Big Mountains and Big Trees

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Credit: Matthew Paulson

The Great Smoky Mountains, which run along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, comprise one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world; they were formed 200 to 300 million years ago. A mere 79 years ago tomorrow, these mountains became protected as Great Smoky Mountains National Park after years of fundraising and effort by local residents to get the area officially designated as a national park.

The most visited national park in the country is an ecological wonderland that is home to more than 17,000 documented species — scientists believe the park may actually be home to up to 80,000 undocumented species. These species include more than 100 species of native trees, which is no surprise given that the park is 95 percent forested and 25 percent of that is old growth. And where there is old-growth forest, there are big trees … including national champions.

National champion red spruce

National champion red spruce. Credit: American Forests

In past years, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been home to more than 10 national champion trees listed on the National Register of Big Trees. As of the Spring 2013 update, the North Carolina side of the park claims three champion trees:

  • The red spruce (Picea rubens), which is the biggest of the park’s current champions. Nominated in 2007 by Jess Riddle and Josh Kelly, the tree measures 147 feet tall and 152 inches around with a 24-foot average crown spread for a whopping 305 total points.
  • The cinnamon clethra (Clethra acuminata). A species native to the area, this national champion is 33 feet tall and 10 inches around with a 12-foot average crown spread for 46 total points.
  • The Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense). Also nominated by Jess Riddle, this champion is just a touch smaller than the cinnamon clethra with 44 total points.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park isn’t the only home for North Carolina national champions, though. The state boasts 26 national champions. Its biggest is a mammoth eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) located in Macon County, which is 159 feet tall with 362 total points. Beyond national champions, the North Carolina Champion Big Tree Program, which has been operating since the 1970s, has almost 400 state champions in its database.

So, this weekend, in honor of Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s anniversary, here’s a toast to the mountains, forests and big trees that make Appalachia so special.


Bald Eagles, From Sea to Shining … Lake

by Susan Laszewski
Bald eagle

Bald eagle. Credit: Andrew Price

I was delighted to read in the USDA blog this month about “Bald Eagles Making a Comeback.”

Anne Poopatanapong, district wildlife biologist for the San Jacinto Ranger District, writes that the pair of bald eagles she has been monitoring for 13 years in California’s Lake Hemet is doing well and has been fruitful. Since 2007, she and volunteer eagle enthusiasts have observed fledgling eagles every year.

It came as no surprise to read that the U.S. Forest Service is putting efforts into protecting and restoring the bald eagle — we’ve worked with them on it ourselves. We partnered with the forest service last year to plant 88,000 trees in Superior National Forest to the benefit of bald eagles and other wildlife.

Two bald eagles

Two bald eagles. Credit: blmiers2/Flickr

The 2011 Pagami Creek Fire was a bad blow to bald eagles and other residents of Minnesota’s Superior National Forest. It blazed through 90,000 acres, just four years after the Ham Lake Fire had burned 75,000. And while fire is a natural part of the boreal forest ecosystem of Superior, declines in the diversity of tree species had left the forest more vulnerable to the blaze and less able to recover — and left the bald eagles and osprey with fewer places to nest.

So, we teamed up with the Forest Service to plant a more diverse mix of trees, from white and black spruce to northern white cedar and white, red and Jack pines that bald eagles are particularly fond of nesting in.

So, we thank the Forest Service for keeping up the good work. From California to Minnesota, we’re rooting for bald eagles. We’ll continue doing our part to restore the forests they rely on, and you can help.


Fire Season Off to Hot Start

by Scott Maxham

On the West Coast, the forest fire season has started early this year due to a dry winter and spring. Areas of California that usually receive more than 10 inches of rain by early summer have only gotten about two inches so far. This has led Cal Fire to report that fire activity is up this year by 45 percent.

The 2008 Freeway Complex Fire in Riverside County, Calif.

The 2008 Freeway Complex Fire in Riverside County, Calif. Credit: Erik Nielsen

The threats of forest fire are not just domestic this year. Researchers from NASA have predicted that the Amazon will experience an increase in forest fires, too. This is due to a lack of rain — projections show this trend will continue. Researchers are tracking the water temperature of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This year, both are warmer than average, which scientists interpret to mean a lack of rain that leads to dry, flammable forests.

And this just marks the most recent in a string of years that has seen intense wildfires wreak havoc on ecosystems across the country:

Unfortunately, these damaging wildfires — as opposed to low-intensity fires needed for many species to reproduce — are likely to become more common as experts predict that climate change will exasperate the intensity of forest fires in the future. Increased water temperatures often lead to a decrease in participation, and if seasons change, wildfire season may start earlier and end later. It appears that intense wildfires are on the horizon.


An Excel-lent Evening for Urban Forests

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Urban Forests Case StudiesLast night was a special one for both me and American Forests. At the Association Media & Publishing’s 33rd Annual EXCEL Awards gala last night, we collected a Gold Award and an EXTRA! Award for our Urban Forests Case Studies: Challenges, Potential and Success in a Dozen Cities. The book, which we published last fall, was a labor of love, and while it feels tremendous to be honored for it, I am more excited about the award in hopes that it will help expose more people to the world of urban forests.

Of all of the issues we tackle here at American Forests, an urban forest is one of the gnarliest to comprehend. I mean, the very name seems to contradict itself: How can you have a forest in an urban area — at least one not of the concrete variety? But “forests” do exist in cities, towns and communities across the country. They just don’t always resemble the idyllic, rural forests and landscapes made famous by painters and photographers. Instead, these forests are comprised of that tree in the median, the plants in your front yard, the river that cuts through the city, the parkland where the children play. It consists of all of those nature elements you come across in the city every day — the ones you may not even register.

And while they may be easy to overlook on a daily basis, these forests can only exist with a helping hand, which is what Urban Forests Case Studies celebrates. It acknowledges the men, women, governments and organizations who have stepped up to make sure that their urban forest is working for all of the people who rely on it because urban forests do so much for us on a daily basis:

  • Planting trees at a Sacramento Tree Foundation event. Credit: Sacramento Tree Foundation

    Planting trees at a Sacramento Tree Foundation event. Credit: Sacramento Tree Foundation

    Studies have shown that every $1 invested in urban trees results in $2 to $4 in benefits, including lowered energy costs, reduced stormwater flows, improved aesthetics, higher air quality and reduced carbon dioxide concentrations.

  • Urban trees in the lower 48 states store 770 million tons of carbon, valued at $14.3 billion, and remove approximately 784,000 tons of air pollution annually, with a value of $3.8 billion.
  • A single front-yard tree can intercept 760 gallons of rainwater in its crown, reducing runoff and flooding on your property.
  • Public housing residents with nearby trees and natural landscapes reported 25 percent fewer acts of domestic aggression and violence.
  • Tall, dense trees with soft ground surfaces can reduce noise by 50 percent or more.

With more and more people moving into cities — experts estimate that urban land in the lower U.S. will increase by 8.1 percent by 2050, a land mass larger than the state of Montana — urban forests are going to be more important than ever in the future, which is why earlier this year, American Forests launched its Community ReLeaf program with partner Bank of America Charitable Foundation. Taking into account things we learned through our research for Urban Forests Case Studies, this program is working with cities across the country to measure the impact of their urban forests and figure out how and where the urban forests can be bolstered to provide more services to urban residents.

Philadelphia skyline

Philadelphia. Credit: Ed Yakovich

Now, before I sign off for today, I need to take a moment to thank those crucial for making the book and, thus, this award happen. First, the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban & Community Forestry Program, who has been an unfailing partner to the American Forests Urban Forests Program over the last few years and whose grant made our award-winning Urban Forests Case Studies possible. Second, all of the individuals in the 12 cities who selflessly gave their time and expertise to this book. They are the ones working in urban forests every day, fighting the good fight to keep them healthy and working for us. As this book and award wouldn’t exist without the U.S. Forest Service and the local urban forest practitioners we are pleased and excited to share this award with them.


Coastal Life-givers

by Scott Maxham
Floating mangrove, Homebush Bay, Australia.

Floating mangrove, Homebush Bay, Australia. Credit Rodney Campbell

As I viewed this picture of mangrove overtaking an old World War II boat, I was reminded of the beauty of nature and the ecosystem services it provides. Many marvel at this juxtaposition of nature reclaiming what man has made; it gives us a taste of what a post-apocalyptic world would be like. For me, however, the mangroves represent tranquility and remind me of the cleaning power of nature.

Yellow-crowned night-heron in J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

Yellow-crowned night-heron in J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Credit Steve Hillebrand/USFWS

I have been studying and exploring mangroves for a number of years around Sanibel Island, Fla. I have spent countless hours at Florida’s J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. I have also explored mangroves while kayaking through Tarpon Bay and while fishing on a boat alongside them. Through my time with the mangroves, I’ve learned that they have a deep importance in the many ways that they serve humans and nature.

One of the first ways mangroves serve humans is by improving water quality and increasing biodiversity in aquatic ecosystems. In many ways, mangroves are the essence of “Water and Biodiversity,” the theme for the United Nation’s designation of 2013 as the International Year of Water Cooperation. Mangroves provide for diversity in many ways:

  • They are nurseries for fish that grow up eating the fallen leaves of the mangroves.
  • The trees provide a home and feeding area for many birds from the yellow-crowned night-heron to the ospreys and bald eagles that feed on mature fish.
  • Many other animals thrive in the mangrove ecosystems, such as crocodiles, alligators, monkeys, bats, hawksbill sea turtles, crabs, starfish and countless others.

Mangroves are also important for local economies, as fishermen depend on these areas for a steady supply of fish, which provide jobs and a commodity that can be sold to local restaurants and sent around the world. Plus, there is ecotourism, which includes bird watchers, boaters, hikers, fishermen and other nature enthusiasts.

Fiddler crab.

Fiddler crab. Credit: malfet_/Flickr

And mangroves, like many other trees, provide countless benefits to human health and safety. In addition to carbon sequestration and oxygen production, they clean the water of pollution due to runoff. They also help reduce flooding and help to cut down on the destruction of storms and hurricanes, which are proving to be more destructive with the rising and warming waters. These trees also provide a beautiful aesthetic benefit: Kayaking under a canopy of mangroves is an unparalleled experience. Mangroves have so much to offer and are an integral part of ecosystems.

Luckily, in Florida, mangrove destruction has decreased, and the species is able to flourish in the 1.5 million acre Everglades National Park — a beautiful place to visit. However, in Asia, this is not the case. With a rising global demand for seafood, many mangrove forests are cut down for fish or shrimp farms. I am honored to be working this summer with an organization that has planted 20,000 mangrove trees in Indonesia and more than 815,000 mangrove trees in China with help from their partner Alcoa Foundation. Mangroves provide many wonderful ecosystem services, economic benefits and esthetic value. People all over the world should be able to share in their beauty and benefits.


The Climate Dream Team

by Susan Laszewski

Tomorrow is a day internationally dedicated to celebrating one of the most important ecosystems on our planet. And for once, I don’t mean forests. Tomorrow is the UN-designated World Oceans Day. But don’t worry, this doesn’t mean we won’t be talking about forests. After all, you can’t have one without the other.

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This nautilus needs calcium carbonate to form its shell. Credit: Pacificklaus Photography, 2009

Yesterday, Michelle wrote about an important way that forests and oceans are connected: Forests prevent erosion into rivers and streams, keeping large quantities of sediment from washing into oceans. But that’s not the only way that forests help oceans out. Oceans and forests are Earth’s carbon sequestration dream team. Together, they regulate our planet’s climate. And when one of them is on the bench, the other one has to pick up the slack.

So, when deforestation prevents forests from sequestering their fair share of CO2, the oceans end up absorbing more, leading to ocean acidification. This is bad news for calcifying marine organisms — those organisms whose skeletons are formed from calcium carbonate, like corals and mollusks. As the water becomes more acidic, fewer carbonate ions are available to form their shells, leading to thinner shells and less protection for the organisms. If the ocean continues to acidify, shells and coral could dissolve. The changing chemistry of the ocean may have other effects that we aren’t aware of yet, as well.

In this way, deforestation sets off chain reactions that affect the whole planet. That’s why we’re working hard to restore forests where we can and protect healthy ones from deforestation. This World Oceans Day, consider helping our forests help our oceans. There’s no such thing as a team of one, and the oceans need their partner.


From the Land to the Sea

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Coral reef at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge

Coral reef at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Ogdonia Run, Loyalsock State Forest, Penn.

Ogdonia Run, Loyalsock State Forest, Penn. Credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli

Forests are important for many, many reasons. This is something we can all agree on, I believe. Sometimes, though, it can get complicated conveying just how important some of the things they do are.

For instance, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written the phrase “trees help stabilize soil and prevent erosion.” It’s a true phrase, but a little hard to get jazzed about. So a little bit of sand and dirt is moving around a bit; it doesn’t feel like a big deal — except that it is. And not always where we’d expect it to be.

It turns out that soil erosion caused by deforestation could kill coral reefs. As reported by Phys.org, deforestation in Madagascar has caused the sediment levels in the country’s rivers to increase fivefold, according to a study published earlier this week by a team of scientists from the University of Sydney, Australia. And where do these rivers flow? To the sea, where the sediment gets deposited on the seabed, covering up coral, which are then forced to work overtime to survive, which may actually end up killing them. And coral reefs are already facing enough threats from climate change and habitat destruction, with the Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimating that a quarter of reef-building corals are in danger of extinction. The study also reveals a solution to the sediment problem: the restoration of forests. They estimate that by restoring up to 50 percent of natural forest, the sediment volumes could be reduced by up to 68 percent.

Sediment isn’t just a problem for coral, though. Remember that in order for the sediment to reach the coral, first, it must enter a stream or river, where it can wreak havoc. Beyond settling onto the stream floor and disturbing the water flow, extra sediment in the water becomes a pollutant for the aquatic species that live there, as the sediment can get trapped in fish’s gills. In addition, without trees acting as filters for harmful chemicals and other pollutants, the sediment can be toxic without even being ingested.

The bottom-line is that forests are vital to helping stabilize our soil — there’s that phrase! And despite its seemingly innocuous size and appearance, soil can be a killer. This is why we engage in riparian — or streamside — plantings every year. This year, we’re doing restoration work around waterways in New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon and Vermont, to just name a few. And we couldn’t do any of it without your support, so from the coral, fish and other water-based systems, thanks for being a forest supporter.


Third Time’s Another Charm

by Susan Laszewski

Samarskaya Luka

Samarskaya Luka National Park. American Forests and Alcoa Foundation are returning to Samara, Russia, for a third year. Credit: WikiTravel.org

They say that the third time’s the charm, but when it comes to our partnership with Alcoa Foundation, we like to think the first two times were pretty charmed as well! In just two years, the Alcoa Foundation and American Forests Global ReLeaf Partnership for Trees has planted 520,000 trees, bringing the environmental benefits of cleaner air, cleaner water, carbon storage and wildlife habitat to diverse communities around the world.

Now, entering the third year, we’re excited both to continue our work in communities where the partnership has planted before and to work with new communities to reach more people with the benefits of trees.

Loblolly pine stand

Loblolly pine are being planted in the 2013 Alcoa Foundation and American Forests Global ReLeaf Partnership for Trees’ first Texas project. Credit: David Stephens, Bugwood.org



We’ll be returning for the third year to places like Samara, Russia, and Whatcom County, Wash. In Samara, where we worked last year to turn a garbage site into a park, in its third year, the partnership is restoring parts of Samarskaya Luka National Park damaged by wildfire. In Whatcom County, we’re continuing work with the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association to improve local waterway health for the benefit of salmon and other aquatic species. If you haven’t seen it already, be sure to check out the video about the project.

New project areas for 2013 include Texas, where the partnership will take on the planting of 54,000 trees to restore loblolly pines to the Lost Pines ecosystem in Bastrop County, where a 2011 wildfire destroyed 1,600 homes and businesses in addition to the ecosystem devastation. The partnership will also head across the pond to England — for Global ReLeaf’s first projects ever in the United Kingdom — improving wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities in Birmingham and Exeter.

In all, the 2013 Alcoa Foundation and American Forests Global ReLeaf Partnership is planting more than 175,000 trees in 19 project sites, from Pennsylvania to Fjarðabyggð, Iceland, and back again. So, yes, we hope the third time will be as much of a charm as the first two.


A Cautionary Tale of Birds and Their Trees

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Which came first the bird or the tree?

Well, I can’t really answer that question exactly without getting into a lot of complicated — and potentially controversial — details, but I can tell you that the two are intimately connected in ecosystems around the world.

The Toco toucan (Ramphastos toco) is found throughout central and eastern South America.

The Toco toucan (Ramphastos toco) is found throughout central and eastern South America. Credit: jinterwas/Flickr

A study published on Friday in Science reveals that large-billed bird populations, specifically the colorful toucan, have severely declined in Brazil’s tropical forests due to deforestation. Something else has disappeared at the same time: large seeds from the forest’s dominant palm tree, the jucara (Euterpe edulis). In their new study, researchers from Brazil’s Sao Paulo State University posit that the two are intrinsically connected, and the result will be a significant evolutionary change for the jucara in the next 100 years — an extremely fast timetable for an evolutionary change. And it all comes back to biology and reproduction.

Jucara (Euterpe edulis) in Brazil

Jucara (Euterpe edulis) in Brazil. Credit: Scott Zona

In order to reproduce, Brazil’s palm trees rely on the rainforest’s bird species to crack and eat their seeds, eventually defecating them in suitable growing locations, where the seeds can take root and sprout new jucara. The jucara, though, produce a range of seed sizes with the largest getting up to 14 mm in size — too large for tropical thrushes, but no problem for the big-billed toucan. Without the massive beaks eating the massive seeds, though, the researchers have observed that the number of small-seed-producing jucara are on the rise, while the big-seed-producing ones aren’t regenerating. While a few millimeters in seed size doesn’t seem like it would matter much, it could mean life or death for the trees in periods of drought, as the smaller seeds hold less water and are more likely to whither during extended dry periods. Hence, the scientists’ prediction of an evolutionary change for the jucara with its big-seeded trees disappearing at minimum, while its small-seed-bearing brethren are potentially not far behind because of their weaker seeds.

The scientists caution that this is a tale that might end up repeating itself around the world thanks to migrations related to climate change. In fact, there are concerns that something similar will happen in the West to another bird and tree pairing.

In the forests of the Rocky Mountains, Clark’s nutcrackers and whitebark pines are estimated to have lived side by side for more than 1.8 million years. The whitebark pine produces large, calorie-rich seeds that the nutcracker feasts upon. As discussed in our web-exclusive feature “Importance of Whitebark Pines and Clark’s Nutcrackers in Western Ecosystems,” in a single year, a single Clark’s nutcracker can squirrel away 98,000 seeds to secret caches, many of them underground and many of them never to be recovered by the bird, which means new whitebark pines. Together, the nutcracker and the pine create an endless reproduction cycle — one that’s being threatened.

Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana)

Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana). Credit: Ryan Mitchell

Whitebark pine is on the defensive, fighting a battle — and often losing — against white pine blister rust, mountain pine beetles and climate change. As a result, there are anecdotal reports of fewer Clark’s nutcrackers in Montana and Washington. With only two species — Clark’s nutcracker and red squirrels — known to eat and store whitebark pine seeds in a way that allows them to germinate, if the nutcracker goes, things don’t look good for the pine.

More bad news is that the nutcracker isn’t the only species to rely on whitebark pine seeds for sustenance, as more than 110 species have the seed in their diet, including the federally listed threatened grizzly bear. Then, there is the whitebark pine’s role as a keystone and foundation species, due to its role in controlling snowpacks and providing shelter for other species of plants and trees. Yeah, it’s scary, which is why our Endangered Western Forests initiative is working with the best scientists to develop management plans to help the pine and all the critters who love it, as we want to see Clark’s nutcrackers and whitebark pines grace the Rockies for generations to come.


Where Have All the Amphibians Gone?

by Susan Laszewski

Red eft (jevenile eastern newt). Credit: Dave Huth

Red eft (jevenile eastern newt). Credit: Dave Huth

Amphibians are a part of many people’s childhood memories: Finding tadpoles, or “pollywogs,” in puddles; checking under logs for creepy, crawly newts; catching toads; or imitating the call of bullfrogs. Because amphibians are found in all kinds of environments, most of us can find some wherever we live.

Growing up in Vermont, I was especially partial to the red eft, as the bright-orange, juvenile stage of the eastern newt is sometimes known. In this stage, they are land-dwelling before they head back to the water for adulthood. I used to like to count them when I went on walks with my mom and the dog.

If you’ve been counting your own local amphibians in recent years, you may have noticed a decline. Or maybe you’ve noticed a drop in the nighttime calls of your neighborhood’s frogs. Though it’s been recognized that amphibian numbers have been declining for years, a recent U.S. Geological Survey study published in the journal PLOS One is the first to analyze the rate of this decline. And what it found was not optimistic. The researchers discovered an overall decline in amphibian numbers of 3.7 percent each year since 2002. What’s more, that number jumps to 11.6 percent when looking at amphibian species that are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The exact reasons for the alarming decline are unknown, but likely include a combination of factors such as invasive species, climate change and pollutants.

Well-camouflaged oak toad. Credit: Bob Peterson

Well-camouflaged oak toad. Credit: Bob Peterson

Amphibian decline is bad news for ecosystems, as they play an important role in the food web as both prey for larger animals and predator for smaller ones. In fact, in many areas of drastic amphibian decline, there has been an increase in pests that damage crops. Beyond that, amphibians are important indicators of environmental health. Their thin skin helps them breath and drink, but makes them some of the first to succumb to environmental changes, meaning that when they start suffering, other animals and humans could be next.

This by itself is enough to make amphibian populations important, but besides that, amphibians are just too cool! Did you know that:

  1. Young Surinam toads emerge from their mother’s back.
  2. The spring peeper survives through winter with 65 percent of its body water as ice.
  3. The slimy salamander produces a sticky substance that glues shut the mouth of predators that dare to mess with it.
  4. Flatwood salamander. Credit: Todd W Pierson

    Flatwoods salamander. Credit: Todd W Pierson

  5. The oak toad is the smallest toad in North America.
  6. The flatwoods salamander spends most of its life underground, earning it and others in the same family the nickname “mole salamanders.” This federally endangered species is endemic to the lower Gulf and Atlantic coastal plains where its longleaf pine habitat — much of it shared with the oak toad — has been reduced to 20 percent of its historical range. For years, American Forests has been working to restore the longleaf pine for the oak toad, the flatwood salamander and a host of other endangered species that rely on it.

And the red eft? They are luckily counted among the species of least concern according to the IUCN, but that doesn’t put them in the clear. The U.S. Geological Survey researchers observed declines in every data set they studied, including species of least concern.

Many amphibians rely on forests as their habitat and their declining numbers indicate that these forests are in trouble. Help us protect and restore the forests that these amazing creatures call home.