Episode 35: Sowing Seeds for the Future

Dr. Jackie Grant from SUU's Biology department joins the podcast this week as we discuss how forest fires impact the environment and changes the landscape, as well as how seed collection can help in restoring forests.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and as usual, I am joined in-studio today by President Wyatt. How are you, Scott?

Scott Wyatt: I'm terrific, Steve, thanks. It's fun to be here.

Meredith: We've had some great guests on this program, and I'm particularly interested in the one that's here today. Why don't you introduce her?

Wyatt: So, we are delighted to have Dr. Jackie Grant with us. Welcome, Jackie.               

Dr. Jackie Grant: Thank you very much, I'm delighted to be here.

Wyatt: This has been, of course, fire season, and every year we have a fire season and you're doing some incredible, interesting work related to fires. But, before we get to that, let's go back a little bit. I just think that might be interesting. So, when did people start creating or engaging in forest fires?

Grant: Engaging in forest fires? Or using fire as a tool?

Wyatt: Yeah, using fire as a tool.

Grant: I think as far back as we can go in human history we have records of ancient people using fire as a tool. So, I'm from upstate New York, and we know that even in that area where wildfire isn't something that is on the top of people's minds that Native American's were using fire as a tool thousands of years ago.

Wyatt: Thousands of years ago, there and I believe in the West…

Grant: Oh, definitely in the West.

Wyatt:…Lighting fires. And why were they doing that? Why were they lighting fires in the forest?

Grant: The main reason would be to manage food sources—animals and plants—and keeping plants that maybe weren't so good to eat from growing. So, if you burn on a regular basis, some of your bigger trees are not going to grow on the landscape, but your smaller forbs, we call them, so smaller plants, are going to grow and you might be able to harvest seeds from those plants and then eat them or maybe feed them to some of your animals.

Wyatt: This really isn't the topic of our conversation directly, but it oftentimes makes me wonder—what is the forest naturally? Because we've got thousands of years of people influencing the forest through fire for their own personal society uses. It's kind of interesting.

Grant: Right, right. And there are actually animals and plants that are now adapted to human uses of fire and human agricultural practices. Especially if you look in Europe, you can see where people built small fences from rocks, and this actually still happens in the eastern part of the United States where these flat shale-like rocks are much more common than they are here, and different types of animals are now adapted to live in those human-made structures. Over in the eastern part of the United States, it's only hundreds of years, but in Europe, it's thousands of years, and now there's some concern that if we move away from those structures and let agricultural practices that are ancient die, we may lose some of these co-adapted species.

Wyatt: [Laughs] It's always complicated, isn't it?

Grant: It sure is.

Wyatt: Well, if we move forward, we have, for example, this huge Brian Head fire last year and then this year, as a result of that fire, we see a lot of flooding—landslides, mudslides—and we still have fires raging right now.

Grant; Right, we definitely do. And debris-flow—which is the water carrying soil and trees and rocks after a wildfire—that's elevated for at least two years after a wildfire and can go on for quite a few years after that depending on how steep the terrain is, and around Brian Head, it's pretty steep.

Wyatt: Well, as we move into this topic, before we get too far, it might be helpful for you to introduce yourself. You're a biology faculty member?

Grant: Yes.

Wyatt: And what is your specific area of study? Why don't you tell us your background?

Grant: So, I don't really have a specific area of study. I would call myself a generalist or maybe an attention deficit scientist.

Wyatt: [Laughs]

Grant: I have taught over 20 different courses since I started teaching here, and those courses have ranged from human biology and human physiology to genetics and mammalogy and environmental biology, with all sorts of other courses in between, and I've also taught for the education department to help teachers with professional development for K-12 science teachers. But, my training is equally disorganized. I have a bachelor's degree in biochemistry, a master's degree in animal science, where I focused on the nutritional toxicology of the black rhinoceros and got to go to Africa.

Wyatt and Meredith: Wow.

Grant: Yeah. My other choice was studying how goats digest poison ivy and collected their feces to analyze it for this toxin.

Wyatt: Oh, always go…

Meredith: Go with the rhino.

Grant: So, I went with the rhino, yeah. [All laugh] It was a better choice. And my Ph.D. was in neurobiology and behavior with a focus on chemical ecology of poisonous plants and the insects that eat them and population genetics of caterpillars that lived in social groups.

Wyatt: Well, now you're involved in a huge effort to collect seeds.

Grant: Yes, I am.

Wyatt: How did you get into seeds?

Grant: Well, I've always liked plants. The biochemistry degree was mostly because I liked biology and chemistry, and my father told me I could not be a marine biologist.

Meredith: [Laughs]

Grant: But then after that, you know, you go to grad school and you start doing your own thing. The rhino problem that I studied was looking at the plants that rhinos ate in the wild versus in captivity, and you could tell that the ones in captivity weren't eating the same things, so they were getting diseased. And then my Ph.D., again, was involved with plants because I studied this really poisonous plant, but there's a caterpillar that just loved to eat it and we wanted to figure out what was going on. How could this caterpillar eat this plant that was so poisonous that one leaf would make a human being vomit instantly? And, anyway, I became very interested in plants along the way because of all of the interesting things that they do and they ways that they defend themselves. And that, of course, leads to, "How do we propagate these plants? How do we keep these native plants, especially, on the environment or on the landscape?" Because they are so important for the native insects and other animals, and when you start thinking about hunting and grazing, native plants are equally important in that realm as well.

Wyatt: So, every summer, you go out, or fall, and collect seeds?

Grant: Yes. We actually start way before the seeds are even there. We have to go out in the early spring, so around April or May, depending on the weather, and look for wildflowers that are blooming. So, it's a pretty nice job to have. We get to walk around in the wilderness looking for big populations—fields—of wildflowers. Because what we're looking for are not rare plants, we're looking for really common plants that are going to be useful for public agencies and even private land owners who want to have their land restored and have enough seeds to work with. So, after something like the Brian Head fire, you can't just even have hundreds of thousands of seeds. You need to have millions of seeds. So, we're part of this small cycle of different partners throughout the whole country and we help start the process by gathering the seeds that then are planted to develop a crop of millions of seeds that will be used for restoration later in…wherever they're needed.

Wyatt: Big fire comes through, wipes out tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of acres, the land is fairly desolate after the fire…how long does it take for that to, on its own, and I know this depends on where and all those other conditions, but kind of the range, how long does it normally take for a land to recover on its own after a fire?

Grant: So, after a fire, if we're talking about a landscape like the Brian Head fire, which is a lot of conifer trees—so pine trees and fir trees—if everything were to stay the same as it was 100 years ago when those plants first sprouted, then we would expect it to take another 100 or 200 years to fully recover to what it was when it burned. However, when we start thinking about current trends in temperature and rainfall patterns and snowfall patterns, we know we're not going to see those conditions again because the climate has changed since those trees were little sprouts. So, we can't actually predict with too much accuracy when we would see that same forest reappear, because the trees won't be adapted to these new temperatures and precipitation patterns.

Wyatt: So, what's your best guess? How long would it take for it to be substantially restored?

Grant: Well, I would say in 100 to 200 years, there will be a forest back on the landscape, but it's going to be a different forest than what we have today.

Wyatt: And how much does collecting seeds and reseeding, how much does that do in terms of acceleration the restoration of the forest?

Grant: So, it depends on how deeply the soil is burned or the trees burned and how that affected the soil. So, when you look at the maps of the Brian Head fire, you can see that it's very patchy. They show little patches of reds and greens and yellows, and those colors correspond to something called soil hydrophobicity, which is a big fancy word for saying how much the soil repels fire. So, in really intense areas of burn, the patches on the map are red, and those areas, often times the soil is sterilized. So, there are no seeds left in the seed bank, which is the seeds in the soil underneath the trees that could re-sprout. It gets so hot that they say the soil has melted, and it just means the seeds become inviable because of damage by heat. In the yellow and the green patches where the fire wasn't as intense, then having…well, you're going to get some re-sprouting from the roots of things like elder berries. So, they come back really fast. Within weeks, you'll see elder berries shooting right back up from the ground from their roots and other trees like aspens will come back from their roots. Elder berries are more of a shrub than a tree, the scientist in me can't just say "elderberries and aspens are the same," but anyway, it all depends on the depth of the burn in the area. So, if it was red and the soil got sterilized, then we need to have some seeds on there, or otherwise, we have to wait for natural seed dispersal to come in and restore that ground. And that can take years, it could take decades, it all depends on the plant that we're talking about and how easily its seeds are moved around.

Wyatt: And when you say the natural dispersal, that's the wind or animals carrying seeds or eating seeds and…

Grant: Exactly.

Wyatt:…Then carrying them somewhere and then depositing them.

Grant: Yep. Even ants will carry seeds and disperse them. Not very far, but they do carry seeds.

Wyatt: I was out on a little adventure outdoors last week and I carried seeds all over the place.

Grant: [Laughs]

Wyatt: They stuck to my socks and got caught in my clothes and…

Grant: Hopefully they weren't cheat grass seeds. That's another reason why we have the fire patterns that we have today.

Wyatt: Well, whatever I carried, it was whatever I found. [All laugh]

Meredith: Whatever stuck to your socks.

Wyatt: Whatever was there. So, by collecting seeds, storing them, and then going back and reseeding these areas—you've talked about some areas where the soil is melted and other areas where it's not as bad—how much does that speed up the regeneration of the forest to have these seeds collected?

Grant: The seeds that we collect are really more for the animals, right? These are smaller plants and they're also there to help hold the soil. So, one of the first things that the forest service does is put down a non-native, sterile hybrid—triticale (trit-i-key-lee) or triticale (trit-i-keyl), just depending on where you're from, it's like an accent thing—and it's this, it's like a grass. And the grass grows and helps hold the soil in place and then the other seeds that get dropped later or get dispersed by natural causes can have a little grip. They can grip into where that new grass comes up. The grass then dies because it's sterile and it doesn't come back the next year. So, this can then hold the soil for bigger seeds like some tree seeds—pinecone seeds, that sort of thing—and speed it up probably by maybe decades, but not hundreds of years, that's for sure.

Wyatt: But decades?

Grant: Mhmm.

Wyatt: That's a lot of time when you own a cabin.

Grant: [Laughs] Yes, it is.

Wyatt: It's a lot of time when you've got a road that's going through a slope area and the water will cause flooding and mudslides…

Grant: And, of course, we can speed this up even more by taking developed seedlings and hand-planting them. But that's a lot of work. You're not going to drop them out of a helicopter like you drop seeds.

Wyatt: So, how many seeds…Brian Head, we've been talking about the Brian Head fire—and those that live in Cedar City know where that is—but Brian Head is…the Brian Head fire is in Southern Utah and it's about 40 minutes, 45 minutes—the closet pieces of it—45 minutes from our campus here in Cedar City, Utah. Huge fire. Covered, I can't recall how many acres.

Grant: It's about the size of Boise, Idaho if you need a reference. So, the size of the city of Boise in the city limits is about the same size of the Brian Head fire.

Wyatt: What was that? 70,000 acres? Or…?

Grant: I think it's in that range.

Wyatt: I should have looked it up, but it's huge.

Grant: Mhmm.

Wyatt: Would you seed the entire area?

Grant: No, generally they're not going to do that because that's too expensive. Some areas will get seedlings planted. In fact, Utah State University will be down here this month working with Randall Violette who is a professor in the agriculture department, and they are going to plant—I can't remember—maybe 3,000 aspen seedlings as 1) for restoration purposes and 2) as part of a really large-scale experiment to kind of see how planting aspen helps restore forests after big fires like this.

Wyatt: Usually aspen are one organism.

Grant: They usually are, but, if you have allergies, you might have noticed this past year was a bad year for allergies. And one of the reasons is, after a big fire, the aspens start to sexually reproduce which they don't usually do, right? They're a clonal organism, so when you see a grove of aspens, it's usually all genetically the same organism. But these fires will trigger sexual reproduction and seed production, and that's where the whole allergy thing comes in. So, some hunters are pretty excited, and they probably won't be happy about me saying this, but potentially in a few decades, we could be home to some of the best elk habitat in the whole country because of this fire.

Wyatt: Wow.

Grant: As long as our aspens take off.

Wyatt: The aspens grow.

Grant: Mhmm.

Wyatt: The collection of seed is such an interesting thing. We collect it, of course, to eat occasionally, depending on the kind of seed. You're collecting seeds as part of this larger project to restore forests and rangelands and such but help us understand a little bit more of the broader world's seed collection efforts. There's huge banks of seeds in places like Iceland and Colorado.

Grant: Right, right.

Wyatt: What's all that about?

Grant: So, one of the reasons we are mandated to collect seeds is to help preserve genetic diversity into the future. So, if we only have seeds from one part of the Colorado Plateau and there's a fire where those seeds are not adapted, those seeds may not grow, and we may waste millions of dollars trying to spread seeds in an area where they're not adapted to grow. So, many different agencies have been working towards colleting seeds at a smaller scale across larger areas so that we have locally adapted seed for many, many different areas so that we know our restoration efforts will be successful. So, what we do is we collect those seeds, we send some to a repository where they are stored for future need and also for research projects. So, a good portion of our seeds last year went to Colorado State University for some research projects there, they also went to the Chicago Botanic Gardens where they're doing some research to examine how do native plants, or what communities of native plants, are the best to keep out those invasive, non-native species like cheat grass. From there, a portion of the seeds get sent to local farmers, because, like I said earlier, we can only collect so many seeds. My team collected 300,000+ seeds last year, and that sounds like a lot, but again, we need millions of seeds. And so, the seeds get sent to farmers and the farmers test them out or other agencies test them out to see, "Is this plant going to produce seeds that are harvestable?" Some native plants produce a seed pod that explodes when you touch it. That's really difficult to harvest. It makes it economically difficult for a farmer to grow those plants and then try to harvest them and get enough to make any money off of the seeds. So, part of the research is, "Are these plants just suitable for commercial production?" Then, from the commercial production, we get the millions of seeds that we need for restoration efforts, and those get stored in seed warehouses all over the country so that they're ready when we have an emergency like the Brian Head fire.

Wyatt: You and your team, through grants here at Southern Utah University, collect wild seeds. Some of those seeds find themselves in commercial farms where they are grown at much, much higher numbers and then those seeds are the seeds that end up being the millions that we need. Is that…did I follow you right?

Grant: That's correct.

Wyatt: And then some seeds end up frozen in Iceland.

Grant: In Iceland, Denver—I'm sorry, Fort Collins, I think, has a seed repository. We also send seeds up to the seed extractory, which is a Forest Service organization in Bend, Oregon, and they clean the seeds for us. So, if we need some back for any local research projects or projects with students at the university, they'll clean up the seeds and then send them to us. Luckily, most of our seeds around here are pretty clean and not too difficult to deal with, but some seeds have really nasty hairs, that when you try to process them, the hairs will fly up into your eyes and your nose and cause terrible reactions. So, someone else gets to do most of that work for us.

Wyatt: So, why do we have so many seeds frozen in Iceland?

Grant: Again, it's the genetic repository. So, if we ever lose a population or lose some plants that are really important, we can have this bank to go back to and bring them back.

Wyatt: Always there. And they're being collected all over the world?

Grant: All over the world. So, if you think about corn, corn is a big one. Corn started as this little grass-like plant with only a few kernels on it, and if we don't know about the genetic diversity contained within that ancestral corn plant, teosinte, then we won't maybe be able to know how to deal with diseases and other things that can ravage our corn populations and our corn crops in the United States. And that did happen in the 70s.

Wyatt: Yeah. How long can you store seeds?

Grant: You can store seeds for just hundreds and hundreds of years under the right conditions. But, if they get warmed up too many times, then they might start to sprout, or they might start to degrade. They also can be infected by fungus and bacteria, so these storage facilities are pretty well monitored.

Wyatt: I hear stories about grain being found in Egypt that's... the grain is thousands of years old and it will still sprout.

Grant: Right. You know, recently, because I work in the museum here on campus, people bring me strange things, and a gentleman from Southern Utah brought me some squash seeds from a mysterious squash that he found in crevice in a cave at an undisclosed location. [All laugh] And he sprouted those seeds, which we assume given the age of the other things in the area had to be hundreds of years old and they sprouted and produced an enormous squash plant which I've seen some photos of. But it's very mysterious. It's not like any modern squash that I've seen.

Wyatt: I occasionally see corn.

Grant: Mhmm.

Wyatt: Corn that I wouldn't take, but corn in some of these ancient sites that we have around Southern Utah that's…the corn must be hundreds of years old, I don't know how old.

Grant: Mhmm.

Wyatt: Would that corn sprout?

Grant: It might. You know, if it hasn't been infected by fungus. Usually, these seeds dry and once they get nice and dry, it's very difficult for fungus or other pathogens to infect the seed. But over hundreds of years, they will start to degrade and fewer and fewer of them will be viable.

Wyatt: And typically, really small cobs, so I have never thought, "Wow, I want to grow those!" [Laughs]

Grant: Right, but a couple of hundred years ago, that small cob might have been pretty delicious.

Wyatt: I'm sure it was.

Grant: We lose a lot of heirloom fruits and vegetables because the early ones that, say, the pioneers used to plant or harvest—like the local plums that we have that are small, they're like large marbles, but you can still see them around Cedar City—you can't buy those anymore at nurseries because the fruit is so small and we have other plums that are big and juicy and easier to harvest, etc., so we tend to lose a lot of genetic diversity that way in agricultural plants as well.

Wyatt: It seems like the more time goes by, the less genetic diversity there is among all of these things—wheat and bananas and everything else.

Grant: Right. But now we're starting to do things such as genetically engineer them so they're genetically diverse in a much different way than they would have been through programs. So, we'll see what happens.

Wyatt: OK. GMOs.

Grant: GMOs. Some of them are pretty good and some of them are not so good.

Wyatt: Yeah, when I go buy tomatoes, it doesn't seem like I have any options other than a whole bunch of varieties that none of them are old varieties, they're all genetically modified someway or another.

Grant: Right, but there is a local movement in Cedar City to grow heirloom vegetables and fruits and you can find them at the farmer's market on occasion. Some really interesting chocolate tomatoes that are brown and striped green ones that are very delicious.

Wyatt: Well, looking forward, tell us about the possibilities for seed collection in the Colorado Plateau over the next five years?

Grant: Things are looking very good over the next five years for our seed collecting program here at Southern Utah University. We recently competed as part of a national call for contractors throughout the entire country to work on the BLM's Colorado Plateau region and Southern Utah University and Chicago Botanic Gardens were the two groups selected to do seed collecting work over the next five years. So, we may also have seed collecting and some native, rare plant monitoring. Hopefully with the aviation program, because nowadays, you use drones to go find some of those rare plants and keep an eye on them and make sure that they're not being disturbed.

Meredith: Hmm, I didn't know that.

Grant: Yeah. You can use drones for crime scenes, so why not for looking for plants?

Meredith: Sure.

Wyatt: Yeah, you can use them to find where your fence is broke.

Grant: Mhmm.

Wyatt: So why not? That's another use for drones. How many students do you get involved in these kinds of projects?

Grant; So, right now I have three students who are working on a different cooperative agreement I have with the BLM Heritage Resources Program and we're building gardens all over Cedar City that have native plants, pollinator friendly plants, and plants that are culturally significant to the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah. So, one of those gardens is actually at the Paiute Tribe Headquarters here in Cedar City and there's another one on campus. There's another one that we're just starting up Cedar Canyon Nature Park and a couple at local schools as well. So, those three students are working all this fall, but with this new project that we have on Colorado Plateau starting this spring, I'm hoping to have as many as ten students per summer and six other faculty employed out on the Colorado Plateau looking for native plants and seeds.

Wyatt: Wow. So, when you collect seeds, how do you do it? How do you go about collecting them?

Grant: We have a really big bucket. [All laugh] So, we go out…

Wyatt: You've just created an image in my mind that was what I was thinking you might say, but not sure you were going to say.

Grant: Yep, buckets and paper bags. [All laugh]

Meredith: Really?

Grant: Mhmm.

Wyatt: You just go get them hand by…

Grant: Yep. Sometimes we wear gloves because some seed pods can be really destructive and pointy and prickly, but you go out with a little hand clicker to keep track. You do some math first to estimate how many pods per plant you have, how many seeds per pod, and then you determine how many pods you need to harvest. And you can only harvest 20% of a population at any one harvesting period because we want to leave some genetic diversity on the ground. So, we go out, we look, we do our math, and then we just strip the seed pods off every fifth plant or every fifth pod—whatever it is we need to get to that 20%—and then reach our target goal. The minimum number of seeds we would like to collect is 10,000, but you really want to collect at least 20,000 seeds per population to get that genetic diversity that's really needed to use those seeds in the future.

Wyatt: You're not out there with a John Deere, you're out there with your hands.

Grant: We're out there with our hands, yep.

Wyatt: [Laughs] Just walking from plant to plant pulling them off.

Grant: Yes, and we see all kinds of fun things when we're out there like horned lizards and bees that sleep in flowers. There are these little, solitary bees and the males have to sleep in a flower and the females dig a hole and they all sleep together underground.

Wyatt: Wow. So, once you collect seeds, they go into your bucket, you bring them home, store them in a dry place?

Grant: Yes, we bring them in the bucket, but we put them in paper bags just to keep track of them, so they don't blow all over. And then we have to treat them for pests. So, we treat them with some pretty heavy-duty pesticides and make sure that there aren't any bugs that are going to bite the seed processors in Bend or bugs that are going to eat our seeds before then can get to Bend and be processed.

Wyatt: And then go up there, they get processed and stored, and then distributed where they're needed?

Grant: Exactly.

Wyatt: Or sent back for further research.

Grant: Right.

Wyatt: What's your favorite seed?

Grant: You know, I like asters a lot—things like sunflowers—but their seeds tend to be heavily perdaded and they fly away. So, you'll collect a lot of seeds and you think you have just been really productive, and it turns out that more than 50% of those seeds have been eaten by little maggots. So, I like them because you feel like you're getting a lot, but then I don't like them because so many of them get eaten. I think what I really like are penstemon seeds because penstemons will produce hundreds and hundreds of seeds. In the seed pod, you'll get 50-70 seeds, so that always makes you feel good and productive when you get a lot of seeds.

Wyatt: Well, your responsibilities here are pretty wide. From helping manage the museum and teaching a wide range of classes, other kind of administrative responsibilities that you've taken on.

Grant: Mhmm.

Wyatt: But thank you so much for talking with us about one area which is a great service to the broader community and opportunity for students to be engaged in research with you.

Grant: Sure thing, it was my pleasure.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. Our in-studio guest today has been Dr. Jackie Grant from the Department of Biology here at SUU. Thanks for the fascinating discussion, Jackie, we appreciate it, and thanks to all of our listeners. We'll be back again soon, bye bye.