Here’s the problem: The planet is burning and there is nothing we can do about it.
Forests are at risk not just from the damage of climate change, but also because the industries that support them remain traditional and under-resourced. mast afforestation is building a technology-leading forest-as-a-service company that dramatically simplifies and accelerates the process of restoring land lost to wildfire.
The company arguably germinated from DroneSeed, which pioneered new ways of analyzing forests and planting seeds as a form of therapeutic precision agriculture. They found that while their method worked, the bottleneck in restoring the forest wasn’t just the planting process. It’s… pretty much everything else.
To plant a tree, you need a sapling (preferably a few thousand); someone needs to plant that sapling; someone needs a seed supply and a growing infrastructure, not to mention the logistics to tie it all together . The companies that fill these needs are often a hundred years or more old, relics of the old logging industry that haven’t done their jobs differently in decades, for lack of money or interest.
As wildfires become a regular (and destructive) part of the dry season in many regions, seedling suppliers have been caught off guard. While it’s clearly an increasingly important part of supporting the health of our planet, reforestation has largely stalled as other industries race to adopt the technology.
The upshot is that satellite imagery can tell us the exact shape of a fire, and machine learning models can predict its extent…but seed banks and seedling growers, distribution networks, and everything in between work like they were in the 20th century…if it wasn’t 19th.
While this legacy has indeed proven to be both significant and limited, it is clear that demand has vastly outstripped supply. Innovating on a demand-side (and equally antiquated) process, DroneSeed decided to go all-in, building a new company that would combine the resources and network of a century-old forestry company with next-generation technology.
The result is Mast Reforestation – referred to as “mast events” when the tree produces a large number of cones and seeds. It is the umbrella company for DroneSeed and the recently acquired seed processor SilvaSeed, among other companies and platforms. Together, they build a complete reforestation solution, from sourcing seeds to planting improved seedlings to field planting, and track it all using powerful, easily accessible technology. Perhaps most importantly, they make the whole thing financially meaningful by arguing about the carbon credits and government money needed to subsidize this critical industry.
It turns out that there is a great deal of synergy between these different parts that has been sitting on the backburner for decades. Seedlings aren’t seedlings, seedlings aren’t foresters, foresters aren’t financial experts — everyone could have informed everyone else, and that didn’t happen.
DroneSeed discovered this lack of innovation and investment when it raised its Series A round and acquired SilvaSeed, one of the few large seed suppliers serving the nation. Dozens of companies and institutions rely on the 125-year-old SilvaSeed, but few realize its importance as a bottleneck in the reforestation pipeline until it’s too late. DroneSeed (soon to reorganize as Mast) bought it because it saw potential in its facilities and expertise.
SilvaSeed, for example, helped create what is now the industry-standard seed zone chart—it turns out that if you’re planting in southern Oregon, seeds growing in Washington pine aren’t ideal, even if they’re the same species. For that matter, pines on the east side of the ridge may not grow well on the west side of the ridge. These myriad variants have long been identified and formalized by SilvaSeed and others, but they can now be tracked with astonishing granularity.
As part of a successful effort to triple seed production and availability, Mast built a system that can literally track every tree, from seed source to where it was planted and more. Collected on October 19 west of the ridge in southern Oregon, planted at this exact GPS coordinate on July 2, and measured 2 years later at this height and girth. Using rich data like this not only provides powerful dashboards for logistics that anyone can understand at a glance, but also enables detailed research of results and easy identification of opportunities and needs.
As with any other big data system, you can bump up a half percent here or there and pretty soon you’re saving millions, or in this case seedlings. Currently, the data platform is only available to “clients, partners, and consulting foresters” and that last one is a career track I would have pursued had I known it existed.
Of course, after the seed comes the seedling, which is another challenge entirely. Until recent years, wildfires were relatively predictable and tended to be adequately repaired through natural processes – they just needed a little help here and there in the worst places, which meant seedling suppliers usually planted only A big crop. Anyone on the supply side will tell you that locking in not only the quantity of product but also the timing whenever the market changes is a disaster. Boy did it!
Seedling suppliers are overwhelmed year after year as wildfires become more frequent and less predictable. If all the seedlings are best planted within a month of maturity, say July, what happens when wildfires start in May?What to do if you run out before August – as things go real bad?
That’s the situation Master faced when it discovered that even though it was producing ten times as many seeds, they couldn’t grow and plant fast enough. It’s not done at all.
So they bought California Forest Parks, one of the country’s largest suppliers of seedlings, in March: Despite alarms from foresters and ecologists, the business and category have failed to attract meaningful interest for decades. Innovate or invest.
Now, Cal Forest’s operations are transitioning to a year-round planting operation, bringing modern advances to the greenhouse. Not only are precision farming techniques like environmental controls being implemented today—a massive new facility they call Terrafactory is coming to the Seattle area—but forestry experts at Mast are also transforming trees themselves.
No, not through genetic modification – just plain old cultivation of desirable traits. Mast calls its improved seedlings “fire plugs” because of their shorter, sturdier nature and the fact that they are more resistant to wildfires and post-fire conditions.
By developing thicker stems and deeper root systems, the chances of any seedling surviving these harsh conditions are greatly improved. While you might think open skies and freshly cleared land are sapling heaven, in reality “these are hellish scenes,” says Matthew Aghai, vice president of research and development at Mast. Any advantage you can give your saplings to resist invasive plants, heat and sun exposure, lack of water, and other issues translates directly into increased survivability.
Combined with seed zone tracking and improved cadence, this means more seedlings are available at any given time, more seedlings planted will survive, and importantly, this can all be verified and documented. That last point is important not only because it helps the effort, but also because funding for the effort is another hurdle to reforestation quickly and efficiently.
Carbon credits as working capital
The basic economic equation works like this: the value of forests is usually realized when they are harvested, but can also be measured by the amount of carbon they sequester, how well they protect against erosion, and the benefits of different tangibility. Unfortunately, most of these factors occur over the course of decades – making investing an inherently long-term proposition.
Now, if you’re a landowner or manager, and your forest burns, you may not only no longer own the value of that forest, but you may not even have anything of value to borrow to replant it. This is becoming more and more common, and while grants and other financial instruments can be introduced, it is far from simple. If I ask you a few million dollars to plant some trees that are worthless until 2040 that are likely to burn again in the next ten years… well, I won’t blame you if you can keep your money .
The solution adopted by Mast is carbon credits – but here we must make sure to distinguish two concepts that are often confused.carbon Offset Usually used to greenwash a business, paying some cash to a middleman who says they’ll end up putting that money into another company that might do some future project that might end up sequestering some carbon. The term and practice rightfully raises considerable skepticism, but the idea is sound—you just have to do something more than make green commitments.
with us need Let it work because right now that’s the only way to fund projects like massive reforestation in the short term.
Because it’s neither cheap nor easy. If you’re a landowner and your timber catches fire, you’re looking at weeks of phone calls and paperwork arranging seeds, seedlings, grants, loans, loggers, planters, insurance and everything else; You’re lucky if the saw roars in a few months. Mast’s ambition is that you will one Call, there will be seedlings in the ground before invasive or undesirable species (and there are many) have had time to take root.
The carbon credit system used by Mast is overseen by various industry authorities and is a first-party transaction for each project: you buy $5 million worth of carbon credits, which are used not only for direct planting, but also for inspections and securing equivalents Carbon value of trees during long-term management.
Lest you think this is all a lot of pleasant assumptions, the company has $15 million raised Project financing for its upcoming planned reforestation efforts, primarily Sheep Creek Ranch near Yellowstone.
The data collected by Mast makes this possible. They’re not claiming an estimated tree count for future projects here – if you buy credits, you can see exactly where they go, down to about a square meter. Not only that, but you can be sure that you know where your seeds and seedlings came from, and that the location is regularly visited and inspected by independent assessors, whose reports feed back into the data stream. The company also makes sure to include some aspect of research in each project, as the data is valuable not only to itself but to forest managers around the world.
Mast unites these separate parts—by connecting them, each part becomes stronger and informs the other. As the U.S. wildfire season approaches, the next few months and the next year will see the company in new form for the first time — not yet able to bring some of its innovations to life (after all, they do have to evolve first) , but it is, however, an opportunity to foster a better future for reforestation.