The Enormity of Life

by Susan Laszewski
Champion common hackberry

Champion common hackberry in Warren County, NJ. Credit: Jonathan Carlucci

Colossal. Gigantic. Immense. Astronomical. Words seem small next to some of our nation’s biggest trees. Standing at the foot of a huge tree, the enormity of life can make your head spin. Those sudden flashes of understanding of our own smallness — of seeing ourselves as just a blip on the timeline of life — can be scary. At the same time, it’s comforting to stand witness to the enduring vastness of nature. To stand so close to something with the strength to grow from a one-inch acorn to a mighty 150-foot oak, to be a part of the same web of life as a giant sequoia whose life reaches 2,500 years back in time.

Today, the fall 2012 National Register of Big Trees has been released, recognizing more than 780 of the biggest trees of their species throughout the country. This marks the first time that the Register has been issued twice in a year. Champion trees are constantly changing, so American Forests has changed to keep up with them — and to keep up with dedicated big-tree hunters. These tree-lovers search all year round for these giants — braving high climbs, bad weather and the sting of defeat when one of their champs is dethroned.

Check out the Register to join us in following these trees’ triumphs and losses. We’re celebrating new champion trees like the California sycamore that joined the Register’s top 15 trees in terms of overall points toward championship, ranking near the mighty redwoods. But we’re also commiserating with dethroned monsters like the Goodding willow in New Mexico — which has lost its crown just shy of 20 years as champ — and mourning ancient giants like the American holly of Arlington, Virginia, which have at last, after a generation of humans have come and gone, completed their life cycle.

If reading about these trees inspires you to get more involved, you might consider hunting for big trees yourself. Visit our Big Tree section to learn more about how to nominate trees and who knows, maybe the spring Register could be your champ’s debut. With trees like these, there’s a lot of competition out there.


Hot, Thirsty Forests

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

When I think of the Southwest, I picture swirling sand, cacti and heat radiating off of pavement. And while it’s true that the Southwest has its fair share of arid deserts, it also is home to forests — for now.

A pinyon pine on the lower slopes of Bryce Canyon in Bryce Canyon National Park

A pinyon pine on the lower slopes of Bryce Canyon in Bryce Canyon National Park. Credit: Peter Nijenhuis/Flickr

In a study released last week in Nature Climate Change, scientists reveal that the Southwest could be headed toward the worst megadrought scenario since A.D. 1000, which will lead to massive forest decline. The research developed a forest drought-stress index (FDSI) to study tree ring data from 1000-2007 to decipher the influence of specific climate parameters on forest decline. Through their modeling, scientists discovered that the drought experienced by the Southwest in the early 2000s was the most severe drought event since a megadrought in the 1500s, and they caution that “the recent forest response to drought may serve as a harbinger of how drought-sensitive forests globally may respond to warming” — especially considering that the drought situation is only going to get worse as the 21st century continues.

This study is just the latest in mounting evidence that the Southwest’s forests are headed toward tough times, which is why one scientist is baking trees to try determine the scope of the damage that may lay ahead, as reported by E&E News.

At a research station in New Mexico, Nathan McDowell is putting juniper, pinyon pine and other plant species into contained chambers, where he then drives the temperature up and cuts precipitation — mirroring what scientists expect the Southwest’s climate to be in the middle of the 21st century. As predicted, the trees succumb to these extreme conditions, but McDowell is hoping that by understanding how stressors like water loss, carbon starvation and other factors interact to overwhelm plants and trees, scientists can better predict how they will react on a wider scale to climate change.

With all of this different research and focus on impending hardships ahead for southwestern forests, let’s hope that the Southwest’s land managers are able to use this data and foreknowledge to find ways to help and protect these vulnerable forests.


When Policy Goes Public

by Amanda Tai

The Chugach National Forest is an early adopter site. Credit:Alaskan Dude/Flickr

Updating the U.S. Forest Service Planning Rule in April marked a major milestone in this country’s long history of forest management. Up to that point, the agency was operating under a rule that was created 30 years ago. The planning rule provides the agency with an overarching framework for how to create land-management plans for individual national forests so it’s important that the rule be up to date and adaptable to modern forest conditions. After 30 years, I say it was about time for a makeover! Along with hundreds of thousands of other groups and individuals, American Forests submitted its comments on the proposed rule, helping the agency pull together a comprehensive and updated final rule.

In an effort to continue the strong emphasis on public engagement, the U.S. Forest Service established a Planning Rule FACA (Federal Advisory Committee Act) Committee comprising a diverse group of individuals. Members of the committee represent various interest groups like nonprofits, Native American tribes, forest landowners and energy-sector representatives. They hail from all geographic regions of the country. What better way to make forest management decisions that will affect all national forests than with a diverse panel of experts! The Federal Advisory Committee met for the first time last month, and the group seemed optimistic about implementing the new rule. During its first meeting, the committee established working groups and discussed plans for upcoming meetings. U.S Forest Service Chief Tidwell noted the “collaborative spirit” of the group and believes the diversity and collective knowledge will lead to good decision making for forest management.

The Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest is an early adopter site. Credit: Forest Service - Northern Region/Flickr

But public involvement doesn’t just end there. The U.S. Forest Service plans to look to the public in several ways as the new rule is implemented, including more public-comment opportunities on future decisions and the “early adopter” forest efforts. Eight national forests were selected as early adopters to begin the implementation of the new rule. These eight forests are the first to revise their management plans using the new planning rule and were selected because their management plans were in dire need of revision. Through collaborative efforts with their local communities, these early adopter forests will lead the way for other forests looking to redevelop their management plans.


A Golden Day for New Mexico

by Susan Laszewski

Last Thursday was a good day for New Mexico.

On that day, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar dedicated the 559th and 560th units of the National Wildlife Refuge System, both in New Mexico.

Fall in the bosque.

Fall in the bosque. Credit: Frank Carey/Flickr

Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, meaning Valley of Gold, will indeed bring riches to New Mexico. These 390 acres are one of only a handful of urban national wildlife refuges in the country and the first in the Southwest. The refuge’s location just five miles from downtown Albuquerque puts it within a half hour’s drive of half of New Mexico’s population. From this prime location, Valle de Oro will provide opportunities for outdoor play and education for children and recreation for all ages. Considering that a full 38 percent of Americans were involved in wildlife-related recreation last year — and that they spent $145 billion dollars on it — it’s also expected the new refuge will be a boon for tourism in the area.

It goes without saying that humans aren’t the only ones who will benefit from the wildlife refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will work to restore the native bosque forest — an ecosystem rarely seen outside the dry Southwest. In this riparian ecosystem, cottonwoods, often called the “heart of the bosque” — a play on their heart-shaped leaves — provide critical habitat for more than 500 species, from desert cottontails and beavers to porcupines and coyotes. The bosque also serves as an important stopover for migrating birds such as snow geese and sandhill cranes. For more on New Mexico’s unique bosque ecosystem, check out the American Forests feature on Albuquerque’s forest.

Willow flycatcher.

Willow flycatcher. Credit: Bill Bouton/Flickr

Down the road, other woodland species, including threatened and endangered species like the southwestern willow flycatcher and the Mexican spotted owl, will benefit from the establishment of the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area, more than 42,000 acres of land dedicated the same afternoon as Valle de Oro. Coupled with the recently established Sangre de Christo Conservation Area in Colorado, Rio Mora will create a wildlife corridor around five miles of the Mora River, ensuring protection for the Rio Mora watershed.

From natural riches to educational riches and economic riches, these wildlife refuges have the potential to bring great fortune to New Mexico. It’s a golden opportunity.


Yosemite’s Spokesman

by Julia Sullivan

Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite National Park. Credit: Randy Le'Moine Photography/Flickr

One hundred and twenty-two years ago today, one of America’s most celebrated national parks came into being – Yosemite. Located in the central eastern portion of California and covering an area roughly the size of Rhode Island, this park boasts dramatic valleys, a protected grove of ancient sequoia trees, waterfalls coursing into Yosemite Valley, and hundreds upon hundreds of wildlife species. No wonder it draws in more than 4 million visitors every year!

Yosemite National Park’s landscapes and features have inspired awe and wonder in its beholders for centuries, but one man in particular was especially moved by its scenery. John Muir, revered by many as “the father of conservation,” played a critical role in the establishment of Yosemite National Park on October 1, 1890.

Muir first set foot in Yosemite in 1868 and – in a sense – never left. He settled nearby, working first as a shepherd and later at a sawmill, and wrote various articles for publication in newspapers across the country. Deeply attached to the area and with a burgeoning interest in preservation, he became a prolific writer and somewhat of a Yosemite spokesman.

In the 1880s, Muir focused his attention on areas surrounding the state-administered Yosemite Grant, which had been set aside in 1864, and threw himself into the preservationist role with great vigor. He was alarmed by livestock animals’ degradation of the delicate ecosystems of the High Sierras and sought to convey this threat to Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century Magazine. In 1889, he took Johnson to the park and impressed upon him the need to incorporate the area into a national park. After Johnson’s publication of Muir’s exposés, a bill emerged in Congress. It proposed creating a federally administered park surrounding the old Yosemite Grant, and it passed. The following year, Yosemite National Park was born.

He did not rest at this achievement, however. In 1903, Muir led President Theodore Roosevelt on a tour of Yosemite and lobbied for additional protections. Three years later, state authorities ceded the land under the Yosemite Grant to the federal government, thus completing the park.

Muir only truly lived in Yosemite for a few years, but his experience there left him forever changed. After discovering his calling in the California wilderness, he embarked on what would become a lifelong fight for preservation.


Celebrating Public Lands

by Alex Cimon
A group of young volunteers came to clean up Russell Lake in Savannah, Georgia during NPLD 2011

A group of young volunteers came to clean up Russell Lake in Savannah, Georgia during NPLD 2011. Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District

Tomorrow, thousands of volunteers will recognize our diverse natural environments — and what they have done for us — through the 2012 National Public Lands Day (NPLD). This National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) program has taken off since 1994, when the first NPLD was held. That year, the program was supported by 700 volunteers at three sites. In 2011, more than 170,000 volunteers worked on 2,067 different sites in every state. And this year, both those numbers are expected to grow.

Each location offers a different opportunity for volunteers. The projects range from removing invasive vines and trees in Washington, D.C., parks to identifying and recording the diverse species of migratory birds and wildlife around Caesar Creek Lake in Ohio. Governors, mayors, and for the past three years the President of the United States, issue proclamations, through National Public Lands Day, urging their citizens to participate.

Besides the contributions of local sites, national parks also play a major role in NPLD. In addition to their individual volunteer efforts, such as maintaining a carriage road and trail for Maine’s Acadia National Park, many of these locations will also be waiving their daily fees for visitors. This gives the National Park Service an opportunity to educate the American public by making them aware of how important public lands are and what they can do to protect them. Education, along with building networks and supporting outdoor recreation, is one of the main goals of NEEF and why this day exists.

These goals have been accomplished with the help from partners, like long-time corporate sponsor, Toyota, and a diverse group of friends, such as the Boy Scouts, Audubon Society and even the North American Inter-Fraternity Council.

NPLD also pays homage to volunteers of the past. Each year, NPLD honors of the Civilian Conservation Corp’s “tree army,” which ran from 1933-1942. As one of the public relief programs under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the army was an effort to maintain the natural environment of America.

See what your community is doing for NPLD and what you can do to help at http://www.publiclandsday.org/.


Ascending Denali

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Here on Loose Leaf, we often focus our discussions on places where forests, trees, plants, animals, insects, etc. thrive — or should be thriving — but a special story caught my eye this week. One that takes us way up north to Alaska to altitudes not often experienced by men and women and where plants dare not roam.

Members of another Wounded Warrior mountain-climbing trek: the 2011 Combat Wounded Warriors Denali expedition

Members of another Wounded Warrior mountain-climbing trek: the 2011 Combat Wounded Warriors Denali expedition. Credit: 176th Wing, Alaska Air National Guard

Within Denali National Park & Preserve sits Denali, a mountain commonly known as Mt. McKinley. Denali, meaning “The High One,” is the tallest mountain peak in North America at 20,320 feet and a peak that experiences some of the severest weather in the world. During the 2011 climbing season, the average high temperature at 14,200 feet was less than 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Attempting to ascend to Denali’s summit is not for the frail or faint of heart. In the 2012 climbing season, of the 1,223 registered climbers who made the attempt, only 41 percent succeeded.

Those 1,223 individuals included five American veterans. But these weren’t just any former military members — these veterans that tackled Denali are Wounded Warriors: two double-leg amputees, two above-the-knee amputees and a wounded warrior with severe muscle damage in his legs. For those unfamiliar with Wounded Warriors, these are extraordinary individuals who have suffered severe injuries while serving in America’s military. In 11 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq almost 50,000 people have been injured, and it’s estimated that more than 1,600 limbs have been lost.

In taking on Denali, the five Wounded Warriors would face some nasty weather and icy terrain — and do so with prosthetics that no one could be sure would hold up under the pressure of such an extreme environment. How did these men fair on Denali’s wicked mountainside? Watch the video below to find out or read about their exploits in this Fairbanks News-Miner piece.


Last-Minute Action in Congress

by Amanda Tai

Credit: ttarasiuk/Flickr

November elections are only a few months away and members of Congress have already left Capitol Hill to hit the campaign trail in their home states. Early Saturday morning, the Senate passed a continuing resolution (CR) with a 62-30 vote, after the House passed the measure last week, which will keep the government up and running through March 27. Lawmakers will have sufficient time after the election to focus on passing a longer-term budget measure. The CR gives agencies a 0.6 percent across-the-board funding increase, which equates to $8 billion more than fiscal year 2012.

Some areas actually received additional increases, like wildfire suppression programs. An additional $800 million was directed toward wildfire suppression for the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service, which were not sufficiently funded in fiscal year 2012. As part of the Fire Suppression Funding Solutions Partner Caucus that submitted a letter to Congress requesting supplemental wildfire funding, American Forests is pleased to see this additional funding.

Credit: filar_williams/Flickr

This effort also allowed lawmakers to make pushes for their own campaigning capital. For example, Senator Jon Tester’s (D-MT) Sportsmen bill to boost hunting and angling opportunities on public lands passed a procedural vote in the Senate, making it a top priority when Congress returns. The bill also adds a conservation element for wetlands. A Senate subcommittee also announced a draft environmental spending measure. The bill funds the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of the Interior, and the EPA at $29.7 billion for fiscal year 2013; a 1.7 percent increase over current spending levels.

Senate Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee leadership hope the draft serves as a guideline for Congress, when it returns from recess, for finalizing a fiscal year 2013 appropriations bill. The EPA would see significant boosts under the bill. The Clean Water State Revolving Fund in particular, which helps improve drinking and wastewater systems, would receive a $291 million increase over the president’s requested levels.

The measure also supports important programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which would receive a 17 percent increase over current levels. Overall funding levels in the Interior Department — which oversees the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management — would remain around the same level. American Forests supports Congressional efforts that work to fund important federal programs for clean water, recreation, wildlife habitat restoration, and conservation work.


The Future of Fire

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

Dumping water onto the flames

Dumping water onto wildfire flames in Larimer County, CO. Credit: The National Guard

As summer winds down and we head into fall, there is still no relief in the West from the wildfires that rage in Washington, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon and Idaho. While the national news focuses on a presidential election only seven weeks away, the daily realities of ongoing wildfires fade from the 24-hour news cycle. But for those who live in the areas that are still burning — and for those who fight the fires themselves — wildfire season is far from over.

Two articles this past week bring some bad news, coupled with what could be considered a silver lining. First, the bad news. A nonprofit research organization, Climate Central, has released a report that discusses the increase in size and number of yearly wildfires, as well as the expected prevalence of these larger, longer and more sizable wildfires. The burn season itself is two and a half months longer than it was 40 years ago, while fires burn twice as much land area. Even just looking at the last decade, on Forest Service land alone, the average annual area burned exceeds two million acres.

The report says rising temperatures and increased drought are contributing to more and bigger wildfires. This change in climate, the report says, leads to the larger wildfire years that the West continues to experience. Unfortunately for all involved, if this proves true, a wildfire season like the current one could become the new normal. The report does not simply discuss climate change as a straight-line correlation between rising temperatures and more 100 degree days. Instead, the effect of warming, according to the authors, varies depending on elevation, latitude, the carbon feedback cycle and numerous other factors. Those who study wildfires have noted earlier and earlier snowmelt in the Rockies, ongoing and persistent drought and higher temperatures as just some of the factors that contribute to larger wildfires.

But even amongst these admittedly discouraging trends, there may be a small silver lining: wildfires bring money into the local community, at least in the short term. The University of Oregon’s Institute for a Sustainable Economy did a study on the economic impacts in communities affected by wildfires. The key findings included two main points: 1) employment and wages in affected communities increase during the time period of the wildfire and 2) many of these local communities — already subject to cyclical employment due to the nature of their economies — in the year following a wildfire can suffer from amplified volatility in employment, particularly in terms of tourism and natural resources.

The study demonstrates that while in the longer term, communities are more vulnerable to swings in seasonal employment post-fire, the short term may provide a critical economic boost to areas most directly impacted by the wildfire. Money spent by the Forest Service in suppressing fires plays a key role in the economics of the surrounding community, providing some of the increase in employment and wages. The longer-term impact of the Forest Service money, however, may benefit others outside of the local communities more. This is due, in part, to the need for both specialized equipment and specifically trained individuals that must be brought in from non-local areas, requiring the Forest Service to spend its funds outside the fire-affected communities.

None of this is to say that the short term gains can ever make up for what can be a devastating long term result, both environmentally and economically. But, as scientists continue to study the future of wildfire, gaining a better understanding of the economic impacts of wildfire may also assist in the continued evolution of how the U.S. copes with it.


Where the Giants Are

by Susan Laszewski

Giant sequoias

Giant sequoias. David J Laporte/Flickr

They are the largest living non-communal organisms on the planet. Some were alive when Confucius was born; some even when Ancient Rome was founded. They have stood rooted in place and thrived while fire raged around them. The giant sequoia is one of Earth’s most astounding treasures. And though they once covered North America, towering above even the tallest dinosaurs, today the western Sierra Nevadas are their only home.

Efforts to protect and preserve these keepers of history have been long and complex, but historically, September has been an auspicious month for giant sequoia trees.

On September 25, 1890, the first part of a battle for giant sequoia conservation that had already been waged for over a decade came to an end when a bill was signed ensuring protection for certain areas of the forest. Yet the struggle was far from over. The lands that became a national park that day were but a small part of the area that early conservationists hoped one day to protect, and a tiny percentage of the giant sequoia’s habitat. Some of the remaining lands, including those surrounding the famous Grant Grove, which had previously been cut off from other protected areas, were added to the park exactly one week later when a second mysterious bill — one whose author has never been identified — came to Congress in the last week of September and was signed into law on October 1. Kings Canyon did not gain national park status until 1940, forming the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks that visitors enjoy today.

Giant sequoias

Giant sequoias. bumeister1/Flickr

Still, between Sequoia & Kings Canyon and Yellowstone National Park, only about half of the giant sequoias were protected. Luckily, the national parks are not the only place where giant sequoias are protected today. In April 2000, President Bill Clinton created Giant Sequoia National Monument on lands within Sequoia National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service was tasked with drafting a management plan for the newly established national monument, but when the plan was completed two years later, several environmental groups, along with the California attorney general, found it lacking and challenged it in court. Judge Charles R. Breyer of the United States District Court for Northern California sided with them and the Forest Service was asked to begin again.

They went at it with renewed vigor. This time, the process took six years and a lot of input from the public. Finally, this year, another September victory was won for giant sequoias. The new management plan became official on September 4th, allowing more than 300,000 acres of forest to join those in the national parks as protected lands that will never be used as timber.

It’s difficult to pin down one day of the year to celebrate our giant sequoias and the advances that have been made over the years in protecting them for future generations. Some would say tomorrow, September 25, is the anniversary of the park; others would say it’s October 1. Some might say we were not truly able to celebrate until a few weeks ago when the management plan for Giant Sequoia National Monument was complete. Perhaps it’s better not to choose a day. It serves as a reminder that we should celebrate these herculean trees every day as well as a reminder that our work protecting forests is still not done.