The Best Urban Forests

by Melinda Housholder, Urban Forests Program Director

Top 10 graphic - 10 Best CitiesWe are excited today to announce the 10 best U.S. cities for urban forests. In alphabetical order, those cities are Austin, Charlotte, Denver, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York, Portland, Sacramento, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

American Forests took on this project to help people (and city leaders) better understand the critical value of urban forests in their cities — to their own lives, health, economies and well-being of their communities. And to, therefore, invest in their urban forests. We see proactive individuals as a key to maintaining urban forests. These people recognize that trees around them are not just pretty shade providers, but are essential elements of the natural fabric of the planet that we depend upon for survival.

The 10 best cities that we are recognizing today have made prolonged and profound investments in the health of their urban forest, and they’ve benefited from active nonprofit and community participation in improving and maintaining the city’s environmental resources. We extol these cities’ efforts and dedication to urban forests to elevate the quality of life for citizens and visitors alike and hope that other cities will be inspired by their success.

Minneapolis' urban forest

A view of central Minneapolis, one of American Forests 10 best cities for urban forests, from across the Mississippi River at St. Anthony Falls. Credit: Ron Reiring

I’d like to thank our expert panel, which included technical advisors from the U.S. Forest Service, who devoted hours of time to look at independent data and American Forests’ survey responses from local urban forest professionals and community forestry nonprofits in order to help determine our 10 best cities. And, of course, the Forest Service itself, which provided grant funding to support this project.

What did we learn? We thought we knew a lot about what urban forests do for people. What we learned was how innovative people are in working for the forests in their cities. Each one with similar and different problems, similar and different solutions. We hope the shared takeaways will create a basis for better understanding as to how to address the new challenges we face each day as climate change alters the timing of seasons, the frequency and severity of storms and the threats of disease and insect infestations that were previously checked by colder winters.

Over the years, science has increasingly shown that urban forests are so much more than a beautification strategy. Yet, we sometimes forget that these environments that do so much for us — removing carbon dioxide, controlling stormwater and flooding and providing restful, stress-reducing oases in the middle of urban life — cannot exist without our help. With 80 percent of the U.S. population currently living in urban areas and the urban land area in the U.S. expected to more than double by 2050, now is the time to plan, plant and foster our urban forests. Trees don’t grow up overnight, but a healthy urban forests’ benefits can be enjoyed by generations.


Sharing Their Love of Trees

by Loose Leaf Contributor
American Forests and Scotties tree planting event

An American Forests and Scotties tree planting event in Charlotte in 2009. Credit: American Forests

The competition is heating up!

With less than two weeks left in the Scotties TREES ROCK! Video Contest, we’re featuring three more finalists who want your votes. While kids from all over the United States submitted videos, 12 finalists stood out and presented compelling reasons for why trees are essential to the well-being of our environment.

Now, they each have a chance to win $10,000 to improve outdoor spaces at their schools. But they need your help! Learn about three of the contestants below, and watch the other videos. Then, show your support by voting for your favorite!
Oliver Z. from Tampa, Fla., and his classmates at Pepin Elementary demonstrate how trees produce oxygen and sugars from photosynthesis.

Ryan C. from Hoboken, N.J., explains how flood waters from Hurricane Sandy destroyed his school’s garden. Ryan hopes to rebuild the garden and replace the trees and plants lost during the storm.

Ryan M. from Wesley Chapel, Fla., talks about the important roles that trees have in maintaining a balanced environment, which include absorbing carbon dioxide and providing shade. Ryan would like to have an outdoor classroom and lunch area at his school.

Vote for your favorite videos every day until February 15th at www.scottiestreesrock.com. Check back next Monday to see the profiles our last three finalists!

Did you miss our previous profiles? Meet Audrey K., Anuhar C. and Cate G. and Kaylee L., Kyle P. and McCoy P.


Three Cheers for Wetlands

by Susan Laszewski

Bald cypress

Bald cypress can live in deep water. Credit: Nietnagel/Flickr

Tomorrow is World Wetlands Day. Time to join the other 162 countries that are signatories of the Convention on Wetlands — brought into effect 42 years ago on the shores of the Caspian Sea in Ramsar, Iran — to celebrate these important ecosystems. The word “wetland” is often associated with marshes, but there are as many types of wetlands as there are colors in the rainbow. In the United States, some of the most common types are marshes, swamps, bogs and fens. Do you know what sets them apart?

A marsh is a wetland whose primary source of water is surface water, such as a lake, river or — in the case of tidal marshes — the sea. The marsh’s landscape is dominated by soft-stemmed plants like cattail or reed grass.

A swamp, on the other hand, is dominated by woody plants. The shrubs and trees that grow in a swamp are well-suited to water, like the cypress trees that we’re partnering with The Nature Conservancy to plant in South Carolina’s Washo Reserve or the several varieties of oak that we’re planting in Shawnee National Forest, Illinois, with the National Wild Turkey Federation.

sphagnum moss and pitcher plant

Sphagnum moss and pitcher plant. Credit: Sandy Richard/Flickr

A bog is my favorite kind of wetland, both because of how it forms and because of the rare species that live there. The main ingredient of a bog is sphagnum moss, which holds rain water to create the moist wetland environment. Bogs can form in one of two ways. Sometimes, the sphagnum moss slowly covers a patch of earth, where it then prevents rainwater from leaving the surface. Other times, the moss can actually grow over a pond or other body of water, eventually filling it in a process known as terrestrialization. The sphagnum moss performs magic, turning water into land! A bog is a very acidic environment, and it takes a certain kind of species to thrive there. Many carnivorous plants call the bog home, such as sundews and pitcher plants. They may seem out-of-this-world, but they’re all part of Earth’s incredible biodiversity.

sundew

Sundew. Credit: listentothemountains/Flickr

A fen is very similar to a bog, but it relies not just on precipitation as a water source, but also on groundwater, making it less acidic and more hospitable to a wider variety of plants, including colorful wildflowers.

One thing all these types of wetlands have in common is that they help prevent flooding, whether by absorbing precipitation or by slowing and storing water. In addition, many wetlands clean polluted water, acting as natural filters. In fact, many cities are now using wetlands as green infrastructure.

Which of these types of wetlands are found near you?


Budding Out of Season

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

The old adage that April showers bring May flowers may be in danger.

Red maple flower

New research estimates that by 2100, the red maple (pictured) will be budding eight to 40 days earlier than it does now. Credit: Wendy VanDyk Evans, Bugwood.org

In a new paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, a team of researchers from Princeton University reveal how a new model they’ve developed has projected that the timing of trees’ budburst will be shifting over the next century.

What is budburst exactly? It refers to when leaves, flowers and such bud on a plant or tree at the beginning of each growing season. The Princeton study looked specifically at the spring budburst of deciduous trees and what they found is that expected warmer temperatures could cause budburst to shift as much as 40 days by 2100 for certain species and climate zones. The team also discovered that budburst shifts weren’t isolated to specific types of species, such as early vs. late-budding trees, although late-budding trees will likely shift more and narrow the window between early and late buds.

Princeton’s researchers posit that these budburst shifts could lead to an alteration in forest compositions, as earlier-budding deciduous trees may begin to grow faster than evergreens. And it could affect springtime weather. As explained in Princeton’s blog on the research, “Budburst causes an abrupt change in how quickly energy, water and pollutants are exchanged between the land and the atmosphere. Once the leaves come out, energy from the sun is increasingly used to evaporate water from the leaves rather than to heat up the surface. This can lead to changes in daily temperature ranges, surface humidity, stream flow and even nutrient loss from ecosystems.”

Who knew such a seemingly little thing like a bud and its bursting time could have such big consequences?


Lone Wolverine

by Susan Laszewski

Last week, my attention was grabbed by a species, the grizzly bear, that has been going through a promising recovery, but is now facing a new foe. Now, another such animal is expected to gain protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Wolverine. Credit: Leo Reynolds/Flickr

Wolverine. Credit: Leo Reynolds/Flickr

Like grizzlies, North American wolverines have come back from the brink. In the early 20th century, human encroachment on their habitat led to a dangerous decline in numbers, but today, wolverines once again roam a large section of their old range in the Mountain West, from Alaska and the Canadian Rockies to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

One wolverine in particular has become a sort of mascot for his species’ miraculous recovery. Enter M56. Fitted with a transmitter that tracks his location, M56 was once your average Wyoming wolverine, but in 2009, he became a symbol of hope for his species’ future when he made a 500-mile trek into Colorado, becoming the only known wolverine in the state and very likely the first to live there since wolverines disappeared from the southern reaches of their range nearly a century ago.

But, this success story is not all that wolverines have in common with grizzlies. Both are facing a new foe brought on by climate change. These new challenges suggest we may want to temper our hopes.

Wolverines love — need, actually — snow. And I’m not talking about a dusting. An environment too harsh for many is just right for them. They can even smell food beneath 20 feet of snow! Females dig their dens in snow. The litter of two to three cubs requires a warm, safe den in about 15 feet of snow that will last well into the spring. As the warming climate lessens snowpack and brings about earlier snow melt, wolverines’ habitat is threatened.

Wolverines rely on deep snow for their dens. Credit: Glacier NPS/Flickr.

Wolverines rely on deep snow for their dens. Credit: Glacier NPS/Flickr.

The threat is serious enough that in 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that wolverines should be a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act, citing climate change as the primary reason. Actual listing was delayed as the agency focused on species in greater need, but now, the wolverine’s status has been revisited. After deliberations this month the Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to list the wolverine as “threatened,” halting trapping of the animal. This year’s trapping season in Montana had already been suspended in anticipation of the decision.

With 2012 having gone down as the warmest year in recorded history, the potential threat to wolverines is inching closer and closer to a reality. Four years since his journey, M56 is still believed to be the only trail-blazing wolverine in Colorado. As warming continues, it seems less likely that others will join him there.

You can help by helping us plant more trees. Trees in high elevations help retain the spring snowpack that wolverines rely on, while trees in forests everywhere help sequester carbon, reducing the amount of carbon in the air contributing to the greenhouse effect. Learn more about how trees help mitigate climate change.


Dying With the Trees

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

In the Winter 2013 issue of American Forests, American Forests Science Advisory Board member Dr. Deborah McCullough reveals how tens of millions of ash trees have been lost since 2002 due to the invasive insect, emerald ash borer. In new research released earlier this month, scientists report that the loss of those ash trees may be affecting more than just the health of rural and urban forests — their loss may be affecting human health.

Dead ash trees in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Dead ash trees in Ann Arbor, Mich. Credit: Steven Katovich, U.S. Forest Service, Bugwood.org

In the February 2013 issue of American Journal of Preventive Medicine, a team of U.S. Forest Service researchers led by Dr. Geoffrey Donovan published a study showing an association between tree loss and increases in deaths related to cardiovascular disease and lower respiratory disease. Dr. Donovan and his team used the “natural” deaths of 100 million ash trees to see if a major change in the natural environment had a correlation to mortality.

Studying data from 1,296 counties across 15 states affected by emerald ash borer-caused tree loss over a span of 17 years (1990-2007), the researchers discovered an additional 15,080 deaths from cardiovascular disease and 6,113 additional deaths from lower respiratory disease in counties infested with emerald ash borer after accounting for the influence of factors like income, race and education.

Dr. Donovan told Science Daily, “There’s a natural tendency to see our findings and conclude that, surely, the higher mortality rates are because of some confounding variable, like income or education, and not the loss of trees, but we saw the same pattern repeated over and over in counties with very different demographic makeups.”

The researchers are quick to point out, though, that while their study shows a correlation between human mortality and tree loss, it’s not a direct causal relationship. However, it is clear that there is a connection of some kind between loss of trees and a decline in human health. So remember that those trees you see around aren’t just helping four-legged critters stay safe, healthy and happy, they’re helping us, too.


Kids Place Spotlight on Local Trees

by Loose Leaf Contributor
An American Forests and Scotties tree planting event in 2011

An American Forests and Scotties tree planting event in 2011. Credit: American Forests

Can’t get enough of last week’s inspiring TREES ROCK! videos? Neither can we!

This week, we’re featuring three more finalists of Scotties TREES ROCK! Video Contest. Kids from across the country submitted videos explaining why they think trees are important and how their school could use $10,000 to improve its outdoor spaces.

Watch what makes these kids passionate about the trees in their communities, and be sure to vote for your favorite entry!

Kaylee L. from Arco, Idaho, explains through signs and illustrations how wildfires in the Rocky Mountains destroyed thousands of trees and threatened her community. Kaylee wants to make a difference and replace some of the trees that were lost in the fires.

Kyle P. from Rochester, Minn., and his Trees Rock News Team report on the amazing ways that trees can absorb pollution from the environment and provide resources like food and paper. Kyle would like to have more benches and trees around his school to create outdoor classrooms.

McCoy P. from San Antonio, Texas, likes to climb trees and appreciates the shade they provide on hot days. McCoy would love for his school to build an outdoor learning environment for kids to learn about different ecosystems and plants.

Now, it’s your turn to make a difference! Go vote for your favorite video at www.scottiestreesrock.com, and vote every day until February 15. (You can even be entered to win a Scotties Care Package just for voting!) Be sure to check back next Monday to see the profiles of three more finalists.

Did you miss our profiles last week? Check them out here.


A Changing Climate

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

President Obama during his second inaugural address

President Obama during his second inaugural address, January 21, 2013. Credit: WhiteHouse.gov

Two weeks before President Obama took the oath of office for his second term, American Forests joined a broad coalition of environmental and conservation organizations that signed a letter encouraging the president to make climate change part of the national discussion during his second term. We asked him to “lead the public discussion of what we need to do as a nation to both prepare for the changes in climate that are no longer avoidable and avoid changes in climate that are unacceptable.”

Earlier this week, President Obama pledged to do just that in his second inaugural address, stating:

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries; we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow-capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

As referenced, America’s forests are an integral part of the climate change discussion. Our forests can help mitigate its effects by sequestering carbon, but our forests are also under threat because of a changing climate. For instance, our Endangered Western Forests initiative is conducting research and developing management strategies to save high-altitude ecosystems that are being adversely affected by climate change’s impacts.

If we want our forests to help us combat climate change, we need to help our forests — through policy, research, reforestation and other activities. We are committed to doing this. Commit to help us.

For more information on American Forests’ forest policy priorities — actions we are encouraging Congress to take — in 2013, check out the “Washington Outlook” column in the newest issue of our American Forests magazine.


Beetle vs. Bear

by Susan Laszewski

Picture a creature weighing as much as 720 lbs., roaming vast expanses of the American West — top of the food chain and king of the Rocky Mountains, embodying freedom and the spirit of the West. If you were picturing the grizzly bear, then, we’re on the same page. This is how many people picture this iconic animal of the West. But just three decades ago the actual picture was quite a bit different. Grizzlies were in dire straits. The population in the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA) had shrunk to only 136 bears, roaming a measly (by grizzly bear standards) five million acres. After decades of teetering on the brink, in 1975, the grizzly bear was listed as endangered in the lower 48 states.

Grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park

Grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Don DeBold/Flickr

A mountain pine beetle excavating a tunnel in a ponderosa pine

A mountain pine beetle excavating a tunnel in a ponderosa pine. Credit: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org

Today, the GYA population has grown. In 2010, there were 602 bears, including 51 mothers with 101 cubs — a future generation looking strong. The bears now roam 14 million acres in the GYA and have begun to reoccupy areas outside of the recovery zone. For around a decade, grizzles have met criteria for delisting. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition has called their story “one of the great conservation success stories of our time.”

So why is the grizzly still listed as threatened? The answer lies with another creature of the American West.

In 2007, the grizzly bear was, in fact, delisted. The decision was challenged and two years later a federal judge’s ruling reinstated their status as threatened. One of the primary reasons for the judge’s ruling was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) lack of due consideration in their decision of a new threat to the grizzly — the mountain pine beetle.

Yes, that’s right. Beetle vs. grizzly bear. It may not sound like the most interesting National Geographic video clip, but the mountain pine beetle has emerged in recent years as one of the grizzly’s biggest indirect threats due to the devastation it’s been causing a major grizzly food source.

Packing more calories than chocolate, the seeds of the whitebark pine are a favorite among the bears. But as the changing climate allows the beetles to move into higher and higher elevations and to live longer and longer without the cold winter days needed to regulate their life cycle, the high-elevation whitebark pine — less accustomed to the beetles than some lower elevation pines — is paying the price. And as the pines suffer, the grizzlies suffer.

And once again, the bear’s status is being examined. 2014 could very well be the year of their delisting. FWS is closely evaluating the whitebark pine situation to assess how it may affect the grizzly’s conservation status. Will the grizzly bear fall before the mighty pine beetle? Unless we can mitigate some of the problems facing our endangered western forests, the grizzly bear’s inspiring comeback may be short lived.

So, what can be done? Through our Endangered Western Forests initiative, American Forests is taking a six-pronged approach to combating these threats to the grizzly bear’s ecosystem through restoration, research, local engagement, policy promotion, funding and education. In addition to advocating for continued protection of the grizzly bear, our strategies include applying pheromone patches to discourage beetles from infesting high-impact trees. Learn more about our strategies and how you can help.


Urban Forests on a National Stage

by Amanda Tai
Credit: Bill Holmes/Flickr

Credit: Bill Holmes/Flickr

According to the U.S. Forest Service, Washington D.C., is often referred to as the “city of trees” because of its unique layout and landscapes. A huge component of the city’s urban forest is the National Mall. Millions of people visit the National Mall and its surrounding memorials and museums each year. On January 20, 2009, a whopping 1.8 million people flooded the National Mall to attend President Obama’s first inauguration, the largest attendance of any event ever in Washington, D.C. For President Obama’s second inauguration this past Monday, the crowd only totaled about 800,000. Even though that’s less than half the people from four years ago, it’s still a significant figure as far as people being in one place at the same time!

Over the years, the National Mall has seen its fair share of visitors, rallies, renovation and presidential inaugurations. The National Mall is a happening urban forest! This past summer, American Forests’ staff got to experience the National Mall with National Park Service retiree with Dr. James Sherald. We got a rundown of the history of the National Mall and how it started as part of Pierre L’Enfant’s 18th century vision for a “grand avenue” in the middle of the city. But the National Mall wasn’t always a tourist destination. Over the years, it has served as a cow pasture, a railway path and an open market. Today, it’s a tourist hot spot, where visitors can find a shady spot to rest in the sweltering D.C. summer and a shelter for urban wildlife. Over the centuries, trees have played a significant role in the National Mall’s aesthetic and appeal.

But trees on the National Mall don’t stay healthy and beautiful all on their own, especially since it’s such a high foot-traffic area. In addition to the National Park Service’s Center for Urban Ecology, several other agencies and organizations help take care of the trees on the National Mall, like the U.S. Forest Service, the District of Columbia’s Tree and Landscape Division and the Casey Trees Endowment. Together, these groups help protect the trees from pests and disease, monitor soil condition and pull together comprehensive urban forest health assessments. Whether it’s cleaning the air or hosting a presidential inauguration, urban forests sure do a lot for the community around it.