Unnavigable Congress awaits many conservation bills

by American Forests

By Alexandra Bower

Seeing legislation stifled in a Congress that is so gridlocked by partisanship is not cause for surprise. What about 10 conservations bills introduced and languished 52 times in the last 30 years? Surprised yet?

Since 1984, 10 high-profile land conservation bills have been introduced and stifled on 52 separate occasions in the U.S. House of Representatives and/or the U.S. Senate, despite mass support and meeting widely-held criteria for conservation. This criteria for designating conservation land has been guided by a set of principles: the area has unique cultural and recreational assets; there is expansive local backing for safeguarding the land; and there are officials advocating for conservation measures.

Since 1906, more than 1,000 bills meeting these standards have become law. However, in recent years, it’s almost impossible to get land conservation issues through Congress because of overwhelming “Congressional dysfunction and partisanship.”

Because of authority granted by the Antiquities Act of 1906, the President can establish national monuments without Congressional declaration. These monuments range from burial grounds and the Statue of Liberty to parts of the Grand Canyon and giant sequoia groves, and are pivotal symbols of the United States’ history and heritage.

President Obama has wielded the powers of the Antiquities Act, and shown great support for protecting public lands by establishing 1,660 acres as the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands on California’s Mendocino Coast, 243,000 acres as the Rio Grande del Norte monument in New Mexico, and, most recently, 32,500 acres as the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan. He is also expected to designate a monument in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in New Mexico and lands near the Canyonlands National Park in Idaho.

Devil's Tower is one of many National Monuments surrounded by forest ecosystems.

Devil’s Tower in Wyoming is one of many national monuments surrounded by forest ecosystems. Under the Antiquities Act, President Obama aims to protect these ecosystems.
Wikimedia/Walter Siegmund

National monuments and parks are known to provide a safe home for plants and wildlife, promote biodiversity, safeguard clean air and water, and stimulate recreational activities. Our forests thrive because of our preservation of national parks and monuments across the country, so it is vital that the president has the ability to designate public lands for this use, especially if Congress cannot or will not do so.

However, this authority is being threatened by the Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of Monuments and Parks Act, deemed the “No New Parks” bill by the media. The bill would revise the Antiquities Act, forcing the President to delay designation by forcing a National Environmental Policy Act review, a process never before used for such actions. Additionally, the “No New Parks” bill would set up various other limits, including the inability of any more than one national monument designation per state during any presidential four-year term. This would deny President Obama’s ability to set up the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks monument in New Mexico because of the recently established Rio Grande del Norte monument in 2013.

Congressional acts like this, and the fact that the President has not been sent a single conservation bill to protect new acres of public land since 2009, speak volumes about Congressional stalemate when faced with conservation bills. Energy development is a major concern in recent years and is a chief motivation behind Congressional inaction and backlash against land conservation. While 2.9 million acres of public lands have been protected, 7.4 million acres of public lands have been leased for oil and gas drilling.

The imbalance is clear, and maybe one day we will see Congressional action on land conservation. Until then, the responsibility to protect our cultural and ecological heritage must rest on the shoulders of President Obama and administrations to come.


Are palms truly trees?

by American Forests

By Sheri Shannon

There certainly is a lot of healthy debate out there about whether palms are “true trees.” What constitutes a “true tree?” Does it have to be of a certain height and girth? Does the crown spread have to be the equivalent of a wide-spreading southern live oak?

Trees vary in shape and size and grow in very different environments. There may be national champion trees that are more than 300 feet tall, while the largest trees of other species are only 30 feet tall.

2014's Ultimate Big Tree, a coconut palm aptly named Coco.This year’s Ultimate Big Tree, Hawaii’s national champion coconut palm aptly nicknamed Coco, is no exception to the ecological services trees provide. The Hāwea Heiau Complex and Keawawa Wetland that Coco calls home contains nine of the remaining 300 endangered Hawaiian common moorhen, as well as other wildlife, including the black-crowned night heron, Hawaiian hoary bat and giant Hawaiian dragonfly.

Coco is a great example of the environmental and cultural significance of big trees and the efforts communities take to protect special trees. Coco’s wetland was recently saved from development by a community nonprofit that understands the role trees play in sustaining a healthy environment. The National Big Tree program helps educate the public about the key role all trees and forests play in our lives.

From a technical standpoint, palms fit American Forests’ current definition of trees, as they are woody plants with an erect perennial stem, or trunk, at least 9.5 inches in circumference at 4.5 feet above the ground. They also have a definitively formed crown of foliage and a height of at least 13 feet. American Forests has made an effort to make sure that native trees from all 50 states and the District of Columbia are included on the National Register of Big Trees. For many years, Hawaii’s native species were excluded as eligible species because American Forests used an outdated publication as its primary source for species eligibility.

The current list of eligible species is based on the USDA Plants Database and the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) which qualifies the current listing of Hawaii’s endemic species, including the coconut palm. In addition, our Eligible Species Working Group is a panel of experts that helps us continuously revisit and revise the list as needed.

A Rainbow of Global ReLeaf Projects for 2014

by Susan Laszewski
Golden lion tamarins.

Golden lion tamarins. Credit: stevehdc/wikimedia

In its 24th year, American Forests Global ReLeaf is adding 33 new and continuing projects to the list of ways we’re helping forests around the world. And let me tell you, these projects are as diverse as the rainbow!

Whether you call them red, orange or yellow, golden lion tamarins are facing a plight that has American Forests Global ReLeaf heading back to Brazil for the first time in 11 years. Brazil’s Atlantic forest is the only place where the golden lion tamarin can be found in the wild, but their habitat today is a mere two percent of its historical area. We’re partnering with the Associacao Mico-Leao-Dourado to reconnect remaining forest fragments to create a continuous habitat for these golden creatures.

Double rainbow behind longleaf pines.

Double rainbow behind longleaf pines, a native species Global ReLeaf is planting in Georgia and Florida. Credit: John S. Quarterman

Green is the color all of our Global ReLeaf projects aspire to. Overall, this year’s projects are planting nearly 2 million trees across more than 5,500 acres from Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Washington to the Batang Toru Forest Region in Indonesia. We’re planting green pines in forests turned gray by mountain pine beetle infestation, planting mangroves to help protect coastal communities in the Philippines and restoring winter habitat for monarch butterflies in Michoacán, Mexico.

Indigo-colored wood may look beautiful — indeed, it’s being put to use in all kinds of crafts — but too much of it means just one thing: too many beetles. The blue color is caused by a fungus that is carried by the mountain pine beetle. Though native, these beetles are having effects on the ecosystem akin to invasives due to a population boom enabled by warmer winters. Millions of trees have died, including old-growth ponderosa pine and the keystone species whitebark pine. Our 2014 projects include five projects dedicated to restoring forests damaged by this tiny menace.

Explore the whole rainbow of our 2014 Global ReLeaf projects. And, if you’d like to see this kind of work restoring forests continue, please help us to get to the pot at the end of the rainbow. Your help can make a difference.

Cloudy, with a chance of climate change:
U.N. panel releases grim report

by American Forests

By Alexandra Bower

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recently reported on the risks of climate change for the first time in seven years, and the outlook isn’t pretty.

The IPCC states that the world is “ill-prepared” for the effects of a changing climate, which are only expected to worsen. From rising sea levels because of melting ice caps and more extreme storms and weather patterns to changes in Arctic and forest systems and strange species migration, there will be increased threats to public health and food supply. Carbon stored in forests is vulnerable to loss to the atmosphere because of climate change, deforestation and environmental degradation. Tree mortality and wildfire occurrences will increase around the world because of increased temperatures and drought, posing a risk to biodiversity and timber production.

And for the first time reported, our global security is also now at risk. Civil wars and conflict between nations and refugees will worsen because of added threats and amplified “drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shock.” Reduced energy and water resources, mass hunger, increasing mass migrations, and extreme weather will make it harder for nations to control their citizens, creating destabilized situations. In 2007, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cited climate change as a cause for strife in the Darfur region of Sudan. While the recent IPCC report downplays climate change as a role in that conflict, it mentions a common concern: Global warming escalates the threat of fighting in comparable situations.

At this point, adaption methods can only do so much. While easing the pressure of climate change, it faces limits without strident declines of greenhouse gases emissions. And because trees obviously move slower than animal friends, the adaptation cycle is longer and trees are greatly affected by a warming climate.

UN IPCC climate change and trees

This chart from the IPCC report shows the maximum speed at which a variety of plant and animal species can move in kilometers per decade. Credit: U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This being said, the 2015 Paris climate talks are of even more importance than before. The Paris negotiations were to be the next step in negotiations after the talks in Copenhagen in 2009. A new, binding, and inclusive emissions-reducing deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol is supposed to be formed and these most recent IPCC warnings are to play a key role in the discussions. However, the partisanship in Congress has made the Obama administration’s $1 billion climate resilience fund for fiscal year 2015 a long shot, and the upcoming Paris climate talks hopeless. Congress is reluctant to support emission-reduction legislation and tends to halt any decisions made by the Obama administration. Some members of Congress are determined to undercut the EPA’s regulatory system for greenhouse gas emissions and bar the U.S. Department of Agriculture from funding the President’s proposed climate change plan.

This all despite the U.S. Department of Defense recently declaring climate change a “threat multiplier” in its recent quadrennial strategic review. The Pentagon report says warming will cause an assortment of problems, aggravating “issues of poor governance, resource inequality and social unrest,”  but could also provide new opportunities for exploiting resources and trade routes because of a melting Arctic and rising sea levels. Dwindling resources, including wood products, are cited as reasons for the IPCC to associate global and local conflict and climate change.

While some environmentalists see the link between conflict and climate change as clear, others are tentative to declare causation. They say the link is weaker than the IPCC report makes it out to be, and some state that poverty causes security problems and policies to fight climate change will only increase poverty because of high cost of climate resilience.

It is clear, however, that the nations of the world need to come together to fight climate change because of the various and extensive effects on our daily lives. Forest ecosytems and other habitats, food supplies, weather patterns, and sea levels will all be negatively affected. So we hope to see cooperation in the 2015 Paris climate negotiations, and some consensus among our leaders in Congress to ensure climate change resilience is at the forefront of their agendas. (more…)

Take a Break, Enjoy a Tree

by Susan Laszewski

Let a tree brighten your day today! Here’s some inspiration to you get you started.

Photo: Kelly Sikkema

Give me of your bark, O Birch Tree!
Of your yellow bark, O Birch Tree!
Growing by the rushing river,
Tall and stately in the valley.

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Celebrating the UN’s International Day of Forests

by American Forests

By John-Miguel Dalbey

Today is the second annual United Nations International Day of Forests. First observed as an international day on March 21, 2013, this day continues the celebration of forests begun with two previous days:  the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s World Forestry Day, founded in 1971, and Forest Day, convened by the Center for International Forestry Research from 2007-2012.

Forests, such as this rainforest in Honduras, have the highest levels of biodiversity of any terrestrial habitat.

Forests, such as this rainforest in Honduras, have the highest levels of biodiversity of any terrestrial habitat. Credit: Paul Bolstad, University of Minnesota.

According to the UN, today is a day to celebrate all trees and the importance of forests, while bringing together those with an interest in preserving forests and combating climate change. Forests and global climate are very closely intertwined, and preserving forest ecosystems is one of the best means of mitigating climate change. Forests act as carbon sinks, absorbing high amounts of atmospheric carbon — nearly 18 percent of global emissions.

The importance of forests doesn’t stop there. The UN points out that “forests cover one third of the Earth’s land mass, performing vital functions around the world” and that “around 1.6 billion people — including more than 2,000 indigenous cultures — depend on forests for their livelihood.” But forests affect more than just human lives. They provide crucial ecosystem services, such as balancing atmospheric levels of humidity, oxygen and carbon dioxide — services that all of Earth’s inhabitants rely on. Forests, and specifically tropical rainforests, have the highest levels of biodiversity of any terrestrial habitat, containing about 80 percent of land-based species.

Despite all we know about the importance of forests, more than 32 million acres of forest are still lost annually because of fire, logging, farming and desertification, among other causes.

That’s why American Forests coordinates several international forest restoration projects through our Global ReLeaf program each year. In 2013, we had projects in Panama, Honduras, Indonesia, India and Mexico. Stay tuned for the announcement of 2014’s Global ReLeaf projects, which include multiple international efforts, in a few weeks. Celebrate forests with us by helping protect them.

Fewer Beetles May Not Mean Fewer Concerns

by Susan Laszewski
These brown trees in Rocky Mountain National Park are casualties of the mountain pine beetle epidemic

These brown trees in Rocky Mountain National Park are casualties of the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Credit: F Delventhal/Flickr

Once the numbers came in from the U.S. Forest Service’s annual aerial survey last month, people started to feel hopeful: The mountain pine beetle was declining in Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota. In fact, the beetle infected fewer acres in Colorado in 2013 than in any year since 1998.

Through our Endangered Western Forests initiative, American Forests has been working to stem the tide of the mountain pine beetle. This native beetle has been causing as much damage in the past few decades as a runaway invasive. Cold Rocky Mountain winters that would normally help control their population have been getting warmer, allowing these pests to live longer, reproduce more and climb into higher elevations.

With the help of volunteers we’ve attached pheromone patches to healthy whitebark pine trees in the high-elevations of the Greater Yellowstone Area to repel these beetles. In 2013, we attached more than 400 patches to healthy trees in the Greater Yellowstone Area and we’ve got 10,000 more to go. (Email us to learn how you can get involved.)

We’re not the only ones working to protect our forests from these critters. Our partners, the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee and the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation, along with many other organizations, researchers and caring members like you, have all been working nonstop to try to save these trees. So to see that these beetles are indeed in decline may seem like a reason to rejoice.

Not so fast. Restoration efforts aren’t the only cause of the beetles’ decline. Their own population boom is also coming back to bite them. There aren’t enough numbers of lodgepole, limber or ponderosa pines left to them to infest. In short, “they’ve kind of eaten themselves out of house and home,” Aaron Voos of the U.S. Forest Service tells Wyoming Public Media.

Here at American Forests, this news indicates that it’s more important than ever to protect the whitebark pine. With fewer of their normal fare left, the whitebark may become even more susceptible to these tiny menaces. And while any large-scale infestation can have widespread environmental consequences, the whitebark pine is a foundation species whose loss would have tremendous cascading effects in the ecosystem. For one thing, this high-elevation pine plays an important role in snowpack retention in the Rockies. Fewer whitebarks means earlier snowmelt and increased potential of flooding. Not the mention the consequences to fresh water supply for Rocky Mountain communities or to the skiing industry and its economic impact in the region.

We want to see the mountain pine beetle infestation slow. But that in itself is not necessarily an indicator of improved health in the ecosystem. We need to protect foundation species like the whitebark pine from this infestation, now more than ever.

Researchers develop plant-based
water filtration system

by Christopher Horn

One billion people across the world don’t have access to clean drinking water, and waterborne disease kills millions of people, notably children, each year.

A researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is developing a potentially game-changing water filtration system from an unlikely source: trees.

Dr. Rohit Karnik, a mechanical engineering professor at MIT, is using sapwood from coniferous trees — mainly pine — to remove fatal pathogens from water. Sapwood, scientifically known as xylem, is the outer layer of plant tissue that carries water upward from a tree’s roots towards its canopy.

Credit: thisisexcellent/Flickr.

Current water-treatment techniques are rather inefficient for small towns and villages, ranging from chlorine treatment that is better used for large-scale decontamination to boiling water, which requires the use of fuel. Additionally, some procedures don’t completely remove pathogens, limiting their overall effectiveness.

The plant-based alternative that Dr. Karnik and his team are developing can remove 99.9 percent of bacteria from water by simulating a tree’s natural pressure-driven filtration process. A piece of sapwood roughly 3 cm3 can filter several liters of water per day, which can provide clean water for one person. Sapwood from conifers is also an inexpensive, biodegradable and accessible resource, making it a viable alternative to other eco-friendly filtration techniques such as ceramic filters or bio-sand systems.

One drawback to xylem filtration is the need for a constant water source, something that Karnik says could be resolved with more research. Further experimentation could also identify sources of xylem from plants other than conifers, as many regions plagued by water quality issues cannot support coniferous trees.

Trees and Weatherization

by American Forests

By John-Miguel Dalbey

The end of winter doesn’t officially come until March 21, and as Winter Storm Wiley proved in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, cold temperatures and heavy snowfall can still trigger tree-related problems and fixes. This winter’s major snow events, high winds and cold temperatures have many people turning their attention to “weatherizing” their homes from the elements.

Windbreak trees at Methwold Common. Rows of trees, usually poplars, are common features on the Fens. They act as windbreaks, a type of "greening."

Windbreak trees at Methwold Common.Rows of trees, usually poplars, are common features on the Fens. They act as windbreaks, Windbreak trees at Methwold Common. Rows of trees, usually poplars, are common features on the Fens. They act as windbreaks, a type of “greening.” Credit Bob Jones/Wikimedia

Given rising heating costs, increasing home efficiency is both the cheapest and most sustainable means of doing so. An eco-friendly, low-cost way to weatherize your property is to plant a windbreak of trees around your home or, as mentioned in a previous blog post, employ a green roof of growing plants.

The different forms of insulating one’s home with plants are, fittingly, collectively referred to as “greening,” and can include efforts to reduce one’s ecological footprint, such as using rain gardens to reduce water runoff during storms or planting native species to reduce the amount of maintenance needed.

Planting trees that provide shade in summer and break cold winter winds equalizes year-round temperatures within homes, which reduces heating and cooling costs. In turn, when energy consumption goes down, less fuel is burned and carbon emissions are reduced.

American Forests has worked in certain areas to replant tree windbreaks that help reduce weather extremes. While all tree planting efforts have beneficial effects on global climate, planting tree windbreaks is a great way to create a positive feedback loop combating climate change.

It’s Back! Big Tree Madness 2014

by Susan Laszewski

Big Tree Madness Game 1It’s back, bigger and madder than ever! Big Tree Madness 2014 kicks off today, giving visitors to American Forests’ Facebook page the chance to vote for which national champion tree should be this year’s Ultimate Big Tree.

Today’s match-up, the first of the Sweet Sixteen, is between Connecticut’s “Unbelievable” Umbrella Magnolia and Virginia’s Willow “WOW!” Oak. Both trees come with an abundance of history:

The umbrella magnolia, known as the “Saltonstall Magnolia,” is the largest in a grove that was planted by the Yale School of Forestry before 1950, possibly in the 1920s or 1930s, as part of their experimentation with different species. Today, the area is protected as part of a reservoir watershed, and has grown into a forest.

The willow oak has traded national champion status back and forth another willow oak in Chesapeake. Both trees were measured in 2013, and this tree was found to be larger. It’s located within walking distance of the historic Eastville Courthouse, home of the oldest continuous court records in the nation. And as the tree is not currently endangered by building projects or highway changes, we hope it will continue to accrue history for many more years.

So, which of these incredible trees should go on to the Elite Eight for a chance to go all the way and become this year’s Ultimate Big Tree? It’s up to you. Visit our Facebook page to vote. Voting closes on the match at 10:00 a.m. on March 18th. But the fun doesn’t end then. Tune in for Game 2 to cast your vote between national champions from Utah and Arizona.

Get the full scoop on Big Tree Madness rules and guidelines at www.americanforests.org/bigtreemadness.