Making Their Own Kind of Music

by Susan Laszewski

Though originating on different sides of the Atlantic, two studies released this month both underscore the complexities of wildlife adaptation to the urbanization of their habitats.

Vermilion flycatcher

Vermilion flycatcher.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who sometimes sets my alarm clock’s ring tone to “birdsong” for a soothing start to the day. But birdsong is much more than calming and beautiful sounds. Songbirds sing to attract mates, to define their territory and even to defend themselves against threats. But what about urban songbirds? How do they compete with the noise of the city?

Previous studies have shown different frequencies between urban birdsong and birdsong in the wild, but until recently, no study had looked at the tropical cousins of these songbirds. Now, Alejandro Ariel Ríos-Chelén and fellow researchers at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico have published a study that does just that.

The researchers recorded the songs of 29 male vermilion flycatchers in Mexico City and found that birds in noisier locations consistently sang for longer, assuring their song could be heard among the noise pollution. The differences between how these flycatchers’ adapted their songs for the urban environment and the adaptations that had been observed in other species suggests that different species have different methods of coping with noise pollution. Some species may be better equipped to adapt than others.

Common redshank

Common redshank. Credit: Srihari Kulkarni/Flickr

Meanwhile, findings of a study released Tuesday on the affects of light pollution on the common redshank in the Forth estuary in Scotland suggest a similar lesson. Dr. Ross Dwyer of the University of Exeter led the study, in which 20 birds were tagged to track their location, while inbuilt posture sensors told scientists when the birds bent to forage food. The study found that in areas with less artificial light, birds switched between foraging by sight and foraging by touch. In contrast, birds foraging closer to the massive petrochemical complex that lights up parts of the estuary were able to rely on sight regardless of moonlight or cloud cover. Needless to say, these birds had a more satisfying dinner.

Both studies show that some species are adapting — even thriving, in the case of the redshank — to various types of pollution that come with increasing urbanization of their habitats. It remains to be seen, however, how these species will adapt in the long term, particularly as other species they rely on suffer adverse effects. One thing is certain, though. As urban areas increase, more and more wildlife will strive to adjust. We can help them by making sure our city and infrastructure planning include consideration for urban forests and urban wildlife.


A Year-Round Attraction

by Alex Cimon

What do you do with a ski mountain in the off-season?

Growing up in central New Hampshire, I saw many popular winter destinations struggle with this problem. Fortunately for my state, northern New England provides year-round tourist attractions such as fall foliage, lakes and hiking trails. Mountains become campsites, outdoor recreation areas and even concert venues. But whether its spring, summer or fall, those in charge struggle to maintain consistent business. This is true for ski areas across the country and adapting can be difficult.

Mount Hood from the Timberline LodgeOn the West Coast, a recent decision by Christopher Worth, the Mount Hood National Forest supervisor, is bringing a new attraction to the Timberline ski area from July through October: a mountain biking “skills park.” The decision by RLK & Company — the group in charge of Timberline Lodge and the ski area’s operations — to add 17 miles of trails and a modification to one of the mountain’s chairlifts stirred up some controversy over the environmental effects and brought up several concerns for locals. But after two years of Environmental Assessment (EA) of the project by Mount Hood National Forest, it was determined that the new bike trails and skills park was in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other environmental regulations, as is revealed in Worth’s decision letter. (For more background on EAs and NEPA, check out our blog post “Fire in the West – Part 2.”)

One of the major concerns examined in the EA was erosion and damage to existing vegetation. Worth addressed these in his letter by promising the implementation of sediment traps and that the trails would be built an appropriate distance from any stream. He also noted that visitors would be required to wash their bikes before and after using the trails in order to prevent the transportation of invasive species.

Beyond the physical impact of the new park, Worth also felt compelled to address the question of the mountain’s integrity and tradition, which was a popular topic among the 1,200 public comments on the development. He maintained that his goal was to not have any specific use of the Timberline area negatively affect another mountain activity. He based his position off of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1937 dedication of the Timberline Lodge.

Roosevelt declared that “those who will follow us to Timberline Lodge on their holidays and vacations will represent the enjoyment of new opportunities for play in every season of the year.” According to Worth, FDR would be proud to see a new form of summer recreation on Mount Hood. In order to back up this position, Worth cites how recreational activities on the mountain have already spread to the off-season with hiking, summer skiing and external events. He also mentions that this plan is in line with the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act of 2011, which looks to use year-round visitation in order to boost local economies while continuing to protect the environment.


Seeing (Maybe More) Spots

by Amanda Tai

Northern Spotted Owl. Credit: cramsay23/Flickr

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced a final rule as part of a comprehensive recovery plan for the northern spotted owl. The rule designates critical habitat for the species that’s based on a feedback from regional scientific experts, public comments, and land management agencies. 9.6 million acres will be set aside to help the recovery of the endangered bird. The land is primarily Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service-managed forests in Oregon, California and Washington. While the total acreage in the final rule is about 4.3 million acres lower than levels proposed in a February draft from the USFWS, it’s still double the acreage of the 2008 Bush administration critical habitat plan.

The ruling comes at a critical point for the northern spotted owl. Currently, the species is disappearing at a rate of almost three percent every year. That’s about a 40 percent reduction over the past 20 years! The reason the owls have seen such a rapid population decline is because of their sensitivity to habitat disturbances, such as the forest fragmentation and logging happening in the Pacific Northwest. Since being listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, the northern spotted owl has been at the center of northwestern U.S. timber wars. While the protection of old-growth forests may help the owl population, logging sales have declined as a result.

This rule aims to finally strike a balance that both wildlife habitat conservationists and loggers can agree on by including measures to review logging projects more closely and thinning stands to reduce wildfire risk. The timber industry is taking a close look at the rule to see if the USFWS has addressed their comments about land designation and the assessment of economic impacts. Representing the industry, American Forest Research Council President Tom Partin points out that the agency should also look at controlling the barred owl, a species that has been pushing the northern spotted owl out of its territories. American Forests also submitted comments on the draft rule this past summer and continues to support the agency’s efforts to best manage the owl’s habitat. Over the years, our Global ReLeaf program has conducted a number of restoration projects in California to restore habitat for this endangered species.

The USFWS supports the administration’s conservation strategies, which include “ecologically sustainable logging.” This practice may guard forests against wildfire and pests and strengthen the owl’s habitat. Robyn Thorson, director of the USFWS Pacific Region, also states that the agency is using the best available science to protect the owls so that partnering managers will be able to make the best decisions for their land. But even with all concerned parties at the table, coming up with the best land management solutions still poses quite a challenge.


Trade-offs of Energy Independence

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

This month, as columnists and pundits alike reflect on the meaning of the recent election and environmentalists consider what legislative initiatives are on the table, it seems a good opportunity to examine the choices and policies that should be considered when addressing America’s environmental and energy options. In other words, the trade-offs. Already, in the three weeks since President Obama referenced climate change in his early morning acceptance speech in Chicago, the political world has discussed the potential of a carbon tax, the possibility of comprehensive climate change legislation and the likelihood of coalitions to offer piecemeal solutions.

Section of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline

Section of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline. Credit: rickz/Flickr

But even beyond these topics, one of the key phrases that we’ve heard bandied about is the potentially rewarding but ever-elusive “energy independence” — independence from foreign oil. Ideas about how this independence should be achieved vary with each group, industry or interested party. All sectors of energy production are impacted, as are multitudinous environments from the ocean floor to our forests to our mountaintops. The differing factor between each view is the value that is placed on each source of energy. Emphasis on one source of energy over another is one side of the trade-off. The result of that emphasis is another.

More traditional sources of energy possess well examined trade-offs. For example, coal involves mining the earth and burning the fuel, resulting in emissions, while nuclear involves the use of a radioactive substance that can, as Fukushima and Three Mile Island have shown, have disastrous results if anything goes wrong. But coal is also very inexpensive to use, which is why it has served as this country’s main energy source for hundreds of years, and nuclear power releases no greenhouse gases, making it newly attractive for electric power generation.

Solar panels at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

Solar panels at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Credit: Jason St. Sauver / USFWS

Today, as investment in and exposure of renewables increases, a fuller appreciation of the trade-offs involved with them is possible. What does it mean when the placement of solar panels in the sun-drenched Southwest intrudes on the habitat of the threatened Desert Tortoise? What about wind-developments and their impact on birds and bats? For both solar and wind, acres upon acres of land are required for production of energy at commercially useful levels. What does it mean to trade undeveloped land for solar panel siting? Or the viewscape of a mountain ridge for a wind farm? Yet solar and wind are by far the cleanest forms of energy and, unlike fossil fuels, they can last an infinite amount of time. With no emissions, is a commitment of land in the present worth unlimited clean energy for the future?

The choices we must make in terms of energy policy all involve these trade-offs. But what path should we take? Are tax subsidies for ethanol still an appropriate expenditure? What about drilling in our national forests? All of these questions, plus a thousand more, should be asked in any serious discussion regarding our next steps in terms of energy and the environment.

The upcoming decisions that must be made to secure both our energy future and protect our environmental resources are not going to be easy. Trade-offs must be weighed, and short term gains may need to be bypassed for long term goals. While “all of the above” may turn out to be the solution to energy independence, it is critical that the trade-offs — what we give up compared to what we gain — are something we can all live with, in the end.


Sanctuary

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Muir Woods National Monument

Muir Woods National Monument. Credit: American Forests

Rain drips quietly through the thick canopy, as I walk through the old growth. The lovely behemoths that surround me are centuries older than I. They were here long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. They fill me with peace and wonder, stretching their foliage toward the heavens. I have found a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of modern life. It’s hard to remember that I’m only 11 miles and less than 30 minutes from San Francisco’s famed Golden Gate Bridge.

So was my first encounter with an old-growth, coast redwood forest when I visited Muir Woods National Monument earlier this month. Standing amidst such ancient beauty, I instantly understood why John Muir loved the California woodlands so. They are the stuff of poetry — timeless, yet ever-changing, as fallen giants litter the floor while others sprout new boughs.

Nearly two million acres of old-growth, coast redwood forest used to cover the coasts of California and Oregon. Now, only three percent of the original forest remains — a stark reminder of why we do what we do here at American Forests.

We protect and restore treasured forest ecosystems, so that one day my future children will be able to walk the same path I once did through the tallest trees in the world. So they can witness the grandeur of nature firsthand and can experience the novelty of leaving modernity for a little while to commune with centuries-old beings. This is my wish for the future.

This holiday season, please consider making a donation to American Forests to help us protect special places and memories for today, tomorrow and generations to come.


Happy Thanksgiving!

by Loose Leaf Contributor

Here at American Forests we love wild turkeys — as evidenced by our many Global ReLeaf projects restoring their habitat — and we love Turkey Day!

We hope everyone is enjoying a safe and pleasant Thanksgiving with their loved ones.

P.S. Don’t want to brave the crowds on Black Friday? Consider giving The Gift of Trees.

Wild turkeys in Henry W. Coe State Park

Wild turkeys in Henry W. Coe State Park. Credit: Threat to Democracy/Flickr

 


Giving Thanks

by Amanda Tai

Senator Jeff Bingaman. Credit: SenJeffBingaman/Flickr

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’d like to give a big ‘thank you’ to Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), who is set to retire at the end of the year. While thinking about everything we’re thankful for, I think it’s fitting that we also give thanks to those leaders who have prioritized our nation’s forests and public lands. After serving five terms in the Senate and several years as chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Bingaman has determined it’s time to step down.

Throughout his career, Bingaman has been a champion for forests and the environment. Aside from his devoted leadership as the Energy and Natural Resources chair, he has repeatedly spoken out for the protection of public lands and wildlife, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and restoration of our natural resources.

Bingaman has continually been at the forefront of conservation programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), introducing a bill in 2009 to fully fund the program outside of the appropriations process. This year, the measure was included as an amendment to the transportation bill. The Senate voted in favor of the package, which will provide $1.4 billion in funding for LWCF over the next two years.

To help with emergency wildfire suppression funding in the western U.S., Bingaman helped spearhead the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act in 2009. American Forests has supported this measure through coalition work, Congressional testimony and letters to lawmakers.

Bingaman also introduced the Forest Landscape Restoration Act of 2008. This piece of legislation established the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration (CFLR) Program that carries out landscape-scale restoration projects. American Forests advocates for this program through the CFLR coalition.

Over the years, Senator Bingaman has been a voice for restoration work, hazardous fuels reduction and cleaning our natural resources. I’d like to leave you with a quote from Senator Bingaman, showing us his motivation for being the environmental champion he is: “Protecting special places and landscapes for the common good has always been a great American idea that we have exported to the rest of the world.  By protecting natural systems, we’re protecting human health as well as the economy by providing clean water, clean air, livable coastal areas and the quality of life that is so important to all Americans.”


Partnering for Healthier Cities

by Melinda Housholder, Urban Forests Program Director
Sacramento Convention Center

Sacramento Convention Center. Credit: Amy the Nurse/Flickr

Last week, I attended the 2012 Partners in Community Forestry National Conference in Sacramento, Calif. This conference is all about making connections — including connecting with the community forestry network and sharing information about what is happening with community forestry around the country. With more than 500 attendees — ranging from urban foresters, arborists and utilities to nonprofits, state and federal governments and even a mayor — there was a lot to learn and a lot to share.

To start off the conference, Dr. Dave Nowak, project leader at the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station and a member of the American Forests Science Advisory Board, spoke about our changing urban landscapes. With our nation losing four million urban trees per year, he emphasized that understanding how and why urban forests are changing can guide management to help sustain healthy urban forests. He emphasized that not only is it important to “plant the right species in the right place,” but also to plant them at the “right time.” For example, our decisions should consider factors that might affect timing, such as climatic conditions or invasive pests and diseases.

Street trees in Sacramento

Street trees in Sacramento. Credit: Don Reid/Flickr

Later on in the conference, Dr. Geoffrey Donovan, research forester at the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station, discussed recent studies that quantify a broad range of urban-tree benefits, including their effect on public health. For example, a study he did in 2011 looked at the relationship between urban tree cover and healthier babies. The study found that canopy cover within 50 meters of a house reduced the risk of a baby being born underweight and that proximity to private open space also reduces this risk. To read more about this study, click here. While he admits that some correlations like these do leave gaps in knowledge, they tell excellent stories. And, when similar studies around the world continue to tell similar stories, he suggests that policymakers just might be underestimating the scope and magnitude of urban-tree benefits.

So many great presentations, so little time. I also sat in on a discussion on tree canopy assessments and saw a presentation on what is needed to improve emergency operations for storm responses in the urban forests. Additionally, I went on an afternoon field trip to explore native restoration along the Golden State Highway, where we saw a levee improvement project, a utility easement project and a wildlife refuge along the Pacific Flyaway.

Along with learning so much about the work that others are doing across the country, I was thrilled that we had an opportunity to share some of the work that we have been doing. On the last morning of the conference, our CEO, Scott Steen, presented the results of a year-long initiative in our urban forests program — our Urban Forests Case Studies. (Check out Scott’s Loose Leaf post on the studies, here.) These case studies feature 12 cities across the U.S. and what they are doing to create healthier, greener cities. If you haven’t seen them yet, you should check them out here — your city might just be featured!

The conference last week was full of great information, wonderful networking opportunities and inspiration. There is nothing quite like being in a crowd of more than 500 people talking about urban forests with individuals who are so passionate about the work that they do.


Zion’s Mosaic

by Julia Sullivan
Hanging gardens in Zion National Park

Hanging gardens in Zion National Park. Credit: Alyse & Remi/Flickr

At the turn of the 20th century, the region now encompassed by Zion National Park saw few visitors. This all changed in 1908, however, when a federal land survey exposed the area to the general public. Struck by its natural splendor, the surveyors encouraged President Taft to protect the region, and he obliged. In 1909, Taft established Mukuntuweap National Monument. Nine years later, it became Zion National Monument. And on November 19, 1919 — 93 years ago today — the area was expanded and designated Zion National Park.

Located in southwestern Utah, Zion encompasses 229 square miles, including some of the most scenic canyon country in all of the United States. With elevations ranging from 3,600 to 8,700 feet, it is home to diverse plant communities, supporting more than 900 different species. These elevation changes, in combination with temperature ranges and varying amounts of sun and water, are responsible for the park’s mosaic of plant habitats. Let’s take a look at five of its ecosystems:

  • Riparian: The relative lushness of Zion Canyon comes as a surprise to most visitors. The riparian area of the Virgin River, which snakes through the canyon, supports giant cottonwood trees and a variety of other plants and grasses. Cattails, willows and aquatic plants inhabit the saturated wetlands nearby, and water seeps out of the towering Navajo sandstone, creating beautiful springs and the distinctive hanging gardens for which Zion is known. Ferns, wildflowers and mosses decorate these canyon walls.
  • Arid Grasslands and Desert Shrubs: Drought tolerant plants, particularly desert shrubs, thrive in the lower elevations of the park. Grasses bloom and go to seed during the summer months, and cacti are a frequent sight.
  • Pinyon-juniper Forest: Climbing upwards in elevation, the arid grasslands and desert shrubs are replaced by pinyon-juniper forest. These evergreen trees grow slowly and are both cold and drought tolerant, supporting a great diversity of wildlife.
  • Ponderosa pine

    Ponderosa pine. Credit: Koen Schepers/Flickr

  • Ponderosa Pine: Higher still, on the sandstone cliffs, ponderosa pines cling to cracks and ledges. The powerful roots of these enormous trees wedge themselves into the Navajo sandstone, contributing to the gradual process of erosion that is forever changing the face of Zion.
  • Mixed Conifer and Aspen Forest: On the high plateaus, ponderosa pines meet Douglas-fir, white pine and aspen trees.

With such a variety of microclimates, it comes as no surprise that Zion National Park is host to a great diversity of animal life — 78 mammal species, 291 bird species, 44 reptile and amphibian species and eight fish species, to be exact. It also provides critical habitat for the threated Mexican spotted owl, a small population of Mojave Desert tortoises and the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher.

From the magnificent hanging gardens deep in its canyons to the resilient forest blanketing its high plateaus, the breadth of Zion National Park’s flora and fauna is truly staggering. Happy birthday to this one-of-a-kind beauty!


Transforming Cities With Trees

by Scott Steen, President & CEO

Today, I am excited to share the results of a year-long initiative with you.

Last fall, American Forests began a project in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry program to conduct research on and spread awareness of the amazing benefits of urban forests. Urban forests are ecosystems composed of trees and other vegetation that provide cities and municipalities with environmental, economic and social benefits. They include street and yard trees, vegetation within parks and along public rights of way, water systems, fish and wildlife. As part of this project, we looked at 12 remarkable cities to garner lessons and models that other communities might use in building their own urban forest programs.

Looking at these 12 cities — Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Portland (Ore.), Sacramento, Seattle and Washington, D.C. — I have been deeply inspired by the urban forest work going on around the country and by the local heroes who are engaged in this work.

Detroit's New Center. Credit: Dig Downtown Detroit

Detroit's New Center. Credit: Dig Downtown Detroit

For instance, in Detroit, it is no secret that the Motor City was especially hard hit by the decline of the U.S. manufacturing sector. With massive tax revenue declines, taking care of the urban forest became an increasingly difficult prospect for the city. But Detroit’s people pulled together to overcome adversity and do great things together. During the past two decades, they have formed nonprofits, built partnerships, engaged local corporations and mobilized neighborhoods, all in support of building a healthy urban forest. One program (of many in Detroit) teamed police officers up with neighborhood residents to plant trees together in neighborhoods. This program didn’t just grow trees; it grew trust, pride and cooperation, where little had existed before. And this is just one powerful example of the level of community engagement and commitment we found throughout the 12 cities.

In Denver and Sacramento, we discovered cities with very arid climates that have been transformed by planting and nurturing trees and greenspaces.

There’s Baltimore, which is breaking down social, economic and neighborhood boundaries through tree planting and other green initiatives.

Austin is helping to cool its long, hot summers by planting trees, whereas Portland and Milwaukee are using green infrastructure to help with water flow issues.

Urban Forests Case StudiesAcross the nation, we discovered countless programs, plans and partnerships that are creating healthier, greener cities.

Over the next few years, we’re going to continue to look deeper at how communities across the nation are being transformed with trees. We will also be partnering with these cities to help continue their good work. But while we put those plans into motion, I encourage you to visit our newly launched Urban Forest Program area to read just some of the case studies and discover how urban forests — and the volunteers, professionals and leaders who are building them — are making a difference in cities and towns like yours in every region of the country.