National Parks in a World of Change

by American Forests

By Lizzie Wasilewska

Alpine flowers on the slopes of Mount Rainier.

Alpine flowers on the slopes of Mount Rainier. Credit: Alan Vernon

On its website, the National Park Service writes that “our national parks are a testament to the reality of climate change.” The National Parks Conservation Association reinforces that message: according to their website, “the gradual, accelerated warming of our planet will have disastrous consequences for America’s national parks.” One national park that demonstrates the transformative and potentially devastating effects of climate change is Mount Rainier.

Mount Rainier National Park in Washington was established in 1899, making it the fifth-oldest national park. The mountain itself contains an active volcano and currently has the most glaciated peak in the contiguous U.S. In addition to its glaciers, the region includes vast fields of wildflowers, 1,000-year-old trees and a variety of wildlife. The mountain’s lower slopes are filled with ancient forests, which comprise the Mount Rainier Forest Reserve.

As Mount Rainier’s glaciers retreat, these ancient forests are gaining ground in some areas: At lower elevations, trees are invading regions that were traditionally occupied by meadows. In other regions, the forests have become more fragile. Rain in the region falls earlier in the year than it did throughout the 20th century and this premature rain has caused several forest-damaging floods. The region has also become more vulnerable to avulsions — sudden changes in course of rivers or creeks. This has caused erosion and structural damage.

The floods and erosion in Mount Rainier National Park are exacerbated by the lack of supportive vegetation in key areas. Sometimes, humans can help to resolve this issue. American Forests has worked to plant trees throughout the world; for example, we are currently reforesting parts of the Michoacán preserve in Mexico, in order to build up its resilience and improve its biodiversity. Erosion caused by avulsions, one of many potential consequences of climate change, can and does undermine ecosystems like Mount Rainier, but we can help prevent it.

Congress Increases Funding to Fight Wildfires in Legislation to Reopen the Federal Government

by Alison Share, Environmental Public Policy Associate, Crowell & Moring LLP
The Rim Fire at Yosemite National Park

The Rim Fire at Yosemite National Park, as viewed from Highway 108. Credit: Bodey Marcoccia

Last week, at both the figurative and literal eleventh hour, Congress passed H.R. 2775 – the Continuing Appropriations Act, 2014. In addition to reopening the federal government and temporarily suspending the debt ceiling, the bill also provides additional funding to several federal agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, to assist with their ongoing operations.

We discussed the U.S. Forest Service’s severe shortfall in its emergency firefighting funding back in August, as the Yosemite National Park fire raged. At the time, the U.S. Forest Service was down to $50 million in its budget line item for wildfire suppression for the year. When sequestration kicked in earlier this year, $115 million was removed from the budget for fighting wildfire. But over $1 billion had been spent by August to fight fires all over the west, including Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and California. The Yosemite fire alone cost $89 million to get under control, with tens of millions more required to repair the resulting environmental damage. The U.S. Forest Service was forced to undertake “fire borrowing” to try and cover the shortfall for this year, meaning the agency had to shift its finite resources from other programs such as capital improvement and rangeland research to fight ongoing wildfires. Last week’s legislation, however, gave the agency a little bit of breathing room in next year’s budget. Six hundred million of breathing room.

Rim Fire at Oak Flat Information Center in Yosemite.

Rim Fire at Oak Flat Information Center in Yosemite. Credit: Steve Rhodes

The Continuing Appropriations Act, 2014 provides that the U.S. Forest Service will have access to an additional $600 million to fight wildfire next year on top of the over $2 billion already requested for fiscal year 2014. The U.S. Forest Service also has flexibility to allocate the additional funding to programs that were bled under this year’s “fire borrowing.” American Forests, along with a broad coalition of over 90 conservation, timber, recreation, sportsmen and employer groups pushed Congress to take this step for the fiscal year 2014 budget in response to the drastic shortfall that occurred this summer due to the size and strength of this year’s fires. Well, Congress acted.

Along with the additional funds for the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of the Interior also found itself the recipient of an additional $36 million. These funds do come with a string attached, however, requiring that $15 million of the funding be used exclusively to restore and rehabilitate already burned areas. Like the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of the Interior can shift these funds to replenish programs that were raided to cover the additional amounts needed for this past wildfire season.

The additional funds in H.R. 2775 will hopefully ensure that next year the cost of fighting fires will not spread to other critical programs within the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior. With its 30 percent funding increase, next summer, the U.S. Forest Service can focus on fighting the inevitable wildfires instead of worrying about how to equip and pay those who put their lives on the line to do so.

Tiny Beetles, Huge Consequences

by Susan Laszewski
Whitebark pine cone.

Whitebark pine cone. Credit: Bryant Olsen

A group of researchers from 12 universities has recently published a paper that takes a look at the influence animals have on carbon storage and exchange — an influence they say is often overlooked despite the prevalence of discussion on how plants impact carbon storage. Among the examples discussed in “Animating the Carbon Cycle,” published in Ecosystems, is an issue that American Forests has been working to combat.

We’ve written before (here and here, for example) about the effect that mountain pine beetles have had on carbon storage — and, consequently, on climate change — in the western United States. As winters become warmer, these beetles are able to thrive later into the year and at higher elevations. Populations have exploded and that’s been bad news for pine trees, including the whitebark pine, an important foundation species upon which many other species in the ecosystem depend. As the trees die, their carbon storage potential is also lost and carbon released into the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse effects, in a continuing feedback loop.

Mountain pine beetle.

Mountain pine beetle. Credit: WBUR

The new paper touches upon the effect the beetles have had on the carbon cycle, and puts it in some new perspective: The authors say that the loss of trees triggered by the beetle outbreak in the West has “decreased net carbon balance on a scale comparable to British Columbia’s current fossil fuel emissions.”

“We’re not saying that managing animals will offset these carbon emissions,” lead author Oswald Schmitz says in a Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies press release. “What we’re trying to say is the numbers are of a scale where it is worthwhile to start thinking about how animals could be managed to accomplish that.”

At American Forests, we’re doing what we can to keep the beetle epidemic from completely decimating whitebark pine. That includes the patches we’re putting on healthy trees to mimic the beetles’ own natural signal to other beetles that a tree is full. By saving as many healthy whitebark pines as we can — with your help — we are working to restore this important ecosystem.

Keeping Water Clean

by American Forests

By Lizzie Wasilewska

Bald River Falls, Cherohala Skyway, Tennessee

Bald River Falls, Cherohala Skyway, Tennessee. Credit: Maciej Ciupa

Today is the anniversary of the Clean Water Act (CWA), an act that set a new tone for environmentalism when it was proposed in the 1950s. At first, it was controversial: It cost $24 billion, and Nixon, who was president at the time, vetoed it. However, due to overwhelming support from the public, Senate and House, the act passed. Since then, it has significantly contributed to the health of groundwater and ecosystems in general.

The CWA includes a guideline for regulating the effects of pollutants in bodies of water in the U.S. Among other things, it made it illegal to discharge pollutants from “point sources” — which include pipes and ditches — into navigable waters, in order to increase the safety of human populations. The act also required states to set clean water standards for uses including swimming, fishing and drinking. The effects of these and other requirements were dramatic: Billions of pounds of pollution have been kept out of American rivers and the number of bodies of water that meet clean water standards has doubled since the act was passed.

Brazos River Sunrise in Texas

Brazos River Sunrise in Texas. MelRick/Flickr

The CWA positively affects entire ecosystems, beginning with the bodies of water it protects and continuing to the animals and plants that rely on the water. Healthy forests cannot exist without healthy water, and healthy water cannot exist without healthy forests: The CWA established a basis with which forest ecosystems can become more self-sufficient, as clean water nourishes trees and the nourished trees purify water.

American Forests has worked to solidify the standards of water health that the CWA established. For example, as part of the Jemez Mountain Riparian Forest Re-Vegetation project, we helped forests battle the effects of a drought that destabilized waterways and caused water to accumulate pollutants. We reforested areas along rivers and streams in order to improve water quality, which will in turn lead to a healthier ecosystem overall.

Forest Emergence Feeds Climate Concerns

by American Forests

By Marcelene Sutter

Hidden for centuries underneath a 5-foot-high layer of gravel and the 37-square-mile glacier that sits on top of it, a preserved forest is beginning to see the light of day again in Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier region.

Hidden for centuries underneath a 5-foot-high layer of gravel and the 37-square-mile glacier that sits on top of it, a preserved forest is beginning to see the light of day again in Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier region. Credit: pdx2535/Flickr

The melting of the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska is allowing a 1,000-year-old forest to see the light of day again — and raising concerns for residents. For the last 50 years, hints of the ancient forest have poked through the receding ice, however, scientists from the University of Alaska Southeast have noted more and more visible stumps in recent months. The gravel layer found covering these trees was vital to the forest’s preservation because of the protection it afforded the stumps from the surrounding layers of ice.

Mendenhall Glacier.

Mendenhall Glacier. Credit: Andrei Taranchenko

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the reemergence of this forest is that upright trees were found at the site. Dr. Cathy Connor, a professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, told LiveScience’s OurAmazingPlanet that the discovery of these trees “in a growth position is exciting because we can see the outermost part of the tree and count back to see how old the tree was.” Dr. Connor adds that finding these upright trees is rare; most are dislodged from their roots, making the type and age of the tree harder to definitively discern. Analysis of contemporary vegetation in the region, together with data on the size and shape of the tree trunks, suggests that the recently uncovered trees are either spruce or hemlock.

Despite the excitement that this discovery creates, the rapidly receding glacier cover that made it possible raises serious concerns, especially among local residents who worry about dwindling sources of fresh drinking water and the negative impacts of rising sea levels. At American Forests, we recognize the varied challenges presented by climate change, and work to combat them by ensuring the protection of our forests. Protecting and restoring forests to increase carbon storage potential will help mitigate the effects of global climate change.

Help us protect and restore forests.

Here, But Functionally Gone

by Susan Laszewski
Sea otters play at Moss Landing Harbor, California.

Sea otters play at Moss Landing Harbor, California. Credit: Chuq Von Rospach

Extinction. The end of a species; no coming back. Many conservation efforts strive to save species from this fate, and a species’ risk of extinction can also be a major factor in determining its listing as endangered.

A recent study published in Nature suggests, though, that we may want to pay a bit more attention to something called “functional extinction” — the point at which a species has too few members to continue filling its ecological role, even though it may still have a way to go until traditional “numerical extinction.”

Researchers at Linköping University in Sweden ran a number of analytical models to determine how often and in what circumstances functional extinctions occur. They found that larger animals are more likely to become functionally extinct, often driving smaller animals in a food web to numerical distinction. What’s more, this functional extinction can occur following a population decline of as little as 30 percent, meaning that a species only has to lose a third of its members before other plants and animals in the same food web may start to disappear.


A decline in cougars in Zion National Park in the first part of the 20th century led to an increase in the mule deer population and subsequent threat to cottonwoods and other vegetation. Credit: Wayne Dumbleton.

The study is theoretical, relying on models rather than data and observation of any particular species. However, the authors note that this phenomenon has already been observed by other researchers in cases such as that of the sea otter. The health of the sea otter population correlates to the health of kelp forests, as sea otters keep the populations of sea urchins and others that feed on kelp in check. Since kelp forests can be an important carbon sink, declines in sea otter population can have wide ranging effects, indeed.

The study’s authors suggest that their results “lend strong support to arguments advocating a more community-oriented approach in conservation biology.” At American Forests, we strive to protect and restore ecosystems for the benefit of all of their inhabitants and maintain awareness of the state of keystone species upon whom the rest of an ecosystem depends. The whitebark pine in high elevations of the Greater Yellowstone Area, for example, is threatened by explosive populations of mountain pine beetle and other threats. Consequently, its ability to fulfill its ecological role is also compromised. As fewer whitebark pine seeds are produced, animals like grizzly bears and Clark’s nutcracker are feeling the loss. You can help us protect and restore ecosystems like these, for all of their inhabitants.

A Colorful Fall Birthday for Guadalupe Mountains National Park

by American Forests

By Lizzie Wasilewska

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which lies on the Texas-New Mexico border, may not be a very well-known park, but it is nonetheless a fascinating and beautiful one. From a distance, it appears as a series of majestic mountains breaking up the desert landscape; close up, it reveals a range of smaller wildernesses, ranging from salt flats to glades to forests, all of which are populated with an abundance of wildlife.

McKittrick Canyon

McKittrick Canyon. Credit: Caleb Unseth

The park’s birthday — which is today — occurs during one of its most beautiful times of the year. Every fall, thousands of visitors visit the park’s McKittrick Canyon to view the turning bigtooth maples, dramatically framed by the surrounding desert and blue skies. The canyon’s spring-fed oasis creates an inviting habitat not only for the maples but for a variety of wildlife including mountain lions, wild turkeys, black bears and elk. The bigtooth maples are one of many species of trees that thrive in the park despite its harsh desert conditions. To the west, species including pinyon pine and junipers grow in lower elevations; canyon interiors are home to species including maple, ash and oak; pine and aspen grow in the alpine uplands. A variety of factors, including the springs of water that are recharged by wet uplands, contribute to the park’s diversity of plants and animals.

El Capitan

El Capitan, Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Credit: Lorraine Paulhus

In 1959, the petroleum geologist Wallace E. Pratt decided that this region deserved wider recognition and protection. He donated 4,988 acres of his ranch in McKittrick Canyon to the National Park Service, and other landowners followed suit; eventually, writers, senators, governors, and congressmen gathered together in an effort to establish the region as a national park. They were not without opposition: Many ranchers relied on the land for income and were reluctant to move on. Nonetheless, on October 15, 1966, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the establishing act, and in 1972, the park was opened to the public. Some opposition from the area’s ranching community continues to this day; their land is now used as a buffer zone that protects the fragile ecosystem of this park.

American Forests recognizes the importance of the role that local communities play in protecting ecosystems, which is why we work with local partners on our tree planting and restoration efforts. The efforts of local communities help to ensure bright futures for ecosystems like Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Fighting Fire with Fire

by American Forests

By Marcelene Sutter

The Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest

The Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest in California, which killed patches of forests thousands of acres in size. Many trees destroyed in this fire were the types of big trees that this study has discovered are vital for wildfire management. Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

In a recent paper published in Science, leading fire scientists in the West propose a solution to address the sweeping and highly destructive wildfires that have ravaged the region in recent years: more fire. The authors, including top scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Washington, Colorado State University and the University of Arizona, stated that “fire policy that focuses on suppression only delays the inevitable, promising more dangerous and destructive future forest fires.” In the past, conventional wisdom in wildfire prevention tactics held that suppression of fire is the most effective tool in fighting fires, but this paper states that the effect that climate change has on forests should be reflected in new fire policy. The proposed changes to fire policy in this paper include the use of more controlled burns as a method of reducing fuel levels in forests.

A prescribed burn at Fort A.P. Hill, Va.

A prescribed burn at Fort A.P. Hill, which has one of the largest prescribed burn programs in Virginia. Prescribed burning is conducted to increase maneuverability, reduce fuel loads, improve wildlife habitat, and maintain fire-dependent vegetation communities. Credit: U.S. Army Environmental Command

Previous  fire suppression policies  have contributed to more destructive fires in the region. The regrowth and fuel buildup resulting from these campaigns, coupled with the timber harvesting that removed many larger and more fire-resistant trees, has changed the forested landscape in the West. As rising temperatures lead to a longer fire season, these forests are more vulnerable. A chief concern expressed by the authors of the paper is that severe fires will disturb large enough areas of the conifers that have adapted to frequent forest fires, causing the loss of the seed bank, thereby thwarting forest regeneration. This would lead to more permanent changes to forest makeup as these areas would become shrub fields as opposed to robust forests.

The prescribed burn method has been used at several national forests with remote wilderness areas across the country, but has been hindered in California, where air quality regulations and threat posed to neighboring communities has many concerned with this method. In this case, the authors concede that, with the careful preservation of bigger trees, mechanical thinning to weed out the smaller, denser tree growth in the region could have a similar effect as burning.

At American Forests, we recognize that large, intense, destructive wildfires pose a serious threat to forests, which is why we have several Global ReLeaf campaigns focused on the restoration of areas affected by such wildfires, including Alpine County, California, which was affected by the 2011 Airport Fire. To learn more about the Airport Fire Planting or any of our Global ReLeaf campaigns, visit the Global ReLeaf section of the American Forests website.

Walk to School and Walk for Health

by Susan Laszewski
Walking to school

Walking to school. Credit: pawpaw67/Flickr

Did you or your little ones miss International Walk to School Day yesterday? Not to worry. As the occasion has gained popularity in recent years, the International Walk to School Committee expanded it in 2010 to make the entire month of October Walk to School Month.

Of course, there are many reasons why it’s not feasible for everyone to let their child walk to school. But, if you do live in an area where your kids might be able to skip the school bus, just think about some of the many benefits they, the rest of your family and your community stand to gain: exercise, a sense of community, reduced air pollution and expense by saving the car trip to school. And, of course, a topic dear to our hearts here at American Forests — the many benefits to children of being outside in nature, including the nature that grows along the streets and sidewalks on the way to school. Research has shown that:

Walking to school.

Walking to school. Credit: Lynn Friedman

  1. Trees and other greenery help reduce symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, in children.
  2. Children who can easily reach a green space have lower stress levels and lower body mass.
  3. A positive dose-response relationship exists between exercise in nature and mental health, particularly for young people.
  4. Access to nature can improve creative problem-solving abilities.

But these benefits don’t have to stop once the walk to school is over. Having trees around at recess — or even just being able to see some nature from the classroom window — can have positive effects. That’s why our Community ReLeaf project in Atlanta has been looking at the city’s urban forest around schools to calculate the benefits they provide to students and schools. On October 24, we’ll begin the restoration phase of the project, planting trees near schools for healthier environments for youth and the larger community.

For more ideas about how to participate in International Walk to School Month, visit them on the web.

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.