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.

Additionally:

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 http://www.savestadiumwoods.com/.


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.


A Fight for Funding

by Amanda Tai

House Ag Appropriations Subcommittee at a FY 2013 budget hearing. Credit: USDAgov/Flickr

Last fall, the Congressional Supercommittee failed to reach a final deficit reduction plan. If Congress doesn’t come up with a solution again this year; government programs are going to see some devastating budget hits. It can be hard to see how federal budget cuts impact our daily lives, but to give you an idea, this series of cuts could result in reduced functions within our agriculture industry, national parks and even weather service. That’s what happens during a budget sequestration — a series of across-the-board cuts to federal programs. And if this happens, the U.S. Forest Service’s budget could be reduced by 10 percent starting as soon as January 2013!

It’s doubtful that Congress will address the budget deficit situation until after the November election. But if they wait that long, there isn’t much time left in 2012 for them to figure out a budget plan. If Congress fails to agree on a federal budget-reduction plan in the next few months, we may face a budget sequestration starting in 2013. After receiving bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, President Obama signed off on the Sequestration Transparency Act late last month, formalizing a $1.2 trillion budget cut to domestic and defense programs over the next 10 years. This act will go into effect in 2013 if Congress is unable to agree on another way to address the federal deficit and would consist of automatic cuts for federal funding across all agencies and programs. Only a few programs would be spared  from these cuts, such as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.

So what kind of impact would these budget cuts have on our national forest and land-management agencies? The cuts would begin on January 2, 2013, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) could be asked to cut up to $2.2 billion in discretionary program spending for FY 2013. That’s a 10 percent cut in the USDA budget! Falling under the USDA umbrella, a 10 percent cut for the U.S. Forest Service budget would equate to $486 million. This would have a significant impact on all of the agency’s work, including wildfire management, recreational trail maintenance, conservation projects, invasive species management, wildlife habitat restoration and the jobs associated with this work.

The Sequestration Transparency Act requires the agencies to supply the administration with a detailed report of the proposed budget cuts by the first week of September, so we should know what’s on the chopping block in the next month. Our land-management agencies are already operating under tight budgets, so I really hope I don’t have to see what happens after another slash to their budgets.


Completion of the Appalachian Trail

by Loose Leaf Team

Seventy five years ago today, the 2,184-mile Appalachian Trail was completed. Finishing the trail was a huge task that took more than 15 years and hundreds of volunteers. Today, though, it is unlikely that the original volunteers would even recognize it with all the transformation it has undergone over the years.

Credit: Rebecca Sudduth/Flickr

In its 75-year existence, it is estimated that 99 percent of the original trails have been relocated or rebuilt to better protect the land and navigate more scenic landscapes. The relocations and reconstruction of the trail have made it much more sustainable since the original trail was routed straight up and down mountains, which made pathways inclined to erosion. Each year, trail crews manipulate and move sections of the trail in order to maintain and improve the path. Mark Wenger, executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry tells the Associated Press, “One of the tenets of the trail is to provide that personal experience of sort of being one with nature. You can’t necessarily do that if you’re walking along a major highway. So it’s been relocated to give it some degree of privacy and that sense of the wonder of nature.”

Fun facts of the Appalachian Trail:

  • It is estimated that five million steps are required to complete the trail.
  • It passes through 14 states: (from south to north) GA, TN, NC, VA, WV, MD, PA, NJ, NY, CT, MA, VT, NH and ME
  • The trail is marked by more than 160,000 white “blazes” that are six inches by two inches in size. They are primarily found on the trees lining the path.
  • Virginia is home to the most miles of the trail (about 550), while West Virginia is home to the least (about four).
  • Maryland and West Virginia are the easiest states to hike, while New Hampshire and Maine are the hardest.
  • The total elevation gain of hiking the entire trail is equivalent to climbing Mount Everest.
  • The trail spans across six national parks and eight national forests.

Each year two to three million people visit some section of the Appalachian Trail, but only 2,000-3,000 people each summer attempt the “thru-hike” of journeying along the entire length — and only one in four are successful. If you are anywhere along the East Coast this summer, there is a chance that the Appalachian Trail is not far out of your reach. Take a day, week or month and see how far you can make it on this historic trail. Enjoy what it is today, as, who knows, it could be completely transformed in the next 75 years.

A view along the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park.

A view along the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park. Credit: Compass Points Media/Flickr


Weathering the Weather

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Traditionally, in the U.S., August weather is described as the dog days of summer. (Fun-fact alert: The expression “dog days” goes back to the Greeks and Romans who noticed that Sirius — the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, meaning large dog — would rise at daybreak and therefore thought it brought the summer heat.) However, with this year’s record-breaking heat waves, it feels like the dog days have been with us for months, and as a result, we’re already seeing their consequences while the heat is still upon us.

Cannibalized Corn Crops

Corn is harvested on a farm in Augusta County, Virginia, in 2008

Corn is harvested on a farm in Augusta County, Virginia, in 2008. Credit: Bob Nichols/USDA

With the mild temperatures of spring in the air, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that a record corn harvest was expected this year, as farmers had planted the most acres of the crop since 1937. In a few short months, that prediction went horribly wrong.

On Friday, the USDA announced that it expected the corn crop to be at its lowest level since 2006. But for individual farmers, the news is even worse, as the average yields per farmer are expected to be at their lowest level in the last 17 years. And things could still get worse. Plus, there’s the ripple effect, as a majority of the corn being affected isn’t the kind that us humans eat, but the kind that livestock and poultry eat, meaning we could see an increase in meat prices early next year.

Hungry Bears

The drought hasn’t just been affecting America’s crops, but it’s also impacting our natural areas. For bears — among other animals — this has meant shriveled and dry food sources. And a hungry bear is a roaming one.

Bear rummaging through trash

Credit: Mark F. Levisay/Flickr

You may have noticed that there have been quite a large number of bear sightings in the news recently. Many biologists are attributing this to the fact that bears’ normal food sources aren’t producing, and therefore, the mammals are getting creative in their hunt for sustenance — recently, a bear in Estes Park, Colo., broke into the same candy store seven times to score some sweet stuff.

“This has been an interesting year for bears, especially in the Catskills,” Jeremy Hurst, a big-game biologist with the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation, tells the Associated Press. “In multiple communities, bears have gotten into people’s homes, in some cases even when people were at home. Half a dozen to a dozen bears have been euthanized. More have been trapped and relocated. Typically, complaints of bear damage peak in late spring, but this year, the frequency of bear complaints picked up strongly with the drought in July.”

Hurricane Season

Okay, so technically, this one doesn’t have to do with the drought, but it is weather related, so I’m going with it.

On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season may produce more named storms than originally thought. In May, NOAA anticipated we’d see a “near-normal” season of nine-15 storms. Now, the administration thinks we could see up to 17 named storms this year.

“We are increasing the likelihood of an above-normal season because storm-conducive wind patterns and warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures are now in place in the Atlantic,” says Gerry Bell, Ph.D., lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at the Climate Prediction Center, in NOAA’s announcement. “These conditions are linked to the ongoing high activity era for Atlantic hurricanes that began in 1995. Also, strong early-season activity is generally indicative of a more active season.”

Fingers crossed that these storms stay at sea and away from America’s coastlines.


The Father of Conservation

by Loose Leaf Team
Pinchot with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, 1907.

Pinchot with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, 1907. Credit: Emerson7/Wikimedia Commons

Saturday marks the birthday of Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forests Service. He is known as the “father of conservation” and credited for launching the conservation movement in the United States by urging Americans to preserve the past in order to protect the future. When asked by his father as a young boy, “How would you like to be a forester?” Pinchot answered, “I had no conception of what it meant to be a forester than the man in the moon … but at least a forester worked in the woods and with the woods — and I loved the woods and everything about them. … My father’s suggestion settled the question in favor of forestry.” Now, that’s what I would call loving what you do!

Pinchot traveled —no matter the cost — to learn forestry skills in a time when no American university offered a degree, or even a class, on the subject. After graduating from Yale, he took his studies abroad to France, where he began to frame his opinions on forestry. Upon his return to the United States, he first worked as a resident forester at Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Forest Estate before eventually finding his way to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he was named chief of the Division of Forestry. Around the same time his friend, Theodore Roosevelt, was being elected president. Then, the management of forest reserves shifted from the Department of Interior to the Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Forest Service was created. This new service tapped Pinchot to be its first chief.

Serving just five years in office, he helped the United States to go from 60 units covering 56 million acres of forest reserves to 150 national forests covering 172 million acres. After serving as chief, Pinchot continued his forestry services by helping to set up the Society of American Foresters. And, the U.S. Forest Service’s chief is honored with a 1.6 million-acre national forest in Washington that bears his name.

This weekend, I encourage you to go out and enjoy the outdoors, whether it be in one of our nation’s national forests or not, to celebrate Gifford Pinchot and his contributions to conservation and forestry.


Happy Birthday, Smokey!

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Today, one of the most famous bears in the country celebrates his 68th birthday. The U.S. Forest Service and Ad Council’s famous Smokey Bear made his first appearance back in 1944 with the tagline “Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires.” And while Smokey’s visage has undergone many changes over the years, his basic message has always stayed the same: When in nature, we must be sure to leave it the way we found it. Here’s 68 pots of well-deserved honey to you big guy!


Changing Wildfire Policy for a Changing Climate

by Amanda Tai

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that fire is a natural part of a forest’s life cycle that helps replenish soil nutrients. It’s for this reason that wildfires are usually allowed to burn out on their own , granted that they remain at a low intensity and are far from developed areas.

Credit: footloosiety/Flickr

However, a new U.S. Forest Service directive has put a temporary hold the agency’s typical response to wildfires for the last two decades. This new directive instructs forest supervisors to act more proactively by quickly putting out wilderness fires in the early stages, while they’re still small, instead of using more manpower and equipment to monitor the fire. The hope is that putting out small wildfires will ultimately save the agency time and resources, as things like equipment, aircrafts and firefighting crews will be more readily available to tend to higher-priority fires that may arise near developed and populated areas.

This new directive is the end result of too many fires and not enough funding. Kris Reichenbach, public affairs officer for Superior National Forest, told Minnesota Public Radio that this directive aims to improve the agency’s approach to national wildfire emergencies and make better use of funding. Based on the string of huge fires that have plagued the West this summer — forcing people to evacuate their homes — the agency hopes the directive addresses issues of resource availability for catastrophic wildfires. In an agency-wide memo, James E. Hubbard, U.S. Forest Service deputy chief for state and private forestry, supported the directive, stating that “safe aggressive initial attack is often the best suppression strategy to keep unwanted wildfires small and costs down.”

I’m encouraged by the U.S. Forest Service’s plan to use their resources more effectively to stop a fire in its initial stages, but I wonder how these efforts will keep up with the rise of megafires. According to NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen, climate change is one of the major factors that intensify wildfire. In the last few years, unusually hot, dry and windy weather conditions — the products of climate change — have caused fires like the Pagami Creek Fire in Minnesota and the Whitewater-Baldy Fire in Colorado to quickly become catastrophic in scale. Such conditions are putting even more strain on firefighting resources, as fires are spreading and intensifying faster than ever. In the U.S., from 2002-2011, wildfires burned an average of 6.9 million acres annually. That’s almost double the annual average from the previous decade!

As the issue of wildfire becomes more and more complex, it’s important to take a management approach that takes all factors into consideration — development, climate change, weather conditions, etc. This is a critical time for wildfire management, especially when it appears as though these megafires are becoming the new norm.