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.


Hit the Trail

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Sometimes, amid the scientific reports, reforestation planning and general day-to-day activities, it’s easy to lose track of one very important aspect of the work we do: recreation! Forests aren’t just oxygen-producing, carbon-sequestering machines. They’re also places for play and relaxation, and tomorrow is a day designated just for that: It’s National Trails Day.

Hikers on the Little Zigzag Falls Trail in Oregon’s Mt. Hood National Forest

Hikers on the Little Zigzag Falls Trail in Oregon’s Mt. Hood National Forest. Credit: mthoodterritory.com

Sponsored by the American Hiking Society, the first Saturday every June is dedicated to celebrating and promoting trails and all their requisite activities, like hiking, biking, horseback riding and birding. With 200,000 miles of trails in the country, there are lots of places to see and explore.

National Trails Day, though, isn’t just about fun in the sun, as it also celebrates the men and women who work hard every day to ensure that the trails are safe and navigable. Over the years, American Forests has been proud to support some of their work restorating forested recreation areas, such as our work this year with Alcoa Foundation in Dorchester County, S.C., and California’s Angeles National Forest, both of which are projects designed to improve popular recreation sites.

So, if you hit up a trail tomorrow, remember to thank those who maintain it and make outdoor recreation possible. Also, if you’re planning on visiting one of America’s most famous trails, the Appalachian Trail, check out our Spring/Summer 2013 magazine feature “One Step at a Time: Hiking the National Scenic Trail” for an inside scoop on the 2,180-mile footpath before you go.

Don’t forget to tell us about your adventures in the comments section!

A view from the south end of the Trail of the Gargoyles in California’s Stanislaus National Forest

A view from the south end of the Trail of the Gargoyles in California’s Stanislaus National Forest. Credit: Ben Marshall/USFS


Inspiration in the Everglades

by Susan Laszewski

Here at American Forests we love to celebrate birthdays, whether it’s celebrating a staff member with a generous helping of birthday cake or celebrating the “birth” of some of our nation’s most remarkable public lands. Today, another gorgeous national park celebrates its anniversary: Everglades National Park in Florida was signed into existence 66 years ago today.

Bob Showler with the national co-champion inkwood in Everglades National Park.

Bob Showler with the national co-champion inkwood in Everglades National Park.

It’s a park whose name pops up a lot around here, including in connection with our National Big Tree Program. Everglades is one two national parks in Florida to boast a national champion tree — not surprising given that Florida holds the record for the greatest number of national champs of any state.

The national co-champion inkwood in Everglades is 47 feet tall with a crown spread of 27 feet. Considering that a typical inkwood is around 30 feet tall, that’s quite a height! The tree was nominated in 2007 by naturalist Bob Showler, who has six other nominations listed in the National Register of Big Trees. Although the inkwood is this big-tree hunter’s only current Everglades champ, other projects have blossomed from his time spent hunting for such goliaths in the park.

While searching for champs, Showler began to notice the bark of different trees, and they captured his imagination. Teaming up with friend and photographer Tim Taylor, they created the exhibit “Barking up a Tree” to showcase the beauty of Florida’s native trees through close-ups. The photographs were exhibited at visitor centers in Everglades National Park and later at Florida’s Biscayne National Park, but can still be seen in the digital exhibit on the website of Everglades National Park.

So, in honor of Everglades NP, grab yourself a slice of birthday cake and curl up with a good online photography exhibit.


A Wild, Wild World

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Threatened Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus luteolus)

Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus luteolus) cubs. American Forests has conducted many black bear habitat restoration projects over the years. Credit: USDA

150 million acres of protected land & water

1,000 species of fish

700 species of birds

250 species of reptiles and amphibians

220 species of mammals

I’iwi

I’iwi is one of several critically endangered members of the Hawaiian honeycreeper family. It prefers native koa forests like those in Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Donald Metzner/USFWS

This is the National Wildlife Refuge System, administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), by the numbers. As you may be able to gather from its name and some of the numbers above, its mission is fairly straightforward: “The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and, where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.” In practice, though, there’s nothing simple about it.

There are more than 550 wildlife refuges in the system, and each requires its own comprehensive conservation plan, which outlines how the refuge will be managed for the benefit of the ecosystem, wildlife and visitors. To help put the enormity of this task in perspective, the National Park Service — the home of treasures like Yellowstone National Park and Grand Canyon National Park — only oversees 450 properties across 88.5 million acres.

Over the years, American Forests Global ReLeaf has partnered with the FWS to help restore forestland in many of its wildlife refuges, including planting bottomland hardwood trees in Louisiana’s Bayou Cocodrie National Wildlife Refuge to restore Louisiana black bear habitat, converting retired cropfield to forestland in Kansas’ Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge to provide habitat for wild turkeys and bald eagles and planting Acacia koa in Hawaii’s Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge to create habitat for Hawaiian birds. (For more on Hawaii’s struggle against invasive species, read “Islands in the Balance” from the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of American Forests.)

Gopher tortoise

American Forests has partnered with wildlife refuges in Florida and Georgia to restore habitat for the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus). Credit: David Syzdek

However, the impact of the National Wildlife Refuge System extends beyond wildlife. The system is also responsible for providing and administering wildlife-dependent recreation, such as hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, photography and environmental education and interpretation. As such, the system is also an economic force, as 47 million visitors use it each year, generating $1.7 billion and creating 27,000 jobs in local communities. Like all government programs, though, the National Wildlife Refuge System’s funding isn’t secure.

According to estimates, the system needs $900 million to cover annual operations and maintenance budgets — a number it doesn’t usually get. The president recommended in his FY2014 budget that $499.2 million be allocated to the National Wildlife Refuge System, a number American Forests believes is justified.


Funding for Urban Forests

by Amanda Tai
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Downtown Denver. Credit: Navreet Vaidwan

A recent U.S. Forest Service study published in Environmental Pollution indicates that America’s urban forests store up to 700 million tons of carbon, which is estimated to provide a $50 billion benefit. American Forests Science Advisory Board member David Nowak led the study at the agency’s Northern Research Station by looking at field data from 28 cities.

In the 486 urbanized areas in the United States, there is an overall population density of 2,534 people per square mile. With such densely concentrated urban populations, it’s important to continue funding the federal programs and research that invest in urban forests. There are several federal agency programs that do this. American Forests has worked with the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition (SUFC) to advocate for funding these programs in FY 2014.

Urban and Community Forestry (UCF) Program

This cooperative program focuses on stewardship of natural resources in urban areas. UCF responds to the needs of urban areas and the people who live there by helping to maintain, restore and improve urban forests. In FY 2012, the UCF Program helped 7,499 communities in all 50 states by providing them with technical assistance, education, funding and research.

Forest Health Management Program

Invasive pests like the Asian longhorned beetle (ALB) are detrimental to trees in urban areas like New York, Boston and St. Paul. The Forest Health Management Program aids efforts to combat pests like ALB that impact urban and rural forests. The program coordinates the national management of pests, which includes the U.S. Forest Service, Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the National Association of State Foresters (NASF) and the National Plant Board (NPB).

Urban Natural Resources Research

There is still a lot of research to be done on urban forests to understand how they function and the many benefits they provide. Also, since urban areas are constantly changing, it’s important that urban foresters and managers are using the most updated research to inform their work. Work like the carbon storage study mentioned earlier is funded through Urban Natural Resources Research, part of the U.S. Forest Service’s Research and Development. Such research can provide useful information for local governments, businesses, decision makers and individuals that want to invest in and advocate for urban forests.

Urban Waters Federal Partnership

Urban forests help manage stormwater, water storage and pollution. This partnership brings together several federal agencies, in coordination with the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), to revitalize urban waterways and the communities around them. This work includes leveraging local resources and engaging local communities in water conservation efforts, pollution control, building recreation opportunities and promoting ways to keep urban waters clean.

Green infrastructure, like urban forests, not only helps us deal with increasing amounts of carbon emissions, but also with increased flood and storm risks, heat island effects and other climate change-related challenges. Investing in the health of urban forests means investing in the health of people. With more than 80 percent of Americans living in urban areas, urban forests and the programs that support them are becoming more and more important to our health and well-being.