Skip Navigation

NRCS Idaho Plant Materials Center helping to restore habitat at Yosemite

Cones containing seeds for a wetlands restoration project at Yosemite National Park line the tables in a greenhouse at the Natural Resources Conservation Service Plant Materials Center in Aberdeen, IDNational Parks are special places that have been set aside for the enjoyment of current and future generations. For that reason, the National Park Service, the agency responsible for these American treasures for nearly 100 years, has very specific policies about how they are cared for. Some of those policies are related to the genetic integrity of plant populations and their preservation. The National Park Service requires that the plants and seeds used in restoration and preservation plans must be closely (if not directly) related to native populations near the project site. However, the National Park Service does not always have the expertise, facilities or equipment to propagate the plant materials it needs as there is often a lot of research and technology required.

This is where the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) comes in. Through a special national Memorandum of Understanding, the National Park Service is able to work with the NRCS to utilize the knowledge, skills and space of one of its 25 Plant Materials Centers nationwide to raise the plant materials necessary for a restoration project.

Christine Taliga, NRCS Revegetation Technical Advisor to the National Park Service, serves as a matchmaker between parks and Plant Materials Centers. She noted that the Memorandum of Understanding between NRCS and the NPS goes back to 1989. Currently, she is managing more than $1 million in inter-agency agreements annually between NRCS Plant Materials Program and the National Park Service.

“We base our decision (of which Plant Material Center to pair with a national park’s needs) on a number of things,” Taliga said. “Does the center have a history of collaboration with the park? Does it have similar growing conditions, climate and elevation to the park? What is the center’s technical area of interest?”

So, when Yosemite National Park determined a need for a wetland restoration project in 2015, Taliga connected them to the Plant Materials Center in Aberdeen, Idaho. Even though Yosemite lies outside the Great Basin, which is the Aberdeen Plant Materials Center area of expertise, the center also has significant interest in and experience with wetland plants, which is precisely what the park needed in a partner.

Derek Tilley, manager of the Aberdeen Plant Materials Center, noted that the Yosemite project involves several wetland species that had never been under cultivation in a greenhouse before and that it will give the center the opportunity to experiment with different germination techniques to determine what works best.

“None of these things goes exactly according to plan,” said Tilley, referring to any initial attempt to propagate plant species that have never been raised in captivity for large scale production before.

There will be successes and there will be failures, but unlike commercial nurseries, the Aberdeen Plant Materials Center doesn’t see failures as lost opportunities. It sees them as invaluable learning experiences. The information Tilley gains from working with the Yosemite plants can then be applied to other wetland plants to improve the center’s success rates with an ever increasing number of species.

Right now, Tilley is entirely responsible for the two-year project, which will produce 10,000 plants in 2016 and 10,000 plants in 2017. The Aberdeen-raised sedges and rushes along with some wildflowers – also known as forbs – will be used help re-establish a 4.1 acre wetlands ecosystem in a former parking lot area at Yosemite that is located in a sensitive flood plain. However, in the future he will be assisted by an agronomist who will be responsible for maintaining the greenhouse where the plants will be growing.

Curtis Elke, NRCS-Idaho State Conservationist noted, “This project and collaboration with the National Park Service is a very good example of leveraging dollars between agencies and maximizing the technical skills and services available.”

This is not Tilley’s first NRCS- National Park Service project, which was another reason Taliga matched Yosemite with Aberdeen. The center has been working with Yellowstone National Park since 2009 to produce seed for various restoration projects within the park.  In 2014, the center produced seed of Sandberg bluegrass and bluebunch wheatgrass, which are being used to restore lands in the Gardiner Basin area, which had been hay fields before the park acquired the property.

The center is similarly working with Grand Teton National Park to produce seeds and plants from that park to be used restoration projects there: Idaho fescue, blue wild rye, mountain brome and three native forbs: sulphur flower buckwheat, showy goldeneye and one-flower sunflower.

“I like working with the National Park Service,” Tilley said. “They are good folks, and they give us some challenging plants, which makes it interesting.” It also allows for transferring of plant propagation technology to the plant materials program and NRCS.