Seattle startup Mast (formerly DroneSeed) is taking a high-tech approach to reforestation.
Last year, the U.S. experienced more than 68,000 wildfires, consuming about 7.6 million acres nationally, according to the National Interagency Fire Prevention Center.
Both numbers are up from 2021, continuing an unfortunate trend seen over the past two decades as a result of a rapidly changing climate.
All that burned land means the country needs a drastic increase in reforestation. But there is not a large enough supply of native seeds and seedlings to meet regrowth needs.
That’s where a Seattle startup called Mast Reforestation sees an opportunity.
Founded in 2016 as DroneSeed, Mast is best known for flying swarms of drones over charred earth to drop seeds that can take root and grow. Mast still provides aerial seeding, but drones are just one part of its growing “afforestation as a service” business, said founder and CEO Grant Canary.
On Tuesday, Canary said Mast has acquired Cal Forest Nurseries, which grows tens of millions of native conifer seedlings a year for logging companies, private landowners and public agencies in western states. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
The acquisition comes two years after Mast bought SilvaSeed, a company that collects and processes cones and seeds from wild forests. Mast now has 130 full-time employees, including 45 from Cal Forest.
Canary said the technology is needed for “large-scale reforestation” and the addition of Cal Forest should help cut the years of time Mast customers have to wait for native seeds and seedlings.
“We need to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, and trees are highly evolved and efficient at that,” Canary said of the climate change benefits of faster reforestation.
In addition to improving air quality, trees growing at the right density in a forest support greater biodiversity and can even serve as a type of natural cooling plant, keeping the water beneath their roots cleaner, cooler and more abundant in the rivers and dams, Canary said.
Mast’s planned 2023 reforestation projects include a site in Montana to expand elk habitat around Yellowstone National Park and others in fire-affected communities.
In addition to securing supplies, Mast also works to sell carbon offsets for reforestation projects. This money covers the cost of seeds, drone flights and other expenses and prevents landowners from shouldering the financial burden themselves.
Companies buy the credits to meet their internal sustainability goals or to comply with laws that require them to offset their greenhouse gas emissions or other negative environmental impacts.
Last year, Mast began work on restoring a forest in western Oregon at Henry Creek as a pilot project using its own seed stock and a combination of drone and hand planting techniques. For this initiative, the company sold carbon credits to technology companies including Shopify. It now intends any reforestation effort to have an associated sale of carbon offsets.
Mast Reforestation, formerly known as DroneSeed, is increasing the supply of native seeds and seedlings to restore wild lands after record fires.
Courtesy: Mast Reforestation
“The next step is to roll out this guide to landowners throughout the West,” said Nancy Pfund of DBL Partners, an early investor in Tesla, Mast and other climate technology companies. “I think we’ll start to see the company smartly address the shortage of high-quality carbon offsets for blue-chip corporations with net-zero targets.”
While some investors shy away from businesses that rely on credit for revenue, the “compliance market” is growing. Carbon dioxide permits traded on the global market will grow to a record $851 billion in 2022, according to Refinitiv estimates.
A year after Mast replants a site, a third-party forester will come out to test some sample plots to make sure the trees are growing as planned and delivering the intended environmental benefits.
Mast also creates an endowment for each project that funds 100 years of monitoring each site using a combination of manual field inspections and aerial imagery.
The company has other revenue models in its future plans. This includes targeting real estate businesses that want healthy forests on or near their properties, and state and federal agencies tasked with reforestation.
Elk at Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park
Source: Spring Creek Ranch
Mast has raised over $36 million in venture funding from climate-focused investors, including Alexis Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six, Social Capital, DBL Partners, Marc Benioff’s Time Ventures, Elemental Excelerator and Spero Ventures.
Other companies are combining software with hardware to take on global reforestation efforts. Seed banks and reforestation organizations such as Flash Forest in Canada, Terraformation in Hawaii and the nonprofit WeForest in Brussels have also attracted the support of venture investors.
Pfund told CNBC that adequate reforestation will require a robust coalition of government, nonprofits, corporations and innovative startups. Although forestry and reforestation do not receive the same federal funding as transportation electrification, “what may seem small and unknown today actually has the potential to create positive global change and thus provide strong returns to investors.” she said.