Creeping Away

by Scott Maxham

About 1,700 years ago, humans first arrived on the scene on the island of Hawai’i. Since then, the island’s biodiversity has steadily declined. This is due to several factors: deforestation, humans repurposing land for agriculture and, possibly most detrimental, the introduction of non-native species. And it’s a non-native species that has put a Hawai’ian bird on the brink of extinction.

Non-native plants and animals have been brought to the Big Island of Hawai’i for a wide variety of reasons. First, Polynesians, who were the first inhabitants of Hawai’i, brought animals and plants for food. In the 18th century, Europeans brought over more livestock and other plants that would go on to out-compete native species. Then, in the 1920s, two devastating invasives were introduced: the banana poka, an ornamental vine that has taken over tens of thousands of acres of forest, and the Japanese white-eye (Zosterops japonicus), a bird introduced to shrink insect populations. It is doubtful that people realized in 1929, when the bird was introduced, that it would also be responsible for shrinking the population of something else, a native honeycreeper.

Japanese white-eye

Japanese white-eye
Credit: Toshihiro Gamo

In a new study released last week in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers from the University of Hawai’i at Monoa reveal that the endangered Hawai’i creeper (Oreomystis mana) population at Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge has shrunk by 63 percent in the last decade, most likely from food limitation associated with increased numbers of the Japanese white-eye. For the last 80 years, the creeper and white-eye have been forced to share food sources on the confined island, and the white-eye has been winning the foraging battle, as its population increased while the creeper’s declined. Beyond the population numbers, though, the study’s authors document that the surviving young creepers have lower body mass, shorter bills and shorter legs than past generations of creepers, and overall, the species is showing signs of malnutrition.

From 1992 to 1996, American Forests planted more than 150,650 trees in Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge to help reestablish nesting ground for Hawai’ian birds. The tree most commonly planted was the acacia koa, a hardwood tree that provides a habitat for birds like the creeper. It is important that these trees be replanted because half of the island’s native forests have disappeared.

These birds have surely seen better days — before humans disrupted their natural ecosystem. Scientists and volunteers on the island are hard at work trying to save both the native forests and native wildlife from the threat of invasive species. For more on this fight and struggle to protect Hawai’i’s native species, check out our Spring/Summer 2013 magazine feature “Islands in the Balance.”


Clearing the Air

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

“Air pollution is causing more deaths than HIV or malaria combined,” Kandeh Yumkella, director general of the U.N. Industrial Development Organization, told a conference in Oslo trying to work out new U.N. development goals for 2030. The Huffington Post Green, April 9, 2013

Air pollution in New York City’s Washington Heights

Air pollution in New York City’s Washington Heights. Credit: Susan Sermoneta

Sometimes, when talking about air pollution, we get so caught up in the web of science and climate change that we forget about one of the basics: Air pollution is bad for you.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, poor air quality can:

  • Irritate the respiratory system.
  • Reduce lung function.
  • Inflame and damage the cells that line the lungs.
  • Make the lungs more susceptible to infection.
  • Aggravate asthma.
  • Aggravate other chronic lung diseases.
  • Cause permanent lung damage.

And unfortunately, 131.8 million people — or 42 percent — of the U.S. population live in areas with dangerous pollution levels as reported in the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2013” report.

While various agencies put emissions restrictions and building regulations in place to try to create cleaner air throughout the country, a new study reveals that we can do something to help ourselves: plant trees!

Last month, U.S. Forest Service researchers David Nowak, who is also an American Forests Science Advisory Board member, and Robert Hoehn, along with The Davey Institute’s Satoshi Hirabayashi and Allison Bodine, revealed that the urban forests in 10 cities across the country save on average one person a year from pollution-related death. In New York City, that number increases to eight people per year.

New York City, where eight lives are saved each year from trees removing fine particulate matter from the air

New York City, where eight lives are saved each year from trees removing fine particulate matter from the air. Credit: Chris Topher

The study, published in Environmental Pollution, looked specifically at the removal of particulate pollution less than 2.5 microns in size — you need a microscope to see particles that small. This size of particulate is often referred to as a fine particulate and is produced by motor vehicles, power plants, wood burning, wildfire, agricultural burning and more. The research details how the average annual percent of air quality improvement ranged between 0.05 percent in San Francisco and 0.24 percent in Atlanta with the total amount of fine particulates being removed annually by urban trees varying from 10,361 pounds in Syracuse to 142,198 pounds in Atlanta. When converting the fine particulate removal to a monetary value, urban forests are doing millions of dollars’ worth of work! And all they ask of us in return is a little TLC.

So, make sure to support your local urban forest program that is helping take care of those trees. The trees are working for us, so let’s work for them, too.


Conifers Under Threat

by Susan Laszewski
Whitebark pines. Creid: Bjorn/Flickr

Whitebark pines. Credit: Bjorn/Flickr

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that the latest update to their Red List — a database in which the world’s species are classified according to threat level — includes the first global reassessment of conifers.

In addition to the shelter and food they provide for wildlife, conifers play an important role globally by sequestering carbon. Coniferous forests take three times more carbon out of the air than temperate or tropical forests. Given all the benefits these trees provide, the results of the assessment aren’t too uplifting. While some species have made gains in the 15 years since the last assessment — such as Lawson’s cypress, which went from being classified as vulnerable to near threatened — overall, conifers are in decline. The assessment found that 34 percent of these important trees are threatened with extinction.

Longleaf pines. Credit: Michael Heston

Longleaf pines. Credit: Michael Heston

The world’s most widely planted pine, the Monterey pine (Pinus radiata), whose decline is largely attributed to pine pitch canker, a fungal disease, is among 33 species of conifer whose status has declined since the previous assessment and among the 34 percent of conifers in danger of extinction. Also among that 34 percent is another tree suffering from a fungal disease: whitebark pine, which is threatened by white pine blister rust. Listed as endangered, whitebark pine is a species of special concern in the American West, where it is a foundation species in the high-elevation ecosystems of the Greater Yellowstone Area. Also listed as endangered is the longleaf pine, a keystone species in the southern United States that supports nearly 600 other species, including the keystone species red-cockaded woodpecker, Bachman’s sparrow and wild turkey.

“Plants are the foundation of life on Earth, providing valuable ecosystem services as well. The recent assessment of conifers shows that many species, including those with known economic and human benefit, are under increasing threat,” says Dr. Thomas Lacher of Texas A&M University in a news release on the assessment. “As IUCN expands the coverage of assessments to more and more plant groups, it will allow conservation actions to focus on protecting the species and ecosystems that support the survival of all life.”

At American Forests, we’re already at work with conservation actions to protect and restore conifers. Our Endangered Western Forests initiative was established to help protect the whitebark pine, not only from white pine blister rust, but also from the exploding mountain pine beetle population brought on by a changing climate. Our Longleaf Pine Restoration project, part of the Alcoa Foundation and American Forests Global ReLeaf Partnership for Trees, is planting 26,000 longleaf pines across 65 acres in South Carolina. You can help, too. Though many conifers are threatened with extinction, we can still fight to save these species upon which so many others depend.


Beyond the Call of Duty

by Scott Steen, CEO

Along with the rest of the nation, the American Forests family mourns the loss of the brave members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew, who died Sunday while combatting Arizona’s Yarnell Hill Fire. In memory of this elite group of men that regularly braved dangerous conditions to prevent wildfires from destroying communities and ecosystems alike, we wanted to share a story that recently came to our attention of a very special tree that the Hotshots went out of their way to save.

Members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots climb the national co-champion alligator juniper, which they saved from the Doce Fire.

Members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots climb the national co-champion alligator juniper, which they saved from the Doce Fire. Credit: docefire azpnf/Flickr

On June 18, fire broke out in Prescott National Forest near Prescott, Ariz. Over the next week and a half, the fire consumed more than 6,700 acres of the forest, while firefighters, including the Granite Mountain Hotshots, worked to contain the blaze threatening the national forest — including a huge and significant tree: American Forests’ national co-champion alligator juniper, tied for being the largest of its species in the entire country.

As reported by Joanna Dodder Nellans with The Daily Courier, “When [Prescott National Forest Wilderness and Trails Manager Jason] Williams told the Hotshots about the tree and asked them to save it, they headed up the mountain and cut out thick brush at the base of the co-champion alligator juniper and cut a fire line around it. The Hotshots checked on the tree Monday when they were in the vicinity and saw that the fire had burned right up to that line.” The national co-champion alligator juniper survived thanks to the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Our debt to these brave men for protecting our forests and communities, along with saving the potentially 1,000-year-old alligator juniper, can never be repaid, but working alongside our partners in Arizona’s Champion Tree Program, we will endeavor to make sure the alligator juniper continues to thrive as a monument to their courage. American Forests will also plant 1,900 trees in a national forest damaged by fire in memory of the 19 Hotshots who lost their lives doing a job they loved.

Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and friends.


Fire in the Wildland-Urban Interface

by Amanda Tai
Credit: USFWS Pacific Southwest Region/Flickr

Credit: USFWS Pacific Southwest Region/Flickr

There remains a constant tension between the ecological benefits provided by periodic wildfire and the negative impacts it can have on human populations. Most often, we hear about the devastating effect that wildfires have on people and communities, which was especially tragic over the weekend. American Forests sends our condolences to the families and friends of the firefighters who lost their lives battling the Arizona forest fires.

One of the reasons the news is so often negative these days is because wildfire seasons are longer and more intense than ever before. America’s wildfire season lasts about two months longer than it did in the 1970s and burns twice as much land. This drastic increase is caused by the hotter and drier conditions produced by climate change, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told Congress last month. To put even more pressure on the situation, federal funding cuts have resulted in fewer wildfire prevention programs and firefighting personnel on duty.

In addition to climate change and funding, there are several other factors that complicate wildfire. One of these factors is increased development in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). As more people live and work around areas with trees, fire-related challenges are bound to increase. Around 32 percent of U.S. housing units are situated in the WUI, according to a study published in Forest Ecology and Management in 2009. That figure is only expected to increase as development and population growth continue in urban areas. From 1990 to 2000, more than six million homes were added to WUI areas.

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Credit: USFWS Pacific Southwest Region/Flickr

The unique structure of an urban environment also changes the nature of wildfire and the strategies needed to address it. Areas of dense housing can result in significant damage in a wildfire, as it can easily spread from house to house, and human-caused fires are more likely to occur. Protecting homes and other large structures also results in higher firefighting costs. But, efforts such as informed land-use decisions, planned landscaping choices and fire prevention educational material can help reduce a community’s vulnerability to wildfire. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and its coalition partners provide such materials through the Fire-Adapted Communities program. The USFS also issues reports, like its “Wildfire, Wildlands, and People: Understanding and Preparing for Wildfire in the Wildland-Urban Interface,” that educate community planners, as well as the public, on WUI wildfire risks, high risk areas in the U.S. and what can be done to lower those risks before a fire occurs.

Wildfire is an increasingly challenging issue for this country, but it’s encouraging to see the work that’s being done to reduce risks, especially in more densely populated urban areas, in hopes that we can avert future tragedies. 


Wildlife Refuges Carry on With a Shrinking Budget

by Scott Maxham

Three dollars.

Roseate spoonbills, J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

Roseate spoonbills, J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Fotophilius/Flickr

That is the amount of money per acre the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System has to spend to protect the 150 million acres of land under its care. In return, the 561 national wildlife refuges provide America with 34,000 jobs and an estimated $4.2 billion to local economies according to a report released last week by the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement (CARE). The report goes on to detail that 47 million people visit the refuges every year and that every dollar invested in the system returns up to $8 to local economies. And while national wildlife refuges benefit local economies, their main purpose is to provide habitat for animals that are frequently pushed out of their native lands.

Refuges provide a habitat for some 700 bird, 220 mammal, 250 reptile and amphibian, and 1,000fish species. The Fish and Wildlife Service has a wide range of responsibilities in all 50 states and even the Pacific Islands, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands and Navassa Island. With the increasingly tight budget, the refuges get added help from volunteers that help to accomplish 22 percent more work than can be accomplished by staffed positions. The combined efforts help protect some 280 threatened and endangered species. At American Forests, we want to help protect nature in every way possible — and help an agency that is already doing so much with so little — so we do our part by aiding restoration efforts in national wildlife refuges.

Each year, we help out various wildlife refuges. For instance, this year, we are helping put an end to forest fragmentation in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge by planting more than 33,000 trees — augmenting our more than 15 years of cooperative work in this refuge alone. This area of Texas is home to a wide variety of animals. The refuge is a popular destination for migrating birds with 530 species of birds accounted for. In addition, the refuge provides a safe living space for two big cats, the ocelot and jaguarundi. These animals help to keep the balance of a healthy ecosystem. The wildlife refuge land we work to keep healthy gives back to more than just wildlife, though. It gives back to us, too, through an array of ecosystem services.

Lower Klamath Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Lower Klamath Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: International Rivers

The 150 million acres of refuge land serve Americans with countless recreational activities and a wide variety of ecosystem services, such as cleaning water and air, preventing floods and storing carbon. The ecosystem services these lands provide are estimated to be somewhere around $32.3 billion a year according to the CARE report.

National wildlife refuges are essential to the environmental well-being of this country, but it takes a certain amount of funding to keep them up and running. However, the money invested is gained back by local economies that rely on tourists who support business such as eco-tourism and the necessities like food and lodging. As previously stated, the returns can be up to 800 percent for these local economies. Beyond the money, we must realize how important and priceless these refuges are. Big and small, we support them all. Without them a great deal of biodiversity would be lost, and we would live in a country facing an increased amount of environmental problems. So, go out and enjoy your favorite wildlife refuge and remind our politicians that they should not cut funding for our national wildlife refuges.


Action Against Climate Change

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

President Obama revealing his Climate Change Plan at Georgetown University.

President Obama revealing his Climate Change Plan at Georgetown University.

This week has been rather historic in D.C. between Supreme Court decisions and new presidential initiatives, and as you can imagine, the latter has us pretty revved up.

On Tuesday, citing the need to address climate change for the health of our children and our children’s children, President Obama revealed his wide-ranging agenda regarding climate change. His executive plan outlines three core areas of focus:

  • Cutting carbon pollution in America.
  • Preparing the United States for the impacts of climate change.
  • Leading international efforts to address global climate change.

Some of the ways the plan aims to address these areas include reducing carbon pollution from power plants, investing in clean energy, improving energy efficiency, supporting climate-resilient investments and working with other countries to take action around climate change.

But, as most of us know, you can’t talk about climate change and carbon sequestration without talking about forests. And the plan does just that, and we want to make sure forests remain a powerful tool in mitigating the effects of climate change. This is why we’ve developed a new advocacy letter that supports the president’s climate change plan, but also encourages the administration to prioritize forest restoration and conservation efforts as part of the solution.

As the plan acknowledges, America’s forests remove nearly 12 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions each year, but we can’t rely on them to continue to perform this massive feat unaided. They are continually being threatened by the very thing they’re helping fight in the form of intense wildfires, drought, pests and disease, so we’re gratified that “the administration is working to identify new approaches to protect and restore our forests, as well as other critical landscapes including grasslands and wetlands, in the face of a changing climate” — this is something we’ve been doing for more than a century.

At an American Forests Global ReLeaf restoration site in 2013

At an American Forests Global ReLeaf restoration site in 2013. Credit: American Forests

Back in the 1800s, American Forests’ founders recognized a disturbing trend in the country: Healthy forests were being destroyed at an alarming and unnecessary rate. As a result, in 1875, they formed this organization for “the protection of the existing forests of the country from unnecessary waste.” It’s hard to believe that almost 140 years later, we’re still fighting some of those same concerns, but over the years, we’ve become pretty good pugilists.

In just the last few decades, we’ve planted more than 44 million trees in diverse landscapes across the country and around the world. We’ve helped restore swamps in Maryland, streamside vegetation in Washington, severely burned forests in California, wildlife refuges in Texas and endangered bird habitat in Michigan, to just name a few. It is no wonder to us how similar to the climate change plan’s call to implement “climate-adaptation strategies that promote resilience in fish and wildlife populations, forests and other plant communities, freshwater resources, and the ocean” this sounds.

So, go sign and send our advocacy letter welcoming the administration to the forest-saving party, and if you aren’t already a member of the American Forests family, join us today to help protect our forests, wildlife, health and so much more.


Urban Forests & Carbon Markets

by American Forests Science Advisory Board

By Dr. E. Gregory McPherson, American Forests Science Advisory Board Member with the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station

Editor’s Note: For a brief introduction to the issues discussed in today’s post, see yesterday’s post, “A Carbon Market Primer,” by our Urban Forests Program director, Melinda Housholder.

“Cashing-in” on urban forestry projects by selling credits for carbon stored in growing trees has been elusive. Several urban forest organizations have developed voluntary carbon market projects, while the City of Santa Monica’s 1,000 tree planting project is the only one in the compliance-based market.

An urban tree planting project

An urban tree planting project. Credit: American Forests

Although urban forest projects are promising because they not only sequester carbon, but also provide other valuable co-benefits such as energy savings, stormwater mitigation and air quality enhancement, they face special challenges. They are more expensive to implement than other measures, such as tropical forest protection or methane capture. Also, high tree mortality rates and changing urban environments result in high levels of uncertainty and risk. Project investors and purchasers of carbon credits seek assurance that their carbon credits are real and permanent. I’ve been working with others to revise The Climate Action Reserve’s (CAR) Urban Forest Project Protocol and develop another protocol for carbon mitigation under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that would be an important endorsement of tree planting and stewardship projects. Guidance provided by these protocols addresses issues of quality assurance and legal defensibility required by future investors. This blog focuses on revisions to the CAR protocol.

The Urban Forest Project Protocol was adopted in 2008 and revised in 2010. In 2011, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) adapted the CAR protocol for the compliance-based cap-and-trade market. The resulting protocol is very similar to the CAR protocol. A workshop held in June 2012 and supported by American Forests found that hurdles to implementing the current compliance protocol are profound. Strategic efforts are needed to both overcome these hurdles through innovative project design and to revise the existing protocol to make urban forest projects more workable. For example, pilot projects will have to be undertaken by entities that have the institutional capacity to deliver large-scale projects, are well-funded and willing to take risks to lead the way. A long-term perspective that incorporates the value and future marketing of environmental co-benefits is essential for project developers, given the narrow regulatory emphasis on carbon benefits and the uncertain impacts of climate change on future tree performance. Research is needed to develop more cost-effective monitoring and data management approaches. Because space for new trees in some cities and campuses is limited, it may be difficult to deliver cost-effective projects unless operators have flexibility to aggregate smaller projects. Potential exists to make projects more affordable through training of public sector verifiers and streamlining proof of carbon ownership/access for private property trees.

An example of an urban tree canopy (UTC) map

An example of an urban tree canopy (UTC) map. Credit: Bill McChesney

With funding from CalFIRE, CAR has begun a one-year effort to revise the protocol. The work team is exploring expanding the scope of projects from tree planting to include management of existing trees. This increases potential revenue by including carbon sequestered by existing trees through the application of best management practices. It reduces monitoring and verification costs by using sample field plots and urban tree canopy (UTC), instead of tracking individual tree sites.

Monitoring UTC change can be achieved at relatively low cost by using remote sensing and GIS. Also, increasing UTC can be easily incorporated as an urban forestry strategy in community climate action plans. A recent study (Novak, D.J. and Greenfield, E.J. Tree and Impervious Cover Change in U.S. Cities. Urban Forestry and Urban Greening, 2012, 11, 21-30.) found that UTC had significantly declined over the past five years in 17 of 20 U.S. cities. This outcome suggests that even maintaining the current level of UTC is challenging and a defendable benchmark for measuring additional carbon benefits due to project activities. Avoided reductions in UTC where development plans or trends are clearly altered might also be considered additional.

Switching the focus from carbon stored by newly planted trees to carbon stocks associated with all trees raises legal/policy issues, such as ownership of carbon when trees are on private land. The work team welcomes your input on this and other challenging issues we face. You can observe and comment on the work team’s progress at http://www.climateactionreserve.org/how/protocols/urban-forest/rev/.


A Carbon Market Primer

by Melinda Housholder, Urban Forests Program Director

Editor’s Note: Last June, American Forests’ Urban Forests Program director, Melinda Housholder, wrote a blog post detailing the tricky web that is carbon offsets and how they relate to urban forests. A year later, there have been some interesting developments on that front, so before we dive into those updates tomorrow, we wanted to re-share a slightly updated version of Melinda’s post as a quick refresher on the complicated issue of carbon markets.

Smoke stack

Credit: Marc Falardeau

In June 2012, I attended a workshop in Davis, Calif., called “Urban Forests & Carbon Markets” that American Forests participated in and co-sponsored through a grant with the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban & Community Forestry Program. As California takes the lead to develop a cap-and-trade model to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions statewide, American Forests is excited to be involved in efforts to advance urban forest projects for use in this cap-and-trade model.

What’s going on in California?
In 2006, California committed to reduce GHG emissions and passed Assembly Bill 32: Global Warming Solutions Act, often known as “AB 32.” This act directs the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to reduce GHG emissions throughout the state by 2020 to the levels of emissions in 1990. To accomplish this goal, CARB has played an integral role in developing California’s Greenhouse Gas Cap-and-Trade Program.

With this Cap-and-Trade Program, the state of California sets an absolute limit, or cap, on the amount of GHG emissions allowed throughout the state. Allowances to discharge a certain amount of pollution are auctioned off to emitters such as industries, buildings and manufacturers. To comply with the cap, the emitter then has the choice to either 1) reduce their emissions on site; 2) buy allowances to emit; or 3) buy offsets.

How do offsets work and where do urban forests fit in?

If an entity is emitting more than their allowed amounts of GHG, they have the option to buy a certain amount of offset credits issued through approved sources. In California’s case, these projects are approved under The Climate Action Reserve. Urban forest projects all over the country can apply under the Climate Action Reserve’s Urban Forest Project Protocol to receive offset credits that they can then sell to firms in California that are emitting more than their allowed amounts of GHGs.

3rd Street promenade, Santa Monica, Calif.

3rd Street promenade, Santa Monica, Calif. Credit: Alexis Fam

There is great potential for urban trees to help reduce GHG emissions throughout the state. According to an article from the nonprofit California ReLeaf, researchers estimate that “if 50 million urban trees were planted strategically, then they could offset emissions of an estimated 6.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually — around 3.6 percent of the statewide goal.” Currently, the only urban forestry project registered under the Urban Forest Protocol for carbon offset credits is a Greenhouse Gas Tree-Planting Project in Santa Monica that is designed to plant 1,000 new trees in parkways along boulevards.

As I learned at the workshop at UC-Davis last year, it has been challenging to register urban forest projects under this protocol to serve as offset projects. Tomorrow, American Forests Science Advisory Board member Dr. Greg McPherson will be on Loose Leaf to provide information on the exciting updates to urban forests and carbon markets since last year’s workshop and steps that have been taken to help make urban forests a successful component of the carbon market.


Buffalo Soldiers in the National Parks

by Alison Share, Environmental Public Policy Associate, Crowell & Moring LLP

The House of Representatives had a busy week last week, even beyond the machinations surrounding the Farm Bill. On Monday, June 17, the House passed a raft of environmental bills, including ones addressing land exchanges, creating a new national historic trail and analyzing forest sites for potential inclusion in the National Park System. Two of the more interesting bills are H.R. 674 and H.R. 520.

Rota, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

Rota, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Credit: ctsnow/Flickr

H.R. 674 is the Rota Cultural and Natural Resources Study Act, directing the Secretary of the Interior to examine the suitability of designating prehistoric, historic and limestone forest sites on the island of Rota, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which is located just east of the Philippines and north of Guam in the Pacific Ocean. As an insular area of the Commonwealth, Rota is recognized by archeologists as having the most numerous and intact prehistoric sites of any of the many islands in the Mariana Archipelago. The bill recognizes that beyond natural beauty, Rota also possesses a great deal of historical value, namely from the period of Japanese ownership from 1914 until 1945 due to its importance in World War II. A study on the island is to be completed once funds are available and the results will be reported back to the House and the Senate.

Also interesting from a historical standpoint is H.R. 520, known as the Buffalo Soldiers in the National Parks Study Act. This act, like the Rota Cultural and Natural Resources Study Act, addresses a topic of historical significance. It calls for the Secretary of the Interior to study potential alternatives to commemorating the role of Buffalo Soldiers during the beginning of the National Park System. And who are the Buffalo Soldiers? Glad you asked.

Five U.S. Army soldiers of the 24th Mounted Infantry, mounted on horses in Yosemite National park.

Five U.S. Army soldiers of the 24th Mounted Infantry, mounted on horses in Yosemite National park. Courtesy of San Joaquin Valley Library System.

H.R. 520 identifies the main points of their history. While Bob Marley may have brought the buffalo soldier into popular culture, it isn’t until you really examine their full role that you can appreciate how vital they were in the Western United States at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Originally based out of the Presidio, a former military base and current national park, the Buffalo Soldiers were African-American regiments, which included many former slaves, assigned to patrol the western frontier. They assisted with constructing roads and telegraph lines, but also fought in numerous campaigns against American Indians, including the Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche and Apache. They also participated in the Spanish-American War. But one overlooked aspect to the history of the Buffalo Soldiers is their role as some of the first national park rangers in the Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks.

Assigned to the parks to help evict poachers and timber thieves, they also served as firefighters and park police before the National Park Service was established. Working in the parks at the turn of the century, the soldiers also assisted with trails, roads and other park infrastructure. Some of their many noteworthy accomplishments included constructing the first usable road into the Giant Forest and completing the first trail to the top of Mt. Whitney (the tallest peak in the lower 48 states) in Sequoia National Park. In Yosemite, they built an arboretum close to the Merced River’s south fork.

H.R. 520 is designed to study the most effective ways to raise awareness of the Buffalo Soldiers’ roles in the early years of our national parks and may include establishing a national historical trail to commemorate their journey from the Presidio to the Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks; identifying places that could be recognized in the National Register of Historic Places; and creating educational opportunities for visitors to these parks.

While Congress has not gained a reputation for expediency this term, there are still some noteworthy and important bills being passed. Highlighting those that worked to protect our national parks is certainly worth celebrating, and the Buffalo Soldiers are a key part of that history.