Forest Digest – Week of August 17, 2015

by American Forests
Grand Circus Park

Grand Circus Park in Detroit, Mich. Credit: Mike Russell

Get some perspective on what’s happening with our forests with this week’s Forest Digest.

This Is It! The Quest for a New Champion Sugar Pine

by American Forests

Finding a champion tree is certainly an adventure! So, we wanted to share this vivid account of the quest to find a sugar pine that is pending nomination as a champion, as told by Carl Casey, nominator of the current sugar pine co-champion. 

Calaveras sugar pine

Carl Casey standing next to the base of the sugar pine found in Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Photo by Rick Messier.

I was pushing my way slowly through a dense thicket of small trees – incense cedar, white fir and pacific dogwood — following the sound of voices we heard not far away in the forest. Accompanying me was my good friend and fellow big tree hunter, Rick Messier. We were off trail just upstream from the Agassiz Tree, the largest giant sequoia in Calaveras Big Trees State Park. The Agassiz Tree is in the park’s South Grove, a gorgeous, old-growth mixed conifer forest of the Sierra Nevada that includes sugar pines. The ground was covered with broken branches and occasional logs 2 to 3 feet in diameter. It was a mild summer day in July, with blue skies and temperatures in the low 70s.

After a short distance someone heard us pushing through the forest and yelled out, “Are you looking for Bob Van Pelt?”

“Yes!” I replied.

“He’s on his way to meet you. He’ll be here in a few minutes.”

Someone came up through the trees and greeted us. It was James Freund, a bright young Ph.D. graduate, who was assisting Bob with measuring sequoias in the permanent plot that had been established in the South Grove five years earlier. He was wearing a hard hat and led us over to the group of researchers nearby that included Steve Sillett and his wife, Marie, well-known for their work with coast redwood trees. Some of the researchers had climbed a group of young sequoias with ropes and were suspended at different heights in the air, measuring trunk and branch sizes.

Bob soon arrived to greet us. Our purpose today was to obtain precise measurements of a large sugar pine I had found in the grove two months earlier. Since the demise of the Pickering Pine and the Whelan Pine, the two largest known sugar pines, the search was on to find another sugar pine close to their stature, if there were any left. The old-growth sugar pines of the Sierra Nevada have been hit hard in recent years by drought, bark beetles and blister rust, and many of the old giants are now gone. Michael Taylor and I had found sugar pines (separately) that are currently co-champions on the National Register of Champion Trees, but both are significantly smaller than the prior champs. Late last summer, Michael and I met and searched for large sugar pines in a nearby area of the Stanislaus National Forest…but came up short.

Bob and James followed me and Rick back to the Agassiz tree. At that point we were back on an established trail and made quick time hiking down to the sugar pine I was hoping would turn out to be in the class of the former giants. When we arrived at the tree, Bob glanced at it and became excited. High up on the trunk was the remnant of a former huge branch, large enough around to indicate that this was a very old tree.

“I bet this tree is at least 500 years old!” exclaimed Bob.

Like many old sugar pines, it had a large, cone-shaped skirt of debris at the base, made up of accumulated bark flakes, needles and small branches. Our first task was to determine where true ground level was on the high and low sides of the tree. Once that was accomplished, James starting wrapping the tape around the reddish-brown bark, while Rick and I assisted by helping to level the tape. After James circled the tree and came back to the starting point, we awaited the reading.

“919 centimeters!” James exclaimed. Bob was wearing a walkie talkie strapped to his chest to communicate with the other researchers. He pushed the button to talk and said, “Steve! It’s 919 centimeters at breast height!”

Not being a scientist, that meant nothing to me.

Calaveras sigar pine

Sugar pine in Calaveras Big Tree State Park nominated to the National Register of Champion Trees. Photo by Carl Casey.

“The circumference is 30 feet and 2 inches in English measures,” Bob said. “That’s 9.6 feet in diameter!” The slow tapering trunk of the tree showed some concave areas of bark that curved slightly as they went upward, another characteristic of large, old sugar pines.

Bob asked James to wrap the tape measure around the trunk as high up as he could reach, standing on top of the debris skirt on the high point of ground. Rick found a stick to push the tape up to keep it level going around the trunk. The tape kept falling and had to be adjusted numerous times. Finally, we got it right.

“What’s the reading?” Bob asked.

“762 centimeters,” James replied.

Bob clicked his walkie talkie and said, “Steve! It’s 762 centimeters (25 feet) at 10 feet off the ground!”  Bob surveyed the trunk with an expert eye honed by 30 years of measuring trees.

After a few moments Bob said with finality, “This is it! I believe this is the largest living pine tree on earth!!”

I was thrilled. My hope of finding one more sugar pine in league with the old giants was fulfilled.

Bob looked up and said, “The tree doesn’t look that tall to me, which could hurt as far as the tree’s overall points are concerned.”

But, I wasn’t too dismayed by this. Most of the really old sugar pines have had their tops broken off at some point and are generally in the 200- to 210-foot height range. Bob wound his way back through the forest, looking for a spot to measure the height with his laser rangefinder. James was standing by the trunk with a reflector, since the understory of pacific dogwood and small white firs obscured the view of the base of the tree.

After numerous attempts to catch the reflector, “Got it!” exclaimed Bob at last.

And then, silence. James tried to hold the reflector still. In a minute we hear Bob yell out, “I was wrong about the height. The tree is 241.3 feet tall!”  This meant the tree garnered more than 600 points in total, a feat accomplished by only three other sugar pines, all of which were now dead.

What caused Bob’s initial height estimate to be low is the fact that the entire forest of   trees in the South Grove is rather tall. The tallest known sequoia north of the Kings River is in this grove, measuring 283 feet high.

Bob came back to the base of the tree. We were all overjoyed that this magnificent old tree had survived centuries of storms, snow, wind, drought, bark beetles and blister rust to eventually, hopefully one day, claim the title of earth’s largest pine.

The sugar pine detailed in this story has been nominated to our National Register of Champion Trees, but has not yet been confirmed as an official champion. The register will be updated in 2016. To view our National Register of Champion Trees, click here.

GR25: Partying Like It’s 1999…And Saving Salmon

by Megan Higgs

Trees shade the water and with salmon, the cooler the water, the better. Lower water temperatures mean more dissolved oxygen in the water, and dissolved oxygen is essential to salmon survival.

For today’s blog post, we’re gonna party like it’s 1999 with an unlikely hero (after all, you can still party like it’s 1999 if you don’t have legs!). Indeed, the star of today’s show is none other than the threatened salmon, and it has been quite a journey for the past several years!

As with the rest of the world, 1999 marked the end of a millennium, as well as the end of crimped hair, snap bracelets and other fabulous fashion statements. But, for American Forests’ Global ReLeaf, 1999 also signaled new beginnings.  In fact, this was one of the first years of collaboration with Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA) — a longstanding partnership that has witnessed work spanning 10 separate years!

Sure, anniversaries are great and all. But, how does planting trees affect salmon, exactly?

Unbeknownst to many at first glance, trees, forests and riparian corridors provide a myriad of benefits for aquatic species, including salmon. They shade and cool streams, which is necessary for viable habitats for local populations. They also increase dissolved oxygen levels, mitigate soil erosion into waterways and prevent sediment buildup from occurring. Furthermore, riparian habitat is critical for filtering pollutants from the air and water, and leaves and other organic matter provided by trees yield sources of food and habitat for many species.

By partnering with NSEA, we have planted over 136,000 trees total in the Nooksack river basin as of our 10th anniversary to restore freshwater salmon habitat — particularly for species such as the Chinook and Coho salmon. Salmon are incredibly sensitive to changes in water quality and quantity, and the beginnings of our partnership came at a crucial time for these species: salmon populations had been declining for approximately 50 years, with their overall population health worsening in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  In fact, critical habitat had just been designated for the Coho salmon in 1999, and the Chinook salmon had just been listed as threatened nine years prior, in 1990. These fish are certainly worth preserving — known as the “king salmon,” the Chinook was well-known among the Lewis and Clark expedition, and Lewis himself once wrote that, when fresh, they tasted “better than any fish” he had ever eaten.

American Forests and NSEA are continuing to work closely together to preserve these and other salmon species, as well as dozens of other species that rely on salmon and salmon eggs.  We are planting 10,000 trees in riparian areas this year and have also assisted in educational outreach among youth and other groups — a feat that will ensure that there will not only be salmon for the years to come, but also (we hope!) our next generation of environmental stewards.

Forest Digest – Week of August 10, 2015

by American Forests

This week’s forest digest has the trends for wildfires and China’s environmental future.

Air pollution has become a crisis in China’s major cities, and now the government is attacking the problem head on.

  • How Megafires are Remaking American ForestsNational Geographic
    As climate change worsens, fires of a scale never seen before are running rampant across the west, and forests are responding differently than before.
  • Breckenridge Trees Have the Blues9 News
    Downtown Breckenridge, Colo. is seeing some different colored trees as part of a local campaign to get people to appreciate the natural scenery they have.

How Wildfires Are Burning through the U.S. Forest Service Budget

by American Forests

By David May, Communications Intern

A report released by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) earlier this month has revealed a stunning increase in wildfire suppression costs. This past year, more than half of the organization’s budget went to fire suppression, a first in USFS history and a stark comparison to the 16 percent of the budget allocated to wildfire suppression in 1995. This exponential growth shows no sign of stopping anytime soon, with 67 percent of the budget estimated to go to wildfire suppression by 2025 if left unchecked.

What’s Causing the Dramatic Increase?

Suppressing wildland fires is a costly process that requires a lot of expensive equipment. How in the world are we spending so much money on combating wildfires?

First and foremost, more development is taking place than ever before in fire-prone areas, which means that the USFS must prioritize their limited resources to protect lives and property.

Due to the changing climate, the average wildfire season is now 78 days longer than in 1970, increasing it to almost 300 days in some areas. These days, the U.S. is burning twice as many acres as it did three decades ago.

So, is the USFS just doing a bad job at putting out fires?

No! In fact, even as the wildfires have continued to grow, the USFS, and related firefighting agencies, manage to suppress 98% of all wildfires. However, it’s this 1 to 2 percent of the most extreme wildfires that end up devouring at least 30% of the firefighting budget.

Drought, variations in temperature and a buildup of fire-prone vegetation have combined to create some truly immense fires that are burning hotter and longer than ever before.

What Is This Doing to the U.S. Forest Service?

Congress determines the USFS’ wildland fire suppression budget based off of a rolling average of the costs of fire suppression for the past 10 years. This worked well when the averages were relatively stable, but, as we’ve already seen, the averages are rising more and more each year.

US Forest Service Chart showing the rising percentage of the budget that fire suppression operations are taking up.

The costs will of fighting wildland fires will continue to increase until we invest more in preventative measures. Photo credit: USFS, “The Rising Cost of Wildfire Operations.”

This exponential rise in costs has led to less than accurate budgeting, and non-fire related USFS programs are paying the price. In a practice known as fire transfers, the difference in the appropriated budget and actual cost for the fire suppression budget comes from other programs’ budgets. Over the past fiscal year, the fire suppression costs ate up $115 million from other programs’ appropriated budgets, including those that help prevent extreme wildfires like hazardous fuel reduction.

This is a big deal.

Vegetation and Watershed Management programs are crucial for post-fire restoration; these programs are our best preventative measure against the growing threat of wildfires, yet their budget has been cut by 24 percent over the last 15 years. Not only do they help to prevent wildfires, but they ensure that the ecosystems we rely on for water and a variety of products are healthy, a service that is all too easy to take for granted.

Infrastructure is taking a back seat, too. The budget for the road system was cut by 46 percent, facilities lost 68 percent and deferred maintenance projects were reduced by a whopping 95 percent. The effects of these reductions cannot be understated. These are the means with which all forest service operations are conducted; the bridges and roads that are falling into disrepair are the same ones that fire suppression teams rely on to respond to wildfires. Not only that, but outdoor recreation is feeling the cuts as well. The $646 billion industry cannot exist without the services provided by the USFS.

Rebecca Turner, American Forests’ senior director of programs and policy, says the funding issue’s impact on multiple agencies increases its need to be addressed.

“As federal budgets are staying level and even decreasing, the fire suppression funding issue doesn’t just affect the U.S. Forest Service,” Turner says. “Department of Interior agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, are impacted as well. It is time Congress fixes this problem.”

What Needs to Be Done

Personnel reductions are one of the largest problems for non fire suppression programs in the Forest Service. Photo credit: USFS, “The Rising Cost of Wildfire Operations.”

We need Congress to act, and we need them to act fast. The current funding structure for the USFS is insufficient, and every year the lasting effects of this problem become harder to undo.

Right now, our best hope is the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (WDFA) (S.235 and H.R. 167.) Introduced into the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, the WDFA would make it so that 70 percent of the 10-year rolling average mentioned before would be allocated to the fire suppression budget, and the remaining cost would come from federal disaster funding. This would treat the most extreme wildfires as natural disasters and fund the response to them the same way hurricanes, tornadoes and floors are funded.

With WDFA, the USFS can get back to providing the services that we need and ensure that the growing wildfire problem can be dealt with adequately.

So far, there is growing bipartisan support along with the president’s approval. But, we can always use your help! Go to our action center and tell your representative that you care about our forests. Because when the USFS suffers, we all suffer.

How Urban Forests Can Help Mitigate ADHD Symptoms

by American Forests

By Conrad Kabbaz, Policy Intern

Children in parkIt is widely known that urban forests improve air quality, but could green spaces be the solution to one of the most common childhood disorders? Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, affects 10 percent of American children. Symptoms include difficulty focusing, high impulsivity, and restlessness, all of which can negatively impact academic performance and social interaction. It’s not surprising that children with ADHD often have lower grades and report more self-esteem issues than their unaffected peers. Causes of the disorder remain unclear, with genetics and environmental factors likely playing roles. What is clear is that rate of diagnoses is on the rise, increasing an average five percent per year from 2003 to 2011.

No Clear Fix

There is no cure for ADHD, and existing treatment options are lackluster, with medication and/or psychotherapy being standard approaches to manage symptoms.  Stimulants, like Adderall or Concerta, can be quite effective at reducing their severity but come with a host of side effects such as decreased appetite and sleep problems.  Essentially exchanging one set of symptoms for another, many find these side effects to be more bothersome than the original ADHD ones. Additionally, these drugs have high addictive potential, evidenced by their classification as “Schedule II Controlled Substances” (Schedule I drugs have no medical purpose, such as cocaine or heroin).  Psychotherapy does not carry these side effects, but is more time intensive and slower to show symptom improvement.  Both avenues can be costly, typically amounting to hundreds of dollars per month.  Without health insurance to cover a portion of the expense, these options are simply out of reach for many families.

A Natural (and Free) Alternative

Luckily, there may be an inexpensive, side-effect free solution for managing ADHD symptoms. Frances Kuo and Andrea Faber Taylor, who both specialize in psychology and environmental science at the University of Illinois, conducted a study examining children with the disorder and the impact of green spaces, including parks, yards, and urban forests. The results were promising, with children who had access to green spaces for play showing milder ADHD symptoms than those without. A potential explanation for these findings lies in the theory of attention restoration. This school of thought outlines two types of attention, directed and involuntary. Directed attention describes periods of deliberate focus, such as reading, writing, or driving. Involuntary attention refers to automatic focus, such as walking on a busy sidewalk or getting dressed in the morning. Directed attention is a limited resource, with breaks necessary to maintain productivity. In children with ADHD, this capacity is further reduced. By playing outdoors, children have an opportunity to “replenish” their directed attention because spontaneous play only draws on involuntary attention. So, while medication is effective in extending a child’s length of directed attention, outdoor play can achieve the same effect naturally.

Kuo and Taylor’s findings illuminate yet another benefit of urban forests. In fact, many of the children residing in areas lacking urban forests come from less affluent backgrounds. These families are largely unable to afford mainstream ADHD treatment options and stand to benefit most from the availability of green space. Education is critical to breaking the cycle of poverty, and children held back by this disorder are unable to achieve their full potential in the classroom. Granted, this research is preliminary, and more studies need to be conducted before anything is certain. Perhaps most importantly, they give a degree of hope to families that otherwise would have no options for managing their child’s disorder.

Learn more about the benefits of urban forests!

Learn more about urban forests

Forest Digest – Week of August 3, 2015

by American Forests

Here’s the past week of all things forest, it’s your Forest Digest.

Trinity Forest in Dallas, Texas

The Great Trinity Forest has over 6000 acres of trees.

  • US Raises Concerns About Pipeline Through ForestsABC News
    The U.S. Forest Service, along with environmental groups, are opposing the placement of a natural gas pipeline from Ohio to North Carolina by several large energy conglomerates as it is currently planned, arguing that it will disrupt critical national forest lands.
  • Charter Forests Could Bring Innovation to Land ManagementHeartland News
    A new method for forest management has been proposed based on the charter school system, in which forests on federal land could be managed outside of the forest service and would be free from some of the requirements of national forest lands.

GR25: Giving Back to Celebrated Stewards of the Earth in 2000

by Megan Higgs
Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo credit: Chris Evans, Illinois Wildlife Action Plan,

During the turn of the millennium, a lot of uncertainty abounded across America.  Many of us can remember holding our breath the evening of December 31, 1999 in anticipation of the notorious Y2K computer bug – a catastrophe that would result if early computers could not recognize the “00” of the year “2000,” resulting in predicted rampant errors or complete shutdown. Of course, this blog is a living testament to the fact that these scares never came to fruition!

Long before potential computer problems became an issue, however, there was another group of Americans that know all-too-well what longstanding uncertainty is like – Native Americans.  Our Global ReLeaf journey in 2000 sought to give back to those that originally called America home, particularly with our Cherokee Indian Reforestation project. This project, which planted 3,500 trees of mixed species, including white oak, red spruce, and American chestnut, worked to reforest an area of the Qualla Boundary, a 57,000-acre property next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park of North Carolina.  This parcel of land, purchased from the federal government by the Native Americans in the 1800s, is owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

As it turns out, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have a fascinating history filled with stories of resilience. In 1838, the federal government worked to forcefully remove southeastern Cherokee Indians to acquire additional land, resources, and gold, resulting in the banishment of over 16,000 individuals through the Indian Removal Act. This removal required the many thousands of natives to march to their relocation site in Oklahoma, with a substantial portion of the Cherokee tribe (between 25 to 50 percent) perishing before reaching their destination.  As a result, this infamous move has historically become known as the Trail of Tears.

Most of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, however, did not march west to Indian Territory.  A small group of approximately 800 Cherokee remained in the southeast U.S. by evading removal.  Additionally, several members that participated in the march allegedly returned to the Qualla Boundary later, and the Eastern Band was composed of 1,000 members by 1850. The descendants of these combined groups compose the current Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, a sovereign nation of over 14,000 members.

Working with the Resource Institute of Social Education, American Forests planted the aforementioned trees within and near the Qualla Boundary to allow the members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to retain many aspects of their culture and livelihoods. The Cherokee are often renowned for their arts and crafts, including pottery, beadworking, and woodcarving. In addition, the Cherokee, like many Native American tribes, are celebrated stewards of the earth and often have stringent programs to restore and conserve many natural resources used by artisans – including, of course, forests.

American Forests did not stop there, however – we also worked with the Ohkay Owingeh tribe of New Mexico in 2008, a band of Mohican Indians in Wisconsin in 2003, and many other diverse people and projects throughout our 25-year history.

It’s a Bug-Eat-Bug World

by American Forests

David May, Communications Intern

Part 3 of the 3-part series Insects and Our Forests. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

It’s an incredible time to be alive. With a credit card and an internet connection, you can have just about anything from just about anywhere shipped to your doorstep, most of the time in 2 days. Every now and then, however, you can get a little more than what was in your cart. Nearly 50 years ago, the Japan-native hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA) slipped through the regulatory cracks of the shipping industry and found its way to the eastern US; since then, the pest has grown to epidemic proportions.

As the name implies, the HWA preys upon hemlock trees, various species of which are found on both coasts of America as well as eastern Asia. Although they are typically no bigger than one millimeter, their presence is easily detectable by the small tufts of what appears to be cotton along the branches of hemlocks. This “cotton” protects the bug as it sucks vital phloem from the young branches of hemlocks, causing needle loss and, eventually, death.

Thinking Outside the Box

A researcher putting bugs in a bag.

These enclosures, called “Bug Dorms” by Kimberly Wallin, will be monitored for evidence of reproduction and HWA predation for the next few years. Photo credit: Bud Mayfield, USFS

For the forests of the eastern United States, the insect’s presence is unwelcome to say the least. Hemlocks are keystone species in many ecosystems of the 17 states they are found in, which means they’re fundamental to their ecosystem’s health. It also means that their devastation is a big deal.

As the HWA continues to spread from the Carolinas to New England, researchers are looking away from costly pesticides and towards something a little more natural: the silver fly.

Earlier this year, the silver fly, found in the Pacific Northwest, was introduced into hemlock forests in Tennessee and New York as a predator for the HWA, and the early results are promising. Entomologists Kimberly Wallin, from the University of Vermont, and Darrell Ross, from Oregon State University, are working with the Forest Service to see if the fly could be the answer to the eastern hemlock’s troubles.

“This is the first time this has been done with these flies; it’s a brand-new idea,” says Wallin. “We’re hopeful.”

The strategy of introducing biological control agents is not new, however. In fact, an attempt at controlling the HWA began in 2008 with the Laricobius nigrinus beetle. The tests are ongoing, but the results have not been very promising. There are many considerations when introducing any species into a new habitat, but the silver fly seems to fit the bill much better so far.

The Road to Success

Varying amounts of flies have been released in bags enclosed around infected branches in the two test areas; they were introduced near Grandview, Tenn. on May 12th, and around Skaneateles Lake in New York on June 5th. They have reproduced successfully and seem to be feeding on the HWA as of now, which is great news.

A hemlock branch covered in HWA cotton

The “cotton” secreted by the Hemlock Woody Adelgid also improves its mobility, allowing it to be pulled by the wind to other areas.

Getting this far hasn’t been easy. An experimental release such as this takes a concerted effort between regulatory organizations and researchers. It took Wallin and Ross 10 years of research and planning to get to this point, and it seems to have paid off so far.

“It remains to be seen whether they will survive and if their populations will grow to densities that significantly impact the hemlock woolly adelgid populations and, ultimately, the survival of hemlocks,” says Ross. “We probably won’t have answers to those questions for a year or two.”

This seems to be the Hemlock’s best chance at survival as of now. All that’s left to do is hope for the best and see how hungry the silver flies really are.

Forest Digest – Week of July 27, 2015

by American Forests

The latest on all things forest, it’s this week’s forest digest.

A drone flying

Helicopters and planes carrying vital wildfire fighting equipment are forced to land when an unauthorized drone is in the area for concerns of a potential collision.