Texas Native Seeds Program: Sowing seeds of change in the Lone Star State

Contributed by: Forrest S. Smith (forrest.smith@tamuk.edu )

Texas is a big place.  Within any region of this state, variability in plants, ecosystems and land uses is inherent.  But a major thread binding all of Texas’ regions is a growing value for native habitats and a focused desire to restore native plant communities for both economic and intrinsic reasons. Another commonality throughout Texas, though, has been the clear need for greater diversity, quality and supply of native plant seed sources to enable successful restoration. 

Needs for native seeds span a very broad spectrum of land uses, industries and agencies in Texas.  As a top energy producing region, seed needs for reclamation after oil and gas and renewable energy activities are many.  Associated energy transfer infrastructure, such as pipelines and electricity transfer necessitate expansive right of ways, requiring large supplies of seed to revegetate.  Texas also has over a million acres of state-managed road right of ways, and desires for native plants thereon create substantial and consistently high levels of seed demand.  On private lands, which comprise 95% of Texas’ area, land use is changing toward goals of provision of wildlife habitat and hunting opportunities and away from traditional livestock and row crop agriculture, also driving intense demand for seeds of native plants for use.  But a choke-point for the effective use of native plants in all of these sectors is large-scale commercial availability of effective, economic, and importantly, ecotypic seeds.

Pipeline right of ways represent a major land use in Texas that native seed sources help mitigate; this right of way in Dimmitt County was restored using seed made available by STN and TNS.

Pipeline right of ways represent a major land use in Texas that native seed sources help mitigate; this right of way in Dimmitt County was restored using seed made available by STN and TNS.

Enter the Texas Native Seeds Program of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute (TNS).  Today, this multi-stakeholder collaborative effort is ramping up efforts to advance the availability of and success of using native seeds for restoration in almost every corner of Texas.  TNS is the fruit of an idea with roots in a ranch picnic table almost 20 years ago, and an idea very much led by concerned private landowners.  As a private land-dominated state, that an effort to advance any conservation effort in Texas would have such origins is quite fitting.

TNS was the natural expansion of that early, and very successful idea hatched by landowners, which resulted in the South Texas Natives Project (STN).  In 10 years of focused, cooperative effort with university partners, landowners, USDA NRCS’s E. “Kika” de la Garza Plant Materials Center, and private seed companies, especially Douglass King Seed Company in San Antonio, the STN effort opened eyes to what is possible for restoration impact if the right seeds are available.  STN made enormous progress and advances in the availability of native seed supplies – and along the way, brought native plants to the forefront as a conservation topic of importance in most all land management actions in the region. 

To put these massive changes into perspective, consider that when STN began, no reasonably native seeds even remotely defined as ecotypic to South Texas were available commercially. In fact, most agencies, including the state highway department and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service were still planting African and Asian grasses in reseeding projects on roadsides and rangelands, as was the energy industry for reclamation activities.  In many ways, South Texas was full steam ahead using non-native grasses, as a whole, not very long ago.  The region was, after all, where many non-native grasses such as buffelgrass (Pennisetum ciliare), yellow bluestem (Bothriochloa ischaemum), and Lehmann lovegrass (Eragrostis lehmanniana) were first introduced, cultivated, and promoted for range restoration needs, revegetation projects, and livestock forage provision.

But what brought landowners to the table in the early 2000s, picnic and funding-wise, were the unintended consequences made clear by nearly a hundred years of use of non-native grasses.  As these non-native grasses became increasingly dominant on the Texas landscape, their poor value as habitat for wildlife, especially for economically important hunted species like northern bobwhite quail was becoming a stark reality. Clearly, once turned loose, literally, on Texas rangelands, roadsides, or energy reclamation sites, those non-native grasses did not respect fences, or adjacent native sites. As areas planted or invaded by non-native grasses became more numerous, particularly along linear disturbance corridors such as road and energy right of ways, less and less of the landscape was not negatively impacted.  While this was of little concern in the 20th century when livestock production reigned economically supreme, a new era had dawned with the 21st century, best characterized as one where rangeland economic values became more focused on wildlife and sustainable land uses best served by native habitats.  As a result, eliminating the use of non-native grasses in seeding projects, particularly those with large scale footprints, and the dire need for native seed sources to use as an alternative became a priority for Texas.

Selections such as Ramadero Germplasm spike lovegrass, are being commercialized by cooperating seed companies such as Douglass King Seed Company for use in Texas – Photo by Forrest Smith.

Selections such as Ramadero Germplasm spike lovegrass, are being commercialized by cooperating seed companies such as Douglass King Seed Company for use in Texas – Photo by Forrest Smith.

Those motivations resulted in STN having the support and cooperative hand of landowners in collecting, increasing and commercializing 30 native plant germplasm seed sources from 2007-2016.  This year, and for the past 7 years running, commercial provision of those seeds has exceeded 40,000 lbs, and in most of those years, the majority of that seed has been sold and used. 

Zapata Rio Grande clammyweed seed production field.

Zapata Rio Grande clammyweed seed production field.

Restoration enabled agencies such as the Texas Department of Transportation, who today specifies seeds developed through the STN effort for all rural roadside seedings in southern Texas.  Another major use is for private land-based restoration in the extensive Eagle Ford Shale oil and gas region, where in recent years, 20,000 wells have been drilled and thousands of miles of pipeline infrastructure have been installed. The large-scale availability of ecotypic native seeds has been a viable and effective alternative to using non-native grasses in needed reclamation activities, and has yielded some incredibly successful, and ecologically meaningful restoration results. Eagle Ford Shale restoration using native seeds can be measured in scales exceeding hundreds of miles of pipeline right of way, and thousands of acres of disturbed rangelands. 

Needs inherent to, and being met in South Texas were clearly going unmet in much of the rest of Texas when the Texas Native Seeds Program was initiated in 2011.  The Texas Department of Transportation, because of the South Texas successes, urged and supported STN to mirror itself elsewhere, and consider a vision of extending the project’s impacts statewide.  TNS began work first in Central and West Texas, and with the help of many valuable cooperators, is now fully operational in both of those regions.  Several ecotypic seed selections are being commercialized for use in Central and West Texas this year, and 20 or more regionally specific seed releases for each region are being evaluated or increased.

Restoration of native plants in the Eagle Ford Shale oil and gas fields has been enabled by seed sources developed by TNS – Photo by Forrest Smith.

Restoration of native plants in the Eagle Ford Shale oil and gas fields has been enabled by seed sources developed by TNS – Photo by Forrest Smith.

Needs inherent to, and being met in South Texas were clearly going unmet in much of the rest of Texas when the Texas Native Seeds Program was initiated in 2011.  The Texas Department of Transportation, because of the South Texas successes, urged and supported STN to mirror itself elsewhere, and consider a vision of extending the project’s impacts statewide.  TNS began work first in Central and West Texas, and with the help of many valuable cooperators, is now fully operational in both of those regions.  Several ecotypic seed selections are being commercialized for use in Central and West Texas this year, and 20 or more regionally specific seed releases for each region are being evaluated or increased.

TNS is working to select and commercialize ecotypic seed sources of many common plants in Central Texas, including little bluestem – Photo by Randy Bow.

TNS is working to select and commercialize ecotypic seed sources of many common plants in Central Texas, including little bluestem – Photo by Randy Bow.

Work to commercialize native seeds for use in West Texas is being advanced by TNS – Photo by Colin Shackelford.

Work to commercialize native seeds for use in West Texas is being advanced by TNS – Photo by Colin Shackelford.

This summer, in response needs in other parts of Texas, TNS has begun pushing forward to become a statewide program.  New regional seed development initiatives are being launched for the Permian Basin/Panhandle regions, East Texas, and the Coastal Prairies.  Our vision is six regional initiatives, operating at an economy of scale, but one mindful of ecotypic constraints of native plants. Our hope is to engage, and serve seed industry, cooperators, and private landowners, no matter where in Texas they are.  The financial and in-kind support of private landowners, agencies, and industry toward a focused, cooperative effort lead by TNS has proven to be a great model for supplying needed seed sources-and maintaining focus and progress on this one choke-point issue impacting everyone’s ability to restore native habitats.

Forrest Smith examining native plant trials.

Forrest Smith examining native plant trials.

Many factors have supported the success and growth of efforts to make native seeds available in Texas, but several are noteworthy.  Number one, has been a process of gradual, but consistent effort to bring the importance of native habitats and native plants into the land management discussion.  Through activities as seemingly benign as seed collection on thousands of private ranches, TNS has elevated the perception of the value of native plants; teaching through doing has had enormous payoff.  When STN began, restoration issues and native seed supply concerns we worked on were usually afterthoughts at best; today, they are forefront in many, if not most land use and management discussions.

Use of native plants for rangeland restoration has been enabled in many areas of Texas as a result of the TNS effort – Photo by Forrest Smith.

Use of native plants for rangeland restoration has been enabled in many areas of Texas as a result of the TNS effort – Photo by Forrest Smith.

Second, the engagement of major seed market influencers in TNS has enabled benefits to all consumers.  The importance of the role of the Texas Department of Transportation in the effort, cannot be overstated.  As one of the state’s largest landowners, their activities lead by example, and their specifications are followed by many others in industry, environmental, and conservation work impacting thousands of acres.  Other industry relationships, especially in the energy industry also create substantial demand that has propelled seed markets to levels at least five times greater than ever thought needed in South Texas alone.

Finally, economic factors aligning with native plant conservation and native seed use have had a major impact. Texas land values continue to track societal value for hunting opportunities, conservation, and wildlife habitat provision. This large-scale land use change has huge benefits for further advancement of native plant restoration, and native seed markets.

Even with the successes, there is no doubt that many challenges lie ahead of us in Texas when it comes to seed-based restoration.  Non-native grasses, even though planted less and less, are established and represent a formidable stumbling block for most any restoration effort in any reach of the state.

Two, in some areas, such as East Texas and the Coastal Prairie region, there are almost no ecotypic native seeds available today at any scale of provision; we are very much starting from scratch just like we did in South Texas a decade and half ago. It will take the better part of another decade to make the needed diversity of native seeds for effective restoration available. 

Third, Texas is rapidly undergoing broad changes that threaten to out-pace private land values for wildlife habitat and native plants.  As many as 345 people move to Texas each day, and the relative footprint of rapid urbanization, additional fragmentation, and associated needs for greater transportation, utility, and water infrastructure already stretch the capacity of restoration and seed markets. As population growth continues, it may be very hard to keep pace with these factors.  Booming energy production, of both traditional energy sources, and from growing emphasis on land-hungry renewable sources such as solar and wind, also has potential to outpace restoration ability, already hampered significantly by native seed supply.

Within the commercial seed trade, resistance to the science-based and important ecotypic seed concept for native seeds is stubbornly entrenched, but one we are keen to continue working to solve.  Just as with non-native grasses, until viable and effective alternatives are reality, change is not entirely possible. But once ecotypic seed selections for production are available, we are hopeful that demand, in part created by education and demonstration efforts led by TNS, will facilitate needed changes by some seed companies. Two related issues, those of native seed quality and cleanliness of available native seeds, are also issues we need to solve. The mechanisms to address them, such as seed certification programs, are still relatively new territory for our state, but are catching on. 

Finally, in true “be careful what you ask for” fashion, much of the excitement to conduct on-the-ground restoration, such as for milkweed and nectar plants for pollinators, and even for prairie restoration of common species in some Texas regions is a few years ahead of its time.  Seed sources are nowhere near commercial quantities for all locations, but we are working in earnest to provide them. We have done a great job convincing Texans to plant native seeds and restore habitats, now we need to do a much better job of enabling them to do it.   

TNS is working to increase supplies of milkweeds and nectar plants for restoration of habitat for monarchs and pollinators in Texas – Photo by Anthony Falk.

TNS is working to increase supplies of milkweeds and nectar plants for restoration of habitat for monarchs and pollinators in Texas – Photo by Anthony Falk.

In the end, one thing is clear, and overwhelmingly positive: with the continued support and investment of private landowners, state agencies like TxDOT, energy industry, and critical federal partners like the Texas NRCS and the Plant Materials Program in the TNS effort, an exciting future is ahead for our big state when it comes to seed-based native plant restoration.  We look forward to continuing to sow the native seeds of change in Texas.

Project websites:

 https://www.ckwri.tamuk.edu/research-programs/texas-native-seeds

https://www.ckwri.tamuk.edu/research-programs/south-texas-natives