Greener Green Energy

by Susan Laszewski

Credit: Jimmy Cardosi

Credit: Jimmy Cardosi

Now, here’s a scientific study Popeye would really go for: Researchers at the University of Georgia have captured energy from spinach, according to a new study published in Energy & Environmental Science.

The team, led by Assistant Professor Ramaraja Ramasamy, has developed a method of syphoning off the electrons that plants create during photosynthesis, and electrons translate into energy. Using spinach in their experiments, they manipulated proteins in the plant’s thylakoids — the structures that capture and store energy from sunlight — to redirect to carbon nanotubes that act as conductors, rather than being converted into sugar by the plant.

Photosynthesis is a natural process that’s just screaming to be mimicked. Many plants have a quantum efficiency of nearly 100 percent — meaning nearly every photon from the sun that they take in is converted into an electron. In contrast, the quantum efficiency of a solar panel is between 12 and 17 percent. You simply can’t process energy from the sun any better than plants can. So, just as forests may hold the key to countless undiscovered medical cures, they also have a lot to teach us about sustainable energy.

This is not the first time scientists have used plants to create energy, but the University of Georgia research marks a big step forward in the efficiency of such technologies, having produced electrical current levels two orders of magnitude larger than similar systems have. If you’re like me, there may be one thing nagging as you read about this research: Don’t the plants need those electrons to produce sugars? It’s true that the system is currently not stable for very long, as it effectively robs the plant of its energy. However, plants can replace lost thylakoids, and with more work, it may be possible to make this technology sustainable in a way that could rival solar panel technology. In the foreseeable future, though, the technology could be used as a power source in remote areas. Someday, could we be monitoring forests using their own power?

“It is green energy, 100 percent clean; it has the potential to operate at really high efficiency, if we can continue to improve on this,” Ramasamy tells NBC News. “Besides, I think it is a really cool concept.”


Endangered, But Protected

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

The endangered woodland caribou

The endangered woodland caribou. Credit: Canopic/Flickr

Today is the eighth annual Endangered Species Day! In December 1973, President Nixon signed into law the Endangered Species Act, which charged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with protecting not only the listed species, but “the ecosystems upon which they depend.” And for the last 40 years, the agencies have been developing and implementing wildlife protection and recovery plans for hundreds of plant and animal species.

To celebrate Endangered Species Day, I thought we’d take a quick look at a few of the endangered and threatened species that American Forests is actively protecting by restoring wildlife habitat.

Woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou)
Last year, American Forests Global ReLeaf visited Washington’s Colville National Forest to work with the U.S. Forest Service to improve habitat for the forest’s wildlife, which includes the endangered woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou). Woodland caribou was added to the Endangered Species Act in 1983.

The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker

The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Credit: USFWS Southeast

Red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis)
From 2008 to 2012, American Forests partnered with Florida’s Hal Scott Regional Preserve and Park to plant longleaf pine throughout hundreds of acres of the park to restore habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. The woodpecker, endangered since 1970, requires many acres of mature longleaf pine habitat to thrive, but longleaf ecosystems have been dramatically reduced from almost 90 million acres two hundred years ago to less than three million today.

The threatened Coho salmon

The threatened Coho salmon. Credit: Dan Bennett

Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch)
Each year, American Forests conducts multiple riparian restoration projects to improve watershed health and aquatic habitat. Many of our riparian projects in the Pacific Northwest are aimed specifically at helping endangered and threatened fish species. This year, we’re planting 8,800 trees along Oregon’s Thompson Creek to help the threatened Coho salmon, which has been listed under the Endangered Species Act since 1997.

Wood stork (Mycteria americana)
Found in the Southeast, the wood stork was listed as endangered in 1984. Last year, American Forests partnered with The Nature Conservancy to plant pond cypress trees in South Carolina’s Washo Reserve to create nesting habitat for the stork.

Over the years, we’ve been able to help so many species thanks to the support of our members, but, today, amidst our recognition and extra focus on endangered species, I want to also take a moment to talk about what if. What if we didn’t have an Endangered Species Act working to save animal species on the brink? To date, less than one percent of species listed under the act have been removed because of extinction — that’s a 99 percent success rate! While my question might seem theoretical, due to the state of the U.S. budget, this question is more real than you think.

The endangered wood stork

The endangered wood stork. Credit: Matthew Paulson

In 1982, the designation “warranted but precluded” was added via amendment to the Endangered Species Act. This fancy phrase means that a species should be given protected status under the act, but other species take priority in that year. Basically, it can’t be added because of a lack of funds to support recovery plans and activities. Ruh-roh!

This happened to the whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) in 2011. This keystone and foundation species in our Mountain West is facing daily battles with mountain pine beetles and white pine blister rust. We’re so concerned about this species that we created a whole initiative, Endangered Western Forests, to help save this tree and its ecosystem. Yet, additional protection under the Endangered Species Act is “warranted but precluded”? It’s frustrating to say the least, which is why American Forests supports the president’s request of $185.4 million in FY2014 appropriations for the Endangered Species Program. The Endangered Species Act is working, and we need to make sure Congress continues to give it the support it needs to save our beloved wild creatures.


Rain, Rain, Don’t Go Away

by Susan Laszewski

amazon river

The Amazon River. Credit: NASA

The ways in which forests safeguard our planet are endless. And yet, we read and hear so much about some of them — like forests’ role as carbon sinks in combating climate change — that others can sometimes be overlooked. A study published Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences serves as a good reminder of how complex the forest and its roles in Earth’s climate really are.

The deforestation of rainforests is a problem normally framed in terms of the loss of carbon sinks or the loss of biodiversity. But what about the loss of rain? Brazil is home to 60 percent of the world’s biggest rainforest, the Amazon, and gets 80 percent of its energy from hydropower. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science’s new study reveals that deforestation’s effects on hydropower may be more complex than they first appear.

Sunset on the Xingu River in Brazil's Amazon. Credit: Aviva Imhof/International Rivers

Sunset on the Xingu River in Brazil’s Amazon. Credit: Aviva Imhof/International Rivers

When trees are removed from alongside stream and river beds, the water flow initially increases, as the trees are no longer taking water through their roots, allowing it to flow directly into streams. But, without those trees, rainfall will eventually slow as well. Study co-author Daniel C. Nepstad of the Amazon Institute for Environmental Research tells The New York Times that rainforests “are in the equatorial sun, evaporating a huge amount of water that goes up through the stems and into the leaves and out into the atmosphere,” creating rainclouds. So, fewer trees mean less rain, which means less hydropower. That’s a problem for countries like Brazil.

The ways in which our lives depend on rainforests are too many to list. That’s why American Forests takes pride in our rainforest projects. This year, we’re returning to Indonesia to plant 35,460 trees across 140 acres of orangutan habitat in the Batang Toru forest in partnership with the Sumatran Rainforest Institute. We’re also embarking on our first project in Panama — home to the Western Hemisphere’s second largest rainforest — with longtime partner Sustainable Harvest International; we’re planting 20,000 trees across 79 acres in Coclé Province. Help us protect and restore forests like the rainforest. For the climate, for the water and for the people.


Taking Action for George Washington

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

As most of our loyal readers know, our mission here at American Forests is to protect and restore forests. Simple, concise, pretty straightforward, right? Most of the time, that’s true, but sometimes those simple, yet deceptively complex, words require some additional explanation. So what do we mean by “protect” exactly? It means this: “Forest protection refers to the active and enduring safeguarding of certain forests that have inherent ecological, societal or cultural importance.”

This definition gives us a solid foundation upon which we can base our work, decisions and positions, and it is this definition that has caused us to become deeply concerned about Virginia’s George Washington National Forest.

View from the White Rocks on Little Sluice Mountain in George Washington National Forest

View from the White Rocks on Little Sluice Mountain in George Washington National Forest. Credit: Aneta Kaluzna

Administratively connected with Jefferson National Forest, the two forests contain almost 1.8 million acres of forestland in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. And within George Washington National Forest, you will find the headwaters of major eastern rivers, including the Potomac, which eventually flows into the Chesapeake Bay, and the James River in southern Virginia. More than seven million people live within the watersheds of these two rivers alone — and that water is under threat.

Last year, the U.S. Forest Service proposed a ban against horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing — commonly called “fracking” — in George Washington National Forest, deeming that those actions proposed a significant risk to the forest’s health and the health of those that rely on the forest, including the 260,000 local residents whose drinking water is supplied by George Washington National Forest. Now, though, the Forest Service is under pressure from the oil and gas industries to rescind that proposed ban, and this is something that we do not support — going back to that “safeguarding certain forests” phrase.

If drilling and fracturing are allowed in George Washington National Forest, millions of people could be adversely affected if dangerous substances enter the headwaters housed in George Washington. To show the U.S. Forest Service that it has our support, and that of our members, we’ve developed a pre-written letter that is just waiting in our Action Center for electronic signatures from our concerned members.

American Forests has already shown its commitment to the health and vitality of this forest, as a 2013 Global ReLeaf project is planting 5,000 trees across 60 acres of George Washington and Jefferson National Forests to help restore the forest from the damage caused by the gypsy moth. Won’t you add your voice to ours?


Wonders Above and Below

by Susan Laszewski
The Monarch, Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The Monarch, Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Credit: Peter Jones/NPS

Stalactites, stalagmites, an 89-foot column known as the Monarch and 400,000 bats. There are a lot of things Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, which turns 73 today, is known for.

When I visited last summer, I — like most visitors — headed straight for the caverns to see this underground wonderland for myself. Walking amongst the giant formations, or speleothems, I felt small. The difference between me and the bats, newts and bugs that call the caverns home seemed negligible in the expansive space. But how much smaller might I have felt if I’d given a thought to not just the caverns, but to all the life teeming above me as well.

True to its name, the park is known for the caverns, but there is more to be found here. The park contains a diversity of ecosystems. While most of the park is covered in small shrubs well suited to desert climate, by venturing into the montane woodlands in the western portions of the park, visitors can encounter larger trees like ponderosa pine, which grows on average to between 100 and 160 feet and would be right at home in the Hall of Giants within The Big Room of the caverns. The pines echo back to the time when the caverns were forming. Back then, during the last ice age, the land above the caverns was covered in pine forest instead of the desert shrubland that has largely taken over today.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Credit: Brad Spry

Other woodlands found in the park include the forested riparian wetland area at Rattlesnake Springs, where visitors can see netleaf hackberry trees, willows and cottonwoods, or venture onto the ridges in the backcountry to find the oak-madrone band cove woodlands, which contain not just their namesake gray oaks and Texas madrones, but also bigtooth maples.

So if you’re planning a trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, don’t miss the caverns, but try to save some time for exploring aboveground, too. There are wonders on both sides of the Earth’s surface.


A River Runs Through It

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.

Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., an Urban Waters Federal Partnership site. Credit: Daniel Lobo

A few years ago, a friend and I decided to take an impromptu canoeing trip along the Potomac River. It was a lovely experience … until I attempted to climb out of the canoe and instead of finding myself on a dry dock, I found myself halfway submerged in the murky waters of the Potomac. After my laughter at my sheer clumsiness subsided, my next thought was “I need a shower and may need to burn these clothes” because anyone who lives in the D.C. area knows that the waters of the local Potomac and Anacostia Rivers are not the most sanitary places around. An innovative new program headed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is trying to change that.

Two years ago, the Urban Waters Federal Partnership was formed under the direction of the EPA, who is working on the project with 13 other agencies, with a goal to “help urban and metropolitan areas, particularly those that are underserved or economically distressed, connect with their waterways and work to improve them.” Focusing on seven pilot locations, including D.C.’s Anacostia River, the program is designed to stimulate local economies, create jobs, improve quality of life and protect local health by improving waterways.

Based on the success of the first year of the program, on Friday, the EPA announced that it is expanding its Urban Waters Federal Partnership to include 11 new projects from Boston’s Mystic River to Albuquerque’s Middle Rio Grande and from Michigan’s Grand River to Puerto Rico’s Martin Pena Canal. In the announcement of the expansion, Acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe says, “Since we launched the Urban Waters Federal Partnership two years ago, we’ve seen firsthand what the transformation of degraded urban waterways into clean, healthy and treasured centerpieces can do for local communities — not only from an aesthetic standpoint, but also from a public health and economic standpoint. Restored urban waters can reinvigorate communities, and I am confident the new project locations will see the same success the partnership’s efforts have already supported across the country.” Well said, Acting Administrator Perciasepe.

South Platte River and Cherry Creek in Denver, Colo.

South Platte River and Cherry Creek in Denver, Colo., an Urban Waters Federal Partnership site. Credit: John Holm

At American Forests, we wholeheartedly agree with the EPA that our nation’s waterways are an important aspect of healthy communities and ecosystems. In fact, forests are natural protectors of rivers, streams and the like, which is why American Forests Global ReLeaf has supported many restoration projects that benefit waterways and riparian areas over the years. In addition, this year, in Detroit, Mich., American Forests Community ReLeaf is helping evaluate the ecosystem services of the city’s riparian forest in Rouge Park to help restore it for the benefit of the Motor City.

We’re doing our part to help waterways, but we want to make sure that the EPA and its partner agencies get the opportunity to do all they can, too. And by opportunity, I mean funding, aka appropriations. Therefore, American Forests supports funding the Urban Waters Federal Partnership in FY2014 at FY2012 levels — at a minimum. In addition, we also support funding for the EPA’s Sustainable Water Infrastructure, which will be looking at green infrastructure options for sustainable water. Let’s hope Congress agrees and gives the agency and its programs the appropriations it needs to help create jobs, stimulate economies, protect our waterways and improve community health.

 

 


A Birthday Wish for Glacier National Park

by Susan Laszewski

One of the nation’s best-loved national parks celebrates its birthday tomorrow. Glacier National Park was signed into existence on May 11, 1910. Since then, its blue and green vistas have been inspiring visitors every summer.

Glacier National Park

Grinnell Glacier and Grinnell Lake, Glacier National Park. Credit: tbone_sandwich/Flickr

American Forests was instrumental in helping to establish the National Park System, and we still support it today. We want future generations to have the same opportunities to experience these iconic landscapes that generations of Americans have enjoyed for years. That’s why we are working to protect high-elevation ecosystems in western states like Wyoming and Montana — Glacier’s home —from several threats affecting the keystone species whitebark pine. And it’s why we support the president’s total budget request of $3.1 billion for the National Park System. Today’s birthday park has already made sacrifices due to lack of proper funding courtesy of the sequester, including personnel cuts and a late opening that affects revenue.

But even with proper funding, our wish that future generations will continue to enjoy our country’s beauty spots like Glacier National Park is not a simple one. A large part of Glacier’s beauty and appeal lie in its remoteness. Pristine and quiet, isolated from the hectic day-to-day grind, its azure glacial lakes and rugged peaks call to adventurous spirits. But the same remoteness that makes Glacier so irresistible also makes it hard for many to visit.

Luckily, the National Park System is not the only program under the purview of the National Park Service. Knowing that not everyone will be able to make it to parks like Glacier is part of why we’re hoping to see the reestablishment of the Urban Parks and Recreation program. This program provides grants to communities to improve outdoor recreational opportunities and bring citizens — including those who may not be able to get out to our protected wildernesses — closer to nature. This isn’t just about having a good time outdoors. Though recreation is important, research shows time in nature has far-reaching impacts on mental and physical health, not to mention the economic benefits of the urban forest. That’s why we support the president’s request of $10 million for Urban Parks and Recreation.

Funding to help ensure that the greatest number of people have access to outdoor spaces: Wouldn’t that be a perfect birthday present for our country’s 10th national park?


The Warmth of Snow

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

A week ago, many parts of the country experienced an uncharacteristic sight for May Day: snow. A lot of it. And while one’s first instinct might be to bemoan the cold, wet stuff at a time when spring should be in the air, with our changing climate, we may want to appreciate snow while we can, as we might be yearning for more of it in the future.

Washington forest

Credit: Jennifer C./Flickr

Snow and ice play a crucial role in healthy ecosystems — and our own health and prosperity. You see, the more snow in winter, the more water for our rivers and faucets in the spring and summer, as forests and other natural systems keep the snow from melting too quickly, which keeps water flowing throughout the warming seasons into some of our most important watersheds. However, with warming winters, winter snowpack is declining in many parts of the country, and a newly released study reveals that not just water is at stake, but plants and animals, too.

According to a report in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, snow cover creates a life-saving environment for many creatures, which burrow each winter between the frozen ground and the snow, an area known as the subnivium. This area acts as a warm incubator where plants can photosynthesize and wildlife can stay warm during cold, windy winter months, but the researchers reveal that since 1970, the Northern Hemisphere’s snow cover in March and April has decreased by as much as 790.7 million acres. The consequences of a declining subnivium are potentially far-reaching.

Fox

Credit: Temari/Flickr

Study co-author Dr. Benjamin Zuckerberg of the University of Wisconsin-Madison tells Phys.org that the “decay of the subnivium will affect species differently, but be especially consequential for those that lack the plasticity to cope with the loss of the subnivium or that possess insufficient dispersal power to track the retreating range boundary of the subnivium.” In layman’s terms, if wildlife cannot move and adapt with the lack of snow, they may no longer exist and a ripple effect could occur. For instance, if freeze intolerant insects loose the cocoon of warmth that the subnivium provides, they may no longer be around as food for migrating birds.

Cardinal

Credit: Chris Williamson

So what can we do? Well, for starters, we can protect the trees that protect the snow. Our Endangered Western Forests initiative is working on saving whitebark pine, which thrives upon mountaintops at high elevations, where the snow is. It helps provide the shade and protection needed to keep a snowy winter ecosystem intact, but whitebark pine is fighting a battle of its own against insects, disease and more. Hence, our commitment to helping it fight back.

And remember that while it did seem like there were a lot of intense snowstorms this year — there were — intense snowstorms do not necessarily provide all of the snowfall needed in all places. According to the April 30 U.S. Drought Monitor report, in the western U.S., “The largely disappointing water year neared an end, with many areas of the west ending the season with bleak spring runoff prospects and increasing drought concerns.” Oy!


Shifting Thinking, Shifting Forests

by Susan Laszewski

It’s been a discouraging few weeks for climate change in the news. First, we learned that atmospheric levels of CO2 have reached 400ppm for the first time in three million years. If that milestone wasn’t enough to put climate on your mind, new research out of the Lawrence Berkley National Lab has called into question a widely held prediction, replacing it with a more pessimistic vision of the future.

Boreal forest

Boreal forest. Credit: Taku River Tlingit First Nation

Current thinking based on climate models holds that the boreal forest — that vast expanse of coniferous landscape circling the globe around Canada, Russia and parts of the U.S. — would expand north during the coming century. But Dr. Charles D. Koven, author of a paper published on Monday in Nature Geoscience, argues that the forest will not expand, but rather just shift northward and release more CO2 than current models account for. As other ecosystems also shift north, the boreal would be replaced in some areas by grasslands, which are unable to sequester carbon as quickly as the forests would release it. Koven’s simulations predict that a forest in Alberta will move north 100 miles in the next 90 years.

In the meantime, changing climate would stress trees, leaving forests more vulnerable to natural threats like wildfire, insects and disease. Accounting for these stressors, Koven’s assessment predicts higher carbon loss than the usual models. He writes, “the majority of carbon-climate models — typically without explicit simulation of the disturbance and mortality processes behind such shifts — instead project vegetation carbon gains throughout the boreal region.”

The complex relationship between forests and climate — and the link between deforestation and global climate change — is one of the reasons American Forests is working to protect and restore forests. Climate change may not be stoppable, but its rate can be slowed. We work in all 50 states and 39 countries. Help us in our quest to save the planet’s forests.


Caring for Our Public Lands

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Black River Recreation Area, New Mexico

Black River Recreation Area, New Mexico, is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Credit: BLM New Mexico

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail is under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management. Credit: Brian & Jaclyn Drum

I think it’s safe to assume that most people — at least the ones reading this blog — know about the U.S. Forest Service within the U.S Department of Agriculture and how it is entrusted with the care of 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands. However, what is less known is the fact that the U.S. Forest Service isn’t the only government agency responsible for our nation’s forests. Forests are actually managed across a variety of government agencies, including many in the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI).

So, last month, when our CEO, Scott Steen, submitted his written testimony to the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies (try saying that three times fast), he also focused on showing support for a variety of programs across agencies. Throughout the next month, I (with the help of some friends) am going to explore these programs, revealing what they do, why they are important and how American Forests works with them to achieve our mission of protecting and restoring forests. First up is the DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

San Juan Islands of Washington

San Juan Islands of Washington state are part of the Bureau of Land Management’s Spokane District. Credit: BLM Oregon

If you had asked me two years ago to name the agency responsible for administering the most public land in the U.S., I would have said something like the National Park Service or U.S. Forest Service — and I would have been wrong. That distinction goes to the BLM, which oversees 245 million surface acres across 12 western states, plus 700 million acres of sub-surface mining estate. As the BLM puts it on its in website, it “may best be described as a small agency with a big mission: to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” Within this tiny agency with a big heart are two programs that are especially dear to American Forests: Public Domain Forest Management and National Landscape Conservation System.

BLM’s Public Domain Forest Management program focuses on the health, recovery and management of 58 million acres of forests and woodlands, while its National Landscape Conservation System aims to conserve, protect and restore 27 million acres of public land for their outstanding cultural, ecological and scientific values, including many national monuments, wild and scenic rivers and more. Over the years, American Forests Global ReLeaf has been proud to partner with BLM on dozens of projects to help restore the forests under its protection. For instance, this year, we’re working with the agency to plant 25,000 Jeffrey pine seedlings in Alpine County, California, to reforest a wildfire-damaged ecosystem adjacent to a popular recreation area.

In order for these two programs to continue to protect the public lands entrusted to them, though, BLM needs funding. This is where appropriations come into play. The agency employs about 10,000 full-time employees and is actually a revenue generator, bringing in nearly $5 billion in 2012 compared to its $1 billion budget, so we think it’s only fair that the Public Domain Forest Management program receives a budget in FY2014 on par with its FY2012 budget. In addition, American Forests supports the increased level of funding for the National Landscape Conservation System outlined in the president’s FY2014 budget. If we want to preserve and protect the more than 2,700 recreation sites used by 14 million visitors annually within the National Landscape Conservation System’s purview, then Congress needs to make sure the BLM has the resources it needs.

And I think the value of outdoor recreation is something we can all agree on.