Meet the Street View Trekker

by Michelle Werts

I tend to be adverse to technology. I have a “dumb” cell phone that is mainly used for phone calls, although an occasional text will pass its way. I prefer my books as physical books — can I admit that on a blog about forests? When going places, I rely on handwritten directions and a good ol’ map versus a GPS. But one piece of technology that I’ve always found simultaneously useful, fascinating and creepy is Google Street View. And last week, those crazy individuals — and by crazy, I mean über-talented — at Google announced that they were taking their street view to a whole new level.

In the past, their maps have been limited to places that you could get to using motorized vehicles like cars, snowmobiles, trolleys and, in the case of the Amazon and its rainforest, boat. Foot-based expeditions, though, were verboten, as the equipment wasn’t conducive for such trips. All of that has now changed with the unveiling of Google’s 40-pound, backpack-style Street View Trekker.

According to engadget.com, the device took Google a year to build, features 15 five-megapixel cameras that capture images to a hard drive and runs off a computer powered by Android. All of this technology in a backpack form will enable someone to simply strap on the pack and set off into the great unknown, while the cameras record a 360-degree view of the trek that will then be uploaded to Google and placed online for all to enjoy. Because the Street View Trekker will be subjected to individuals scrabbling around uneven terrain, eventually, Google hopes to make the device smart enough to analyze one’s gait and enable it to make adjustments for unusual vibrations.

The Google team has already tested the Trekker on ski slopes and hopes to soon take it to the Grand Canyon and other national parks, as well as historic castles and ruins. Now, while I highly recommend getting out to see these places in person — as nothing beats seeing natural wonders up close and personal — I applaud Google for helping celebrate these places by documenting them for people who might not be able to make the trek to these environmental icons. As something designed to share the beauty of the world with people around the world, this is one piece of technology I think I can get behind.


An Environmental Upbringing

by Caity Gonano

Today, Loose Leaf welcomes a guest blogger who will be joining us weekly this summer to write about forests, nature and environmental news. Caity Gonano will be a senior this fall at Virginia Tech and is spending her summer interning here at American Forests, immersing herself in our world of forests and trees, which as you’ll see from her post below is a natural fit. ~K&M

Wild Horses in Corolla, North Carolina

Wild Horses in Corolla, North Carolina. Credit: Gary Cooper/Flickr

For as long as I can remember, I have grown up in an environmentally conscious household, and most of my childhood memories revolve around spending time outdoors. I feel a strong relationship with the Earth and can credit most of this to the way I was brought up. I remember my response to junk food in preschool being, “I don’t know if I can eat this. My mom’s sort of a health and environment nut; she recycles and puts wheat germ in her morning shake.” Although embarrassed as a kid to have carrots in my lunch instead of Twinkies, I am extremely grateful that I was brought up to know the importance of conserving and respecting the environment and to have been able to experience nature firsthand in ways most people cannot.

One of my favorite places growing up was Corolla, North Carolina, on the northern part of the Outer Banks. I have come to love and appreciate the variety and quiet nature of the secluded community. Over the years, I have been chased out by a hurricane and woken up to wild horses in my front yard. Sadly, I have also witnessed environmental threats to the beauty of the beaches and variety of wildlife. I find my personal connection with such a place is what keeps me so interested in nature and wanting to preserve it.

Poás Volcano National Park, San José, Costa Rica

Caity and some classmates in Poás Volcano National Park, San José, Costa Rica. Credit: Liz Bell

During my senior year of high school, I went to Costa Rica with a group of 15 or so kids in my AP Environment class to enjoy and observe the ecologically diverse country. We took the trip to survey various tree species and learn of the diminishing populations of much of the wildlife. While there, we also ziplined through rainforests, walked across natural bridges and hiked to the top of active volcanoes. It was easy to forget I was initially there to do more than just vacation, but to enhance my understanding of the effects of climate change on the various Costa Rican communities.

Most recently, I have been a witness to the inspiring power of the environment. My mom, an occupational therapist, has created a unique therapy approach that provides all the benefits of traditional therapy with the added benefits of a truly natural environment. With the help of animals (horses, miniature sheep, chickens and ducks) and nature, she motivates children to develop new skills, become stronger and improve social skills, while participating in sensory-rich activities on our seven-acre farm.

All of this has just served as inspiration over the years, but as I get older, I realize I have the opportunity to implement everything I have grown up with into my own environmentally conscious life, and I look forward to conversing with you each week about the latest news, science and extraordinary things happening in nature.


Trees of the Sea

by Michelle Werts
Mangroves in Koh Hong, Thailand

Mangroves in Koh Hong, Thailand. Credit: Jim Winstead (jimw)/Flickr

When I hear the word ocean, I picture sparkling blue waters, colorful fish and wide open sky. Having been accused of being able to swim better than I walk, I have a natural affection for all types of water, including oceans. So today’s celebration of World Oceans Day is near to my heart. The idea of a day celebrating oceans was first proposed back in 1992 at the Earth Summit and was then unofficially celebrated for almost two decades until the United Nations officially declared June 8th as World Oceans Day in 2008. Wondering why I’m talking about oceans on a tree blog? Beyond being near to my heart, oceans are also dear to a certain tree species.

Meet the mangroves.

These trees include 80 different species that grow along tropical coastlines — most within 30 degrees of the equator — with oxygen-poor soils and slow-moving water. Actually, they don’t grow along the coastline: They grow in the water itself. Their roots act like stilts, holding their branches above the wake. This unique structure allows them to withstand the ebb and flow of the tides. They also have an ultrafiltration system to regulate the amount of salt in their system.

Beyond being fascinating to view and contemplate, mangroves provide crucial benefits to the tropical and subtropical ecosystems that they call home:

  • They provide shelter underwater for schools of fish, oysters, crabs and other aquatic life, and their branches provide shelter and food for birds, monkeys, bats, bees and more.
  • Their complex roots slow the water lapping the shore, helping control sediment buildup and reducing erosion from the shore.
  • They protect shoreline communities, acting as a buffer against powerful waves and storms.

Despite their important contributions to these ecosystems, though, mangroves are disappearing, thanks to activities like industrial shrimp farming and house/community building — beachfront property is always sought after. In the last 50 years, the world has lost about 50 percent of its mangroves. As a result, groups like American Forests have been working over the years to restore mangrove forests. For more on mangroves and the difficulties they face, check out the American Forests feature “Mangroves in the Mist.” And while celebrating the oceans today, give a thought to the trees who love the oceans, too.

mangroves

Credit: Senorhorst Jahnsen (rabanito)/Flickr


An Unfair Trade

by Katrina Marland
shipping containers

Shipping containers from Asia in the port of Oakland (Photo credit: MentalMasala/Flickr)

As a culture, we’re used to getting our products from just about anywhere in the world. In someone’s home, it isn’t uncommon to find coffee from Mexico, chocolate from Ghana, fruit from Ecuador, shrimp from Thailand and so on. We’ve gotten so used to it that we hardly notice. But the downside of having our stuff come from all over the planet is that we’re so far from the source, we don’t really register the environmental impact of our products.

A new study, recently published in the journal Nature, has taken the first fully comprehensive look at the ties between global trade and environmental impact. The team of researchers started with data on 25,000 animal species from the Red List — the list of species that are internationally recognized as threatened or endangered. Then, they looked at more than 15,000 products traded across 187 different countries and a stunning five billion supply chains, taking into account everything from the pollution created by manufacturing plants to the amount of deforestation caused by harvesting a product or the extent to which re-routing waterways for crop irrigation can affect local environments. By cross-checking all this information, researchers found that 30 percent of threats to animal species are a direct result of international trade.

orangutan

Orangutans in Indonesia are suffering extreme habitat loss because of the demand for palm oil (Photo credit: ArianZwegers/Flickr)

That number includes only direct effects of the supply chain, and doesn’t even take into account factors like the consequences of invasive species. Plants, fungi, diseases and animals can hitch a ride on shipping containers, in packing materials, in the bilge water of ships and a number of other ways to find themselves on our turf, making a new home for themselves in our native environments. As we know from our oh-so-pleasant dealings with critters like the gypsy moth and emerald ash borer, invasive species can cause severe and widespread damage all on their own.

Digging into the team’s data with greater detail, the researchers were able to pinpoint the products and countries that contribute the most to biodiversity loss, and those that suffer most because of it. They found that the U.S. was the top nation contributing to the problem because of its demand for imported goods — with Japan, Germany, France and England trailing not far behind. The flow of coffee and tea from Mexico to the U.S., for instance, is linked to 57 separate threats to species. On the other end of the supply chain, Indonesia, Madagascar Papua New Guinea, the Phillipines and Sri Lanka are paying the highest price, with the most loss of biodiversity.

Despite the fact that our international trade habits are driving species to the brink, it’s hard to imagine everyone suddenly agreeing to go without commodities like coffee or chocolate. So what can we do? The team that conducted the study hopes that their findings will lead to stricter regulations and better labeling practices so that consumers can be more aware of the impact of what they buy. Hopefully, they’re right. But I also hope that people concerned about the impact their products have on biodiversity will do some research beforehand on the brands they buy. A dollar may not go very far these days, but its impact can be felt around the world.


The Many Sides of Wildfire

by Amanda Tai

Wildfire has frequently been in the headlines this past week, as a megafire continues to blaze through the Southwest. Two separate fires, the Whitewater and Baldy, that began last week have merged and taken over Gila National Forest, becoming the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history. The Whitewater-Baldy fire has caused several highway and recreation site closures to ensure civilian safety. Burning 15 miles east of Glenwood, New Mexico, the fire started as a result of two lightning strikes and severe drought-like conditions. About 250,000 acres, approximately 390 square miles, have already been claimed by the destructive fire. To prevent the fire from spreading even faster, crews are working to contain the blaze.

You may be wondering why firefighters are trying to contain the fire rather than putting it out. It’s fairly common these days for forest managers to let wildfires burn naturally, as long as they are burning at a low intensity and are far away from people. Fire is a natural part of a forest’s life cycle that helps release necessary nutrients into the soil, and this kind of controlled, natural burning clears out debris that causes fires to spread more quickly.

Credit: Forest Service - Northern Region/Flickr

More than 1,000 firefighters are trying to keep the Whitewater-Baldy fire away from nearby communities — which is quickly spreading due to strong winds, but is burning at a lower intensity than originally anticipated. Currently, about 20 percent of the fire is contained, meaning those areas are no longer spreading and are being allowed to extinguish naturally. To accomplish this containment, firefighting crews are using a method called aerial ignition, where they get rid of debris before the wildfire reaches it, preventing the fire from spreading. With aerial ignition, debris is ignited via aircraft to keep firefighting crews far away from the flames. Despite safety precautions, firefighter safety is still a major concern for wildfire work. Just this week, tragedy struck as an aircraft carrying two Boise firefighters crashed into rugged terrain on its way to a wildfire on the Utah-Nevada border, killing both passengers.

As you can see, wildfires are an increasingly complicated matter that poses threat to both forest ecosystems and human safety. Such a complex issue requires congressional and federal agency leadership, continuous technological advancements, and community involvement. Wildfire policy must be flexible in order to adapt to changes in climate, ecosystem threats and human development. With the increase in the number of wildfires, more funding for firefighting and prevention is required, which is difficult to do with a tight federal budget.

American Forests has been a long-time advocate for a number of programs and policies that address the numerous sides of wildfires. One of these — the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act — enforces funding for wildfire prevention and suppression without dipping into other funding pools. Another is the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program that has as one of its main goals to reduce the costs of fire suppression in overgrown forests by proactively managing the forests before a fire hits. These and other programs are necessary to reduce the effects of out-of-control fires and introducing natural fire back into the forest life cycle. Fitting everything into the federal budget can be a tricky game, but it’s critical for the sake of forest communities and ecosystems that proactive approaches to wildfire management remain a funding priority.


Celebrating World Environment Day

by Michelle Werts

Today marks the 40th World Environment Day.

Started in 1972 by the United Nations, World Environment Day aims to be “the biggest and most widely celebrated global day for positive environmental action.” Each year, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) chooses a theme to help focus its environmental message around World Environment Day and the rest of the year. This year, that theme is “Green Economy: Does it include you?”

And while the phrase “green economy” might not scream forests, forests are actually an important element of the world economy. According to UNEP’s Green Economy report on forests:

Forest goods and services support the economic livelihoods of over 1 billion people, most of whom are in developing countries and are poor. While timber, paper and fibre products yield only a small fraction of global GDP [Gross Domestic Product], public goods derived from forest ecosystems have substantial economic value estimated in the trillions of dollars. Forests sustain more than 50 percent of terrestrial species, they regulate global climate through carbon storage and protect watersheds. The products of forest industries are valuable, not least because they are renewable, recyclable and biodegradable. Thus, forests are a fundamental part of the earth’s ecological infrastructure and forest goods and services are important components of a green economy.

Chitwan National Forest, Nepal

Chitwan National Forest, Nepal. Credit: chaostrophy/Flickr

For instance, in Nepal, 35 percent of the country’s citizens are involved in managing forests under community forestry practices. As a result, those involved receive employment and income through everything from protecting the forest to tree felling and log extraction to the use of non-timber forest products. And community forestry groups have been known to develop scholarship programs and provide savings and credit opportunities. All of this while Nepal’s forests now grow by 1.35 percent per year compared to a declining rate of 1.9 percent in the 1990s.

So what does this mean? If we protect and properly use our forests, they will protect and help people around the world, providing jobs while keeping our environment cleaner. Green economy indeed.

But the conversation doesn’t end today. Later this month, leaders from around the world will gather in Brazil for the Rio+20 Summit, which will continue the focus on creating a worldwide green economy to help combat global issues like the financial crisis, food crisis, ecosystem degradation and more.

Twenty years after the landmark 1992 Earth Summit, where countries adopted “Agenda 21” — a way to rethink economic growth, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection — the UN is bringing the world together again to address the major environmental issues of the day. It is once again an opportunity for concerned citizens, officials and leaders to influence how we want to shape our future. And considering the daily scientific reports of unsettling things happening in nature, in our cities and around the world that can be connected to the environment, there is no time like the present to start protecting that future.


More Trees, Please

by Katrina Marland

Across this blog and throughout the American Forests website, you can find a wealth of information about the various and sundry benefits that trees can provide — from the physical (cleaner air) to the economic (higher property value). Trees can also tell us a lot of things, whether it is the inconsequential cliché etched in their bark that “Jimmy loves Sally” or the more important (at least scientifically) history of a region’s climate. And, as pointed out recently by another blogger, trees can also tell us how wealthy a neighborhood is — from space.

In his blog, Per Square Mile, Tim DeChant discusses a 2008 study published in Landscape and Urban Planning that worked to better understand the relationship between income and tree cover in U.S. cities. What it found is that even small increases in income would increase an area’s tree cover. Similarly, even small decreases in income correlate to a decrease in tree cover. To put it simply: more money equals more trees. In his blog, Tim illustrated this point through satellite photos of high- and low-income neighborhoods. Sadly, you don’t have to look hard to see which ones are greener.

Here is a shot of Oakland, California:

Photo credit: Google Maps

Compare that to this one of Piedmont, California, less than five miles away.

Photo Credit: Google Maps

Another example can be found in the areas around Boston. Here is Somerville, Massachusetts:

Photo Credit: Google Maps

And here is the wealthier area of West Cambridge.

Photo Credit: Google Maps

The reasons behind this connection are many. Homes with higher income generally have more land and, therefore, more space for trees. Since trees can have a tougher time growing in urban settings, they’re also more expensive to obtain and care for, which means an urban tree canopy can be considered a luxury not all neighborhoods can afford. However, looking at trees as a luxury is a pretty one-dimensional view. Yes, they’re pretty, but they also provide a host of benefits, particularly in urban settings — benefits that people in high-income areas may enjoy, but that could also work to significantly improve the lives and livelihoods of people in low-income areas, like better air quality (particularly important for those who can’t afford good healthcare), higher property values and even lower crime rates. Cities always seem to have one plan or another to improve life for neighborhoods in need, many of them costly and cumbersome. Trees certainly don’t hold all the answers, but if given a chance, a touch of Mother Nature may be able to make a great deal of difference.


Take a Hike

by Michelle Werts
Hiking Vermont’s Long Trail

Hiking Vermont’s Long Trail. Credit: Adam Franco/Flickr

Tomorrow, Americans across the country will be celebrating the 19th annual National Trails Day, which was started by the American Hiking Society back in 1993 — but the idea of a day for celebrating America’s hiking trails actually goes farther back.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan’s President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors recommended that every person in the country should be able to walk out their front door and reach a trail within 15 minutes. While this might not be a reality for every American yet, the country does boast 200,000 miles of hiking, biking and other types of trails that can be enjoyed tomorrow — and every day. And the benefits they provide are never-ending.

First, there’s the obvious: Physical activity is good for you. Getting out and hiking or biking along a recreational trail helps keep your body in shape. Plus, as featured in American Forests, studies show that being amidst forests helps reduce stress, lower blood pressure and strengthen immune systems.

And, now, a new study is revealing that not only is traipsing through nature good for your body, it’s good for your brain. The study conducted by the University of Kansas’ Ruth Ann Atchley reveals that hikers who have been on a trail for four days are 50 percent more creative than those who haven’t been communing with nature. So get out and enjoy some of America’s trails to benefit your mind and body!

Where to go?

Well, there’s always the Triple Crown of long-distance hiking trails:

  • The Appalachian Trail – 2,000 miles that stretch from Georgia to Maine
  • The Pacific Crest – 2,600-plus miles that traverse the Cascade and Sierra Nevada Mountains from British Columbia down to California
  • The Continental Divide – 3,000 miles along the famous divide from Montana to New Mexico that takes travelers to high-altitude peaks in the Rockies

… or, you can head to some of American Forests’ Best Hiking Trails in the U.S.

… or, urban dwellers can check out National Geographic’s list of the best hiking cities for trails ideas. They also have a list of the best trails in national parks.

… or, you can simply go through your front door and just keep walking. Big trail, small trail, no trail, sidewalk or other walking surface, the spirit of National Trails Day is just to get out and enjoy nature. I’ll see you there.


Smoggy Sequoias

by Katrina Marland

Giant sequoias in Sequoia National Park. Credit: James Berk/Flickr

More often than not, you expect a park or forest to have pretty clean air. Even more so if it happens to be a well-known place, located far from the nearest urban center that could be smogging up its air. But sadly, this is not always the case. Sequoia National Park, home to some of the biggest and oldest trees in the U.S., is also home to a higher level of air pollution than any other national park.

There are 52 national parks in the U.S. that monitor their air quality each day to make sure that it is safe for visitors. High temperatures, levels of smog and levels of certain allergens or pollutants can all add up to make a bad air-quality day. Ozone in particular can be a nasty problem, capable of literally causing lungs to blister when it’s found at high enough concentrations. That national parks — the places we go to get away from cities and their many urban problems — also have to monitor for air pollution is a bit alarming. This week, the EPA and the National Park Service released a list of the 10 national parks with the worst pollution in 2011 based on ozone levels and days that failed to meet EPA standards for air quality, and Sequoia National Park topped the list.

Despite its reputation for immense trees and remote forests, Sequoia had a total of 87 days that failed to meet federal air-quality standards in 2011 — and it’s hardly a new problem. Park employees and volunteers have come to expect regular lectures on the dangers of air pollution and watch as once-clear vistas have become routinely wreathed in smog. In fact, according to the National Park Conservation Association (NPCA), Sequoia National Park has levels of ozone comparable to those in major cities like Los Angeles. Already this year, though summer has just begun, the park has seen levels of ozone well beyond those set by federal health standards.

How can this be the case when the park is miles away from the closest city? Unfortunately, it comes down to a quirk of geography. The park lies north of the San Joaquin Valley, which contains several major trucking highways, a number of power and food-processing plants and acres upon acres of farmland overseen by diesel-powered machinery. Pollution from this region is pushed north by winds off San Francisco Bay and meets the cooler air moving south, creating an eddy that traps the polluted air in the region, which gives it a chance to seep into the area where the park is located.

View from webcam of smog in Sequoia National Park. Credit: National Park Service

Human safety is certainly important, but such severe air pollution in what is supposed to be a remote, natural location also begs the question, what about the trees? Scientists are uncertain what effect long-term exposure to these levels of ozone might have on the environment in these locations, though foresters do see needles turn yellow as the trees soak up ozone, which interferes with their ability to photosynthesize. Young seedlings also struggle to survive and grow with such obstacles to overcome.

With this disturbing news about air pollution in national parks, we can only hope that Sequoia and other parks will benefit from legislation like the Clean Air Act, through which officials aim to give the region pure, clean air by the year 2064. The problem is that the only way to cut down on the pollution that enters Sequoia is to cut down on the pollution in the entire San Joaquin Valley air basin — a tall order given the sheer number of sources of pollution.


(500) Jobs of Summer

by Amanda Tai

Credit: a loves dc/Flickr

Memorial Day weekend is viewed as the official kickoff of summer. This past weekend, many folks headed to the beach or gathered at backyard barbeques to celebrate the holiday. It’s also the time of year when schools let out, and young people start looking for summer jobs. But unlike the flocks of interns that flood D.C. in the summer, some young people are planning to spend their summers working outside. Thanks to a new federal grant program, there are even more opportunities for youth to work outside this summer. With $3.7 million available for conservation projects, the grant will help employ more than 500 youths over the summer, adding to the existing 20,000-plus youth summer employment opportunities in national forests, parks and wildlife refuges.

Since President Obama launched his America’s Great Outdoors Initiative back in 2010, conservation and outdoor recreation have been highlighted as ways that we can protect our natural heritage. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), U.S. Department of Interior (DOI), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) worked together to develop a conservation action plan after receiving more than 100,000 public comments.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Summer Intern. Credit: YouthGO.gov

In response to the Obama administration’s call to expand youth engagement in the outdoors, DOI Secretary Ken Salazar, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley recently announced the creation of a new competitive grant program to expand the summer youth corps on public lands. The grant program is part of a new Youth Initiative funded through the Bureau of Land Management (part of DOI), the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service and private partners from the America’s Great Outdoors development initiative. The initiative’s website serves as an educational resource for youth, provides an events calendar to find local opportunities to engage and even has an online job search available.

Secretary Salazar noted the importance of engaging young people in working on public lands and developing the next generation of land stewards: “President Obama’s call to expand summer job opportunities for young people is helping us engage and train the next generation of natural resource professionals and build a workforce that represents all of America.” So, whether it’s indoors or outdoors, an intern at an environmental nonprofit or working in a national forest, it’s encouraging to see how summer jobs are shaping the future of conservation.