A Birds’-eye View of Birds

by Susan Laszewski

They say birds of a feather flock together, but it’s not always true. Sometimes, birds of a feather — birds of the same species — are separated regionally, may be divided along lines of habitat or migration patterns or display other differences that lead scientists to classify them as distinct subspecies. For example, the greater Canada goose is widespread throughout the continent, but the dusky Canada goose winters only in the Pacific Northwest. Such differences are fairly common, yet most assessments of the conservation needs of birds have been largely species-centric, even though different subspecies may be facing different levels of risk.

Palila

Palila. Credit: Caleb Slemmons/Flickr

The American Bird Conservancy has bucked this trend with their recent study and resulting classification of risk levels among birds. It is the first study of its kind to include the full range of bird diversity throughout the entire U.S. and the first to rank subspecies. In addition, the study includes what it calls “habitypes” — birds that are nearly identical, but rely on different types of habitat to nest. For instance, one population of the marbled murrelet nests in old-growth forests, while another nests on the ground.

The resulting 1,826 birds were given a “vulnerability rank” using a methodology based on such factors as population trend, breeding distribution and threats to breeding. A rank of between four and eight qualifies a bird as “secure,” nine to 12 indicates “potential concern,” 13 to 16 categorizes a bird as “vulnerable” and 17 to 20 establishes that a bird is “at risk.”

The good news is that by finally including subspecies in the rankings, conservationists can get a much more complete picture — a birds’-eye view, if you will — of the state of birds’ conservation needs. It also may help future assessments, as today’s subspecies could be tomorrow’s species. By including them in current studies, it helps ensure that they will not be overlooked in the future.

The bad news is that only 15 percent of the 1,826 birds ranked as secure, leaving the majority of birds in U.S. in need of some level of conservation attention. Of the 30 percent that ranked as vulnerable and the nine percent that have been shown to be at risk, most are specialized species, relying on a very particular food or habitat and therefore lacking the flexibility to adapt to habitat loss.

One region’s birds seem to have it particularly tough. Half of the birds that are most in need are endemic to Hawai’i. Sadly, despite the risk they face, these birds — species like the palila and the Maui parrotbill — tend to receive less funding than their mainland counterparts.

American Forests is doing our part to aid in conservation efforts for threatened Hawai’ian birds by helping to restore their dwindling habitat. Through our Global ReLeaf project in Waihou Forest, we’re partnering with the Hawaiian Silversword Foundation and others to plant 6,000 trees in the Pu’u Wa’awa’a area by the end of next year. By restoring their habitat, we hope to see a revival in wildlife populations, including at-risk native bird species.


A Future of Flooding

by Julia Sullivan

Last week’s Hurricane Sandy packed a devastating punch, exposing many areas’ vulnerabilities to storm surge and sea level rise along the East Coast, which could very well bolster the case for much-needed change in the government’s approach to evaluating flood risk.

New York City’s FDR Drive flooded after Hurricane Sandy

New York City’s FDR Drive flooded after Hurricane Sandy. Credit: David Shankbone/Flickr

As reported by The Washington Post, with the increased likelihood of extreme weather due to climate change and the prospect of future sea level rise, experts from diverse fields — environmentalists, community planners, insurers and fiscal conservatives alike — are urging agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to reconsider the way it evaluates the risks of floods.

FEMA draws the flood maps that guide local authorities as they determine where things can be built, and it relies on historical data instead of future projections in its analyses. A FEMA-commissioned study that concluded two years ago indicated that the size of the nation’s flood plains could increase 40 to 45 percent by the end of the century because of rising sea level and more intense precipitation.

Many homeowners and developers have resisted the idea of expanding the definition of flood risk because it raises costs and can restrict development, and policymakers are wary of the potential political backlash. It gets messier still when you take into account the 44-year-old National Flood Insurance Program, which provides Americans in flood-prone areas with federally backed insurance so long as they meet federal standards aimed at minimizing risks. Expanding flood maps would mean broadening the area covered by this program, which was already deep in debt before Sandy made landfall. Proponents of the flood insurance program hold that it provides coverage that would otherwise be unaffordable and saves taxpayers money by encouraging communities to be cautious. Critics, however, say that the program allows Americans to build in risky areas, as 40 percent of the total payout has gone to two percent of properties that were repeatedly flooded.

Flooding in Brooklyn after Hurricane Sandy

Flooding in Brooklyn after Hurricane Sandy. Credit: Inhabitat/Flickr

With several recent studies having concluded that intense precipitation events are worsening due to climate change, FEMA is in the process of updating flood insurance maps from the 1980s and is setting up a “technical mapping advisory council” with the express purpose of studying how the agency might incorporate climate change into its analysis. It remains unclear, however, what shape FEMA’s policies will take in the future.

Climate change presents us with a new reality, and we cannot face it with old infrastructures and old systems. Hopefully, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy will inspire us to move away from dated methods of flood-risk analysis and the all-too-common practice of rebuilding storm-damaged infrastructure exactly the same way, without accounting for the climatic changes underway.

Increased precipitation and major storm events are not the only symptoms of climate change connected to the rising sea level. Our good friend James Balog’s award-winning documentary Chasing Ice documents the alarming rate of glacier loss due to climate change. To produce this film, the filmmakers deployed revolutionary timelapse cameras across the Arctic, capturing a multi-year record of the world’s changing glaciers through a compilation of hauntingly beautiful videos. Chasing Ice opens this Friday in New York City and in other cities throughout the month.


The Problem of Mary Jane

by Michelle Werts
Cannabis plant

Cannabis plant. Credit: Federacion de Asociaciones Cannabicas (FAC)/Flickr

Marijuana.

This fun-to-say little word comes loaded with controversy and strong opinions. And it appears that the longer controversy and debate surround it, the more our forests, streams and natural environs may be in danger.

Last year, I talked about how researchers had discovered illegal marijuana plots in 67 national forests across 20 states, which were having negative consequences on the surrounding forests because of diverse issues from trash and debris to pesticide use and the diversion of stream water. Well, apparently, the problem isn’t limited to illegal marijuana plots.

The Sacramento Bee reveals in a recent article that California is struggling with how to regulate medicinal marijuana cultivation, which could have profound impacts on water usage in the state, as well as pollution from herbicides and pesticides. California’s struggles come from the rub of how does one use federal standards to regulate something that is federally illegal?

A girdled tree in a California national forest due to illegal marijuana crops.

A girdled tree in a California national forest due to illegal marijuana crops. Rather than cutting down trees that leave “tell-tale” stumps that are easily spotted by air, trees are girdled midway up the trunk by machete, killing all future growth and eventually the tree. Credit: U.S. Forest Service Region 5/Flickr

The Bee reports that in 2008, Mendocino County created an ordinance to regulate marijuana cultivation. Growers had to pay fees to cultivate plots, which then could be monitored to make sure the farmers were meeting environmental standards during the farming process. Then, earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice warned Mendocino that the ordinance violated federal law because it approved the growing of a state-allowed, but federally illegal substance. Thus, the ordinance disappeared and put other California regulatory organizations back at square one on how to allow the growth of marijuana while protecting the ecosystem around it.

Then, there’s the clear-cutting of forests to create farms, grading land on erosion-prone hillsides and finding enough water to irrigate the water-hungry crop that come along with marijuana cultivation — illegal or not. California Department of Fish and Game environmental scientist Scott Bauer describes to the Bee how “some growers fell trees, push them over the edge of a hillside, then bulldoze dirt on top of the trees to create flat planting areas. The bulldozed trees eventually rot, and in the next big storm, the piled soil cascades into the creek below, burying fish-spawning habitat.” So not good. And the problem will probably only escalate if unregulated.

So what to do? As evidenced by the examples above, California needs to be able to hold marijuana growers to the same environmental standards as other farmers because unless our federal and state governments reach some kind of consensus over the contentious issue of medical marijuana, our forests will continue to suffer.


Halloween Anniversaries in California

by Alex Cimon

Eighteen years ago, on Halloween, the California Desert Protection Act created two national parks in southern California. Joshua Tree National Park and, the spookily appropriate, Death Valley National Park celebrated their anniversaries yesterday. They are only separated by a little more than 250 miles, but each location has unique and historic features.

Death Valley

Death Valley. Credit: Gunther Hagleitner/Flickr

The National Park Service recognizes Death Valley as a “land of extremes.” With average summer temperatures reaching nearly 120 degrees Fahrenheit and monthly rainfall consistently below one inch, the park is home to the hottest and driest areas in the United States. And Death Valley also boasts the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, with Badwater Basin dipping 282 feet below sea level. These distinctions paint a deadly picture, but the park consists of several different ecosystems supporting hundreds of species.

Only 15 miles from Badwater Basin is the highest point in the park, Telescope Peak, reaching 11,049 feet. Between these drastically different features are sand dunes, salt flats and even springs. One of these springs is Devil’s Hole, a unique and important environment. Tucked within caverns, it protects the desert pupfish and is the only naturally occurring location for this species. Besides this interesting fish, Death Valley is also home to bighorn sheep, frogs and toads, various types of reptiles and hundreds of birds.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park. Credit: total13/Flickr

The counterpart to this “land of extremes” is located at the intersection of three different California ecosystems. The western region of Joshua Tree National Park is home to the Little San Bernardino Mountains. Here, California juniper and pinyon pines distinguish the highest part of Joshua Tree. The southern and eastern territories of the park contain the Sonoran Desert. But in the north, where the Mojave Desert is found, lives the park’s namesake. The Joshua tree is an icon in this region with its heavy branches and spring flowers. This species also provides an important habitat for many birds and other animals surviving in the desert. Most of the mammals in the park are small rodents, but dozens of species of reptiles, as well as more than 250 kinds of birds, thrive in the desert environment.

Anyone reluctant about visiting a place called Death Valley or a park connecting two deserts may be reassured by the hundreds of thousands of people flocking to the parks each year. In fact, both areas offer a variety of recreational activities. Death Valley’s 785 miles of road are perfect for a scenic drive or a day of mountain biking. Joshua Tree provides day-trip opportunities, such as nature trails and rock climbing, as well as camping for extended trips.


Forest Frights

by Susan Laszewski

Each year, when Halloween rolls around, I go hunting for tales of ghosts and the paranormal. This year, I stumbled across a haunt that’s as interesting for its status as an ecological oddity as it is for the spooky legends that surround it.

In the woods just outside of Siler City, North Carolina, lies the Devil’s Tramping Ground. In this bare circle of earth about 20 feet across, nothing but a few strands of grass will grow. More interestingly, it’s said that nothing at all grows in the outer ring of the circle because this is where the devil comes each night to pace as he dreams up new ways of tormenting humankind. Local legend has it that wildlife never enter the circle and that things left in the circle during the day will have been moved from it by morning.

Devil’s Tramping Ground

Devil’s Tramping Ground. Credit: Jason Home/Flickr

Legend even has it that the North Carolina Department of Agriculture studied the soils in the area and was unable to determine why nothing grows there. According to the North Carolina Museum of History, however, that mystery can indeed be solved by science. The patch of earth is unusually high in saline content and may have served as a salt lick for ancient buffalo and other wildlife. Lovers of a good mystery need not be disappointed, though. It’s still unclear, for example, how this land came to be shaped in a nearly perfect geometrical circle. Spooky.

Equally interesting is the question of how this small patch of land inspired such fear and foreboding. Years of spooky tales shared around the campfires and practical jokes played on friends have no doubt contributed to its eerie reputation, but what made the spot fodder for such ghost stories in the first place? I began recalling other tales of haunted forests and what they had in common. Places where no birds sing, where sunlight can’t penetrate and where dry, gnarly branches reach out from dead tree trunks to grab unsuspecting souls? Put bluntly, where vegetation doesn’t thrive, it creeps us out.

Humans have always depended on vegetation for everything from the simple needs of sustenance and shelter to higher needs like mental well-being and artistic inspiration. We already know that healthy forests clean our air, clean our water, provide habitat for wildlife that ecosystems depend on and even help cities save money on energy bills. Maybe we should add “ward off evil spirits” to the list of benefits that our forests provide.

For a spooky camping trip likely to boast some beautiful fall foliage along the way, visit the North Carolina Department of Commerce’s website for directions to the Devil’s Tramping Ground.


A Hidden Gem

by Julia Sullivan

Accessible only by boat or seaplane, closer to Cuba than to the American mainland and housing the largest masonry fort in the United States, Dry Tortugas is not exactly the typical American national park. In fact, it is one of the most remote, smallest and least-visited parks in the system. Nevertheless, it is remarkable, and today marks its 20th anniversary.

Fort Jefferson on Garden Key

Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. Credit: U.S. National Park Service

While its history as a national park is a relatively short one, its historical and cultural significance is vast. Nearly 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, the Dry Tortugas are comprised of seven keys. Discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513, the islands are strategically located on the edge of the main shipping channel between the Gulf of Mexico, the western Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean. As early explorers and merchants traveled through the Tortugas to and from the Gulf Coast, the islands came to be both an important passageway and a navigational marker.

In enemy hands, the Tortugas would have threatened the ship traffic and eastern seaboard of the United States. So in 1846, the United States began construction on Fort Jefferson in an effort to protect the lucrative shipping channel. After nearly 30 years of construction, the fort was left unfinished and unarmed — and so it remains. It did, however, fulfill its intended purpose. Fort Jefferson came to be regarded as a brilliant and undeniable symbol of the United States’ desire to be left alone and helped to protect the peace and prosperity of our young nation. Even in its unfinished state, the fort was one of the largest masonry coastal forts of the 19th century — large enough to have served as a military prison during the Civil War.

Sooty tern

Sooty tern. Credit: Andy Sewell/Flickr

Fort Jefferson was proclaimed a national monument in 1935, but further attention was eventually drawn to the Dry Tortugas’ subtropical marine system and wildlife. Their thriving coral and sea grass communities are among the most vibrant in the Florida Keys. Large sea turtles return to their beaches every summer to bury clutches of eggs. And the sooty tern’s only regular nesting site in the United States is on Bush Key, adjacent to Fort Jefferson. In light of its tremendous natural resources and rich cultural heritage, the area was declared Dry Tortugas National Park on October 26, 1992.

While it is off the beaten path, there is certainly no shortage of things to do at Dry Tortugas. Visitors can explore historic Fort Jefferson, snorkel the incredible marine resources, enjoy world-class birdwatching and engage in countless other activities. Happy Birthday to this hidden gem!


Strengthening Reforestation in Cuyamaca

by Gerry Gray, Ph.D., Senior Vice President

Loose Leaf welcomes American Forests Senior Vice President Gerry Grey to our writing family. Gerry has a doctor of forestry degree and has been with American Forests for more than 20 years. He will be joining us from time to time to share his insights on our work and other issues related to forests around the world. ~MW & SL

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in California

We recently received good news from Lisa Gonzales-Kramer, the project manager for an innovative reforestation project that American Forests has sponsored for several years in southern California’s Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, which experienced the largest wildfire in California history. In early October, the project achieved “registered” status from the Climate Action Reserve, which means that it cleared an extensive review process by an accredited 3rd party verifier and has been accepted by the Climate Action Reserve as a project that can issue Carbon Reduction Tons (CRTs) in California’s emerging carbon market.

The Climate Action Reserve (CAR) is a nonprofit organization that was created in 2001 by climate change legislation in California to help develop appropriate protocol for carbon-offset projects and to establish a voluntary carbon market. [Editor’s note: Need a refresher on CAR and how carbon offset programs work? Check out this Loose Leaf post on the subject.] The Cuyamaca Reforestation Project was the first reforestation project and the first forest-carbon project on public lands to be “listed” by CAR in November 2009. Now that the project has received a determination that it is in full compliance with CAR’s forest protocol, it can claim to be the first reforestation project and first public-land, forest-carbon project to achieve “registered” status.

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in California

American Forests began its sponsorship of the Cuyamaca Reforestation Project in 2008 when we provided a restoration tree planting grant through our Global ReLeaf program. In 2009, we made a much greater commitment to the project when we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the California Department of Parks and Recreation (CA State Parks) to provide long-term support for the efforts in Cuyamaca with funds that we received through a legal settlement between the state of California and ConocoPhillips Company. The project’s new “registered” status is a major step forward in assuring that the CRTs, or the carbon-offset benefits, from the project will be available for transfer to ConocoPhillips.

American Forests’ board of directors and senior staff visited Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in late August to get a firsthand look at the reforestation project. Located about 40 miles east of San Diego in a mountainous landscape, Cuyamaca had been a combination of grassland, chaparral, oak woodland and mixed-conifer forest until the 2003 Cedar Fire. The park also had provided habitat for diverse flora and fauna, including rare and sensitive species, and contained important cultural sites, particularly related to the Kumeyaay Indians.

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

American Forests board and staff members in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

The Cedar Fire in 2003 — California’s largest fire in recorded history — destroyed 95 percent of the mixed conifer forest in the nearly 25,000-acre park. Historically, CA State Parks has treated wildfires as natural disturbances and relied upon natural regeneration to restore parks. However, post-fire surveys in Cuyamaca showed very little regeneration of the native mixed-conifer species, especially Jeffrey, Coulter and sugar pines. Ecologists predicted that without reforestation activities, the park would be dominated by herbs, grasses and shrubs, particularly Ceanothis palmeri, for the foreseeable future. CA State Parks decided to take a new course of action: to design an innovative reforestation project to restore the park’s diverse native forest. The agency also decided to submit the project for listing with CAR, as a means of raising project revenue through the emerging carbon market.

American Forests’ board and staff were thrilled by the opportunity to visit with Lisa and other Cuyamaca staff. We also were impressed by the innovative planting techniques employed to encourage seedling survival in a challenging environment. American Forests is proud to be a major sponsor of the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park reforestation project, pleased with the progress being made both on-the-ground and through the CAR process and delighted to be able to partner with CA State Parks and the wonderful people working on the project.

For more information on our efforts in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, read our American Forests magazine feature “Regrowing a Forest.”


Forests Around the World

by Amanda Tai

Did you know that today is United Nations Day? The United Nations Charter entered into force on October 24th, 1947, replacing the League of Nations with an international organization dedicated to facilitating social, economic and environmental development and cooperative efforts. United Nations Day is dedicated to honoring the achievements of the United Nations Organization (UN), which include major milestones in efforts to protect and restore our environment.

Since its formation in 1947, the UN has developed branches dedicated to environmental work. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is known for its annual conference on sustainable development (known as UNCED or Earth Summit), the most recent being Rio+20 this past summer. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) set global climate change goals in the 1990s through the Kyoto Protocol, which established binding targets for countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Haitian students plant trees to restore a forest on International Environment Day, which is run by UNEP. Credit: United Nations Photo/Flickr

More recently, in 2000, the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) was established to develop policies and provide guidelines for “the management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests and to strengthen long-term political commitment to this end.” The UNFF holds an annual conference that serves as a forum for discussing international forest policy. It also gives countries the opportunity to share their developments, experiences and lessons learned on forest management. In 2006, during the seventh session of the UNFF, a multi-year strategy (2007-2015) was developed to provide guidance on the use of sustainable forest management practices. The objective of the strategy is to reforest areas that have gone through deforestation, prevent future forest degradation and better the livelihoods of people who depend on forests. The next session of the UNFF is set to take place April 8-19, 2013, in Istanbul, Turkey.

As our world seems to become smaller and smaller through faster online communication and a continually growing global economy, I think it’s encouraging that environmental policy is following in those same footsteps. International forums like the UNFF provide a space for forest policy experts to share with and learn from each other in ways that continue to benefit forests worldwide.


Tales of the Forests – 3,000 Years Ago

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

Danube Delta. Credit: Austin Donisan/Flickr

There was some legal news this month in the world of the seemingly never-ending litigation concerning the Roadless Rule. The United States Supreme Court declined to review the Roadless Rule ruling (try saying that five times fast) from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. If you aren’t familiar with how the appeals process works, never fear, most people aren’t. In the federal court system, the first level of decision-making is done by the district courts, aka the trial courts. If the losing party wants to, it may, within a certain time frame, appeal to the circuit court. There are 13 circuit courts in the United States: 1st-11th Circuits, the D.C. Circuit and the Federal Circuit. Each of these circuit courts covers specific states: the 10th Circuit covers Utah, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas. It is the decision of the appellate court that can be reviewed by the United States Supreme Court.

Earlier this month, in somewhat anticlimactic fashion, the Supreme Court declined to review the 10th Circuit decision that upheld the Roadless Rule. By deciding not to review the case, the Supreme Court let stand the 10th Circuit decision upholding the Roadless Rule. The rule, originally formulated at the end of the Clinton administration, limits road construction and timber harvesting on more than 58 million acres of currently undeveloped national forest land. With this decision by the Supreme Court, the only ongoing litigation concerning the Roadless Rule is a case filed by the state of Alaska concerning Tongass National Forest. It is currently pending in federal court in D.C.

Danube Delta

Danube Delta. Credit: Sergiu Biris/Flickr

Danube Delta

Danube Delta. Credit: Sergiu Luchian/Flickr

The Roadless Rule is designed to protect undeveloped forestland from logging and road building — activities that humans have carried out for thousands of years. Before I began my legal career, I worked at a college in Ohio, where I had the opportunity to take a number of geology courses. Those courses, coupled with my passion for history, triggered my interest in a recent report on Scientific Reports about such an undeveloped forest.

While current forest rules can be subject to the ebb and flow of administrative action and litigation outcomes, it was recently discovered that the rich ecosystem that exists in the Danube Delta of eastern Europe has its origins in deforestation that occurred 3,000 years ago. The Danube Delta, which exists where the freshwater river flows into the Black Sea, is home to countless species existing in 23 different ecosystems. Scientists recently explored the beginning of the Delta by analyzing the sediment that has built up over the years. And among the diatoms and dinoflagellates (and people say legalese is obtuse!), scientists discovered a marked increase in sediment loads between 2,000-3,000 years ago.

This sediment load increase was linked to large-scale deforestation that occurred farther up the Danube watershed. Scientists determined that by the height of the Roman Empire, approximately 2,000 years ago, large portions of Serbia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria had already undergone significant clearing in order cultivate land for crops. Over time, this deforestation led to increased sediment runoff, which travelled down to settle at the intersection of the Danube and the Black Sea. The sediment build up was key in the development of the area’s marshes and wetlands, developing into the varied ecosystems that exist today. By studying the chemical make-up of these sediments, scientists were able to discover periods of large-scale deforestation that may otherwise have never been known. This deforestation— to accommodate agriculture for an expanding human population — triggered the beginnings of a vibrant ecosystem that is still with us today.

While this historical deforestation has led to the multifaceted ecosystems that currently exist in the Danube Delta, the results of present-day deforestation can be ecologically devastating, leading to a loss of wildlife habitat and increasing soil erosion. As the Roadless Rule and its litigation demonstrate, forests, along with their protection and use, continue to be pivotal pieces in the development of our human environment.


Deep Diversity

by Alex Cimon

With kayakers battling rapids 2,000 feet below “pygmy forests” and oak flats, Colorado’s Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park is one of the more unique natural experiences one can have. Over the weekend, this diverse 14-mile stretch along Gunnison River celebrated its 13th anniversary as a national park. In recognition of Black Canyon’s founding, let’s take a look at what makes this park a special destination.

The slopes of Black Canyon split by Gunnison River

The slopes of Black Canyon split by Gunnison River. Credit: markbyzweski/ Flickr

Carved by the Gunnison River, the canyon is constantly being reshaped. As with most geological change, this process has been gradual, as the river has been influencing the landscape for approximately two million years. Within this actively shifting environment, several species of plants and animals thrive. This is due to the protection and maintenance of three distinct life zones surrounding and within the canyon:

  • The pinyon pine is a trademark feature of the “pygmy forests,” nicknamed for the small trees that populate this area, that surround the park along the Colorado Plateau. Junipers are also often in the mix. These pygmy forests were traditionally an excellent source of food, fuel and medicine for American Indians and still provide us with firewood and pine nuts today.
  • The second distinct life zone in Black Canyon is the oak flats that dominate the space around the canyon rim. Wildflowers, dense thickets and diverse wildlife characterize this part of the park. Oak acorns are plentiful and rich in nutrients, creating a welcome home for common wildlife such as the mule deer and black bear.
  • But the area between the canyon walls is what makes Black Canyon of Gunnison exceptional. Due to differences in erosion, sunlight and vegetation, the southern wall is sparsely vegetated and very steep. The northern wall, however, boasts pockets of Douglas fir and a variety of bird species. Bighorn sheep and mountain lions can also be found roaming the slopes. This scene extends down to the river, where several types of cottonwoods line the banks and large trout flourish.

The canyon’s terrain may seem like a challenge, but the national park is actually quite accessible. Two entrances, the north rim and south rim, give visitors different perspectives. But with its various nature trails and year-round accessibility, the southern rim is more developed. South Rim Road is the featured drive through the national park, but the Chasm View Nature Trail, Rim Rock Trail and Oak Flat Trail are also popular stops. Those looking for a more interactive visit can experience the park in several ways, including whitewater river kayaking, rock climbing, horseback riding and fishing.