Charred Forests, Melting Snow

by Susan Laszewski
Credit: fortherock/Flickr

Credit: fortherock/Flickr

You know how when it’s really hot out, you’re better off leaving the black shirt in the closet and going for something lighter? Well, according to new research, forests are having a similar issue.

A study, conducted by Oregon State University researchers, funded by the National Science Foundation and published in Geophysical Research Letters, found that snowpack melts faster in forests which have been charred by wildfire. The researchers explain that as the charred particles are shed from the tree throughout the winter, they darken the snow, reducing its reflectivity.

How much of a difference could a few burned bits make? The researchers found a 40 percent decrease in the surface’s reflectivity, or “albedo,” and a 60 percent increase in solar radiation reaching the snow’s surface. At a test site 5,000 feet in elevation in Oregon’s Cascade Range, snowpack was found to disappear 23 days earlier due to the phenomenon. The shedding of charred particles after a burn will last at least two years and can last as long as 10, so these effects could be seen for multiple winters.

While fires are a natural part of these forest ecosystems, the situation today is compounded by an increase in the intensity of wildfires, as well as the expected increase in wildfire numbers due to climate change. In high elevations of the Rocky Mountains, such as those in the Greater Yellowstone Area, climate change has led to earlier snowmelt in other ways as well. As warming temperatures have allowed for a population boom of mountain pine beetles, the whitebark pine trees that provide the shade and soil stability that aid in retaining snowpack are dying, leading to earlier melting.

Earlier snowmelts have the potential to wreak a lot of havoc on communities. In addition to increased flooding, a faster snowmelt can also alter an area’s water supply. As spring runoff begins earlier, it may not last as late into the year. The study’s findings could help resource managers plan for fluctuations in water availability.

At American Forests, we advocate for sound policies to manage wildfire and the complications that are arising as the climate changes. We also launched our Endangered Western Forests initiative to address the challenges of the whitebark pine.

As study co-author Anne Nolin asks, “What does it mean for your water supply when headwater catchments burn, the snow melts faster and the spring runoff begins even earlier? It is a provocative question for resource managers.”

Helping Forests Face Climate Change

by American Forests

By Lizzie Wasilewska


Credit: Jaakko Paarvala

In its new guide, Climate Change Guidelines for Forest Managers, the Food and Agriculture Organization on the United Nations (FAO) discusses many ways of combating and thinking about the effects of climate change on forests. As Michelle emphasized in her recent blog entry about the SAFE Act, early efforts to prevent, rather than simply react to, the effects of climate change are crucial for the long-term health of forests. In its guide, FAO also highlights the importance of preemptively building up forests’ resistance to climate change.

The authors of the guide frame forest management strategies as globally significant, noting that forests are a key part of many ecosystems, economies and cultures. Forests act as a worldwide “carbon sink” that moderates the effects of fossil fuels, which means that forests’ deterioration can worsen the health of other ecosystems. And, with forest damage, there often comes damage to forest-dependent people as well. For example, up to five million women in West Africa earn most of their income by collecting and marketing nuts that they harvest from shea trees. The FAO guide highlights the importance of identifying and supporting communities like these, whose livelihoods would disappear if their forests disappeared.


Deforestation. Credit: Andrew Ashton

Forest managers and the public can also look in this guide for potential solutions to these issues. In order to help forest-dependent communities, the FAO suggests that forest managers encourage residents to invest in environmentally safe technologies like fuel-efficient stoves, which can lead to greater profits as well as healthier forests. They also recommend that forest managers grow more fire-resistant plants in forest ecosystems since the rate and strength of wildfires is projected to increase.

Of course, some of these things are easier said than done. As the authors of the guide say, “climate change impacts are cross-sectoral, which means that to prepare for them, coordination is needed among government agencies, NGOs and stakeholders in multiple sectors.” Luckily, if organizations like the FAO continue to publish strategies for dealing with climate change and legal measures like the SAFE Act move into action, the future of forests holds promise.

Creating SAFE Noise

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Today, American Forests is on the Hill — Capitol Hill that is — co-hosting a briefing and panel discussion titled “Protecting the Economy and Communities: Shared Risks, Shared Responsibility in Planning for the Effects of Climate Change.” Being held in one of the Senate office buildings, this briefing aims to build support for and understanding about a newly introduced piece of legislation: S. 1202, the Safeguarding America’s Future and Environment Act (SAFE Act).

U.S. Capitol Building. Credit: geetarchurchy/Flickr

U.S. Capitol Building. Credit: geetarchurchy/Flickr

Introduced by Senators Baucus and Whitehouse in June, the SAFE Act is “a bill to establish an integrated federal program to respond to ongoing and expected impacts of extreme weather and climate change by protecting, restoring and conserving the natural resources of the United States and to maximize government efficiency and reduce costs, in cooperation with state, local and tribal governments and other entities.” A lofty and worthy aim, in my opinion.

Two of the key ways the act would accomplish its main goal are 1) through the establishment of a Natural Resources Climate Adaptation Panel comprised of federal agency heads and other natural resources experts and 2) through the newly established panel’s adoption of a National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy. This strategy would be a plan designed “to protect, restore and conserve natural resources so that natural resources become more resilient, adapt to and withstand the ongoing and expected impacts of climate variability and change.” Again, all good things, but as we all know, what sounds good and beneficial for society doesn’t always become law.

The SAFE Act was first introduced in 2011 as S. 1881 and never made it out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. We don’t want this bill to get stuck in committee again, which is why we’re joining with other partners to bring attention to this bill and the issues it represents through today’s briefing on the Hill. It’s often a long road to get a bill through Congress, but when it comes to protecting our natural resources, we’re in it for the duration.

Tree Frogs’ Descent

by Susan Laszewski
Tree frog at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve in Singapore. Credit: Nir Sinay

Tree frog at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve in Singapore. Credit: Nir Sinay

When I was little, one of my favorite books was a picture book about rainforests that took the reader through all the layers of the tropical rainforest — from the ground on up to the canopy — and the plants and animals that live there. The idea that entire worlds existed one on top of the other like this was fascinating to me.

A study recently published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B has provided new insight into these strata and what the future may hold for them as the climate changes. Led by Brett Scheffers of James Cook University in Australia, the researchers climbed hundreds of trees in the rainforests of Singapore and the Philippines — some more than 160 feet tall — to collect data on a variety of tree frogs and other canopy species. They found that just as biodiversity exists in gradients of latitude and elevation, the vertical strata of the rainforest are also a type of climatic gradient. And, just as we’re seeing more adaptable species shift their range by moving north or by moving uphill as the climate changes, these arboreal species can adjust to the climate by moving up or down the canopy layers.

In fact, the study’s authors find that this allows these frogs and other tree-dwelling species to take advantage of a wider habitat range because as the habitat changes in elevation they can move up or down the trees accordingly. The same species of frog that lives in the canopy at one elevation might call the understory home a little further downhill.

Philippine tree frog Rhacophorus pardalis

Rhacophorus pardalis, a tree frog of the Philippines. Credit: Thomas H Brown

But, as temperatures continue to rise and the climate becomes drier, we can expect to see more of these species descending from the trees at higher and higher elevations — a process the study’s authors have dubbed “flattening” — all that vertical biodiversity getting pushed to the ground. According to the research, these species’ descent from the trees could lead to an 80 percent increase in density on the ground. That’s a lot of increased competition for resources.

“We discovered a whole new dimension to biodiversity on Earth, but in doing so, we uncovered new consequences of climate change,” says Scheffers in a James Cook University statement. “The Earth’s rainforests are certainly not flat, but if citizens and governments do not take the necessary actions to prevent strong changes in climate … they could be.”

That’s why we’re telling President Obama that forests need to be a priority in his Climate Action Plan since they help mitigate climate change and need our help to stay healthy. You can tell him, too, by signing our letter.

A Sand-filled Anniversary

by American Forests

By Lizzie Wasilewska

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Credit: sfgamchick/Flickr

Today is the anniversary of one of the most biologically and geologically unique parks in the U.S.: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. In addition to its famous desert dunes, Great Sand Dunes includes grasslands and wetlands; lakes, rivers and streams; tundra; and forests that spread from the desert’s edges to the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The range of tree species found in its forests — cottonwood, aspen, pinion, spruce and more — is just one example of this landscape’s fascinating diversity.

The ecosystems and landscapes in Great Sand Dunes are constantly changing. Winds rapidly and dramatically reshape its dunes, which often rise to about 750 feet. On a slower scale, streams reshape the dunes: They redistribute sand, expanding and diminishing the dunefield’s territory in different areas. As the dunes gradually stray from their origins, they can influence other regions of the park. For example, when dunes wash over forests, they suffocate the trees, leaving “ghost forests” composed of the trees’ skeletal remains.

Great Sand Dunes’ forests are also susceptible to wildfires: before the addition of the preserve, they experienced an average of 1.3 wildfires per year. Researchers have developed fire management strategies for Great Sand Dunes, evaluating its natural rate of fires and seeking to prevent human-caused fires. These strategies balance the natural needs of the environment with the preservation of its cultural landscape by often permitting the controlled spread of wildfires, while also trying to conserve the numerous cultural sites and artifacts that lie in the path of fires.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Credit: sfgamchick/Flickr

Wildfire management strategies and ethics tie into a larger environmental question: When should humans help threatened ecosystems? In 2011, across the state border from Great Sand Dunes, a wildfire in New Mexico burned across more than 150,000 acres of the Jemez Mountains and 27,000 acres of Valles Caldera National Preserve. The wildfire — which was the second largest in New Mexico’s history — undermined the environment’s soil and prevented vegetation from regenerating. American Forests Global ReLeaf stepped in by planting hundreds of acres of trees across the Valles Caldera, with the goal of stabilizing the soil and encouraging natural regrowth.

Other times, it might be best to let forests fend for themselves. In 2010, lightning sparked a fire in Great Sand Dunes that burned thousands of acres. Managers decided it was best not to extinguish the flames entirely, as that would risk obstructing the forests’ natural immunity to and reliance on wildfires. Today, the Great Sand Dunes ecosystem is healthy, and we hope to see many more happy birthdays in its future!

Saving a Little, Getting a Lot

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

How’s this for a bargain: By protecting 17 percent of the world’s land, we can preserve 67 percent of the world’s plant species. Not such a bad return on investment, eh?

Sarayaku, Ecuador

Sarayaku, Ecuador. Credit: skifatenum/Flickr

A new study published last week in Science revealed that two goals set by the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity in 2010 (protecting 17 percent of the world’s land and protecting 60 percent of the world’s flora) could actually be accomplished simultaneously. The scientists pinpointed Central America, Ecuador, the Caribbean and Taiwan as key locales for biological diversity, with China, the Middle East and South Africa also being areas of importance. And areas that are good for plant diversity are also likely good for other types of biodiversity, such as insects, birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and more.

As reported by E&E News, the paper cautions that simply creating new national parks or other types of protected spaces isn’t necessarily the solution for preserving biodiversity, as sometimes that action forgets one very crucial element: people. Many of our protected wilderness spaces are often removed from human populations, but are biological hotspots also removed? “Present conservation efforts bias towards lands that are high, cold, dry or otherwise far from people — often a mismatch with where conservation needs are pressing,” states the published study, begging the question of what to do next.

At American Forests, we recognize the diversity of ecosystems that need protecting and that many of those ecosystems contain lots and lots of people — hence our urban forest work that evaluates the needs of the natural resources in urban areas in concert with the needs of the city’s population. Sometimes, it’s an interesting balancing act, but the data doesn’t lie: If we help Mother Nature, she helps us with cleaner air and water, which makes us happy, healthier and stronger.

Giving Butterflies a Boost

by Susan Laszewski
Monarch butterflies

Monarch butterflies. Credit: Luna sin estrellas/Flickr

The world’s monarch butterflies now fit into an area smaller than four football fields.

Last March, we told you about how pesticides used in Canada and the U.S. are killing the milkweed the monarchs need to survive their long journey.

A new study published in Conservation Biology details how another cause has aided the pesticides in contributing to the monarch’s current plight: illegal logging. From 2001 to 2013, more than 5,380 acres of the monarch’s winter habitat has been lost. While some of the deforestation can be attributed to small-scale community logging, most has been carried out by organized crime:

  1. 3,714 acres lost to large-scale organized crime.
  2. 1,369 acres lost to small-scale community logging to build homes.
  3. 301 acres lost to drought and flood.

What has been the effect of all this forest lost? As we wrote in March, the monarchs are now occupying the smallest space in 20 years. Monarch populations are measured by the size of the area they cover as they blanket the oyamel fir forests of their winter home. (If you try counting them individually, you won’t get very far!) They are now occupying less than three acres.

So, what can be done about it? The good news is that deforestation has slowed. However, we can still work toward the recovery of the forest cover that has already been lost. We’ve partnered with La Cruz Habitat Protection Project for nearly a decade — since some of the worst years of deforestation in the area — to help reforest the monarch’s winter home in Mexico. You can see our work in action by going on our February trip for American Forests members to Michoacán, Mexico, to see the forests there — and the millions of magnificent monarchs that call them home — for yourself.

It’s Our Party!

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

It’s one of those eternal questions: Is a birthday a time for celebrating the past or for looking with hope to the future? Then again, why can’t it be a little bit of both?

John Aston Warder

John Aston Warder

Today, American Forests turns 138. We were born in Chicago thanks to Dr. John Aston Warder, a medical man and farm owner. It is believed that the idea for a forestry organization — at a time when no other forest-focused organization or association existed in the U.S. — sparked during Dr. Warder’s trip to Vienna as U.S. Commissioner to the International Exhibition in 1873, as he wrote in his report on the event that:

“This subject of forestry is now claiming, and must receive, greater attention than heretofore. The increasing scarcity of timber within the first century of the nation’s history, and that in a country famous for the richness and value of its sylva, and for the extent of its woodlands, is a subject that calls for the most serious consideration of the statesman, and perhaps also for the interference and care of government.”

Two years later, this desire to protect and conserve America’s forests birthed American Forests — then known as the American Forestry Association. Over the next few decades, the nascent organization would quickly find its legs. If you name a major natural resources piece of legislation or event in the early part of the 1900s, American Forests was there, knee-deep:

  • The creation of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 through the transfer of forest reserves from the Department of the Interior (DOI) to the Department of Agriculture (USDA).
  • The passage of the Weeks Act in 1911, which helped establish national forests in the East.
  • The promotion of fire prevention and safety, through its Dixie Crusaders work in the late 1920s and its efforts to promote the teachings of Smokey the Bear in the middle of the century.
  • The creation of the Conservation Civilian Corps in 1933, which planted millions of trees amidst other forest restoration work.
  • The publication of works by Aldo Leopold and Gifford Pinchot.

We have quite the storied history, but we also believe that our future can be just as grand with Global ReLeaf planting millions of trees each year, our Endangered Western Forests initiative conducting research and protecting our endangered Rocky Mountain forests, the National Big Tree Program developing the most comprehensive database of our nation’s biggest trees, our Urban Forests Program assessing and helping urban forests around the country and our Public Policy and Advocacy Program working to create change in Washington.

World's End State Park, Sullivan County, Penn.

World’s End State Park, Sullivan County, Penn. Credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli

But we can’t do these things alone. Just as Dr. Warder needed like-minded citizens to help him realize his forest conservation dreams, we all must continue to band together to help our woodlands. Luckily, there are so many ways to help:

Help us make our 138th year our best one yet!

Making Sense of the Weather of 2012

by Susan Laszewski
Flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy storm surges in Morris Canal Park in Jersey City

Flooding in Morris Canal Park in Jersey City caused by Hurricane Sandy storm surges. Credit: Augie Ray

New research published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society is helping to determine the role that climate change may have played in a number of 2012’s most extreme weather events.

Seventy-eight meteorologists, working in several teams, analyzed the likelihood of the weather events under different models: those representing current levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases and others using pre-industrial levels. Analyzing 12 extreme weather events of 2012, they found that climate change had played a role in half of them.

Some of the most difficult events to determine climate change’s role in were precipitation and drought events. While a drought that occurred in Spain was found to have a link to increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the Great Plains drought was determined not to have any direct relation to climate change. On the other hand, the strongest links involved heat waves. The researchers found that the unusually high July temperatures in the northeastern and north-central U.S. were made four times more likely by climate change. Storm surges were also found to have links to climate change. Sea-level rise has made events like Hurricane Sandy 50 percent more likely. In fact, it’s predicted that by 2100, such events — previously once-in-a-lifetime occurrences — will take place every couple of decades on the Atlantic Coast from Atlantic City southward.

This news underscores the importance of our coastal forests and reminds me of another study released earlier this year — a study that found that without our coastal buffers, like mangrove forests and wetlands, twice as many Americans would be at risk of storm surges. And that number could be even greater in the future as sea-level continues to rise. That’s why our Global ReLeaf projects include projects focused on replanting coastal buffers — such as the Replant South Mississippi Partnership, which planted nearly 8,000 trees where many had been lost to Hurricane Katrina, and our projects planting and protecting mangrove forests in China.

But, being able to attribute specific weather events to climate change, also known as the science of attribution, is still in its infancy. “The more we do this in the future … the easier it’s going to get,” report editor Peter Stott, a researcher at the U.K. Met Office Hadley Center, tells E&E News. “This is really quite an exciting research area, and it has a real potential to provide answers to people asking questions in their particular location.” In the meantime, we need to protect and restore the ecosystems that can help mitigate the effects of these increasingly common extreme weather events. Join American Forests to help.

The Need for Urban Parks

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Baseball in the Park

Playing baseball in the park. Credit: Thomas Rumley

I’m one of those people who remember very little of their childhoods. I have vague impressions of events and activities, but very little that is concrete. Among those “little” things, though, of which I have a crystal-clear memory are my childhood parks and playgrounds.

I can picture the grove of trees where my friends and I hid away, the field where we played Red Rover, the monkey bars I conquered, the drinking fountain shaded by a forested path. If those places didn’t exist, I may not have had my front two teeth knocked, but my childhood also would not have been the same.

I’m guessing that many of you have similar memories of special parks and playgrounds. Imagine how you would feel if that place had never existed. What if you lived in a blighted urban area with no park or if your city or town ran out of money to keep your park clean and safe? It’s a depressing thought that is also a reality for so many. There is a solution, though, if Congress is willing to act, so send them a letter asking them to support the Community Parks Revitalization Act.

Autumn in the Park

Autumn in the park. Credit: Pat Pilon

The Community Parks Revitalization Act was introduced this summer by Representative Sires (D-NJ) and is aimed at promoting urban forestry and recreation. This act would authorize the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to issue grants to local governments to improve parks and other recreation areas. These grants would also specifically target building recreation programs and places for at-risk youth and military members and their families.

But beyond the recreation that these projects would provide, there is a financial upside as well. Our friends at the National Recreation and Park Association pulled together some interesting facts about the benefits parks provide to communities. Here are some highlights:

  • Quality of parks and recreation resources is a key criteria for listing the best cities for businesses, jobs and places to live.
  • Outdoor recreation supports 6.1 million direct jobs and generates $80 billion in tax revenue each year (Outdoor Industry Association).
  • Parks and greenspaces increase property values.

Basically, urban parks are a winning proposition for so many reasons, which is why we need the Community Parks Revitalization Act to get out of committee and into a floor vote. Help us improve urban greenspaces throughout the country by telling the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation to vote on the Community Parks Revitalization Act to get it moved to the full House Committee on Natural Resources, which will get it one step closer to full House vote.