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.

For the Love of Trees

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Earlier this month, the International Society of Arborists (ISA) announced the five members of the 2012 class of its “True Professionals of Arboriculture.”

According to ISA President Colin Bashford, “The True Professional honor is a celebration of those who reach for and strive to maintain high standards of the arboriculture industry. Their achievements and ideas educate and inspire others. We are proud they play such a leading role in promoting quality tree care.”

Since arborists are on the frontlines every day, protecting and studying trees in our cities, communities and forests, Loose Leaf is taking the next five Fridays to recognize this year’s “True Professionals” in celebration of the work of thousands of dedicated arborists across the country and around the world.

First up is Tim Kastning, an Idaho-based, ISA-Certified arborist and owner of Grace Tree Service, Inc.

Tim Kastning did not always plan on being an arborist. In fact, he was studying theology at Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo., when his “true calling” struck. He was 25 years old and doing lawn-care work as the owner of American Lawn and Garden in Springfield. While driving down a street one day, he spotted a worker aloft in a tree on a rope and saddle.

Tim Kastning

Credit: Tim Kastning/ISA

“The man was tip-tying branches and roping them down over a house,” Kastning remembers. “I watched from my truck for about a half hour, and it was there I decided I wanted to do tree work. When this person came down from the tree, I introduced myself. Right then he taught me two knots — a taught-line hitch and a bowline. I memorized them and went home to practice them. I later bought some chainsaws, rope from a farm-and-feed store and climbing gear. I thought I was prepared. I remember the first tree I pruned was a large pin oak about 30 inches in diameter, and I killed it.”

Fortunately, the death of that tree didn’t end his career. With no real formal education in arboriculture, Kastning took advantage of various industry programs and quietly got involved where he could. He became an ISA-certified arborist, a board-certified master arborist, certified tree risk assessor and certified tree care safety professional and maintains ISA certifications as a municipal arborist specialist.

Kastning looks to his community to grow as an arborist and to run a business with a clear focus on giving back. One day while at a Chamber of Commerce leadership meeting in Coeur d’Alene, he learned about ElderHelp and the firewood charity program.

“As a tree-care company, we don’t sell firewood, so I try to dispose of it however I can,” admits Kastning. “Between the United Way and ElderHelp, we formed a partnership to provide about 100 cord a year to the elderly who cannot afford to buy it. Community volunteers from churches and clubs come to our yard nearly every Saturday in the fall to split up the wood and deliver it. This wood comes from trees that have to be removed, so if we don’t sell it, it’s ground up and sent off. This is a better and higher use of it in the end.”

“I learned a lot about arboriculture on my own,” continues Kastning, “So the best advice I can give another arborist is to simply apply oneself to education and certifications, set up a business well and follow the laws. There are a lot of arborists that ‘do what we do.’ There are fewer arborists that know ‘why’ they do what they do. The more I know about arboriculture, the more I realize there’s always more to learn.” –ISA and Tim Kastning

Come back next Friday to meet an arborist who spent 25 years working in oil fields before making the switch to arboriculture.

Preparing for Wildfire

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

High Park Wildfire in Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland

A firefighter wets down area in front of private home in an effort to retard the advance of the High Park Wildfire in Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland on Thursday, June 10, 2012. The High Park Wildfire began on June 9, 2012, because of a lightning strike on private land. Credit: U.S. Forest Service

More than 6.3 million acres across the U.S. have burned in wildland fires this year so far — and dozens of fires are actively burning. Often, when we talk about wildfires, we focus on forest land-management practices, which then devolves into debates questions about fire suppression, prescribed burns and thinning and more. This can lead to policy questions and funding debates that happen far away from the burning fires. However, there are things that those most directly affected by the fires can do to help protect their homes and neighborhoods from the destruction that fire can wreak.

Smokey Bear famously proclaims that “you can prevent forest fires,” but this statement could be expanded to “and prevent the spread of forest fires.” Fires need fuel to burn — leaf debris, lawn trimmings and more all serve as food for a fire — which is why the U.S. Forest Service, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and Ad Council have instituted a new Fire Adapted Community campaign, designed to help homeowners, land managers, community leaders and fire and emergency responders institute pre-fire strategies that will help protect everyone if a wildfire strikes nearby.

What is a Fire Adapted Community? That’s pretty simple: It’s a community that acknowledges its fire risk and takes steps to diminish it.

Why is it important to become a Fire Adapted Community? Because more than 70,000 communities nationwide are near or within fire-prone ecosystems and are at risk of wildfire.

How does a community become Fire Adapted? That’s the best part: It’s not hard.

  • For individual homeowners, it’s simple things like keeping your roof and gutters clean and making sure you don’t leave your lawn clippings piled up.
  • For developers and business owners, it’s doing things like not building in high-fire-risk areas and using non-combustible building materials.
  • For neighborhoods, it means developing emergency response plans and helping homeowners keep their lawns debris free.

Wildfire knows no political, jurisdictional or other kind of boundary — pretty much just like everything related to the environment. Therefore, we must all work together to protect ourselves, our communities and our natural landscapes. To learn more about becoming Fire Adapted, visit

Fire Adapted Community

Protecting Our Parks

by Amanda Tai

A scene from the Blue Ridge Parkway in the mountains of North Carolina. Credit: Soil Science/Flickr

Federal agencies are bracing themselves for a funding crisis with budget sequestration cuts looming if Congress fails to create a plan to reduce the federal deficit. To boost funding and support, could online media be a part of the solution?

The Obama administration just announced a makeover to, the interagency website to get people to explore America’s public places. The new design provides users with a more interactive experience, where they can watch videos, plan trips and even make online reservations for their upcoming adventures. It comes as part of a multi-year effort to boost the economy through outdoor recreation and travel. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack hopes the new site will help boost the estimated $646 billion that tourism and recreation already contribute to the U.S. economy. While this figure is good news for the economy, the National Park Service is still struggling to operate on a tight budget.

Soldiers in Fredericksburg after the battle of Spotsylvania, 1864. Credit: expertinfantry/Flickr

The National Park Service makes up only one-fourteenth of one percent of the federal budget. Cuts of up to 10 percent could be made across-the-board if there is a budget sequestration — even though cutting 10 percent of one-fourteenth of one percent won’t make a dent in the deficit. Park managers are highly concerned about the effect that budget sequestration could have on jobs and the ability for parks to stay open and operating. Fixed operating costs that rely on federal funds represent a high portion of park budgets like for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and Blue Ridge Parkway. These parks could really suffer if funding is cut by 10 percent. Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA), tells The Washington Post that federal funding is the number one threat to national parks, and this means that policymakers are going to have to face some tough decisions.

In a recent poll commissioned by the NPCA and the National Park Hospitality Association, voters said they want the government to ensure protection of our national parks through federal funding. Voters also expressed concern about funding shortages negatively affecting national parks’ visitor experiences. According to the poll, parks continue to receive bipartisan support, which hopefully carries over to Congress. You can urge Congress to reach a budget deal that ensures protection of our national parks by signing onto NPCA’s letter. It would be sad to see any of our national parks close, but if Congress doesn’t listen to what voters are saying, it may become a reality.

Urban Forests for Healthy Healing

by Melinda Housholder, Urban Forests Program Director

Urban forests are vital to help maintain our emotional, mental and physical well-being.

Credit: Alex E. Proimos/Flickr

The evening before I had wrist surgery a few weeks ago, I went for a jog. In a time when I was feeling anxious and just needed some time to think about the road of recovery ahead of me, I found myself jogging along a neighborhood trail within my local urban forest. I couldn’t help but notice that my surroundings immediately made me feel much better — more relaxed and encouraged to cope with the challenges ahead. That evening, I ran past the oaks, sycamores, sweetgums and elms of my community, leaving my worries behind me and feeling the peaceful strength and soothing encouragement that came from the green landscape around me.

I think most people would agree that seeing trees or being within nature can just make a person feel better — emotionally, mentally and physically. In fact, the National Park Service and Institute of the Golden Gate have recently been involved in promoting the health benefits of being outside through a program called “Park Prescriptions,” which helps connect healthcare and park resources.

The Park Prescriptions fact sheet provides several research examples of how exposure to nature has significant health benefits:

  • A Danish study published in 2007 concluded that adults who could easily reach a green space had less stress and a lower body mass. Similar results were reported in a study of more than 3,000 inner-city children in the United States.
  • A 2005 American Journal of Medicine article reported that people with ready access to parks or open spaces were 50 percent more likely to adhere to a regular walking regimen.
  • A 2010 UK study in Environmental Science and Technology showed a positive dose-response relationship between exercise in nature and mental health, particularly for young subjects. 
  • Runners reported lower levels of stress and depression when exercising in nature than when exercising in an urban setting.


As I have been slowly recovering over the past few weeks, I have truly appreciated the urban forest outside of my windows. Not only does it offer a pleasant view that blocks the busy highway, but it also offers habitat for wildlife that allows me to enjoy the song birds and rhythmic tunes of the cicadas — helping to bring a sense of peace and relaxation to my environment as I recover.

Have you ever felt that your urban forest helped improve your stress, recovery or overall state of mind?

A Hoot in the Forest

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

One of my very first “science” reports back in elementary school was on the snowy owl. Years later, that same school system would introduce me to dissection via an owl pellet — much, much better in my estimation than the cliché of a frog. Through these formative school experiences, I’ve always had a soft spot for owls, so when news broke last week about the discovery of two new owl species — made by an assistant professor at my alma mater no less! — I immediately wanted to learn more.

Top left: Cebu hawk-owl. Bottom right: Camiguin hawk-owl

Top left: Cebu hawk-owl. Bottom right: Camiguin hawk-owl. Credit: Oriental Bird Club, original painting by John Gale

In a paper in the current issue of Forktail, Journal of Asian Ornithology, researchers revealed that two owls long thought to be simple subspecies of Ninox hawk-owls are actually species in their own right. What caused this breakthrough? Bird song.

According to the paper’s lead author Pam Rasmussen, a Michigan State University assistant professor of zoology, in a release about the breakthrough, “The owls don’t learn their songs, which are genetically programmed in their DNA and are used to attract mates or defend their territory; so if they’re very different, they must be new species. When we first heard the songs of both owls, we were amazed because they were so distinctly different that we realized they were new species.”

The first of these new owls is named the Camiguin hawk-owl, after the island where it’s found: Camiguin Sur in the Philippines. An interesting, distinctive characteristic of this owl — besides its song, of course — is its blue-gray eyes, as it’s the only known owl species to have eyes that color. The second new species is actually an owl long thought to be extinct: the Cebu hawk-owl, named after the Philippine forests it calls home. Before its vocalizations were studied, scientists simply thought the Cebu hawk-owl was a subspecies of another hawk-owl.

If you’re curious about what these unique bird songs sound like, Michigan State’s Avian Vocalizations Center has them available for a listen. Who knew that a hoot could be so informative?


Returning to Stadium Woods

by Loose Leaf Team

I have spent the last three months interning here at American Forests. In the next week, I will be returning to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., to complete my senior year with a wealth of knowledge of trees, forests and the environment that I have learned in these past months. I feel like I have gained so much appreciation for trees and their benefits, so when I received an email on Monday of a press release out of Blacksburg regarding the cutting down of an 85-foot tree in the old-growth forests behind my apartment at school, it hit close to home — in multiple ways.

Virginia Tech's Stadium Woods

A satellite view of the Virginia Tech campus, showing Lane Stadium the lower left with Stadium Woods running along the right of the image. The area outlined in orange is site proposed for the new practice facility. Credit: Google Maps

In April, Loose Leaf talked about the plans that Virginia Tech’s Athletic Department has to cut down the old-growth forest, Stadium Woods, that lies adjacent to the football stadium in order to build a new indoor athletics practice facility. The release about the felled oak Monday is some of the only news on the status of this project since last spring. The release states, “Virginia Tech President Charles Steger has not made an announcement stating if the university will preserve the old-growth Stadium Woods, as the appointed review committee recommended in May 2012, or allow its destruction by building the proposed indoor athletic facility.” With no announcement made about the plans for the facility, we can only hope that the death last week of this ancient tree will bring attention to the serious matter at hand.

The tree, known as number 131, represents the history and diversity of the 11 acres of old-growth forest that will be destroyed if plans for the facility go through. Rebekah Paulson, executive director of Friends of Stadium Woods, thinks that the death of this tree reveals a sad future for the still-standing forest: “Virginia Tech officials seem intent on erecting the proposed indoor practice facility for the football team no matter the environmental cost. Ignoring all requests to delay the removal of tree number 131, one of the largest trees in Stadium Woods, is another indication of the administration’s lack of respect for the old-growth trees and the integrity of the woods.” According to university officials, the tree was removed for safety reasons, as independent, certified arborists determined that number 131 had 10-foot-long hollow area near its base, making the tree unstable. However, some members of the university’s Arboretum Committee, which requested the evaluation, had asked for a reprieve for 131 while the bigger issue of Stadium Woods is being debated.

As a Hokie football fan and tree lover, this story pulls me in all directions. But I must side with the trees this time. Hopefully, number 131 will be the only tragedy this old-growth forest will have to endure in the coming years. If you would like to know more about the issue or sign the petition, you can visit

Americans Head Outside

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Fishing at Eureka Lake

Fishing at Eureka Lake. Credit: Rachel Gardner (RaGardner4)/Flickr

Last year, 90 million Americans (about 38 percent of the population) engaged in some form of wildlife recreation — from hunting and fishing to wildlife watching. According to a report released yesterday by the Department of the Interior (DOI), this equaled $145 billion spent on licenses, gear, trips and more — making up one percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. And while the idea of hunting and fishing might initially sound counterintuitive to conservation, the truth is that licenses and other expenses for these types of recreation activities help fund conservation initiatives.

In 1937, the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act was passed, followed 12 years later by the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act, whose goal was to provide funding for wildlife and fish conservation to U.S. states and territories. These acts formed the basis of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration (WSFR) Program, which administers funding to the states through a grant program. This grant program is funded largely thanks to wildlife recreation.

According to a WSFR informational brochure, “Industry partners pay excise taxes and import duties on equipment and gear manufactured for purchase by hunters, anglers, boaters, archers and recreational shooters.” Add this to taxes on motorboat and small engine fuels, firearms and ammunition, goods imported for sport fishing and boating, and fishing and archery items, and you have a nice chunk of change to distribute to states for conservation initiatives. For instance, Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources claims that 95 percent of the funds it uses for fish and wildlife management, hunting and fishing regulations and habitat protection come from the funding provided through the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson Acts.

Thankfully that funding appears to be increasing, as the new DOI report reveals significant increases in hunters and fishers since 2006 — the last time this five-year report was published — which bucked the declining trends of the last several reports. In the announcement, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar says, “Seeing more people fishing, hunting and getting outdoors is great news for America’s economy and conservation heritage. Outdoor recreation and tourism are huge economic engines for local communities and the country, so it is vital that we continue to support policies and investments that help Americans get outside, learn to fish or go hunting.”

For a program that is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, having increased engagement is a wonderful present — that will keep giving back to us all.