After Katrina: Eight Years Later

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

A Texas Army National Guard Blackhawk deposits a 6,000 pound-plus bag of sand and gravel on-target, Sunday, September 4, 2005, as work progressed to close the breach in the 17th Street Canal in New Orleans post-Katrina.

A Texas Army National Guard Blackhawk deposits a 6,000 pound-plus bag of sand and gravel on-target, Sunday, September 4, 2005, as work progressed to close the breach in the 17th Street Canal in New Orleans post-Katrina. Credit: Alan Dooley/U.S. Army Corp of Engineers

Eight years ago today, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana. The level three category hurricane unleashed upward of 10 inches of rain on the Gulf Coast with winds at speeds greater than 140 mph.

By the time the storm dissipated a day later, more than 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded, while cities, communities and ecosystems across the Southeast began to deal with the fallout from the intense winds and massive storm surges. Katrina affected millions of acres of urban and rural forest and is the most costly storm in U.S. history, causing more than $100 billion worth in damages.

Compounding matters was the arrival of a second storm, Hurricane Rita, not even a month after Katrina battered the Gulf Coast. The Washington Post described the two as contributing to “the largest single forestry disaster on record in the nation.”

Less than a year after the terrible twosome, American Forests Global ReLeaf began to help rebuild both urban and rural Gulf Coast forests.

All told, we have planted more than 139,000 trees in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida to aid in hurricane recovery efforts since 2006. Of course, an ecosystem can often take decades — or even centuries — to return to its pre-natural disaster state. [Check out our American Forests magazine feature “Recovering From Disaster” for more on how ecosystems are affected by and regenerate after natural catastrophes.] Every year, though, we are committed to chipping away at the issue, helping diverse landscapes recover from a variety of ailments — natural disasters, invasive pests, disease, climate change — but we need your continued support and help. If you’re not already, please consider becoming an American Forests member today to help us continue our mission of protecting and restoring forests.

Visiting the Monarchs’ Home

by Matthew Boyer
Monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly. Credit: William Warby

This summer, I visited the central mountain region of Mexico, where millions of monarch butterfly migrate to each winter. American Forests and La Cruz Habitat Protection Project have partnered to reforest this area for almost a decade, and in that period of time, together, we have planted more than 850,000 trees to help preserve the monarch’s winter home. While my visit took place during the summer months, which meant the butterflies weren’t in residence, I was very excited to see this valuable ecosystem and the successes we have made firsthand as I toured the region.

During my trip, I visited two monarch butterfly sanctuaries and learned how the people of these small mountain villages prepare to celebrate the arrival of these beautiful insects through art, music and festivals. I became fascinated by how much pride these local people have for the forests and how many of them, though incredibly impoverished by U.S. standards, donate their time, talent and resources to protect and defend these lands for very little monetary gain, if any. The monarch’s forest is under constant threat from illegal logging and invasive insects, but the people in these mountain communities defend it fiercely — much as they do their private land. They realize how important this habitat is for the butterflies and the economics of their own villages.

Because American Forests is so proud of the reforestation we helped fund in this region, we are organizing a private member tour in the region in February 2014. This tour will be open to all American Forests members, but will be capped off at just 26 participants. I look forward to sharing this experience with our membership, and I am sure it will be a magnificent, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

Visit our Monarchs in Mexico event page for more details on the trip or to RSVP.

The Politics of Fighting Fire

by Alison Share, Environmental Public Policy Associate, Crowell & Moring LLP
The Rim Fire at night from 35,000 feet in the air

The Rim Fire at night from 35,000 feet in the air. Credit: Ty Carson

Last Wednesday, I traveled to San Francisco to attend a conference for work. My colleague, who traveled separately, showed me photos he had taken on his flight. The photos were of the fire currently burning in Yosemite National Park, bright and jagged slashes of orange and red against the night backdrop. All from 35,000 feet. He said, in a conflicted voice, that it was beautiful to see them from above.

The Yosemite fire has put San Francisco on alert for damage to the power grid and issues with the water supply, as the fire is currently four miles from the city’s main reservoir. Thousands of homes around the fire itself are in danger, and hundreds of people have been evacuated. Vermont has mud season; the West has fire season. This year, however, with the mandatory agency budget cuts implemented by sequestration, the danger of the fire season is exacerbated.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) total estimated budget from direct appropriations for fiscal year 2013 is approximately $140 billion. Of that, the U.S. Forest Service received $5.5 billion, of which it allocated $2.7 billion to Wildland Fire Management, which includes the preparedness, suppression and removal of hazardous fuels programs. In March of this year, however, the Forest Service was still unsure of the final amount that would be available to allocate to actually fighting wildfires. Sequestration removed $115 million from the fire suppression line-item and diminished the wildfire reserve fund by more than $100 million. These cuts led to the removal of around 500 firefighters and 50 engines.

The California Army National Guard’s 1-140th Aviation Battalion fighting the Rim Fire near Yosemite, Aug. 22, 2013.

The California Army National Guard’s 1-140th Aviation Battalion fighting the Rim Fire near Yosemite, Aug. 22, 2013. Credit: Master Sgt. Julie Avey/U.S. Air National Guard

The Forest Service has already spent approximately $1 billion this year on wildfire suppression, even though the number of fires and the acreage burned are under the 10-year average. The roughly 32,000 fires, however, have burned for much longer, and many of the 3.4 million acres affected have been close to the wildland-urban interface. As a result, more money and resources have been needed to battle these blazes. And now, with only a fraction of the Yosemite fire contained, the Forest Service announced that its allocated funds to fight wildfires have been nearly exhausted.

With only $50 million left in the wildfire suppression line-item, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell is having to halt spending on restoration programs, employee travel, hiring and overtime to draw off the necessary funds to continue fighting wildfires. The $600 million needed will prevent the Forest Service from taking proactive steps to prevent future fires and decrease restoration efforts in previously fire-devastated areas.

This intra-agency money shifting, known as “fire borrowing,” while not new, has increased with the cutting of overall agency budgets. Calls for the return of funding necessary to fight current fires and prevent future ones still require congressional action, but current budget negotiations appear to be leading towards a continuing resolution with sequester-level spending rather than including additional appropriated funds.

The policy aim of preventing fires and the mission to fight currently burning ones are running up against the wall of politics. The reality is that fires in the West continue to burn, and the Forest Service must find the funds to fight them from somewhere, leading to the detriment of future fire prevention.

Concern about the state of fire funding has led American Forests to join a broad coalition of conservation, timber, recreation, sportsmen and employer groups asking Congress to provide immediate funding to support firefighters, ensure adequate funding in the fiscal year 2014 budget for wildfire suppression and implement a solution to continuing fire suppression shortfalls. Read more about this issue and efforts in our Newsroom.

In the Nick of Time

by Susan Laszewski
Redwood National Park

Redwood National Park is home to many tall trees, though none as tall as Hyperion. Credit: Philippe Vieux-Jeanton

Two very special anniversaries were celebrated over the weekend, and, as fate would have it, they are tied together in a providential way.

It’s been seven years since the discovery of Hyperion, the coast redwood that knocked the Stratosphere Giant from its place as record holder for world’s tallest tree. But its 379.65-foot height is not the only thing that makes Hyperion remarkable. Not only does the tree grow on a steep hillside — not the usual soil-rich creek bottoms that redwoods prefer — but it also grows in the midst of an area that was heavily logged in the 1970s. In fact, a whopping 96 percent of the coast redwoods there had been logged, but somehow, Hyperion survived, hidden away all those years.

And how has this massive tree survived since then? It’s largely thanks to the National Park Service, which coincidentally also celebrated an anniversary over the weekend — its 97th. In 1978, Jimmy Carter signed an expansion of Redwood National Park into law, redrawing the park’s boundary to encompass the area that Hyperion calls home and bringing an end to logging in the area, perhaps just in time for Hyperion.

Hyperion was barely saved from the chainsaw, and today, it continues to be protected not only through the national park land it lives on, but also through the privacy it’s been afforded: The exact location of the tree has never been made public so that, left in peace, it may continue to live to great heights.

Endangered in Minnesota

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

A bald eagle, a species which was recently removed from Minnesota’s list of endangered, threatened and special concern species

A bald eagle, a species which was recently removed from Minnesota’s list of endangered, threatened and special concern species. Credit: Pen Waggener

Most are familiar with the story of the bald eagle: how the iconic American bird was almost extinct in the United States in the mid-1900s, but through habitat protection, the banning of DDT and other management activities, the species recovered and was removed from the Endangered Species Act list in 2007. Unfortunately, though, some species go in the opposite direction.

Earlier this week, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) updated its list of endangered, threatened and special concern species for the first time in 16 years, and sadly, more species were added to the list than removed. Only 29 species, including the aforementioned bald eagle were removed from the list, while 180 species were added. From fungi, lichen and moss to insects, mollusks, fish, birds and mammals, many categories of species were examined and designated as needing attention in Minnesota.

Why were so many species added to Minnesota’s list? State wildlife officials tell the Minneapolis Star Tribune that declining water quality, prairie loss and fragmented forests are to blame, as is a failure to examine species and landscapes as a whole: “We’ve got to learn how to manage at a larger scale,” says Richard Baker, endangered species coordinator for the DNR, which means looking beyond one species and examining ecosystems as a whole.

A Canada lynx kitten, a species of “special concern” recently added to Minnesota’s list of endangered, threatened and special concern species, gets measured by a wildlife biologist.

A Canada lynx kitten, a species of “special concern” recently added to Minnesota’s list of endangered, threatened and special concern species, gets measured by a wildlife biologist. Credit: James Weliver/USFWS

Actually, landscape-scale restoration and management is something for which American Forests is advocating on the national level. We currently have a letter in our Action Center encouraging the director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), the overseers of the national endangered and threatened species list, to develop a national habitat-protection plan. You can use our pre-written letter to urge the FWS to design and implement such a plan. As we say in the letter, “This plan must emphasize habitat connectivity, reduce stressors and engage the public. The FWS needs to identify land and water parcels strategically located to connect and buffer habitats. These sanctuaries cannot remain fragmented.”

But while we’re working on policy issues on a national level, we’re also helping on the local level. In 2013, we have two Global Releaf projects in Minnesota designed to improve wildlife habitat: One is reforesting an area of Chippewa National Forest that was impacted by a severe 2012 storm, while the other is restoring pine and spruce trees to an area of Superior National Forest affected by pest problems. By working together, we can hopefully reverse this alarming development in Minnesota.

Big Trees for Big Owls

by Susan Laszewski

Last week, we posted an interview with American Forests Science Advisory Board member Dr. Jerry Franklin about the importance of big, old trees. He told us how old trees fill an ecological niche that young trees just can’t provide: “Big, old trees have suffered the slings and arrows of climate, insects and diseases, and so they typically have a lot of features like cavities, which are really important from the standpoint of wildlife,” says Dr. Franklin.

Blakiston’s fish owl.

Blakiston’s fish owl. Credit: Hiyashi Haka/Flickr

This week, a new study illustrates his point. The largest owl in the world — the Blakiston’s fish owl of eastern Russia — relies on riparian old growth both for breeding and for feeding, says the study, which is a joint project of the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Minnesota. The owl has a six-foot wingspan, so only big, old trees have cavities large enough to accommodate its nests. The birds’ dietary habits also benefit from big, old trees. A favorite food of the owl is salmon. When big, old riparian trees die and fall into streams and rivers they create diversity in the water’s flow; as the stream makes its way around, over and under these obstacles, areas of different current speed and depth are created, which are necessary for salmon in different stages of life.

The researchers, whose study will be published in October in the journal Oryx, say the health of the population of Blakiston’s fish owl, currently listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is a strong indicator of the health of the forest. The 7,804 square miles of forest that were studied are also home to a number of species of salmon and trout, other owl species and the Siberian tiger, among other wildlife.

Of course, big, old trees on their own are do not make for a healthy forest. “You really need all stages of successional development of forests in our federal forest landscapes. … We need to be thinking about the early stages of succession, as well as the old stages,” says Dr. Franklin, which relates to another new study published this week.

A study in Nature Climate Change has found that Europe’s forests are reaching a carbon sink saturation point sooner than expected — as soon as 2030 — due in part to a lack of age diversity. According to the study, replanting projects were common in Europe following World War II, and now, those aging trees’ rate of carbon absorption is slowing, while younger trees poised to absorb more carbon are being harvested. The research team recommends including some old-growth forests in harvesting programs in these areas.

Examples are all over the globe: From providing wildlife habitat to sequestering carbon, age diversity is a key to healthy forests.

A Lifetime of Conservation, A Lasting Legacy

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Margret “Mardy” Murie

Margret “Mardy” Murie. Credit: USFWS

In 1924, right after becoming the first female graduate of the University of Alaska, an intrepid young woman and her new husband embarked on an unusual honeymoon: a 500-mile caribou research trip — by dogsled — through the Alaskan wilderness. This was only one of many nature adventures that Margret “Mardy” Murie would undertake in her lifetime. Her passion and commitment to the environment earned her the nickname “Grandmother of the Conservation Movement.” Sunday would have been her 112th birthday, while this October marks the 10th anniversary of her death. Mardy Murie’s contributions to conservation, though, will hopefully span many lifetimes to come.

Alongside her husband, Olaus, Mardy Murie was instrumental in getting a number of major conservation laws passed, including:

  • The designation of eight million Alaskan acres as Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1960.
  • The creation of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which defined “wilderness” in a legal sense and set aside 9.1 million acres for protection.
  • The passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980, which protected 104 million acres in Alaska — doubling the size of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — and doubled the size of America’s national park and refuge system.
Bear Mountain on the Sitka Ranger District of Tongass National Forest

Bear Mountain on the Sitka Ranger District of Tongass National Forest. Credit: Mary Stensvold/USFS Region 10

For her years of conservation efforts, in 1998, President Clinton awarded Murie the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Murie died in October 2003 at age 101, one year after receiving the National Wildlife Federation’s highest honor, The J.N. “Ding” Darling Conservationist of the Year Award. Her legacy, of course, lives on, and some of that legacy is still steeped in legal and conservation battles.

As mentioned, one of Murie’s major accomplishments was helping get ANILCA passed, which protected millions of acres of Alaskan wilderness. It initially took three years and dozens of drafts to get the act in pass-able shape, and even after its passage, ANILCA has found itself mired in 30 years of battles over various aspects of the bill. One of the key battles that is still being waged in Congress today surrounds land ownership.

A polar bear and her young along the Beaufort Sea coast in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

A polar bear and her young along the Beaufort Sea coast in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Susanne Miller/USFWS

When Alaska became a state in 1959, part of the deal was that the state could sell 104 million acres of land as a revenue base, but while selecting this land, the state began to encroach upon lands valued by the Alaskan Native communities. This led to the creation of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971, which gave the Native communities the right to select 44 million acres of federal land in Alaska for themselves with a catch: Approximately 80 million acres were excluded from potential selection because of their potential to be designated as federally protected lands (i.e. national parks, wildlife refuges, etc.). Nine years later, with ANILCA, the federal government tried to address many of the swirling questions around those 80 million acres, including how these lands could be accessed, what activities were allowed on them and more. With its passage, the issue of federal versus native versus other land in Alaska was partly settled, with the other part still up for debate today.

For years, various versions of the Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act (S. 340) — better known as the Sealaska lands bill — have been proposed to Congress with an aim to finalize an exchange of lands still owed under ANCSA, some of which were originally excluded for inclusion. The most recent version of the bill passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in June, meaning that the bill could be called to a floor vote if Congress is so inclined. Many groups, including American Forests, have watched this bill closely over the years, and it will be interesting to see what happens with it next.

Showing Support for Clean Water

by Susan Laszewski
Stormwater flows onto a street

Stormwater flows onto a street. Credit: Chesapeake Bay Program

From basement backups to beach closures, polluted runoff can have big costs for communities.

In 2011, polluted runoff caused 47 percent of beach closing and advisory days. A study of 28 popular, yet polluted, beaches in Southern California calculated that swimmers suffered an estimated 1.5 million gastrointestinal illnesses, resulting in an economic loss of between $21 million and $51 million every year.

When it rains in cities or suburban areas with lots of roads and rooftops, rainwater is unable to soak into the ground. Instead, it begins to rapidly accumulate and flows quickly along the surface, where it picks up sediment, pesticides, oil or heavy metals. The polluted urban runoff flows into storm drains, where the untreated water is discharged into local rivers and lakes. In cities with combined sewer systems, runoff can cause sewage overflows — sending untreated sewage into local waters.

Green roofs like this one are an important type of green infrastructure and part of the urban forest.

Green roofs like this one are an important type of green infrastructure and part of the urban forest. Credit: Arlington County

At American Forests, we’ve been working to increase awareness of the benefits urban forests bring to a city, including the role they play in reducing such runoff. Urban forests intercept rainfall, allowing the water to be absorbed into the tree, roots and soil. This saves cities money, as it decreases the need for artificial stormwater controls, or gray infrastructure. A single front-yard tree can intercept 760 gallons of rainwater in its crown. A number of our Global ReLeaf projects have focused on plantings in urban areas for precisely these reasons. But there’s still a long way to go.

Right now, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the opportunity to update and modernize its approach to managing runoff, including requiring onsite management of runoff to capture rainwater where it falls. This would incentivize green infrastructure, aka urban forests, in the form of projects like green roofs and rain gardens.

Tell the EPA not to delay in protecting clean water! Visit our friends at American Rivers to tweet your representatives about your concern. Together, we can make our voices heard on behalf of clean water.

From Fire to Flooding

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Smoke plume for the Waldo Canyon Fire

Smoke plume for the Waldo Canyon Fire. Credit: Beverly/Flickr

Sometimes, certain regions of the country just can’t catch a break.

Last year, the Colorado Springs area was devastated by the Waldo Canyon Fire, which was the most destructive fire in Colorado’s history until this year’s Black Forest Fire. The Waldo Canyon Fire destroyed more than 300 homes; a year later, approximately 200 of those homes are either already or in the process of being rebuilt. But, unfortunately, this was just the beginning of their woes.

As reported by E&E News, since the containment of the Waldo Canyon Fire, forest managers and hydrologists have been concerned that the damaged landscape left the area extremely vulnerable to flooding. That concern became a reality last week when a flash flood caused by a torrential downpour in the burn-scared Pike National Forest tore through the town of Manitou Springs, killing two people and damaging more than 30 buildings. Many are laying the fault of the flooding directly on the previous year’s fire.

In a normal, healthy forest, the floor is littered with debris that slows coursing water, while tree roots soak up water and slow soil erosion. When those trees have been destroyed in a high-intensity fire, there are no leaves, pine needles and the like littering the forest floor and no roots to slow soil erosion, which creates an unobstructed passage for fast-falling water.

An AmeriCorps crew performs bank stabilization work at the site of the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, Colo.

An AmeriCorps crew performs bank stabilization work at the site of the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, Colo. Credit: Mike Stearly/U.S. Forest Service

And the problems don’t end there. Flood waters bring muddy, ash-filled water into watersheds, which affects drinking water. Diane McKnight, co-director of hydrologic sciences at the University of Colorado-Boulder, tells E&E News, “What you often see after these flood events is a legacy impact on water quality. All that ash and sediment finds its way into a stream or a river, and that affects everything, from microorganisms to insects to fish.”

Recognizing the threats and challenges that post-wildfire landscapes and communities face, American Forests Global ReLeaf conducts wildfire restoration projects every year to help restore damaged ecosystems to health. In 2013, a third of our Global ReLeaf projects are dedicated to wildfire restoration — from the mountains of California to the Ozarks and from a remote area of Montana to the forests of Florida. Help us rebuild communities, like those damaged by wildfire.

Giant Growth Spurt

by Susan Laszewski

Redwoods. Credit: proper dave/Flickr

This week, there’s new insight into some of America’s favorite trees.

On Wednesday, a group of researchers from the University of California-Berkeley, Humboldt State University and the Marine Conservation Institute presented findings from a four-year study of coast redwoods at a symposium at Berkeley. By taking core samples from redwoods on 16 test plots, they have been able to determine a chronology as far back as the year 328 A.D.

One of their most interesting findings is that the redwoods have experienced an unprecedented growth spurt since the 1970s. The exact cause is still unknown, but signs point to several effects of climate change. The iconic trees have likely been helped by the extended growing season of a warmer climate and by the climate change-induced decrease in fog, which has allowed them to get more sun. Soak up the rays, redwoods!

Their research is scheduled to continue for 10 more years. What else could we learn? Humboldt State forestry professor Stephen Sillett tells the Save the Redwoods League that these first four years of the program represent “the golden age of redwood exploration.” The study of redwoods, sequoias and climate will help the researchers understand more about how to conserve these important forests. The trees may also have much to teach us about climate change. Ancient redwood forests store at least three times more carbon above ground than any other forests on Earth.

The majestic redwoods have stood the test of time over thousands of years — the researchers identified a new record-breaker for redwood age: a 2,520-year-old colossus — and their future chances look good. Of course, that’s not the case for all the organisms that share the ecosystem, including us. As Sillett tells the Los Angeles Times, “When it comes to climate change, I’m more worried about humans than I am about redwoods. I think they’re going to hold their own.”

Like big trees? Don’t limit yourself to the coast redwoods and giant sequoias. Check out the National Register of Big Trees to discover more gentle giants.