling buildings, a 17-acre nursery, and a warehouse. His bustling business, Bitterroot Restoration Inc., now includes growing facilities in Sacramento, Calif.

In 1999, after flooding in Yosemite National Park washed away outbuildings and the El Portal roadway, the Park Service hired Bitterroot Restoration to restore the area. Burke’s employees collected seeds and soil microbes from the park, and started plants growing back in Montana. They also helped design the restoration projects along the roadway. That fall, Bitterroot crews planted the seedlings, then monitored their progress for several years.

“We’re not just putting plants into the ground,” Burke says. “It’s restoration, not revegetation.”

Last year, Bitterroot Restoration completed more than $6 million in projects; this year, it expects to exceed $7 million in sales. The company is now looking to move into urban restoration; some cities, like Missoula, Mont., are already planting native species instead of exotic grass lawns at former industrial sites and on weed-infested empty lots that have been converted into public parks.

Dave McAdoo, a landscape architect with Bitterroot Restoration, hopes that as more people witness the benefits of native plants, they will begin to plant them on private lands — especially as continued drought and overdevelopment put the squeeze on the West’s water supplies. “The future opportunities for this industry lie in integrating culture and nature,” he says. “You can restore isolated mine sites, but if you have the opportunity to enhance the habitat around urban and suburban areas, that’s really going to instill an environmental ethic in people.”

Adrift on the political tides

In the meantime, however, the native-seed industry depends almost entirely on the public lands — and on the federal agencies that oversee restoration on private lands.

In the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 8, which includes the two Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, the agency is overseeing the cleanup of 50 active Superfund sites. Kennecott Utah Copper will spend close to $1 billion cleaning up and restoring two old mines just outside Salt Lake City, while Atlantic Richfield Co. will do the same in Butte and Anaconda, Mont., and along the Clark Fork River. It’s much the same in Region 10, which includes Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska. The 69 Superfund sites in that region will generate more than $4.3 billion for cleanup and restoration crews; a small slice of that will go to native seeds.

Many states are also getting into reclamation: Colorado has begun to restore the upper reaches of the Rio Grande, while Utah plans to tend to a number of its rivers through the Blue Ribbon Fisheries Initiative. In northern Arizona, the Fort Valley Ecosystem Project will restore 9,100 acres of open forests.

Perhaps the most dramatic effort in the works in the West is the Great Basin Restoration Initiative, which covers 1.5 million acres in five states. Mike Pellant, coordinator of the initiative for the BLM, wants to change the way the agency rehabilitates the land — and at the same time to stabilize the seed industry. He wants to reach cheatgrass-infested areas before wildfires do, poison or plow them up, and plant a diverse plant community that includes native species (HCN, 5/22/00: Save our sagebrush).

The problem, he says, is money: “If we had an account for restoration funding, it would provide a steady demand for native seed. With $10 to $20 million a year for the restoration initiative ... seed producers could begin planning ahead to meet these consistent needs.”

Pellant’s plan would also encourage the native seed industry to expand its focus from wildlands to farmlands. Researchers are busy breeding strains of native plants that can be easily grown by farmers and ranchers. “We’re trying to develop healthier plants, not messing with genetics,” says Tom Jones, a research geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forage and Range Research Laboratory in Logan, Utah. “For instance, Indian ricegrass characteristically doesn’t hold onto its seed. We developed a strain that does — even in high winds and heavy rain. That gives the farmer a chance to harvest it mechanically, which makes it less expensive.”

Now, with some National Fire Plan funding from the BLM, Jones has turned his attention to forbs, which are often hard to cultivate and harvest by machine. If his work is successful, farmers may soon be planting fields of globe mallows, showy goldeneye, yellow salsify, silvery lupine and oval leaf buckwheat for restoration projects in the basin.

But the native-plant restoration movement still has hurdles it must clear. Without funding from Congress, the Great Basin Restoration Initiative and other projects like it can make only halting progress, and land-management agencies are once again hard-pressed to meet day-to-day costs.

Many Forest Service restoration projects were put on hold when forest supervisors were forced to divert up to $1 billion to pay for the fires of 2002. Last year, Region 1 in Montana and northern Idaho had to chip in $57 million, taken from funding originally earmarked for restoration projects. Washington officials diverted another $23 million in general funding before it even reached the region. Only $14 million was returned for restoration for 2003.

This year, Congress did not renew $5 million in funding for the Restoration of Abandoned Mine Sites program, which allowed the Army Corps of Engineers to help with state and federal cleanup projects. Burke, who has seen a 20 percent annual growth in Bitterroot Restoration Inc. since 1986, says business with the government “is starting to swing against the regulatory and money tide. It’s becoming more difficult to find work.”

Perhaps most fundamentally, despite a groundswell of support for native-plant restoration among scientists, public-land managers and environmentalists, the public, for the most part, remains uninterested. For most people, grass is grass — as long as it turns green in the summer and golden in the fall, it must be OK. Why spend money to dig up one grass and plant another?

But restoring disturbed landscapes and replanting native vegetation benefits both humans and wildlife, says Pat Williams, a former U.S. representative from Montana and currently a senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula. Livestock and wildlife graze healthier range, he says, while waterways that escape erosion-caused pollution can support healthier fisheries. Westerners benefit from reduced wildfire smoke, and from a lower risk of lead and arsenic poisoning from abandoned mine sites.

As the story of the native-seed industry illustrates, restoration can also create good-paying jobs. As a young man in Butte, Mont., Williams helped scrape out the copper mines that are now part of one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites. It was “gritty work that peeled the skin and seared the lungs,” he says. Now, he can envision an army of former miners and construction workers — “all those laborers who have the old skills for which we held such high esteem in the West” — at work with heavy equipment and shovels, cleaning up polluted rivers, abandoned mines and rangeland plagued with weeds.

“The West’s exploited lands need repair,” Williams says. “Restoration is both an economic and a biological imperative.”

Mark Matthews writes from Missoula, Montana.

The following sidebar article accompanies this story:

- On Black Mesa, the natives make a comeback

You can contact ...

      USFS Shrub Sciences Laboratory, E. Durant McArthur, 801/356-5112;
      Utah Division of Wildlife, Tyler Thompson, 435/283-4441;
      Great Basin Restoration Initiative, BLM, Mike Pellant, 208/373-3823;
      Granite Seed Co., Don Bermant, 801/768-4422;
      Intermountain Seed Co., Eric Christensen, 435/283-4703;
       Bitterroot Restoration Inc., Pat Burke, 406/961-4991.
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