Birthday Reflections

by Susan Laszewski

I am pleased to welcome Susan Laszewski to Loose Leaf. Susan became part of the American Forests family last month and is joining me as the co-editor of Loose Leaf. ~MW

Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest

Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Credit: Jim Brekke/Flickr

American Forests celebrates our 137th birthday today.

When you’re young, birthdays are a time to throw parties and eat cake and ice cream, but as we get older, they become an opportunity for reflection. They’re a chance to look back through the years and take stock of what we’ve accomplished and what is still left to do. At 137, we have a lot to reflect on. For our birthday, join us on a walk down memory lane.

In 2012, it may be hard to imagine a time when there was no organized effort to protect and restore America’s forests, but that was the case until American Forests — then called the American Forestry Association — came on the scene in 1875. Today, we’re still the only conservation nonprofit dedicated to the protection of forest ecosystems.

It’s also hard to imagine a time when there were no designated national forests, but until as recently as 1911, the federal government wasn’t allowed to purchase land in the East to protect headwaters of rivers and watersheds. American Forests fought for the passage of the Weeks Act, which finally gave permission for just such action and led to the creation of many national forests in the East. Today, about 20 million of the nearly 200 million acres of national forests and grasslands are lands that were established under this act.

2010 National Christmas Tree

2010 National Christmas Tree. Credit: American Forests

It might feel strange to remember a time when the nation didn’t come together against the darkness of winter under the National Christmas Tree , but it was in 1923 that the first cut Christmas tree was lit by President Coolidge. One year later, American Forests provided the first living National Christmas Tree.

Equally difficult to imagine is a time when the largest living organisms on the planet — trees with 3,000 years’ worth of stories to tell — were seen as mere timber. That’s why, in 1940, we established the National Register of Big Trees to remind people of the majesty and value of big trees, old trees and other special trees.

Will our children one day have difficulty imagining a city street with no trees to shade us from heat and clean the air we breathe? Will they marvel at our stories of deforestation so widespread that it affected our climate on a global scale?  We hope so. That’s why we’re working hard to educate people about the benefits of urban forests and help cities improve and expand their forests. It’s why our Global ReLeaf program has planted more than 40 million trees since 1990.

There will always be new challenges that forests will need our help fighting. That’s why we’re looking forward to many birthdays to come. We’re not afraid of getting older because there’s still so much to do. Join us in our journey.

 


The Poetry in Tree Care

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

This week’s International Society of Arboriculture’s 2012 True Professional of Arboriculture isn’t just a tree lover, but is also a poet and writer. Bill Logan is a New York-based, ISA-Certified arborist, teacher at the New York Botanical Garden and president of Urban Arborists, Inc. and writer with W.W. Norton.

Bill Logan

Credit: Bill Logan/ISA

“One of the things that attracted me to the arboriculture profession is that people who do it well, do it really well,” says Bill Logan. “They are always learning, and they act from a global understanding of how trees live in their environment.”

Logan, who grew up climbing enormous trees surrounding his home near San Francisco, never thought anyone could make a living from trees. He also was interested in poetry and writing.

“When I compost, I often think of poems: “This Compost” by Walt Whitman or “Ode to Rot” by John Updike,” explains Logan. “These poems relate to how things take place. I like to write and teach about what I learn. I write books about natural history from points of view that show the relationships between people and nature.”

Among his challenges as an arborist is keeping historic trees alive. One of Logan’s favorite consulting jobs was assessing the tree collection at the Bayard Cutting Arboretum on Long Island. William Bayard Cutting was a New York attorney, real estate developer and philanthropist who built his estate on the property in the mid-1800s. Some of the other trees on Logan’s resume include the largest and oldest in New York. Noted American author E.B. White’s Second Tree from the Corner was removed when it could no longer be preserved through a combined effort of pruning, propping and cabling. But Logan’s tree firm saved cuttings from two of the willow trees, and those transplanted cuttings are now more than 30 feet tall. Plans are to reintroduce the historic tree around the city.

“We may spend whole days caring for great trees,” Logan says. “We regularly look after the second largest tree in New York — a 130-foot-tall tulip tree— that occupies its own lot in Riverdale. The property owner could no doubt sell the river-view lot for quite a bit of money, but will not disturb his beloved tree.”

“Trees are so wonderful. Our ideas change all the time about why they do what they do,” Logan continues. “It’s fascinating, for instance, to watch the way that water flows through a tree. The fact I can learn that and have practical consequences in the work that I do is a blast. It’s the whole simple system that is complex at the same time. I will never finish understanding trees, and I love that about it.”

Next week, we’ll meet a True Professional who began caring for landscapes at the age 12, when he started his own lawn-mowing service.

Did you miss our other profiles of True Professional honorees? Meet Tim Kastning here and Bruce Kreitler here.


Worried About Wolves

by Scott Steen, President & CEO
Wolves in Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park

Wolves in Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Scott Kublin/Flickr

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced that Wyoming’s population of gray wolves had recovered enough to be removed from the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Effective Sept. 30, the wolves will be managed under Wyoming’s state management plans. For a species that was extinct in the region from the 1930s until its reintroduction in the mid-1990s, this announcement should be heartening news. Instead, it has left many conservation groups, including American Forests, with grave concerns about how the delisting will affect the species’ long-term recovery.

The FWS reports that the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population is at 1,774 adult wolves with more than 109 breeding pairs — all numbers that federal biologists feel indicate the species’ full recovery. According to the FWS announcement of the delisting, Wyoming’s state management plan would follow statutory and regulatory standards by managing for a buffer above minimum target population numbers; its goals are to maintain at least 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs within Wyoming — numbers far smaller than the current wolf population.

As part of the state management plan, the wolves will be eligible to be hunted beginning Oct. 1, with varying degrees of regulation. Hunting the wolves will be prohibited in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, and no hunting will be allowed in John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, the National Elk Refuge and the Wind River Reservation in 2012 — although these prohibitions could change in subsequent years. In Wyoming’s Trophy Game Area, up to 52 wolves can be hunted in 2012. In all other areas of the state, it’s open season on gray wolves — with a management plan that is too vaguely written to deliver on its promise of protecting the population from overhunting.

Gray wolf

Gray wolf. Credit: Ellie Attebery (OnyxDog86)/Flickr

Here at American Forests, we believe that any management plan must consider the whole ecosystem. Wolves play a vital role in Greater Yellowstone by controlling the population of deer, moose and elk. As a predator, they cull sick and frail members of these herds, ensuring healthier animal populations. They also reduce overgrazing by these species, improving the health of field and forest. To ensure these benefits continue, we need strong, detailed management plans that protect the diverse elements of the ecosystem. And this is where we feel that the Wyoming state management plan for gray wolves falls short.

While the management plan clearly identifies a minimum gray wolf population goal, it is unclear what happens between today’s population of 1,700-plus and the minimum of 100. Is it really desirable to allow the gray wolf population in the region to be reduced to less than a tenth of its current size? And what larger effects would this have on the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem? In a study released last year, researchers discovered that the reintroduction of wolves and their subsequent effect on the area’s elk population caused forest health to improve because fewer elk foraging resulted in significantly less damage to trees and plants. With healthier trees and forests, bird populations increased, food supplies expanded for animals like beavers, and lakes and streams benefitted, to name just some of the positive effects.

A peer review of the management plan earlier this year revealed the inadequacies of the Wyoming state management plan in addressing how the region will ensure that the wolves don’t get hunted down to the minimum. Without these details, the plan lacks the heft necessary to ensure gray wolves’ long-term future in Wyoming and has implications for the overall health of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.


Celebrating All That Is Wild

by Amanda Tai

Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. Credit: USFWS/Flickr

I’d like to take a moment to celebrate a major landmark in U.S. environmental policy that happened this week 48 years ago. Approved on September 3rd, the Wilderness Act of 1964 became the first piece of legislation in the U.S. to grant protection of designated wilderness areas under federal law. To protect these areas, the Wilderness Act first inaugurated a legal, yet surprisingly poetic, definition of wilderness:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The bill not only captured the essence of wilderness, but it also protected these designated areas under law. When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, it established the National Wilderness Preservation System. Originally, the system was comprised of around nine million acres of wilderness. That’s less than half of a percent of the total land base in the U.S. But today, the system covers more than 107 million acres of lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In order to add land to the National Wilderness Preservation System, land management agencies — as well as organizations and coalitions — determine what areas need federal protection and see if they fit the criteria listed under the Wilderness Act. Recommendations are then submitted and reviewed by Congress on a state-by-state basis. Click here for an infograph of how the U.S. Forest Service recommends new wilderness areas. Once an area is federally designated wilderness, it’s protected from road construction, logging, mining, and motor vehicles.

Rocky Mountain National Park. Credit: Rennett Stowe/Flickr

Last month, the four federal land agencies pledged to raise awareness about wilderness protection and provide opportunities for public participation in stewardship goals by signing a memorandum of understanding with the Society for Wilderness Stewardship. Agencies see the memorandum as an opportunity to increase stewardship activities over the next few years, leading up to the celebration of the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary in 2014.

This is a good thing because there’s still a need to increase wilderness protection and land stewardship. According to the PEW Environment Group, there are still about 200 million acres of federal land that should be, but are not yet, protected under the Wilderness Act. These areas include parts of national forests like the Tongass National Forest, wildlife refuges like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and national parks like Rocky Mountain National Park. The only way to ensure that these areas receive the highest form of protection is to get Congress to list them under the National Wilderness Preservation System.


Wildfire Orphans

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

During wildfire season, oftentimes, our attention is drawn to the big stories:

However, in the last week, two smaller stories have emerged that are heartbreaking, inspiring and illuminating of how far-reaching wildfires can be.

Idaho Fish and Game Biologist Chris Gaughan with Bernard

Idaho Fish and Game Biologist Chris Gaughan with Bernard. Credit: U.S. Forest Service

A late-July weekend of thunderstorms and lightning led to the ignition of a number of fires across Salmon-Challis National Forest in Idaho. These fires would become known as the Mustang Complex and to-date have burned across 215,000 acres with containment at only 16 percent. As you can imagine, a fire of that size is going to have consequences on the flora and fauna of the region, consequences that received a face last week.

Bernard, originally named Boo Boo, is a four-month-old black bear cub who was found clinging to a Douglas-fir along the Salmon River last weekend with his paws covered in second-degree burns. A California-based fire crew would search in vain for the cub’s mother before rescuers would take the cub under their wings and transport him for treatment and recovery — a recovery that’s still not guaranteed a week after his discovery.

Bernard is currently being treated by the Idaho Humane Society, and his veterinarian says signs are looking positive, but it may be another month before they’ll know for sure if he’ll recover sufficiently from his wounds to survive in the wild. Beyond his physical recovery, his caretakers are also being very cautious about the number of humans that Bernard is meeting, as for him to be successfully released back into the forest, he shouldn’t get too comfortable around people.

Chips with Mad River Hand Crew Superintendent Tad Hair

Chips with Mad River Hand Crew Superintendent Tad Hair. Credit: U.S. Forest Service

Bernard wasn’t the only animal child orphaned by wildfire last week, though. A female bobcat kitten, named Chips, was rescued last week by members of the Mad River Hand Crew patrolling the Chips Fire in California’s Plumas National Forest. The Chips Fire, whose cause is being investigated, burned more than 75,000 acres from July 29th until its containment on August 31st. The Mad River team came across a dazed and confused Chips, the bobcat kitten, while conducting mop-up operations — activities to confirm that the fire is contained — on the north side of the fire.

The crew superintendent told SFGate Blog about how, after assessing that the kitten wasn’t in immediate, life-threatening danger, they tried to walk away, not wanting to potentially harm her more by removing her from her natural environment. Chips, however, began following the crew, and after finding no adult bobcat prints in the area, the Mad River crew contacted Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care to get Chips the help she needed. The Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care team discovered an infection in Chips’ eyes and second-degree burns on her paws, but is confident that she’ll recover. Once her injuries heal, they’ll socialize her with other bobcats and then release her back into the wild.

While the tales of Bernard and Chips are touching and hopeful, they also serve as reminders of the unseen effects that wildfires can often have on our environment. They don’t just cause evacuations of humans; they destroy homes — of two-legged, four-legged, multi-legged and winged creatures across the country. It’s a sobering thought.


From Oil to Trees

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Arboriculture was not his first career for this week’s International Society of Arboriculture’s 2012 True Professional of Arboriculture. Texas-based Bruce Kreitler actually toiled on and around oil fields for 25 years before the demands of the job led him to turn his passion for trees into a new career.

Bruce Kreitler

Credit: Bruce Kreitler/ISA

“I spent 25 years working in oil fields — 15 years in the Middle East,” recalls Kreitler. Oil field supervisory jobs were lucrative, plentiful and challenging, but in the end, it was Kreitler’s rig schedule of 35 days on the job and 35 days off that opened up the possibility for this arborist. There was simply so much time to read and study.

“I’ve had a lifelong interest in trees and have always dabbled in trees,” replies Kreitler. “The time off allowed me to do some pretty intensive study on trees, not just work on them. I finally built up a tree business to the point where I had to decide which one was going to be my regular job.”

Bruce Kreitler

Credit: Bruce Kreitler/ISA

Kreitler incorporated his business, Broken Willow Tree Service, in 1999 and hasn’t looked back. Now, he uses several platforms for public outreach to educate people about proper tree care. He hosts free workshops, writes more than a dozen articles a month for five area newspapers, contributes to two online publications and hosts a weekly radio show, “West Texas Trees and Landscapes,” on KWKC 1340 AM in Abilene.

“The writing, the radio show and the public speaking — it gets people involved,” explains Kreitler. “It doesn’t do me any good to know everything I can about trees, nor would it matter how many people worked for me, if I wasn’t successful at public outreach. The True Professional is someone who is getting out there and working for the public, feeding the right information to them.”

Beyond his public outreach and daily tree-care work, Kreitler, who is an ISA-certified arborist, ISA noard-certified master arborist and a municipal and utility specialist, is guiding a special project initiative as a member of the Buffalo Gap Tree Board. Buffalo Gap is an area in Texas known for a unique, old live oak forest that was left in place by the original settlers.

“This area of historic trees is a shady forest spot in the middle of the sun-blasted plain,” Kreitler declares. “Buffalo Gap is one of the original settlements so the people who first lived there are the ones who purposefully left these trees in place. There’s a lot invested here. The tree population is in decline, so I am helping the board with a planning program. I encourage them to plant more burr oaks, among other species, to diversify the forest. The people that settled there gave us a present by not cutting down those trees. If we go in there and plant other trees, it will be a gift for future generations.” –ISA and Bruce Kreitler

Come back next Friday to meet a poet and writer who helps protect historic trees in New York.

Did you miss last week’s True Professional profile on Tim Kastning? Find it here.


A Hospital Oasis Under Threat

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Sometimes — oftentimes — it feels as though nature and development are locked in an eternal battle. Cities and communities are continually running out of space, while trees, flowers and shrubs need lots of precious space to thrive. So what is one to do when more space is needed for infrastructure, but the only way to get it is to destroy a greenspace? That’s the question currently facing Boston Children’s Hospital.

Prouty Memorial Garden, Boston Children’s Hospital

Prouty Memorial Garden, Boston Children’s Hospital. Credit: schickr/Flickr

Boston Children’s Hospital is one of the largest pediatric medical centers in the U.S. and services almost 25,000 inpatient admissions each year. It has more than 1,100 scientists producing research and is one of the best pediatric hospitals in the country according to U.S. News & World Report. It also has “one of the most successful hospital gardens in the country,” as Clare Cooper Marcus, an emeritus professor in landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Scientific American.

Tucked between the Wolbach and Farley buildings on the hospital’s campus is the green oasis known as the Prouty Memorial Garden. The garden is the brainchild of Olive Prouty, who set up an endowment for the creation and maintenance of the garden back in the 1950s. The famed Olmsted Brothers architecture firm designed the restful place — modeling it on the terrace and garden at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City — and it’s become a treasured part of the hospital. But that may soon change.

A column in The Boston Globe earlier this month details that the location-strapped hospital is currently exploring ways to increase its space, and one idea on the table is building new facilities where Prouty Garden currently offers respite for patients, visitors and staff. Margaret Coughlin, a Children’s Hospital senior vice president in charge of marketing and communications, tells the Globe that “as we look at what we have to do to be a clinical and innovative leader, we have to look at all our space, and there is no new space in this area.”

On the flip side are the patients and parents who have viewed the garden as a sanctuary over the years. A petition has been started to try to help preserve the garden. Signatory Jennifer Lubao writes that “The garden was such a place of peace for me the four months I stayed with my infant son at the hospital. The chapel was the only other place where I felt such peace. Both gave me the strength to deal with the chaos surrounding my infant son’s extended illness and death. I can’t imagine a proposal to tear down the chapel so why the garden where so many of us pray and meet one another as a community?”

The Globe reports that any action regarding Prouty Memorial Garden is a few years down the road. Let’s hope that the famed hospital is able to figure out a way to preserve such a vital, recuperative space, while also advancing its other work. We need new research to battle disease, but as research tells us, we also need green oases to fight and recovery from those diseases.


Hurricanes and Habitats

by Amanda Tai

This week, Hurricane Isaac threatens to hit the same area that was hit by Hurricane Katrina seven years ago. Ever since I experienced a flood firsthand, I have been in awe of storms and how extreme weather can have an impact on people and places. The memory I have of being evacuated from my home gives me a clearer understanding of storms like Hurricane Katrina and how traumatic it must have been for the people of New Orleans. So when I heard that another hurricane was heading towards the Gulf Coast, it reminded me of the devastating impact storms can have.

Workers clear a downed tree after Hurricane Irene. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region/ Flickr

While most media attention focuses on people and developed areas, storms also have an impact on wildlife habitat. I decided to look into what happens after a storm has hit, specifically in regards to wildlife habitat restoration and reforestation. According to the U.S. Forest Service, Hurricane Katrina caused damage to five million acres of land, which included coastal forests that many migratory bird species and other wildlife species called home. According to a 2007 study, more than 320 million trees were killed. Further inland from the coast, 50 to 80 percent of Mississippi’s trees were damaged. This has a great impact on wildlife food and shelter. While it’s easy to see that heavy rain and strong winds knock trees over, they also strip vital food sources like seeds and berries from trees.

But damage isn’t just limited to dry forests. Storms like Katrina also have a high impact on wetland habitat by increasing water levels and changing the salinity of the water. James Harris, a biologist at the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, told the National Wildlife Federation that the rainfall from Hurricane Katrina forced salt water into freshwater marshes, which eventually killed trees and severely reduced waterfowl food sources, like fish.

The Great Blue Heron is one of several bird populations impacted by Gulf Coast storms. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region/ Flickr

Another concern for wildlife managers is the likelihood of a species leaving the area and not returning once the storm is over. Tommy Michot, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who conducts aerial canvases of Louisiana birds, noted the decline of 10 coastal bird species after Hurricane’s Katrina and Rita. Since storms greatly disturb wildlife habitat, it’s important that these areas are restored afterwards. It certainly is reassuring to know that there are several programs in place like the Hurricane Wildlife Relief Fund, the Emergency Watershed Protection program and American Forests Global ReLeaf to help restore our wetlands and coastal forests.

Curious to learn more about how different natural disasters affect forest ecosystems? The Autumn 2012 issue of American Forests magazine contains a feature on how floods, hurricanes, ice storms and more impact forests. Become a member of American Forests today to secure your copy of our autumn magazine, which will arrive in October.


Fire in the West – Part 2

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

This month is part two of the brief overview of the history of the U.S. Forest Service’s fire policy. In the past few weeks, Loose Leaf posts have covered the recent, temporary halt to the “let it burn” policy in light of the tinderbox quality of the West, partially due to the current drought conditions. As you’ll remember, the “let it burn” policy evolved in the 1970s to counteract years of total fire suppression. Rome wasn’t built in a day, however; years of fire fuel — accumulated on forest floors — are making this summer’s fires particularly ferocious. But what’s that about the Healthy Forests Initiative and the very exciting regulatory actions I promised last month? I’m glad you asked.

Prescribed burn at Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge

Prescribed burn at Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: USFWS

As briefly mentioned before, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires that an agency undertake either an environmental assessment (EA) or the more-involved environmental impact statement (EIS) for any major federal action that may significantly affect the environment. An EA is the basic evaluation of the potential environmental impacts of a federal action, and it leads to one of two results: a Finding of No Significant Impact (yes, a FONSI) or a determination that an EIS is needed — sometimes agencies forgo the EA and jump straight to an EIS. An EIS, as it stands to reason, is a much deeper look at a project’s environmental impact. If, however, an agency has created a categorical exclusion for a particular action, which saves time and money in getting a project off the ground, than neither an EA nor an EIS is needed.

The Healthy Forests Initiative, in conjunction with the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA), developed categorical exclusions for certain projects intended to reduce forest undergrowth that feeds fires, as well as activities to repair or rehabilitate lands damaged by fire. HFRA is not without its detractors. With no requirements for environmental review in specific instances, concern was raised that old-growth trees would be removed in the name of clearing out forests to lessen fuel available for large conflagrations. On the other side, because HFRA actions are only allowed on land under the control of the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, the ultimate utility of HFRA is limited.

Firefighting operations in Scurry County, Texas, in April 2011

Firefighting operations in Scurry County, Texas, in April 2011. Credit: Staff Sgt. Eric Harris/U.S. Air Force

HFRA also includes provisions that accelerate NEPA review of hazardous-fuel-reduction projects near Wildland-Urban Interfaces (WUIs). As many environmental attorneys will tell you, the NEPA process can take a significant amount of time to complete, arousing either the ire or relief of the affected parties. WUIs are those areas of land that have homes either abutting or incorporated within lands that are particularly prone to fire. By accelerating the NEPA review for fuel-reduction projects in those areas, HFRA placed additional significance upon protecting the homes and communities interspersed among areas most susceptible to fire. In addition, NEPA review is also accelerated for ecosystems currently suffering, or at imminent risk, from a disease or insect epidemic.

Perhaps reflected by the ever-expanding set of acronyms, fire management is an ongoing concern. Resource management plans coordinating the use and managing of lands and forests are written and rewritten for different areas. Congress continues to pass additional legislation to help deal with the ever-changing threats from fire, such as the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act of 2009 (the FLAME Act), providing much needed funding for fighting wildfires. And groups such as American Forests continue the never-ending task of educating the public about the contributing factors of fire. While Smokey Bear was right that “only you can prevent forest fires,” it is a nonstop effort by the Forest Service to temper their strength, size and ultimate impact.

“The most tangible of all visible mysteries — fire.” Leigh Hunt, English essayist and poet


A Lesson From the Past

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Mayan city of Tulum ruins, Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico

Mayan city of Tulum ruins, Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Credit: Michelle Werts

The Americas have been home to many storied cultures, like the Incans of modern-day Peru and the Aztecs of modern-day Mexico. But pre-dating both of these were the Mayans, who ruled Mesoamerica — the region from central Mexico to Central America — for centuries and centuries and who are renowned for their art and architecture, astronomy, mathematics and more. Archeologists have traced the Mayan culture back to 1,800 B.C., but the civilization’s glory period would only be from 250-900 A.D. — when all of sudden the culture’s reign ended. Unlike the demise of the Incans and Aztecs that can be attributed to European conquerors, archeologists only have theories about what happened to the Mayans. In recent years, though, more and more researchers are theorizing that the climate, specifically in the form of a series of droughts, may have played a big part in this great culture’s demise — and that the Mayans themselves may have contributed to the climate change that would be their undoing.

In a new paper in Geophysical Research Letters, researchers posit that deforestation for agricultural purposes during the Mayan reign contributed to increased drought levels, which may have been a major factor in the civilization’s decline. Based on their research, the paper’s authors estimate that precipitation during this period decreased by five to 15 percent compared to what rainfall would have been with natural forest cover. Their models also suggest that up to 60 percent of this decline in rainfall is attributable to deforestation.

Mayan city of Tulum ruins, Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico

Mayan city of Tulum ruins, Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Credit: Michelle Werts

How does deforestation for agriculture increase drought? Dark, dense vegetation — like Central America’s rainforests — absorb lots of light and energy from the sun, which aids transpiration (the evaporation of water from plants and trees). Sunlight helps the pores on leaves, called stomata, open, allowing more water to evaporate. Many crop plants, like corn, absorb less light and energy, reflecting more of it back into the atmosphere and decreasing conditions favorable for rain. So, as the Mayans cut down forest to make room for their burgeoning population of more than 19 million people — and to grow food to feed those 19 million people and build magnificent, lime-plaster-based cities — a drought-prone region of the world became even drier.

The tale of the Mayans holds much resonance today: a prosperous, technology-advanced society, struggling to keep up alters its environment to help solve its problems. Except, as it turns out, altering that environment may have actually caused more problems. So maybe we should all take the Mayans as a sober, cautioning tale — and remember to look to our forests as helps rather than hindrances.