Self-healing for Forests

by American Forests

By Lizzie Wasilewska

lush forest

Lush forest. Credit: Sam Agnew

Forest recovery is an incredibly complex and frequently unpredictable process. It often requires outside help, but there are also ways in which forests heal themselves. Researchers recently discovered that nitrogen — a chemical that plays a major role in the formation of cells in many organisms — is crucial to trees’ ability to recover from environmental damage; with sufficient nitrogen, damaged forest ecosystems can heal with surprising speed and fullness.

For their study, published last month in Nature, the researchers began by selecting forest plots that had been damaged by agricultural use in recent decades. They compared these forests to mature forests — each around 300 years old — from the same area. Their results show that forests have an amazing capacity for regrowth after damage. The young trees in their study accumulated biomass quickly, and on a broad scale, the forests recovered with surprising rapidity.

Montverde Cloud Forest

Montverde Cloud Forest. Credit: Andrew Hall

Nitrogen plays a central role in their recovery process; the younger and quickly recovering trees have especially high nitrogen demand. In an interview with, researcher Sarah Batterman said, “We found that during the period when forests are recovering rapidly, typically in the first few decades, they have a really high nitrogen demand.” According to the study, after about 12 years, the forests’ reliance on nitrogen rapidly declined as their overall health increased.

The results have important implications for climate change, since the ability of forests to heal themselves also means that they can more effectively synthesize carbon dioxide, which in turn allows forests to better moderate global temperatures.

But faced with a climate changing more rapidly than many forests can adapt to, the ability of forests to heal themselves is threatened. In 2009, American Forests co-chaired a Climate Change Work Group in order to develop effective strategies for aiding forest restoration, including climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. This is one of several ways in which American Forests contributes to discussions of climate change and forests More information can be found here.

European Ash to Ashes?

by American Forests

By Marcelene Sutter

European ash, which faces serious threats from fungal infections and emerald ash borers. Credit: Alois Staudacher

Eurpoean ash, which faces serious threats from fungal infections and emerald ash borers. Credit: Alois Staudacher

European ash trees cannot seem to catch a break. Currently, an ash dieback fungus caused by Chalara faxinea has been plaguing Europe, requiring research funds and the efforts and attention of scientists. Now, another threat to these trees looms on the horizon. As readers of American Forests magazine know from the Winter 2013 issue, the emerald ash borer has been monumentally destructive to ash trees in North America. The beetle, native to Asia and eastern Russia, killed almost all of the North American ash trees that it has infested since it entered the country in 2002, but scientists recently discovered that the voracious insect is not finished yet. Emerald ash borers were recently found in Moscow, and scientists believe that they are spreading to Europe.

The current focus of ash tree research in Europe is on finding ash trees that are tolerant or resistant to the fungus outbreak, but Dr. Steve Woodward, a tree pathologist from the University of Aberdeen, says that this approach may not be wholly effective, stating that “the problem with then jumping on [resistance to Chalara] as though it’s a great solution to the problem of ash and the loss of ash is that … it’s highly, highly likely that they will still remain highly susceptible to the emerald ash borer.” Between fungal infection and the imminent threat of the emerald ash borer, the ash trees commonly growing across Europe are seriously threatened.


Emerald ash borer. Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

The health of ash trees in North America and Europe contrasts sharply with that of Manchurian ash trees throughout Asia, where both of these threats originated. Scientists believe that this peaceful co-existence is due to co-evolution. Because both the Chalara fungus and the beetles are imported threats to American and European ashes, the trees have not had the chance to evolve the same defenses as Asian Manchurian ash trees. For this reason, scientists feel that the Manchurian ash could provide clues in the quest to develop resistance to both of these threats.

To learn more about the destructive effects of the emerald ash borer in Dr. Deborah G. McCullough’s article featured in American Forests or learn how to take action against the emerald ash borer.

The Rise and Fall of Champions

by Susan Laszewski

Relative to humans, most tree species live a long time. Many of the trees we have personal connections to have been around long before us; some of the oldest trees have been here longer than the pyramids of Giza, perhaps even longer than Stonehenge.

champion red hickory

Champion red hickory in Summit, Ohio. Credit: Ohio Big Tree Program

It might seem like we couldn’t possibly watch these giants rise and fall during our puny lifetimes, but that’s exactly what the National Register of Big Trees does. And you may be surprised how much the pot is stirred twice each year when the register is released. New champions are crowned, others are dethroned and ties are broken.

That’s why this is one of our favorite times of year here at American Forests, where October means not just cooler weather, crisp apples and changing colors, but also the release of the fall edition of the National Register of Big Trees.

The latest edition of the register recognizes more than 780 national champions, and more than 40 of them are wearing their crown for the first time, including 11 in New York, five in Oregon and one in the District of Columbia, where the trees continue to grow even as parks are shuttered.

The latest release of the register even includes a new mega-tree — a tree with 650 points or more, the largest of the large. With 724 points, Oregon’s California-laurel joins just 14 other trees in this elite group.

Where is the champion of your favorite tree species? What national champions call your state home? You can find the answers to these questions and more by searching the register. And, if these champions inspire you to get more involved in the effort to find, document and protect big trees, you might consider hunting for big trees yourself. There are still 200 species without any representation on the register. Visit our Big Tree section to learn more about how you can nominate trees.

It’s World Animal Day

by American Forests

By Lizzie Wasilewska

On October 4, 1931, a group of Italian ecologists founded World Animal Day with the hope of drawing attention to threatened wildlife. They selected this date because it is the feast day of Francis of Assisi, a patron saint of animals. Since 1931,

Broad Winged Hawk

Broad-winged hawk. Credit: Jerry Oldenettel

people of many religions and nationalities have adopted this day as an opportunity to celebrate animal life: special events are held all over the globe in order to appreciate the countless amazing animals of the world and raise awareness about threatened species.

American Forests celebrates World Animal Day by supporting biodiversity through restoration projects around the world. Recent animal species that our projects have benefited include the red-cockaded woodpecker, the marvelous spatuletail hummingbird, and the Northern spotted owl, among many others. Recently, we helped restore forests in Veracruz, Mexico, that are critical to an amazing number of migratory and resident bird species: 67 percent of the 341 migratory species listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rest in Veracruz during their migrations. While this is one of the most diverse ecosystems in Mexico, it is also one of the most vulnerable. Since 2010, American Forests has supported this fragile ecosystem through education projects and planting trees: Last year, we planted tens of thousands of trees in the Veracruz highlands. These trees will provide crucial habitats for many migratory birds.

Tropical Forest

Tropical Forest. Credit: Will Chen

One of the migratory bird species that is common in Veracruz is the broad-winged hawk. Certain subspecies of the broad-winged hawk fly in flocks of hundreds of thousands. During their fall migrations, they can travel about 62 miles a day, with a rest in Veracruz on their roughly 70 day trip to South America. Populations of the broad-winged hawk are fairly stable, but due to the effects of forest fragmentation, they are declining.

World Animal Day is a time to celebrate fascinating animals like these, and continue to make our best effort to ensure the protection of their habitats.

The Serious Business of Leaf Peeping

by American Forests

By Marcelene Sutter

Fall foliage in different stages of the color change cycle in Wilmington, Vermont.

Fall foliage in different stages of the color change cycle in Wilmington, Vermont. Credit: Kimberly Vardeman

At some point in your life, someone has probably informed you that money does not grow on trees, and while this oft-stated truism does make a lot of sense, Megan Smith, Vermont’s commissioner of Tourism and Marketing, heartily disagrees. “I’d like to say that money falls from trees at this time of year,” Smith stated last week in an interview with NPR. What she is referring to is the lucrative business of “leaf peeping” in her state, which draws crowds of more than five times Vermont’s population every year.  These tourists come to Vermont for two purposes: to photograph leaves and to spend money, to the tune of $460 million annually.

These expenditures have made foliage tourism a booming and very competitive business, as Vermont must compete with other states to draw tourists to its trees. This has resulted in the creation of an interesting new job for Michael Snyder, Vermont’s commissioner of Forests, Parks and Recreation: leaf forecaster. Although the title is unofficial, the work is serious business. Snyder is responsible for scouting missions conducted on the back roads of Vermont’s densest forests looking for signs of color change in the foliage. Snyder describes his work as “part science, part guesswork,” as these kinds of predictions come from knowledge of the trees and the conditions that they are exposed to along with examination of early color-turning.

The Hapgood Pond Recreation Area on the Green Mountain National Forest displays its fall foliage.

The Hapgood Pond Recreation Area on the Green Mountain National Forest displays its fall foliage. Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As beautiful as these trees are, they are also extremely important to the ecosystems of the forests they inhabit. When Hurricane Irene hit in 2011, the riparian tree population in the White River area of the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont was decimated. This was a severe detriment to the health of the watershed and the aquatic species in the region because, without trees to provide shade, water temperatures rose to levels too high to be healthy living conditions for fish. For this reason, American Forests has made tree planting in the Green Mountain region a part of the Global ReLeaf campaign. To read more about the riparian tree planting project, check out this article, which appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of American Forests magazine.

Divided and Disappearing

by Susan Laszewski

It’s well known that when habitat becomes fragmented, wildlife suffers. But now, a study more than two decades in the making has published its findings in Science demonstrating just how rapidly mammals species disappear in fragmented patches of forest.

The study found that mammal species whose habitat becomes fragmented can disappear in as little as 25 years.

Chiew Larn resevoir in Thailand

Chiew Larn resevoir in Thailand. Credit: kandyjaxx/Flickr

When the Chiew Larn reservoir was created in 1987 by damming the Khlong Saeng in Thailand, it flooded the forest valley, creating multiple small islands of fragmented habitat where there had once been a large expanse of continuous forest. A team of researchers led by David Woodruff of the University of California at San Diego recognized the perfect opportunity to study the effects of habitat fragmentation on species. In the early 1990s, they trapped, tagged and released a diversity of animals on 12 of the islands. They did the same in the intact forest surrounding the reservoir. On the smallest islands — those less than 24 acres — they observed extinctions in as little as five years.

Last year, biologist Dr. Luke Gibson of the National University of Singapore returned to the very spot where Woodruff and the team had gathered their data decades earlier. The decline in biodiversity in that short time was stunning. Where Woodruff’s team had tagged between 7 and 12 species of mammal on most of the small islands, Gibson could find only one or two remaining. In contrast, he found no change in the mainland forest.

Chiew Larn resevoir

Patches of fragmented forest scattered in the Chiew Larn resevoir. Credit: stoleng/Flickr

Complicating matters further, is that one of the mammal species found on the islands — on some islands, the only mammal left — is the Malayan field rat, an invasive species. According to the study, “such biotic invasions are becoming increasingly common in human-modified landscapes.”

Forest habitats are becoming more and more fragmented around the world. Around 90 percent of South America’s Atlantic forest, home to the golden lion tamarin covered in Loose Leaf earlier this week, is destroyed, with the remainder mostly in fragmented patches of less than 200 acres.

And it’s not only tropical forests that are suffering from fragmentation. American Forests Global ReLeaf has worked to create wildlife corridors to connect fragmented habitat for Mexican spotted owls in Angeles National Forest, ocelot in the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge and a variety of native species in Exeter, England, among many other projects.

Forest Conservation and Local Communities

by American Forests

By Lizzie Wasilewska

In addition to the ongoing work of environmental researchers, sometimes the knowledge provided by local populations is just as crucial for the conservation of forests. For more than two decades, American Forests has worked with local partners to plant trees around the world through Global ReLeaf; we also encourage people to discover, register and celebrate champion trees in their region. Recently, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFR) has released a report that reaffirmed the importance of reaching out to local populations and gathering information about forests from them.


Sambas, West Kalimantan deforestation. Credit: netaholic13/Flickr

The CIFR researchers focused their study on the Malinau District of East Kalimantan Province in the Indonesian area of Borneo. Locals and outsiders recognize the toll that human development has taken here: The forest is still biologically diverse, but due to a decade of logging, mining and planation projects, it has degraded and fragmented. As a result, many local species — including the sun bear, tarsiers, slow loris, proboscis monkey, clouded leopard and orangutan — are threatened.

The researchers began their study by selecting individuals recognized by their communities as being knowledgeable about the forest. Typically, these were men who routinely

Proboscis monkey

Proboscis monkey. Credit: Russell Watkins

entered the forest to hunt and collect products. The selected participants then elaborated on the researchers’ maps of the region, providing crucial information about populations of endangered species. These local experts helped pinpoint wildlfie habitats and recounted their observations of the species’ behaviors.

This data proved invaluable for the CIFR’s time-sensitive research goals and efforts to save the forest from further destruction. In the conclusion of their study, the researchers write that “engaging local knowledge in biodiversity surveys can be not only cheap and practical, but also provide valuable support to achieve conservation outcomes,” and they encourage scientists to continue forging relationships with locals. Thanks to the knowledge these researchers gained from the Malunau community, they were able to develop forest conservation strategies faster and more effectively.

We have often found that local cooperation and education is one of the best ways to complete forest restoration work. In Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest, which was flooded due to Hurricane Irene, local volunteers and American Forests launched a project to reforest 41 acres with more than 7,000 trees. The new trees will improve living conditions for various species and filter the area’s water. This is one of many projects that has moved forward due to the dedication of local populations.

A Golden Design

by American Forests

By Marcelene Sutter

Golden Lion Tamarin

Golden lion tamarin, which is native to the Atlantic Forest in Brazil. Credit: Kevin Walsh

Who could say no to a face like that? Meet the golden lion tamarin, native to Brazil and so beloved by citizens there that it appears on the country’s currency. Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, or Mata Atlantica to locals, is the only place where these tiny primates can be found in the wild. Unfortunately, the rise of deforestation in the region poses a serious threat to the safety of this species. What was once an expansive ecosystem has shrunk from 500,000 square miles to less than 10,000 — and with it shrunk the tamarin population.

A concentrated effort to preserve this lion-maned tamarin began in the 1970s and focused mainly on breeding in captivity. By that point, there were fewer than 200 golden lion tamarins living in the wild. Through zoo breeding programs and other conservation programs, today, more than 1,700 golden lion tamarins live in patches of remaining forest, an improvement, but the problem is, if something doesn’t change in regard to habitat for these beloved monkeys, the entire conservation effort may still be for naught. There is no way to sustain this comeback without more available forests to facilitate population growth.

The Atlantic Forest in Brazil, home to the golden lion tamarin. Deforestation in this region has drastically reduced tamarin habitat, posing a great threat to the species. Credit: Barbara Eckstein

The Atlantic Forest in Brazil, home to the golden lion tamarin. Deforestation in this region has drastically reduced tamarin habitat, posing a great threat to the species. Credit: Barbara Eckstein

As it stands, deforestation in the region is not slowing, especially with the recent discovery of oil reserves north of the Atlantic Forest and the addition of two more lanes to the highway that cuts through the area. This has created another problem: On top of shrinking forest areas, what is left for the monkeys has become extremely fragmented. The still-recovering tamarin population is now separated into isolated remaining forest areas, a detriment to their genetic diversity.

One conservationist’s proposed solution to this problem of fragmentation is a bit unorthodox: Luis Paulo Ferraz, leader of the Golden Lion Tamarin Association, aims to construct a bridge over the highway for the tamarins. This bridge would need to be structurally sound enough not to be disrupted by the trucks below and would also need to be covered to provide the crossing tamarin with protection from predatory birds. Ferraz’s group, along with its American partner, Save the Golden Lion Tamarin, have been working together on ground-level models of this project within a golden lion tamarin reserve for years. In fact, as of December 2012, more than 68,000 acres of forest are connected by these planted corridors.

American Forests recognizes the importance of protecting endangered species in Brazil, which is why we’ve participated in tree plantings at three separate sites in the Atlantic Forest, for a total of 24,860 trees. This and a multitude of other projects for endangered species have been accomplished over the years through our Global ReLeaf program. For instance, currently, the orangutan population in the Dolok Sibual Buali Nature Reserve in Indonesia faces challenges similar to those of the golden lion tamarin, which is why American Forests and the Sumatra Rainforest Institute (SRI) are reforesting 140 acres of degraded Sumatran orangutan habitat in the Batang Toru forest. To learn more about orangutan habitat resoration or any of our 2013 Global ReLeaf projects, visit the Global ReLeaf area of our website.

Getting Our Hands Dirty

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyo.

Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyo. Credit: khasut/Flickr

If you’re a regular reader here on Loose Leaf, you know that our forests and ecosystems, while very good self-regulators, sometimes need a helping hand — and a helping hand is what they’re going to get en masse tomorrow.

Tomorrow is National Public Lands Day, the largest, single-day volunteer effort for public lands each year. On this, the 20th anniversary of the event, more than 2,000 projects are registered across the country. And it just so happens that American Forests is going to be out there doing our part, too.

First, we’re co-hosting a volunteer tree planting in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest. This event is taking volunteers to the Moccasin Basin area to plant 1,000 whitebark pine seedlings in an area damaged by the Hardscrabble Fire. This project is part of both our Endangered Western Forests initiative, which is working to research, restore and protect whitebark pine in the Mountain West, and our Global ReLeaf forest restoration program. This year, we’re planting 11,000 whitebark pine in Bridger-Teton National Forest to help restore the keystone species to the landscape.

Asbury Park, N.J.

Asbury Park, N.J., August 2013. Credit: Melinda Housholder/American Forests

On the East Coast, we’re going to be at work in New Jersey’s Asbury Park, where we’re planting 40 trees along streets and other lands in the 1.6-square-mile community. The planting is part of our Community ReLeaf program, which is dedicated to assessment, restoration and education about urban forests. This planting is just the first of many restoration activities that will occur in Asbury Park this year as part of Community ReLeaf.

As you can tell from the diversity of our two events, public lands encompass a major part of our lives — from urban oases to national forests, from local gardens to wildlife refuges, from state to national parks. And days like tomorrow are important to maintaining their health and vitality. Days like tomorrow are the days we at American Forests love the most, too: The days we all come together to celebrate the natural world.

Today, sadly, marks the end of my adventure as co-editor of Loose Leaf and regular blogger, as I am moving onto new horizons. I have greatly enjoyed getting to discuss a variety of environmental topics with our readers over the last two years, and I am comforted knowing that I’m leaving you all in the capable hands of our current blogging team. Best wishes, Michelle

Following in the Footsteps of Johnny Appleseed

by Susan Laszewski

Ripening crabapples. Credit: Kelcy Vogel

On this day, 239 years ago, John Chapman was born and would go on to change the American landscape and help to instill a certain fruit with national symbolism. Most know him better as Johnny Appleseed.

Folklore paints Johnny Appleseed as having walked across the country scattering apple seeds in the wilderness along his way. In fact, his plantings were more deliberate than that. Knowing how important apples were to settlers for making hard apple cider, he planted nurseries along the frontier, so that once settlers arrived, the trees they would need were ready.

At American Forests, we know that fruit-bearing trees continue to be important resources to communities around the globe. So, in honor of John Chapman’s birthday, let’s revisit some of our recent Global ReLeaf projects that planted fruit-bearing trees.


Global ReLeaf planting in Ica, Peru.

  1. Reforestation of the Peruvian Coastal Belt, 2009-2011

    For this project, we partnered with Trees for Cities and the Association for Children and the Environment in Ica, Peru, to plant 10,000 trees and give local children a hands-on learning experience about the amazing huarango tree. In addition to providing fruit, this amazing tree can capture nine liters of water in its canopy each night, making it an important resource for battling desertification in area. It also enriches poor soils, providing natural fertilizer in which the children participating in the project planted their own vegetable gardens, following in the footsteps of John Chapman.

  2. Growing Tree Businesses Project, 2011

    American Forests partnered with Tree Aid and a number of local Ghanaian groups, with support from Origins, to plant 15,166 trees in 10 northern Ghanaian villages vulnerable to drought and floods. The project focused on trees from which the local communities could harvest non-timber forest products, including citrus and mangoes. The project also provided participants with training surrounding tree maintenance, resource management and more, increasing food security for 955 rural entrepreneurs. As an entrepreneur himself, I think Johnny Appleseed would have approved of the forest-friendly business practices.

  3. Planting Trees, Planting Hope in Rural Honduras, 2011

    Together with long-time partner Sustainable Harvest International, American Forests reforested 90 acres with 25,000 trees in Honduras to restore a watershed that had been damaged by slash-and-burn agricultural practices and to provide fruit trees to help feed the local community — although not with alcohol as John Chapman did. Along with the tree planting, Sustainable Harvest International provides training to local farmers in sustainable practices, helping communities move away from destructive slash-and-burn practices.

Celebrate Johnny Appleseed’s birthday with us. Learn more about our Global ReLeaf projects or support our work.