The ghost trees

by Susan Laszewski

Ghosts! They seem to be everywhere this time of year. Not just in the haunted houses and twilit graveyards you would expect, but in the stores, the neighbor’s yard and even at the door asking for candy!

Well, ghosts can be found in forests too. Deep in the coldest, highest elevations of the northern Rocky Mountains, where the merciless alpine winds cause trees to grow twisted and gnarled in what are called “krummholz forests,” live the ghost trees — “skeletons” of whitebark pine. Sometimes, an entire stand of ghost trees sits eerily on the mountainside.

Ghost trees — “skeletons” of whitebark pine

Ghost trees — “skeletons” of whitebark pine. Credit: Francis/Flickr

And unlike the tots that might show up at your door in a white sheet this evening, with these ghosts, there may actually be something to fear.

That’s because what happened to these trees is a spooky prospect for these forests. The whitebark pine forests have been haunted in recent decades by a number of ominous forces. One is the mountain pine beetle. This pest is a native insect, but in recent years, its population has grown out of control. Warmer winters have allowed these beetles to live longer and climb into upper elevations and many trees have been lost. In fact, more than 41.7 million acres in more than 10 states are already dead and dying from this disease. Can you feel the chill running down your spine yet?

Another threat haunting these trees is white pine blister rust, an invasive disease. If you see a tree with green branches below and all the needles on the top red, it may be a sign of the disease. This “topkill” occurs as the blister rust attacks the tree one section at a time. Eventually, the whole tree will turn red and die.

But, there are many strategies to combat these frights and you don’t have to wear garlic around your neck or throw salt over your shoulder. American Forests is working with our partners on a strategy to save the whitebark pine. Our methods include protecting healthy whitebarks with pheromone patches to trick mountain pine beetles into avoiding the tree; collecting cones of blister rust-resistant trees to nurture into a more resilient future generation of whitebark pine; and conducting research to identify where to plant seedlings to give them the best chance of survival.

Ghost forest of whitebark pine “skeletons.”

Credit: Dr. Cathy L. Cripps

You can help by donating to the cause.

Read more about the ghost forests of the Greater Yellowstone Area in Dr. Cathy L. Cripps’ article, Underground Connection: Fungi and Pines in Peril.


Forest Digest — Week of October 27

by Loose Leaf Team

We have hefty Halloween version of Forest Digest this week. Enjoy!

  • “These Miniature Super-Forests Can Green Cities With Just A Tiny Amount Of Space”
    We covered this a few weeks, but here’s an in-depth look into the process! A startup in India has figured out how to soak up pollution and reduce floods for trees in cities. The founder, a young industrial engineer, Shubhendu Sharma, uses an intensive process of building nutrients three feet deep in the soil and carefully plotting out a mix of trees, so thick it’s impossible to walk inside. He uses the concept of a multi-layer forests, ensuring that no two tress, once they grow big, fight for the same space. This team, known as Afforestt, uses an algorithm that is able to achieve an efficiency of a 92% survival rate over the past three years.
  • “Agreement protects forests near San Pedro River”The Arizona Republic
    More than 600 acres of private land in one of the Southwest’s most biologically diverse areas will be protected for migratory birds and other wildlife through new agreements with state and federal agencies. The Forest Legacy Programs funded the approval of conservation easements stating that four properties along the lower San Pedro River in southern Arizona will remain undeveloped. The newly protected land is important for the yellow-billed cuckoo that was listed as a threatened species earlier this month as well as the bighorn sheep, javelinas, and bears.
  • “Tree Stories: Galveston’s most famous tree”The Galveston Daily News
    The Borden Oak survived The Great Storm of 1900 and the subsequent grade raising, plus all the hurricanes and droughts since that time. It is the only tree in town that has its own historical marker is protected by the Galveston Historical Foundation. It is featured in the book, “Famous Trees of Texas” (A&M, 1970). It reportedly survives due to the foresight of Thomas Borden, brother of Galveston’s Gail Borden of condensed milk fame.
  • “MIT shows how a tree can be a documentary”WBUR — Boston
    A ListenTree was created by Media Arts and Science graduate students Edwina Portocarrero and Gershon Dublon. It conducts sound vibration from a hidden, remote device. Passersby must press their ears to any part of the trunk or branches to hear the broadcast by way of bone conduction. The students chose trees due to their mythical status and enviro-friendly ubiquity. These trees ran on solar power and a silicone rubber-encased transducer screwed into the tree roots. This will be on exhibit in the entrance of MIT Museum through December 31st as well as presented in Mexico City for Day of the Dead Festivities and in Montreal for the all-documentary RIDM Film Festival.
  • “Lifted on giant inner tubes, an old tree moves in Michigan”NPR
    For almost 250 years, a 44-foot diameter bur oak has been growing on what is now the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor but is in the way of an expansion of the Ross Business School. This move will cost about $400,000, money that came from $100 million donated for the expansion by philanthropist Stephen Ross. There is controversy as to whether the costs for this one tree were worth it.
  • “City of Minneapolis removing all ash trees”KARE – Minneapolis-St. Paul
    The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is taking action to prevent the emerald ash borer from destroying its parks and boulevards. This is a part of the Minneapolis Ash Canopy Replacement Plan, which is an eight-year project that will cost more than a million dollars a year and is funded by a levy. This is done to prevent a sudden, large-scale loss of trees. It will remove a total of 40,000 ash trees, and every one of those trees will be replaced.
  • “Long Island Confronts Destructive Southern Pine Beetles “The New York Times
    Recent warmer winters have created favorable conditions for an unwelcome pest: the southern pine beetle. Though the beetles — and the destruction they cause — were found in New Jersey a decade ago, they have now found their way to Long Island, where communities have begun mounting a defense.

We are the champions

by Loose Leaf Team
national champion Norway spruce

New national champion Norway spruce in Connecticut

Say hello to the new champions! In its latest edition of the American Forests Champion Trees national register, American Forests has crowned 72 new national champion and co-champion trees. After weeks of anticipation, you can browse your favorite species or check to see whether your favorite champs kept their crown.

Highlights of this fall’s update include:

  • Oregon has gained the most new national champions, adding nine national champions to its list.
  • It has been quite a season for Virginia. Six of its national champions were dethroned — more than any other state. However, Virginia also gained six new national champions this year, maintaining its total of 69 champs.
  • This year, a total of 20 champions were dethroned, including three co-champion flowering dogwoods, all dethroned by a new champion flowering dogwood in Georgia.

The states with the most national champions have not changed. Florida still leads the pack with 131 champions and Texas is runner up with 90, followed by Arizona (75), Virginia (69) and California (56).

You may notice another change as well: We’ve changed the register’s name. To better highlight the register’s featured contents — the largest individual trees representing hundreds of species — we agreed that including “champion” in the new title elevates the status of these special trees and commends those who put so much hard work into crowning a champion — from big tree hunters to state coordinators and all big tree enthusiasts in between. Thank you for making it possible.


Forest Digest — Week of October 20

by Loose Leaf Team

Check out this week’s Forest Digest:

  • “Climate Isn’t Changing Forests as Much as We Thought”Nature World News
    Changes in disturbance regimes have had a much bigger impact than climate change in the changing composition of eastern forests, according to research from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. The study shows that eastern forests are still in a state of disequilibrium resulting from massive clear cutting and burning during the late-1800s and early-1990s, and aggressive forest fire suppression had also had a greater influence on shifts in dominant tree species than minor differences in temperature.
  • “If you plant different trees in the forest, is it still the same forest? “The Guardian
    The Nature Conservancy is working to help Minnesota’s North Woods by using a controversial technique to experiment the effect of climate change on trees. The organization wants to test “assisted migration,” a lightning-rod conservation practice that broadly means moving species from one region to another to either help that species or the target region adapt to changing conditions. It is a nuanced issue: If the trees moved from distant zones prove to adapt well, this kind of assisted migration could be adopted as a way to maintain the health of forests that might otherwise be decimated by climate change; however, critics argue that this type of intervention would change the essential character of the forest.
  • “Watching 3-D videos of trees helps people recover from stress, researchers say”University of Illinois
    A study led by researchers at the University of Illinois is believed to be the first study to describe dose-response curve derived from exposure to nature. The found that viewing 3-D videos of residential streets with varying amounts of tree canopy significantly improved participants’ physiological and psychological recovery from a stressful experience.
  • “Students tag trees for annual appreciation week”The Montana Kaimin
    In honor of National Forest Products Week, students from the University of Montana placed tags displaying the financial and environmental benefits that each tree brings to their campus. The students used a “tree benefit calculator” that uses algorithms based on tree species and climate range to determine values such as carbon storage, air quality, and energy savings. The trees on their campus are collectively worth over $2 million.

Forest Digest — Week of October 13

by Loose Leaf Team
Deforestation in Sierra Leone, summer 2013

Deforestation in Sierra Leone. Credit: jbdodane/Flickr

Check out this week’s Forest Digest:

  • “Did Deforestation Pave the Way for Ebola Outbreak?”Discovery News
    The three West African countries hit hardest by the recent Ebola epidemic — Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone — have each experienced massive deforestation, following a pattern since the 1990s in which outbreaks of the virus have closely tracked drastic changes in forest ecosystems. Researchers say the deforestation facilitates contact between humans and natural reservoirs of the virus.
  • “Researchers create global map of world’s forests circa 1990″Mongabay
    Researchers from the University of Maryland have created a global map of the world’s forests in the year 1990, enabling accurate comparisons between past and current deforestation rates. The research is based on 30-meter resolution NASA satellite data. It confirms that deforestation was particularly high in boreal regions and the tropics in the 1990s. Individual country data for 1990 will be available soon.
  • “Protecting biodiversity could be key to keeping forests standing in the long term”Phys.org
    New research from scientists at Fauna & Flora International published in Oryz — The International Journal of Conservation found evidence that suggests that failure to protect biodiversity — particularly large mammals — could negatively affect tropical forests in the long term. One of the biggest threats comes from hunting, which can reduce tree survival and decrease forest resilience to climate change, disease and fires.
  • “Better Logging Could Slow Global Warming”Scientific American
    Scientists say about half of the damage from logging operations can be avoided. According to a recent study published in the journal Global Change Biology, a quarter of the trees that are cut down by loggers end up abandoned in the forest because they are hollow and therefore have low commercial value. The Nature Conservancy is partnering with loggers in Indonesia to limit the destruction of tropical forests

The first ‘best idea’

by Susan Laszewski

Yellowstone National Park signIt was America’s original “best idea.” Yellowstone National Park was America’s — and the world’s — first national park, established in 1872. It’s a land of abundant wildlife and geothermal wonders. And it’s the destination of American Forests’ third Forestscape. In February 2015, we’ll be taking a getaway to see this iconic landscape in all its winter glory. The park’s best known features — the wildlife that earned it the nickname “Serengeti of North America” and the world’s largest collection of geysers — can be particularly spectacular in winter.

In winter, the dark spots of Yellowstone’s famous bison herds stand out against the pristine white snow like an inverted night sky. Even the park’s star attraction — the wolves — may be easier to spot against the white landscape.

Yellowstone forests

The forests of Yellowstone National Park in winter.

The steam and heat given off by the park’s signature hydrothermal features, from the iconic Old Faithful, to any of the lesser known mudpots or steam vents, are also perhaps best appreciated in the cold of winter.

But wildlife and geysers are also not the only important features here. The forests of Yellowstone were among the reasons it attracted the attention of early conservationists. In fact, this area was not only home to the first national park, but to the first national forest as well. In March 1891, 19 years after Yellowstone National Park was established, Congress gave the president — after much prodding from American Forests and other conservation groups! — the power to create forest reserves. Then-president Benjamin Harrison’s first use of this new power was to create Yellowstone Park Timber Land Reserve, later called Yellowstone National Forest, protecting forests around the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park.

Today, that land is no longer known as Yellowstone National Forest, but is still a protected part of the Greater Yellowstone Area. Bridger-Teton, Custer, Shoshone and Caribou-Targhee national forests are all on land that comprised that original forest reserve and surround the national park, offering further protection for wildlife that wanders outside the boundaries.

Yellowstone blog ad

As we stand in the open air of the park in February with snow crunching under our snowshoes or curl up in the Snow Lodge with some hot cocoa after a morning of wildlife viewing by snow coach, we’ll know that this history is all around us.

Stay tuned to Loose Leaf in the coming weeks for more insights into America’s first national park.


Forest Digest — Week of October 6

by Loose Leaf Team

Check out this week’s Forest Digest:


Forest pests: Where is the threat?

by Christopher Horn

By Faith Campbell, Emeritus environmental advocate and tree-pest expert

As I said in my previous blog, many damaging pests enter the United States by hiding inside wood packaging material (WPM) such as crates and pallets.

What types of imports pose the greatest risk of carrying unwanted insect pests in crates and pallets? Heavy items, such as machinery (including electronics); metals; and tiles and decorative stone (such as marble or granite counter tops). Indeed, more pests have been found in wood supporting tiles and stone than any other type of commodity in 24 of the past 25 years.1

Which parts of the country import the highest volumes of these goods?2 It is probably not surprising that the Port of New York leads all other U.S. cities in imports of both machinery and decorative tiles and stone from Asia, Europe and Central America. Other ports ranking near the top in these shipments include:

  • Baltimore
  • Seattle
  • Los Angeles/Long Beach
  • Chicago
  • San Francisco
  • Jacksonville
  • Atlanta
  • Philadelphia
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Boston
  • Portland
  • Houston

The U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection inspects incoming shipments. In recent years, they have found pests in the WPM contained in about 1,000 containers, but we know that some infested shipments escape detection. As I suggested in my previous blog, U.S. importers of machinery, metals and decorative tile and stone should increase their efforts to clean up their supply chains and be vigilant of possible pests in their warehouses.

Stay tuned for more about the invasive pests threatening America’s urban and wildland forests!


1Haack RA, Britton KO, Brockerhoff EG, Cavey JF, Garrett LJ, et al. (2014) Effectiveness of the International Phytosanitary Standard ISPM No. 15 on Reducing Wood Borer Infestation Rates in Wood Packaging Material Entering the United States. PLoS ONE 9(5): e96611. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0096611
2Data for this blog was taken from Colunga-Garcia, M., M., R.A. Haack, and A.O. Adelaja. 2009. Freight Transportation and the Potential for Invasions of Exotic Insects in Urban and Periurban Forests of the US. J. Econ. Entomol. 102(1): 237-246 (2009) ; or from raw data provided by the lead author.


Forest Digest — Week of September 29

by Loose Leaf Team

From invasive pests to the deforestation of mangrove ecosystems, this week’s Forest Digest has some interesting forestry stories from around the world. And last, but not least, check out USA Today’s list of the 10 best American forests to visit this fall:

This year, American Forests worked with local partners in the Phillipines to plant 33,750 mangrove trees across 37 acres.

This year, American Forests worked with local partners in the Phillipines to plant 33,750 mangrove trees across 37 acres. Photo credit: Reinaldo Aguinar.

  • “World wildlife populations halved in 40 years – report”BBC News
    Eighty percent of the worlds terrestrial biodiversity resides in forests. And, naturally, when forests are cut down and removed, plant and animal life suffers. A recent report by London Zoological Society found that world wildlife populations have halved from 1970 to 2010.

From businessman to folk legend: Johnny Appleseed

by Susan Laszewski

Johnny Appleseed may have been a folk hero who wandered the frontier in his burlap sack and tin pot hat, scattering apple seeds to the wind, but John Chapman — the real life figure upon whom that legend is based — was actually an astute businessman who planted nurseries in strategic locations. He was born in Massachusetts on this day in 1774. Centuries later, his life’s work still has a hold on Americans’ imaginations.

As a young man, Chapman went west, probably armed with some apple seeds from the pulp of a cider mill. Staying one step ahead of the settlers who were journeying toward the frontier, he planted nurseries that would be ready when they arrived.

statue of Johnny Appleseed at Johnson's Orchard in Bedford County, Va.

This statue of Johnny Appleseed at Johnson’s Orchard in Bedford County, Va., shows how the folklore figure of “Johnny Appleseed” has come to be depicted, centuries after the real John Chapman lived. Credit: David Wilson

Chapman knew something that remains true today: Trees are good for communities. Although they may not have known it, those settlers were reaping many of the same benefits of trees that we enjoy today: cleaner air, cleaner water, cooler temperatures. But they were keenly aware of some other benefits that Chapman’s trees brought: alcohol and land rights.

Hard cider and applejack were important drinks for settlers on the frontier in those days. They could be used as currency or medicinally. What’s more, the presence of an orchard was often a way that settlers could uphold claim to land. As Chapman’s nurseries grew into orchards, he could sell them off to eager buyers. Just as today, trees added value to property. It’s said that Chapman died a rich man thanks to the many unsold orchards he owned, but his humble, bare-bones lifestyle belied his wealth.

Chapman was a successful businessman, but he was also a conservationist and a true outdoorsman. Most accounts say that “the appleseed man” was welcomed by all during his travels, but often preferred to sleep outside rather than in the beds or on the floors offered to him. He was known as an animal lover who not only wouldn’t harm a fly, but would actually rescue them from the campfire, according to one account. Throughout his life, he chose roaming from nursery to nursery and sleeping under the stars over settling down.

Like Chapman, we at American Forests know that trees have practical benefits, but are also good for the soul. His birthday is a good reminder to value both those sides of planting trees. Like him, we plant trees because they have measurable value to communities, but also because of something immeasurable — it just feels right. And, like him, we’ve even been known to plant a fruit tree or two.