Fire on the Horizon

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Earlier this month at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, scientists presented new projections about wildfire activity over the next few decades — and it doesn’t look pretty.

The devastating High Park Wildfire on Colorado’s Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland on Thursday, June 17, 2012.

The devastating High Park Wildfire on Colorado’s Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland on Thursday, June 17, 2012. Credit: USDA

Using NASA satellite data and climate models, scientists estimate that in the next 30-50 years, we will see longer, stronger fire seasons across all regions in the U.S. Why? Because NASA’s climate projection models anticipate drier conditions as the climate changes, and drier conditions mean our grasslands and forests are riper for fire activity.

These more intense, longer fire seasons will most likely result in more carbon dioxide emissions, creating a climate change feedback loop. Scientists report that carbon dioxide emissions from wildfires in the West have more than doubled from what they were in the 1980s.

But what exactly does a “more intense” fire season mean? It means fewer fires, but more acres burned. For instance, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reported that through November 30, 2012, more than 9.1 million acres had burned across the U.S. this year, which is the third highest in their records, which go back to 1960. However, the 55,505 total number of fires this year was on the low end, according to NIFC records. Add the fact that this year’s average fire size was the highest on record, and more intense indeed.

Wildfires are a never-ending concern when it comes to forest and human health and safety. While fire is a necessary part of some forest ecosystems, intense fires can be devastating. That’s why the American Forests policy team works hard to advocate for programs and funding that support not only wildfire fighting itself, but also programs that can help diminish wildfire risk. You can add your voice to the mix by visiting our Action Center and sending a pre-written letter supporting emergency supplements to fight fires or other letters requesting funding for programs that reduce the risk of wildfire.

This NASA visualization depicts fires that burned between January 1 and October 31, 2012.

This NASA visualization depicts fires that burned between January 1 and October 31, 2012, as detected by Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer instruments. Yellow and orange indicates fires that were more intense and had a larger area of active burning. Most of these intense fires occurred in the western United States, where lightning and human activity often sparks blazes that firefighters cannot contain. Many of the lower intensity fires shown in red were prescribed fires, lit for either agricultural or ecosystem management purposes. Credit: NASA images provided by the Science Visualization Studio.


ReLeaf Close to Home

by Susan Laszewski

By working with partners far and wide, American Forests is able to fund restoration projects from Maine to Hawaii, and even in places as far from our Washington, D.C. offices as Kenya. But some projects are a bit closer to home.

Yesterday, Jesse Buff and Megan Higgs, our director and manager of forest restoration programs, took some time off from preparing the 2013 Global ReLeaf projects to visit a 2012 project that’s just a hop, skip and a jump from the American Forests offices.

American Forests volunteer helps Arlington County employee with tree-planting.

An American Forests volunteer helps an Arlington County employee with tree-planting.

We partnered with Arlington Department of Parks and Recreation to plant trees on Arlington County public lands, and some American Forests volunteers came out to help in the planting. It’s not the first time we’ve worked with Arlington; we also partnered with them on the 9/11 Memorial Tree Planting in 2002, planting 184 trees on public land and another 184 on private land, to honor the 184 individuals who lost their lives in the attack on the Pentagon.

Arlington is close to home for us, but a lot of Global ReLeaf projects are close to someone’s home. While American Forests works to put millions of trees in the ground in wilderness areas, we also know the importance of urban forests. There could very well be a tree in your neighborhood that was planted through a Global ReLeaf project!

For example, New Haven is perhaps best known as the home of Yale University, but it’s not just the ivy on the buildings that’s green. We’re partnering with the Urban Resources Initiative, a nonprofit partner of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, on a Global ReLeaf project to help New Haven reach its canopy coverage goals. By 2016, the city hopes to have planted 10,000 additional trees. Seeing as the 40 percent canopy cover they currently have saves the city $4 million a year, it’s easy to see the motivation.

It’s even easier to see in a city like Indianapolis that has lost 25 percent of its trees in the last 10 years. We are partnering with nonprofit Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, Inc. to plant 500 trees in areas of the Fall Creek Watershed, where residents use the Fall Creek Greenway Trail to stay fit and get away from the city’s hustle and bustle. As a city that ranks as one of the 10 cities in the U.S. with the worst air quality, it’s understandable that Indianapolis would want to invest in its urban forest. In addition to their Global ReLeaf partnership with American Forests, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful also created its NeighborWoods program to — in the words of program director Andrew Hart — “create a more positive tree culture in the city.” You can read more about what Keep Indianapolis Beautiful and other organizations and agencies are doing for Indianapolis’ urban forests in our case study book.

As our Global ReLeaf team can attest to, it feels good to see trees being planted close to home. Visit your city’s Urban Forestry or Parks and Recreation website to learn about projects happening close to your home!


A Win for Wetlands

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

By pushing an earthen plug into the ditch, the drainage stops and water backs up, creating a natural wetlands area on Maryland Eastern shore landowner Kirby Wells’ property on June 19, 2012, as part of the WRP

By pushing an earthen plug into the ditch, the drainage stops and water backs up, creating a natural wetlands area on Maryland Eastern shore landowner Kirby Wells’ property on June 19, 2012, as part of the WRP. Credit: USDA/Flickr

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it’s helped restore more than 2.6 million acres of wetlands habitat in the U.S. through its Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP)! The program began 20 years ago as a way to bring people together to protect, restore and enhance wetlands on private and tribal lands. With 75 percent of wetlands located on private land, getting landowners to participate in this voluntary program has been a key part of the program’s success. And more than 11,000 have, helping reduce flood damage and aiding groundwater recharging and carbon sequestration.

As Jason Weller, acting chief of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which administers the WRP, states in a news release on the program, “The Wetlands Reserve Program is a great conservation tool, providing landowners a way to protect and restore wetland areas while making improvements to their properties — it is a win-win for the environment, the landowner and the community.”

In Red River County, Texas, American Forests joined the NRCS’ WRP efforts with a multi-year project designed to restore native hardwood trees to a two-mile section of an alluvial floodplain along the Red River. The Global ReLeaf project helped plant more than 200,000 trees to convert the former agricultural land back to wetland.

A wetland in central Washington that has been restored through NRCS cooperative work

A wetland in central Washington that has been restored through NRCS cooperative work. Credit: USDA/Flickr

The WRP isn’t the only NRCS program, though, that American Forests has helped support over the years. Global ReLeaf conducted a multi-year project in Alaska to restore timber lands across 2,600 acres through NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which is another voluntary program aimed at providing assistance for agricultural landowners. We’ve also conducted multiple projects alongside the NRCS in Maryland to restore wetlands for the benefit of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Then, there are the countless other wetland projects we’ve conducted over the years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help establish healthy wildlife habitat, such as our multi-year project in Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge to create habitat for the black bear and other species. There are also the projects alongside nonprofit partners to restore wetlands and … yeah, we love wetlands.

You know what we love just as much as wetlands? Cooperative efforts to restore and protect the environment. One of the great things about the WRP’s success is that it was not built by one person or one entity alone. It was a collective effort between landowners, government, nonprofits and other partners. That’s what we love to see: People joining together for a common goal.


Global Ambition

by Amanda Tai

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP18) wrapped up last week in Doha, Qatar. Here’s a recap of what happened.

COP18 Conference in Doha, Qatar. Credit: IHA Central Office/Flickr

In the final hours of the conference on Saturday, representatives from nearly 200 countries decided on a final deal called the Doha Climate Gateway, an extension of the Kyoto Protocol until 2020 with the hopes of reaching a new global climate change agreement in 2015. Admittedly not a perfect plan, policymakers see the Doha Climate Gateway as a step in the right direction. Ed Davey, energy and climate change secretary from the United Kingdom, notes to The Guardian that the plan will pave the way for future discussions and the potential for a new global climate change treaty. Based on the talks in Doha, this new treaty would build upon the ground laid by the Kyoto Protocol, but require both developed and developing countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some environmental groups showed concern about plans for an international climate change agreement that requires less economically developed countries to adhere to reductions standards similar to those of developed countries.

On the sidelines of COP18, about 700 forest policymakers, scientists and experts meet for the sixth annual Forest Day. This popular side conference was established to discuss forests’ role in climate change. As urbanization and population growth continue, land scarcity has become a huge concern. This puts strain on forests and agricultural lands. Not only do these lands provide food for our growing population, but they also serve as critical carbon sinks that mitigate the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. Participants at Forest Day discussed the use of more landscape-based management approaches that incorporate forests, agriculture and energy to ensure the best solutions for all sectors can be achieved. They agreed that this type of approach is essential to increasing food production while keeping forests healthy and mitigating climate change.

Another major topic at COP18 was funding, which has been a longtime concern for developing countries feeling the effects of climate change. The issue is that developed countries are dealing with the effects of the global financial crisis, which results in little contribution to climate change. But developing countries received a somewhat unexpected funding assurance at COP18. An agreement was reached to work on funding the “loss and damage” incurred from climate change. While the agreement doesn’t legally bind countries to contribute to the fund, this is still a huge victory for developing countries for a few reasons. First, it means that developed countries are listening. Second, this agreement highlights the shortcomings of developed countries in terms of mitigation efforts. I hope this realization will open the door to establishing a stronger, more ambitious climate change treaty for 2015.


Stressing Out About Drought

by Susan Laszewski

Forests are workaholics. They do a lot for us. They sequester carbon, mitigating climate change, buffer the flow of nasty pollutants into our waterways, prevent flooding by retaining snowpack and so much more.

If forests were people, you might expect this round-the-clock do-gooding to stress them out. But, plant stress is caused not by busy schedules, but by environmental conditions that don’t support good plant health. Plant stressors include extreme temperatures, pollution, drought and many other factors.

The drought of 2012 was one of the Midwest’s worst.

The drought of 2012 was one of the Midwest’s worst. Credit: Theresa Wysocki/Flickr

It so happens that even under stress, plants — in the forest and in the field — continue to help us out. Plant stress was hinting at the approaching drought of last summer — a drought that turned out to be one of America’s worst — a month before the U.S. drought monitor warned us of it.

In a method revealed last Wednesday at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, scientists monitored plant stress using plant surface temperature data captured by NASA and NOAA satellites. Hotter temperatures of the plants’ surfaces indicated that they were not finding enough water in the soil to “sweat” and cool themselves off.

The video below shows this data — called the Evaporative Stress Index (ESI) — for 2010 through 2012. Red areas indicating low soil moisture as early as May 2012 are the first signs of the drought of that summer.

Seeing a drought coming doesn’t mean you can stop it, but it does mean you can better prepare for its consequences. The extra month of warning time that this method could provide would allow farmers to prepare for dry years, by stocking up on alternative sources of livestock feed, for example. It could allow municipalities to put stops on lawn watering or set other water usage limits in time to fend off some of the worst effects of a drought.

Ultimately, though, if too many of our forests and other ecosystems become too stressed, an early warning sign could be more like a bad diagnosis. Without healthy vegetation to perform vital ecosystem functions, busy schedules will be the least of our stressors.


A Petrified Site

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Have you ever had a connection to an object that’s difficult to explain?

Sitting on the mantle in my childhood home is a hunk of rock that on the surface is just a large, heavy, brownish thing. It resembles a trunk; it’s round and tall and polished to a high gloss — and I’ve loved it for as long as I can remember. Why? Because it’s not the simple brownish rock it appears to be. It’s a piece of agatized petrified wood that was collected on private property in the Wind River Range in western Wyoming and has been in my family for generations.

Striped badlands contrast with the colorful petrified wood at Petrified Forest National Park

Striped badlands contrast with the colorful petrified wood at Petrified Forest National Park. Credit: T. Scott Williams/NPS

And while my family’s petrified wood was found in Wyoming, another place with petrified wood — possibly the most famous in the country, if not the world — celebrated two special anniversaries over the weekend. On Dec. 8, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt created Petrified Forest National Monument in Arizona to protect the fossilized remains of an ancient Mesozoic forest. More than 50 years later, on Dec. 9, 1962, the national monument became Petrified Forest National Park.

What is petrified wood exactly? Simply, it’s wood that has turned into a mineral. The complicated answer is that more than 200 million years ago — in the case of Petrified Forest National Park — pieces of ancient trees were rapidly buried under large amounts of sediment and debris by the area’s rivers. This process prevented oxygen from reaching the wood so instead of decaying, the wood’s pores began to absorb dissolved minerals over time, thus turning the wood from wood to mineral.

But Petrified Forest is more than just a paleontological smorgasbord. Located approximately 100 miles to the east of Coconino National Forest, which houses many of our national champion big trees, Petrified Forest is one of the largest areas of grassland in the Southwest, supporting a wide variety of grasses, lichens, wildflowers and even a few tree species and shrubs. It’s also home to a wide variety of animals from owls to snakes and lizards and even a turtle species!

So, happy anniversary to this archeologically rich grassland wonder. May it provide the same kind of fascination to others as a piece of petrified wood has held for me.

In the fall, cottonwood turn golden along the Puerco River in Petrified Forest National Park.

In the fall, cottonwood turn golden along the Puerco River in Petrified Forest National Park. Credit: Hallie Larsen/NPS


Great News from the Great Outdoors

by Susan Laszewski

Tired of hearing about how gridlock in Washington is preventing our country from moving forward on important issues? Well, here’s some good news for you!

Youth Conservation Corps crew

Youth Conservation Corps crew clean and weed around a water control structure. Credit: USFWS

The Obama administration released the America’s Great Outdoors 2012 Progress Report on Tuesday, and the results look good. Here at American Forests, we support the America’s Great Outdoors initiative (AGO) and believe in the benefits of outdoor recreation and connecting people with nature. So you can imagine our delight to read about the many successes AGO has racked up in its first two years.

Launched in April 2010, AGO is based on the principle that some of “the best ideas come from outside Washington,” as the administration puts it. This means local community entities are the ones actually implementing projects on the ground with the help of federal support and cooperation. So, how well has AGO performed in meeting its goals of connecting Americans to the great outdoors, making the outdoors more accessible and restoring landscapes? Well, here are some exciting numbers:

  • Let’s start with zero. That’s how much members of our armed services will have to pay for entrance to our national parks, forests and wildlife refuges with the new America the Beautiful pass. It certainly makes sense to thank those who bravely serve our country — often in dangerous warzones — by increasing their access to the country’s “best idea” and places of peace and tranquility.
  • Four. That’s the number of new national monuments designated by President Obama this year, including Fort Ord and Cesar E. Chavez in California and Chimney Rock in Colorado.
  • Nine. The number of water trails created so far as part of the new National Water Trails System, designed to connect people and communities to waterways for recreation.
  • 20. According to the report, that’s the percentage of increase in participation in the Youth Conservation Corps this year! This program, along with increased internships in our national public lands, is fostering the next generation of land management and natural resource professionals. The future looks bright!
  • How about 23,000? That’s the number of acres of wetland in the Everglades that the United States Department of Agriculture has provided funding to restore with the help of local farmers and ranchers.
  • Just one more I can’t resist: three million. In the Southeast, the $3 million Longleaf Stewardship Fund was established to restore longleaf pine to the region. We’re working toward that goal ourselves and glad to see others joining the effort!

An Everglades waterway

An Everglades waterway. Credit: Chauncey Davis/Flickr

These are just a small percentage of the great programs and successes you can read about in the full report. For any lover of the outdoors, these numbers should brighten your day, but you don’t have to be a backpacker or an angler to feel the positive repercussions of these initiatives. For economics buffs, the Outdoor Industry Association estimates that our great outdoors provides us with 6.1 million jobs and $646 billion in direct economic activity. That’s without even mentioning tax revenue! And for those of you whose measures of success take on a more idealistic streak, America’s Great Outdoors initiative also represents an unprecedented level of public involvement in a major government initiative. The conservation action plan was the result of 51 public listening sessions and more than 100,000 public comments. We the people have spoken on how important our public lands are — for their economic and job-creating value, their health benefits and, of course, for fun in the awe-inspiring great outdoors! It seems Washington was listening.

To find out how you can get out into America’s great outdoors, check out recreation.gov, another AGO project.


The Fight Against Blight

by Alex Cimon
Chestnut Blight

Chestnut Blight. Credit: JOE BLOWE/Flickr

In 1904, a forester at the Bronx Zoo in New York discovered a fungus that would eventually spell disaster for eastern forests. Endothia parasitica, later known as Cryphonectria parasitica (or chestnut blight) is believed to have been introduced to America by imported Asian chestnut trees. This disease spread quickly down the East Coast, affecting American chestnut trees throughout the Appalachian Mountain range. In the Blue Ridge Mountains, where chestnut trees once accounted for a quarter of the tree canopy, the blight has devastated the tree population.

For those living amongst the southern Appalachians, American chestnut trees were a valuable resource. The trees boasted lightweight wood that was resistant to decay and, of course, the flavorful fruit that would fall in late autumn. The wood was ideal for building log homes, as well as items such as poles and posts. The fruits benefitted the forest animals as well as people, who would collect them for their own families or to sell in town. With the American chestnut accounting for such a large percentage of the timber industry and the culture of surrounding communities, the threat from chestnut blight was taken seriously.

Blue Ridge Mountains

Blue Ridge Mountains. Credit: daveynin/Flickr

But even with a government grant, scientists could not produce an effective strategy. Within 40 years the American chestnut population was wiped out. Many organizations have been focused on not only reintroducing this species into forests, but rebuilding in the areas that lost so many trees. Planting different types of trees in areas that have been affected by blight has been a popular strategy among organizations and volunteers that are trying to rebuild eastern forests after the devastation to the American chestnut trees. Here at American Forests, a recent Global ReLeaf project in Kentucky is working to do just that. Alongside the American Chestnut Foundation, Coal Country Beeworks and James River Coal, Inc., we will plant more than 7,500 seedlings of different species including flowering dogwood, persimmon, eastern redbud, red mulberry and yellow poplar in an area that used to be dominated by the American chestnut and also suffered as the former site of a mine.

Meanwhile, the American Chestnut Foundation is also working with the U.S. Forest Service to introduce a cross species in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The foundation has recognized that the chestnut root stocks are alive and growing, but the trees that will eventually grow are susceptible to blight and will inevitably die. They have also found that the Chinese chestnut tree is resistant to the disease and have been focused on creating a hybrid in order to reintroduce a new form of American chestnut. Scientists worked until they were able to develop a crossbreed that was 15/16 American chestnut and 1/16 Chinese chestnut. The U.S. Forest Service, American Chestnut Foundation and about 20 volunteers worked to plant almost 1,200 saplings in some of the more barren areas in some Western Virginia forests.

While our eastern hardwood forests may not resemble the forests of our ancestors, through these various restoration techniques and efforts, we hope to maintain a healthy, diverse forest for future generations.


Public Land: The Latest Job Perk

by Amanda Tai

A new report from Headwaters Economics is out that highlights a growing trend: Talented workers are choosing to move to the West. The report, “West Is Best: How Public Lands in the West Create a Competitive Economic Advantage,” identifies the West as 11 states: Arizona, Colorado, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Its findings indicate that the natural beauty and allure of public lands in these states are being used as recruitment tools to entice the best companies and workers to move there. I can see how that strategy works. Based on the few trips I’ve taken out West, the landscape would be a huge incentive to live there.

Credit: the_lazy_daisy/Flickr

The report takes an even deeper look at the economic role public lands are playing in the West. As companies and workers continue to move westward, the result is a huge impact on economic growth. While you may think eastern cities like New York and Washington, D.C., appeal to people looking for a job, the West’s economy is actually outperforming the rest of the country due to the appeal of natural landscapes and outdoor recreation opportunities such as skiing, fishing and hiking.

Here’s a striking statistic: Employment growth over the last 40 years has been almost twice as high in the West compared to the rest of the U.S. — 152 percent in the West versus 78 percent in the rest of the country. This growth rate is even higher in counties where at least 30 percent of the land is federally protected (like national parks and forests), where there is an astounding 345 percent increase in employment!

What gives the West such a competitive advantage in the job market? Economists have found that in addition to faster rates of job growth, public lands also correlate to higher per capita income levels. This may be because high-paying (non-labored) industries such as healthcare, finance and technology have made up the majority of that job growth. As the West’s economy shifts from labored (mining, farming, construction, etc.) to non-labored income, workers are seeking a higher quality of life. That means good school systems and modern transportation infrastructure, as well as access to clean natural resources and outdoor recreational opportunities.

So the next time you find yourself job hunting, consider proximity to public lands and outdoor recreation. It’s the not-so-secret job perk that’s benefiting companies (and the economy) out West.


Heating Up

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Grenoble, France

Grenoble, France. Credit: Richard Stowey/Flickr

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas … and I may have to keep dreaming if the unusually warm temperatures of the past week continue into the rest of the month. And while I know that warm temperatures do not equal climate change evidence exactly, it does feel appropriate on a balmy December day — at least here in D.C. — that we discuss a few recent reports of conditions affecting our climate.

Let’s start with the newest global carbon dioxide output numbers — exciting, I know. Global Carbon Project released its newest emissions numbers in 2011, which show that worldwide CO2 emissions grew by 3.1 percent last year and are expected to grow another 2.6 percent this year. To put this in perspective, if the estimates for this year hold true, global carbon dioxide emissions will be 58 percent above the emissions rate two decades ago! China and India represent two of the biggest leaps in emissions this year, while the U.S. actually dropped its emissions by 1.8 percent. Yay for us, but don’t break out the bubbly just yet, as the authors of the report reveal that if immediate action isn’t taken to alter global emissions from their current trend lines, the international goal of limiting a global temperature rise to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit or less is going to become unattainable.

Alas, CO2 emissions aren’t the only thing that can contribute to warmer temperatures according to another recent study. The mountain pine beetle infestation that is ravaging North America’s western forests is causing temperatures to rise — and not just in ire. In a new Nature Geoscience report, scientists reveal that forest areas of British Columbia that are affected by the beetle are seeing surface temperatures one degree Celsius higher on average in the summer months. Analyzing data from 1999 to 2010, the report’s authors found that bark beetle infested areas of British Columbia are also experiencing:

British Columbia, Canada

British Columbia, Canada. Credit: Steven Tomsic/Flickr

  • A sensible heat flux increase of eight percent — in other words, the amount of heat radiating from the earth into the atmosphere has increased by eight percent.
  • An evapotranspiration decrease in the summer months of 19 percent — 19 percent less water going from the ground and/or vegetation to the air.

Approximately 42.2 million acres in British Columbia have been infected by the beetle, and in the U.S., another 41.7 million acres of western forest is estimated to be dead or dying. That’s a lot of land mass that could experience increased temperatures due to loss of forest cover.

So maybe I shouldn’t be dreaming of a white Christmas, but instead, some Christmas miracles of reducing carbon emissions and a slowdown in beetle populations and destruction. Oh, Bing, where are you and a catchy song about that?