Southbound Snowies

by Susan Laszewski

I had been reading a lot this winter about the irruption of snowy owls, then, about a month ago, I saw a snowy owl myself right here in downtown Washington, D.C., perched above a parking sign with its beak tucked under its wing.

Snowy owl.

Snowy owl. Credit: Douglas Brown

Snowy owls usually stay near the Arctic Circle for breeding, often coming south toward the Canada-U.S. border during winter. This winter, however, many have been spotted in the Midwest and on the East Coast much farther south than is usual. The phenomenon has birders and other wildlife enthusiasts excited about the rare chance to see one of these beautiful creatures. I stood in the cold for some time with a few other admirers, watching the owl that had graced our city streets from a respectful distance.

Snowy owl in D.C.

Snowy owl in D.C. Credit: rho-bin/Flickr

It’s not yet clear what brings so many snowy owls so far outside their range this year. Theories range from a dearth of their favorite food forcing them to travel farther in search of meals, to an abundance of food last year having allowed for a very successful breeding season, meaning more owls that would need to spread out farther. Food shortages occur and drive owls farther afield every six to 10 years, but this year’s abundance of southbound “snowies” is particularly remarkable. “An irruption like this probably hasn’t happened in 30 years or more,” ornithologist Peter Paton with the University of Rhode Island tells the Providence Journal, adding that some have been spotted as far as Florida and Bermuda.

Snowy owl being treated at Smithsonian's National Zoo on January 30.

Snowy owl being treated at Smithsonian’s National Zoo on January 30. Credit: Jen Zoon, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Another ornithologist, Dr. Kevin J. McGowan of Cornell University, doesn’t want to rule out the effects of climate change yet, either. He tells the New York Times that the disruption to the snowy owls’ arctic habitat — which he calls “one of the most vulnerable ecosystems on the planet” may also be driving them farther south.

Either way, the owls’ big adventure down south can be dangerous for them. Their usual habitat is one sparsely populated by humans and they’re now venturing into densely populated areas with obstacles they aren’t used to. Like traffic. Several owls have been reported killed by traffic and airplanes in East Coast cities. Last week, a snowy owl in downtown D.C. — most likely the very owl I had stopped to watch a month ago in the same area — was hit by a bus and injured. Happily, that owl has been taken to the National Zoo for veterinary care.

So, if you’re in one of the areas these owls are now venturing into, enjoy the chance to see these beautiful birds in person. Just remember to observe from a respectful distance.

California Wildfires and BLM Budget Cuts

by American Forests

By John-Miguel Dalbey

In California, wildfires and forest fires are a yearly occurrence. Already, the warm, dry Santa Ana winds have stirred up fires in both Kimball Island, between Sacramento and San Francisco, and Jurupa Valley in Riverside County. The first fire resulted in no casualties and only one destroyed building, while a second burned down several homes and other small structures according to State Fire Captain Lucas Spelman, quoted in the Huffington Post. No injuries or deaths were reported, other than the sad loss of two pet dogs. As the current combination of dry spells and winds continue, more wildfires are expected.

The Rim Fire approaches the Groveland Ranger Station in the Stanislaus National Forest.

Rim Fire approaches the Groveland Ranger Station in the Stanislaus National Forest. U.S. Forest Service photo.

Coinciding with the drought, the Bureau of Land Management had its budget cut 47 percent, leading to a loss of half its forestry staff. As a consequence, many related projects, while funded, are left unmanned. In particular, the Mother Lode Field Office in Folsom, Calif., has lost a major portion of its staff, leaving the 200,000 acres of forest and woodlands vulnerable to wildfire. Specifically, the office’s Giant Gap Stewardship project lacks the workforce to complete its goals. The project area, 150 acres of mixed conifer west of Iowa Hills, above the North Fork of the American River, has been identified in the Iowa Hills Community Protection Plan is in need of commercial thinning to reduce the high risk of fire in the area. A local landowner with property bordering the area has already taken steps to thin the forest on his land and has approached the BLM requesting that the surrounding area be made less fire prone in order to protect his property. While the BLM had completed 80 percent of a planned shaded fuel break for the area in early 2011, budget constraints have since prevented the hiring of a head forester for the project. Due to the combined absence of staffing and funding, this project remains uncompleted, leaving the local forest and community vulnerable.

Fire plays many important roles in our forests, but can sometimes be too frequent or too intense for forests to recover from without help, especially as climate change takes its toll. Wildfire can contribute to climate change and carbon emissions through the burning of large amounts of biomass. This may create a “positive feedback loop,” in which the absence of trees and increased CO2 lead to more extreme droughts and winds, which in turn lead to worsening fires in a vicious cycle. For this reason, American Forests undertakes forest restoration projects following forest fires, many of which are in areas of California. Such projects are vital to the continued wellbeing of national forests and wildlife areas and the global ecosystem as a whole. Reintroducing trees to recently burned areas as soon as possible helps to reduce erosion and buildup of ash or soil in waterways, and aids in the rapid reintroduction of displaced wildlife. Planted trees also aid in absorbing particulate matter and CO2 emissions created by fires, offsetting some of the damages.

Super Wetlands

by Susan Laszewski

Approximately 70 percent of Americans tuned into the Super Bowl yesterday and saw Seattle’s win, according to early estimates. But did you know that Seattle — along with the rest of the world — had another reason to celebrate yesterday? No, I’m not talking about celebrating the six more weeks of winter that Punxatawny Phil announced, either. Yesterday was World Wetlands Day.

With a final score of 43-8, the big game may not have been close, but when it comes to wetlands Washington and Colorado are neck and neck: Colorado has around a million acres of wetlands — 1.5 percent of the state’s total area — while Washington comes in at 938,000 acres of wetland, or two percent of total area.

Wetlands in Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle

Wetlands in Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle. Credit: Brian Dewey

Cottonwoods planted by American Forests and The Park People line the stream at Bluff Lake Nature Center in Denver.

Cottonwoods planted by American Forests and The Park People at Bluff Lake Nature Center in Denver. Credit: American Forests









Wetlands are some of the most important ecosystems on the planet, cleaning water, filtering pollution, providing wildlife habitat and acting as buffers between communities and extreme weather events. Check out the different types of wetlands or see what we’re doing to restore wetlands and riparian areas in both Seattle and Denver.

Farm Bill Passes House

by American Forests

By John-Miguel Dalbey

The Farm Bill, approved on January 29 by the House of Representatives, appeals to both conservationists and timber harvesters. Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, a Washington D.C. trade group lobbying for logging companies, states that the bill “is certainly biased towards increased management, rather than restricting it.” (E&ENews)

In particular, reforms to the Forest Service’s fire prevention policies and timber harvesting contracts — implemented due to an increase in wildfires as well as a loss of forests due to beetle infestation — have brought benefits to both groups. The bill proposes using Healthy Forest Restoration Act procedures already in place in order to “reduce the risk or extent of, or increase the resilience to, insect or disease infestation.” Additionally, the bill allows for the Forest Service to lease as many as five modernized air tankers to fight the drastic increase of wildfire in recent years; this is seen as a major victory for the Forest Service given its aging firefighting equipment.

Senate Hearing on Farm Bill

American Forests, as a member of the Forests in the Farm Bill Coalition (FIFB) and the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition, supports the Farm Bill, as it allows for key revisions of forest policy. As the bill provides a massive amount of funding, to the tune of $939 billion, it allows for a host of federal programs which benefit forests, the Forest Service and the EPA. The bill’s passing will allow for greatly improved forests across the nation, while allowing for bipartisan support of the issues.

American Forests is also supportive of the bill’s addition of “stewardship contracting,” a side program allowing the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management to assign 10-year timber harvesting contracts. This would raise revenue for forest management options such as stream rebuilding, hazardous brush or wood removal and road repairs. This program marks a strong step forward for both conservationists and the timber industry, as well as cooperation between the two.

The Importance of Core Forests

by American Forests

By John-Miguel Dalbey

A bill has been introduced in the Pennsylvania House which would make it easier for industries such as gas to drill and develop in forests that could possibly be home to endangered plants or animals or other sensitive species.

The ecological significance of “core forests” — forests surrounded by other forests — cannot be overstated. Compared to “fringe” forests or habitats —those surrounded by human development such as towns or roads — core forests provide a much more stable home for species, protecting biodiversity. The continuity of the ecosystem allows individual members of a species to have a wider range in which to search for food and shelter. Habitat fragmentation is seen as one of the leading causes of species decline and prevents the recovery of endangered or threatened species, such as the spotted owl in the Angeles National Forest or the jaguarondi and ocelot in the Rio Grande Wildlife Refuge — both areas which American Forests has worked to help restore to an unfragmented state.

A series of dune habitats in Indiana have been fragmented by roadways

A series of dune habitats in Indiana have been fragmented by roadways

However, this protected biodiversity often attracts the attention of industries such as timber, natural gas and mineral extraction, as these untouched areas are often heavy with natural resources. In the case of the new bill introduced in Pennsylvania, the State Representative sponsoring the bill, Jeff Pyle, sees a conflict between the missions of the industry and the Pennsylvania State agencies like the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Game Commission. He tells NPR, “Their mission is to protect the game species of Pennsylvania. And me as a legislator, part of my mission is to make sure my people don’t see widespread unemployment.”

Yet, core forests are not only important habitats for endangered species. They are also important habitat to the game species that bring jobs and money to communities near such outdoor recreational areas. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation found that hunting and fishing brought over $1.2 billion in revenue to the state of Pennsylvania that year in trip and equipment expenditures alone.

Izembek Revisited: An Alaska Road to Somewhere

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

King Cove, Alaska. Credit: Kitaro & Kawauso/Flickr

Last March, we discussed the burgeoning conflict between Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and the Department of the Interior over a proposed 20-mile gravel road in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The road would be used to link the local King Cove community to an all-weather airport. Currently, residents must use hovercrafts and boats to access the airport. When we last left the situation, the Department of Interior agreed to revisit the environmental reviews on the project in exchange for Sen. Murkowski lifting her hold over the nomination of Sally Jewell to be the next Secretary of the Interior Department. Fast-forward nine months.

Sunrise at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

This past December, the now-Secretary Jewell rejected the proposal that would exchange 206 acres of land within the Izembek Refuge to use for the road while adding an additional 56,000 acres of state and tribal lands to the refuge from neighboring acreage. Secretary Jewell stated that the project would cause “irreversible damage” to the wildlife and wilderness within the refuge. Prior to the rejection of the road, the Department of Interior held more than 130 meetings with stakeholders to get a full picture of the competing interests. But like so many other policy decisions, the result has left some very unhappy people, including Alaska’s senate delegation.

Red fox at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo by Kristine Sowl, USFWS.

Brant in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo by Kristine Sowl, USFWS.

Last week, Sen. Murkowski pushed the Department of Interior to reconsider the denial of the road. And here we take a brief foray into the world of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). As the cornerstone of agency law, the APA lays out the procedures for agencies to draft and finalize the rules that carry out the intent expressed in legislation. In her letter to Interior, Sen. Murkowski stated that the agency failed to take a “hard look” at the proposal as NEPA requires and its actions were “arbitrary and capricious.” These are APA buzzwords, intended specifically to alert Interior that their decision may be challenged in court. One administrative law pillar is Chevron deference, so-called based on the 1984 Supreme Court case Chevron U.S.A. v. Natural Resources Defense Council. Without dragging you too much into the weeds, Chevron deference, at its most non-nuanced base, states that if “Congress has explicitly left a gap [in legislation] for the agency to fill, there is an express delegation of authority to the agency to elucidate a specific provision of the statute by regulation.” These regulations are entitled to deference by a court unless they are “arbitrary, capricious, or manifestly contrary to the statute.”

Sen. Murkowski’s letter is warning Interior that she believes the rejected land swap was improper and not appropriate for Chevron deference by a court. Whether it actually gets to that point, we shall see. But when you read about the phrase “arbitrary and capricious” referenced by policymakers, you know there is a specific reason beyond someone’s love of a thesaurus.

In the meantime, Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) has introduced a bill, S. 1929, specifically approving the road and mandating the current proposed land swap. The road would be lined with barriers and limited to use for health and safety purposes, not commercial travel. There is no current action on the bill and, for the time being, Sen. Murkowski has declined to co-sponsor it. Regardless of the outcome of the Izembek land swap, relations between the Interior Department and the Alaskan delegation have cooled as a result of Sec. Jewell’s denial. Not an ideal circumstance for an agency that oversees hundreds of millions of acres of federal lands and a state that alone contains 222 million acres of it.

Respect for Elders

by Susan Laszewski
Large, old tree.

Large, old tree. Credit: Guyon Morée

Our elders offer a lot to society that younger generations may not as readily provide. They have more years of experience and wisdom to impart and rich histories to share. But our species is not the only one in which older individuals provide benefits that the young can’t always make up for.

We already know that old growth provides benefits and plays roles in forests that younger trees can’t always fulfill. Dr. Jerry Franklin, American Forests Science Advisory Board member and forest ecologist at the University of Washington spoke with us last August about what a few of these benefits are. Large, old trees provide the large, deep cavities where animals like owls and opossums like to make their cozy homes, for example. Younger trees have often not weathered the same wear and tear of life that leads to the formation of these cavities, especially in ecosystems that lack cavity-creating species like woodpeckers.

Now, though, a recent study published in Nature has found that something long believed about older trees — that trees’ growth slows as they age — isn’t so. On the contrary, older trees speed up growth. Though similar trends have been studied before in certain species, the new study analyzed more than 600,000 trees of 403 species and found growth acceleration with age across the board.

Lead author Dr. Nathan Stephenson, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, explains in a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute press release: “If human growth would accelerate at the same rate, we would weigh half a ton by middle age and well over a ton at retirement.”

That’s a lot of growth!

And it has some important implications for climate change mitigation. As the older trees continue to grow, they are rate of carbon sequestration also increases, meaning the part they play in forests’ role as carbon sinks may be even more significant than previously thought.

So, if the wise owl couldn’t convince you and the adorable opossum couldn’t melt your heart, then perhaps our climate can warm you up to the importance of old growth in our forests. We must respect our elders.

American Forests has worked to protect old growth forests in areas such as Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. Join us in protecting and restoring forests of all ages.

Thank you, Jim Moran

by American Forests

By John-Miguel Dalbey

Representative Jim Moran.

Representative Jim Moran.

Representative Jim Moran announced his retirement recently, following more than 20 years of service. As senior Democrat on the Interior Appropriations Committee, Representative Moran did much to protect green infrastructure and urban forestry throughout the nation by ensuring adequate funding for both research and programs supporting such causes. His campaign and office have been vocal about the benefits of urban forests, placing importance on a wide range of environmental issues, such as carbon sequestration, decreased reliance upon fossil fuels and reduction of energy usage.

Furthermore, Representative Moran has worked diligently in order to keep provisions that seek to weaken protections for our national forests and national parks out of spending bills. In particular, Moran supported strong funding for the Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program, a broad, wide reaching program throughout the nation.

For his continued support of environmental causes and his “green” voting record, Representative Moran has consistently received high marks from the League of Conservation Voters. The Sustainable Urban Forest Coalition, including the policy working group co-chaired by American Forests, has worked closely with Representative Moran over the years, advocating for increased funding for federal programs that support urban forests and green infrastructure. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, he has often been the sole supporter of forestry-related causes; in a New York Times interview, Moran states, “I’m strongly opposed to clear-cutting, but I’m a big fan of thinning. I really think in terms of Forest Service that we ought to let some of our trees grow stronger and taller. We’ve had a rash of forest fires, and I think one of the things that that indicates is we’re not doing a good enough job in thinning and clearing our forests.” At American Forests, we appreciate the Congressman’s understanding that healthy forests sometimes require management actions like thinning.

In Congressman Moran’s words, “If we have the ability to take action to preserve our environment, on which the cornerstone of all life on Earth depends, and refuse to do so, we have failed our moral obligation to strive for equity and justice.”

Thank you, Congressman Moran for your work on behalf of forests, urban and rural.

Read our official statement of Representative Moran’s retirement in our newsroom.

Top Dogs in Decline

by Susan Laszewski
Gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park.

Gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Jeremy Weber

Last week, in honor of the birthday of one of the greats of conservation history, Aldo Leopold, I found myself drawn into his correspondence with Ovid Butler, editor here at American Forests (then known as the American Forestry Association) throughout much of the mid-20th century. The two wrote many letters back and forth about the needs and future of wildlife management, but one topic caught my eye. In the 40s, large predators were in decline. Sound familiar? I’d like to share two quotes I recently came across:

“The reason for [deer’s] over-abundance is basically the removal of native predators and the fact that game laws and guns are too crude an instrument for the control of deer without the help of native predators.”

“Large carnivores are necessary for the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem function. Human actions cannot fully replace the role of large carnivores.”

Awfully similar, aren’t they? Yet, the first is from a letter Leopold wrote to Butler 74 years ago. The second is from a study published just this month in Science.

We’ve made many strides over the past several decades in protecting large predators. Species like the gray wolf and the grizzly bear have made inspiring comebacks thanks largely to their protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1967 and 1975, respectively. But, the study makes clear that our work is not done. Analyzing 31 large carnivores, the researchers found that 75 percent are in decline. The reasons include habitat loss, human persecution and loss of prey.

These majestic animals have gained many an admirer for their beauty, but the reasons to protect large predatory species like wolves go far beyond their charm. When ecosystems lose their top dogs, it has cascading effects. In North America, the loss of wolves and cougars leads to increased populations of browsers like deer. Over-browsing affects all the smaller animals that depend on those plants. It can even affect the course of a stream when riparian plant life declines, leading to erosion of the stream bed.

In fact, the benefits of these large carnivores range from carbon sequestration and biodiversity to disease control and riparian restoration.

As Leopold wisely saw 74 years ago, human hunting can only go so far in mimicking the role of these predators. Our understanding of the ways these species affect their ecosystems is improving, but we still have a lot to learn. As research ecologist Rolf Peterson tells NPR, “We’re dealing with the most complicated systems in the universe, and we hardly even know what the moving parts are.”

The Fruit of Insects’ Labor

by American Forests

By John-Miguel Dalbey

Orchard mason bee on an apple blossom

Orchard mason bee on an apple blossom. Credit: Red58bill/Wikimedia Commons

The recent crisis of “colony collapse,” in which bee colonies have been dying off due to disease, pesticides and other man-made causes, has already begun to have detrimental effects on both fruit farmers and the pollination of natural tree species.

It is possible to artificially pollinate both wild and farmed trees, or allow for wind or birds to do so; however, a recent study published in Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment  shows that apple trees pollinated specifically by insects produce much larger fruit than trees pollinated by other means. In order to conduct this experiment, farmers placed a fine mesh over certain blooming trees, which were then pollinated by hand or wind, leaving others open to insect pollination. In each of the six farms tested, the insect-pollinated trees fared better. Perhaps in the wild, where trees are not pollinated by hand, leaving only dwindling insect populations as sole pollinators, the difference could be even greater.

Artificial pollination with two apple blossoms

Artificial pollination with two apple blossoms. Credit: Abrahami/Wikimedia Commons

As this increase in crop output produces an economic incentive for the protection of pollinator species, it may soon be that more intensive protection measures are undertaken. The study’s lead author, Dr. Mike Garratt of the University of Reading, tells the Environmental News Network that he suggests aiding “pollinators [in orchards] by planting wildflower strips, maintaining hedgerows, and keeping a proper understory layer to the trees,” while “at the landscape level, what the insects really need are more native grass-lands and woodlands.”

At American Forests, projects have been undertaken to protect and restore habitats for  pollinator species such as the monarch butterfly and ruby-throated hummingbird. A strong diversity of pollinator species (insects such as bees and butterflies, bats or birds) will allow for other species to “pick up the slack” should another become threatened.



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