Seattle-based reforestation company DroneSeed applies a unique tactic to help restore forests that have burned down as a result of wildfires.
The startup uses a combination of aerial seeding by drones and hand-planting to scale reforestation and, in the process, generate high-quality carbon credits.
We sat down with Jonathan Loevner, Vice President of Carbon Markets at DroneSeed, to find out more about the company’s unusual business model and its impact on climate.
What is the backstory of DroneSeed? How did the idea come about and what inspired you to do what you do?
We’re a reforestation company and our mission is to make reforestation scalable to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Our founder, Grant Canary, has a long background in sustainability, and he identified the opportunity of tree planting as a source of large-scale carbon removal early on. As a native Oregonian, he knew the western United States were experiencing more and larger catastrophic wildfires every year, and, in many cases, forests were not regenerating on their own because, as fires were so hot, they were destroying the natural seed source and eliminating organic soil.
On average, we have about 7 million acres of forest that burn each year in the US and then very, very little of that is replanted. So that’s where the concept of large-scale reforestation comes from.
At a time when we need forests more than ever for carbon removal and the climate benefit that they can provide, we’re also losing forests at a faster and faster rate. Meanwhile, the supply chain for reforestation is totally under-scaled to meet the growing need to replant forests after wildfires.
DroneSeed is scaling reforestation through a vertically integrated supply chain, and that includes wild seed collection, production of seedlings and our nursery facilities at a large scale, and then planting via both the drone-based aerial seeding and also planting of seedlings by hand. Going forward, we’re going to direct as much of that reforestation supply chain towards post wildfire, reforestation, carbon projects, and those carbon projects are going to finance all of the expensive upfront costs of doing the reforestation.
How do you decide which reforestation projects to take on? Do you contact landowners or do they come to you?
We originate reforestation projects through a number of different channels and can identify leads through geospatial analysis where we match fire perimeters against landownership data to identify property owners that had been affected by catastrophic fire.
We also originated many of our projects through our existing relationships, through our seed and seedling business, which is among the largest on the West Coast and serves a wide array of landowners. So, we are sort of a first call when it comes to reforestation. And then we have relationships with regional consulting foresters that bring opportunities to us and connect us with landowners. And the same is true of regional conservation organizations that we can partner with to help us identify reforestation opportunities.
So that’s how we bring new deals in. We have a very compelling product for the landowner, where we finance and implement all the reforestation ourselves after their property has burned and oftentimes, they’ll have no other means of financing those expensive upfront costs. Even a modest sized project can cost millions of dollars. We can cover all those costs.
Then, in addition to doing the reforestation, the landowner can also expect to receive a significant share of the carbon offset and revenue after it’s been marketed and sold. And in exchange for that revenue, they are agreeing to the implementation of a conservation easement on their property, which ensures permanent protection of the new forest, going centuries into the future.
Can you describe the technique of aerial seeding?
We use a combination of aerial seeding and planting capabilities, sort of a low-tech, high-tech mash up, and drones are very important to what we do. The first method is planting seedlings by hand. This goes back to the old-fashioned way. A seedling is a young tree that’s grown in our nursery facilities, which is then planted by a person with a shovel and a bag full of seedlings. It’s very tough work and a single tree planter can burn the caloric equivalent of running two marathons every day.
While old-fashioned hand planting is critical for our projects, there’s a limited number of people that are capable and interested in that work just because of how physically strenuous it is.
That leads us to our second capability, which is aerial seeding by drones. We’re using swarms of heavy-lift drones that deploy seeds in a specially manufactured vessel, which we call a puck. And that’s designed to improve the survival rate of that seed. The drone swarms rely on a three-dimensional LIDAR terrain map of the burned area that optimizes flight paths for the drones to deploy their seed vessels. We usually fly 3-5 drones per pilot at a time. And these are big drones, they’re eight feet in diameter. And they can carry nearly 60 pounds of seed vessels per aircraft.
What is the survival rate of your seedlings or seeds compared to that found in nature?
There’s a spectrum. The chances of a seed that is dispersed by nature becoming a mature tree, is a fraction of a fraction of a percent – it is very unlikely. And the strategy for trees is just to produce as many seeds as possible, so a few of those seeds hopefully survive and become trees. But if a seed is grown into a seedling in our nurseries, and is then hand planted, the survival of that seedling could be anywhere from 80-90 to 100%, just depending on the site.
But those are time consuming to produce and plant. The survival rate of a seed from a seed vessel is going to be many times that of a seed just dispersed by nature, but below the survival rate of a seedling.
What are examples of your large-scale deployments?
So, Henry Creek is our flagship project, our first post-wildfire reforestation carbon project. We worked with partners to restore 300 acres after the Beachie Creek fire that burned in the fall of 2020. We planted eight native tree species, which is remarkable, as that’s a lot of different tree species for that particular forest.
So, that’s an important part of what we do: promoting native polycultures that are going to be climate- and fire-resilient. That project, in addition to all the carbon removal and the climate benefit that we expect from it, also has important watershed impacts. That particular property is important for the Malala River watershed, which is used by municipalities downstream and reforestation, to improve water quality, reduce erosion and benefit those communities downstream.
Can you share with us the process of how carbon offsets are measured, issued and sold afterwards?
DroneSeed’s carbon offset program uses a forward-looking carbon offset methodology. The way it works is, first, we do all the reforestation work – the hard work of going out and collecting seeds, growing seedlings, manufacturing seed pucks, planting or deploying those on the site. One year after we’ve finished doing that, the site is visited by a third-party verifier, who must be accredited by the carbon registry.
They go out and they make sure that we’ve hit that target stocking level on the site and that enough trees have survived. That one-year mark is crucial because that’s when most of the mortality of those young seedlings happen. If a seedling survives the first year, it’s much more likely to survive into maturity.
If we’ve done everything right, we’re issued offsets for the carbon projected to be removed from the atmosphere from the project going forward.
As I mentioned, the projects are protected by perpetual conservation easements. And then we create a permanent endowment to both fund monitoring of the conservation easements, and also fund future management of the forest and the project, including funding forest thinning to remove excess trees and reduce wildfire risk.
The forward-looking approach that we take is vital because of the high costs of planting forests, particularly after wildfires. And until the methodology that we’re using from the Climate Action Reserve was created a few years ago, there was no viable way to finance those wildfire reforestation projects.
How long would you say it takes to complete a reforestation project, from start to finish?
I would say two to three years is probably average from when we get started with the planting to when we have carbon offsets that have been issued and we can deliver those to our buyers.
Can you disclose who the third-party carbon offset verifier is?
Yes. The methodology is Climate Action Reserve, climate-forward reforestation methodology. And then the third-party verifier that we have used is Ruby Canyon Engineering. They’re a well-known carbon verifier in the US, they work across a number of different registries and methodologies.
You mentioned the acquisition of the world’s biggest seed bank, SilvaSeed. Regarding that, who decides what kind of seeds are planted in the areas that have burned down? Is it always the exact same tree species that were there before or is there room for changes, such as if a landowner decides they want to plant a different species?
We have a significant forestry team in-house that designs the reforestation projects, and from time to time, we may augment that with regional specific forestry expertise, if we need it. We are generally taking the approach of planting forests that mimic natural species distribution and density.
If you think about an industrial forest, you’re likely to see one species, and it’d be planted very densely. And that’s maybe good for producing lumber. It could also be good for producing the most amount of carbon on an acre, but what we’re most interested in is creating forests that are climate resilient, and then they’re going to be durable for 100 or, hopefully, hundreds of years. So, we’re using multiple species per stand.
Generally, those are the same species that were on the site originally because these are mostly natural forests that we are regenerating. So, we use 2-3 native species of tree first and plant at lower density that mimics the natural density you would see in a natural forest. We are using wild seed that we go out and collect from adjacent forests, rather than orchard seed, as wild seed has a greater genetic band and is likely to be much more climate resilient than orchard seed that’s produced for industrial uses.
What we’re trying to replicate is forests that are going to survive as the climate continues to change.
Circling back to the carbon offsets, how does one go about to purchase them?
Generally, it’s a direct transaction with DroneSeed, probably with me. We are doing it on a project-by-project basis and generally selling from a specific project.
We’re in a fluid moment in the market right now, where you have numerous asset types and methodologies. So, each purchase requires a significant amount of due diligence on the part of the buyer. We welcome that scrutiny, because we think we’re developing high-quality carbon removals, designed for permanence and durability.
As the climate changes, I do think if the market is going to reach the scale that we’re predicting, of tens of billions of dollars annually in 2030 and beyond, there is going to have to be a consolidation of the accepted offset types and methodologies to a few trusted standards, so that can support larger transactions with less friction. It’s easier to do project-specific due diligence when you’re buying small amounts. And you need to do that when there’s so many different methodologies out there. But if this is a market that’s 20 times the size of today, it needs to be more liquid.
This year you closed a large deal with Shopify for the removal of 50,000 tons of CO2. Are there any other big clients of such scale?
Yes. These are the public names, there are some other buyers that will be public, hopefully sometime soon. Aside from Shopify, we’ve also sold offsets to AT&T and Arbor Day, to Carbon Title, which is a company in the real estate decarbonization space, and to CO2.
Buyers are looking at our product as sort of differentiated and premium because of the strong additionality of doing removal by reforestation on post-wildfire sites, for the permanence that we are ensuring through these perpetual conservation easements.
What’s in the pipeline for DroneSeed? What are the plans for future expansion?
I do think that our focus right now is really on scaling the post-wildfire reforestation strategy in the western US because there’s so much work to be done. Even if the fires all stopped burning right now, there’s still many millions of acres that need to be reforested and restored.
In addition to Oregon, we have projects under development or under evaluation in California and Montana, and New Mexico. So, we’re focused on those and other adjoining states. To support that scaling, we’re going to continue to invest in our supply chain and expand our capacity to collect and store more seeds, to grow more seedlings, and reforest more acres.
Read more: Shopify Backs 9 New Carbon Removal Companies