Big Trees for Big Owls

by Susan Laszewski

Last week, we posted an interview with American Forests Science Advisory Board member Dr. Jerry Franklin about the importance of big, old trees. He told us how old trees fill an ecological niche that young trees just can’t provide: “Big, old trees have suffered the slings and arrows of climate, insects and diseases, and so they typically have a lot of features like cavities, which are really important from the standpoint of wildlife,” says Dr. Franklin.

Blakiston’s fish owl.

Blakiston’s fish owl. Credit: Hiyashi Haka/Flickr

This week, a new study illustrates his point. The largest owl in the world — the Blakiston’s fish owl of eastern Russia — relies on riparian old growth both for breeding and for feeding, says the study, which is a joint project of the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Minnesota. The owl has a six-foot wingspan, so only big, old trees have cavities large enough to accommodate its nests. The birds’ dietary habits also benefit from big, old trees. A favorite food of the owl is salmon. When big, old riparian trees die and fall into streams and rivers they create diversity in the water’s flow; as the stream makes its way around, over and under these obstacles, areas of different current speed and depth are created, which are necessary for salmon in different stages of life.

The researchers, whose study will be published in October in the journal Oryx, say the health of the population of Blakiston’s fish owl, currently listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is a strong indicator of the health of the forest. The 7,804 square miles of forest that were studied are also home to a number of species of salmon and trout, other owl species and the Siberian tiger, among other wildlife.

Of course, big, old trees on their own are do not make for a healthy forest. “You really need all stages of successional development of forests in our federal forest landscapes. … We need to be thinking about the early stages of succession, as well as the old stages,” says Dr. Franklin, which relates to another new study published this week.

A study in Nature Climate Change has found that Europe’s forests are reaching a carbon sink saturation point sooner than expected — as soon as 2030 — due in part to a lack of age diversity. According to the study, replanting projects were common in Europe following World War II, and now, those aging trees’ rate of carbon absorption is slowing, while younger trees poised to absorb more carbon are being harvested. The research team recommends including some old-growth forests in harvesting programs in these areas.

Examples are all over the globe: From providing wildlife habitat to sequestering carbon, age diversity is a key to healthy forests.

A Lifetime of Conservation, A Lasting Legacy

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Margret “Mardy” Murie

Margret “Mardy” Murie. Credit: USFWS

In 1924, right after becoming the first female graduate of the University of Alaska, an intrepid young woman and her new husband embarked on an unusual honeymoon: a 500-mile caribou research trip — by dogsled — through the Alaskan wilderness. This was only one of many nature adventures that Margret “Mardy” Murie would undertake in her lifetime. Her passion and commitment to the environment earned her the nickname “Grandmother of the Conservation Movement.” Sunday would have been her 112th birthday, while this October marks the 10th anniversary of her death. Mardy Murie’s contributions to conservation, though, will hopefully span many lifetimes to come.

Alongside her husband, Olaus, Mardy Murie was instrumental in getting a number of major conservation laws passed, including:

  • The designation of eight million Alaskan acres as Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1960.
  • The creation of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which defined “wilderness” in a legal sense and set aside 9.1 million acres for protection.
  • The passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980, which protected 104 million acres in Alaska — doubling the size of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — and doubled the size of America’s national park and refuge system.
Bear Mountain on the Sitka Ranger District of Tongass National Forest

Bear Mountain on the Sitka Ranger District of Tongass National Forest. Credit: Mary Stensvold/USFS Region 10

For her years of conservation efforts, in 1998, President Clinton awarded Murie the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Murie died in October 2003 at age 101, one year after receiving the National Wildlife Federation’s highest honor, The J.N. “Ding” Darling Conservationist of the Year Award. Her legacy, of course, lives on, and some of that legacy is still steeped in legal and conservation battles.

As mentioned, one of Murie’s major accomplishments was helping get ANILCA passed, which protected millions of acres of Alaskan wilderness. It initially took three years and dozens of drafts to get the act in pass-able shape, and even after its passage, ANILCA has found itself mired in 30 years of battles over various aspects of the bill. One of the key battles that is still being waged in Congress today surrounds land ownership.

A polar bear and her young along the Beaufort Sea coast in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

A polar bear and her young along the Beaufort Sea coast in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Susanne Miller/USFWS

When Alaska became a state in 1959, part of the deal was that the state could sell 104 million acres of land as a revenue base, but while selecting this land, the state began to encroach upon lands valued by the Alaskan Native communities. This led to the creation of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971, which gave the Native communities the right to select 44 million acres of federal land in Alaska for themselves with a catch: Approximately 80 million acres were excluded from potential selection because of their potential to be designated as federally protected lands (i.e. national parks, wildlife refuges, etc.). Nine years later, with ANILCA, the federal government tried to address many of the swirling questions around those 80 million acres, including how these lands could be accessed, what activities were allowed on them and more. With its passage, the issue of federal versus native versus other land in Alaska was partly settled, with the other part still up for debate today.

For years, various versions of the Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act (S. 340) — better known as the Sealaska lands bill — have been proposed to Congress with an aim to finalize an exchange of lands still owed under ANCSA, some of which were originally excluded for inclusion. The most recent version of the bill passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in June, meaning that the bill could be called to a floor vote if Congress is so inclined. Many groups, including American Forests, have watched this bill closely over the years, and it will be interesting to see what happens with it next.

Showing Support for Clean Water

by Susan Laszewski
Stormwater flows onto a street

Stormwater flows onto a street. Credit: Chesapeake Bay Program

From basement backups to beach closures, polluted runoff can have big costs for communities.

In 2011, polluted runoff caused 47 percent of beach closing and advisory days. A study of 28 popular, yet polluted, beaches in Southern California calculated that swimmers suffered an estimated 1.5 million gastrointestinal illnesses, resulting in an economic loss of between $21 million and $51 million every year.

When it rains in cities or suburban areas with lots of roads and rooftops, rainwater is unable to soak into the ground. Instead, it begins to rapidly accumulate and flows quickly along the surface, where it picks up sediment, pesticides, oil or heavy metals. The polluted urban runoff flows into storm drains, where the untreated water is discharged into local rivers and lakes. In cities with combined sewer systems, runoff can cause sewage overflows — sending untreated sewage into local waters.

Green roofs like this one are an important type of green infrastructure and part of the urban forest.

Green roofs like this one are an important type of green infrastructure and part of the urban forest. Credit: Arlington County

At American Forests, we’ve been working to increase awareness of the benefits urban forests bring to a city, including the role they play in reducing such runoff. Urban forests intercept rainfall, allowing the water to be absorbed into the tree, roots and soil. This saves cities money, as it decreases the need for artificial stormwater controls, or gray infrastructure. A single front-yard tree can intercept 760 gallons of rainwater in its crown. A number of our Global ReLeaf projects have focused on plantings in urban areas for precisely these reasons. But there’s still a long way to go.

Right now, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the opportunity to update and modernize its approach to managing runoff, including requiring onsite management of runoff to capture rainwater where it falls. This would incentivize green infrastructure, aka urban forests, in the form of projects like green roofs and rain gardens.

Tell the EPA not to delay in protecting clean water! Visit our friends at American Rivers to tweet your representatives about your concern. Together, we can make our voices heard on behalf of clean water.

From Fire to Flooding

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Smoke plume for the Waldo Canyon Fire

Smoke plume for the Waldo Canyon Fire. Credit: Beverly/Flickr

Sometimes, certain regions of the country just can’t catch a break.

Last year, the Colorado Springs area was devastated by the Waldo Canyon Fire, which was the most destructive fire in Colorado’s history until this year’s Black Forest Fire. The Waldo Canyon Fire destroyed more than 300 homes; a year later, approximately 200 of those homes are either already or in the process of being rebuilt. But, unfortunately, this was just the beginning of their woes.

As reported by E&E News, since the containment of the Waldo Canyon Fire, forest managers and hydrologists have been concerned that the damaged landscape left the area extremely vulnerable to flooding. That concern became a reality last week when a flash flood caused by a torrential downpour in the burn-scared Pike National Forest tore through the town of Manitou Springs, killing two people and damaging more than 30 buildings. Many are laying the fault of the flooding directly on the previous year’s fire.

In a normal, healthy forest, the floor is littered with debris that slows coursing water, while tree roots soak up water and slow soil erosion. When those trees have been destroyed in a high-intensity fire, there are no leaves, pine needles and the like littering the forest floor and no roots to slow soil erosion, which creates an unobstructed passage for fast-falling water.

An AmeriCorps crew performs bank stabilization work at the site of the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, Colo.

An AmeriCorps crew performs bank stabilization work at the site of the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, Colo. Credit: Mike Stearly/U.S. Forest Service

And the problems don’t end there. Flood waters bring muddy, ash-filled water into watersheds, which affects drinking water. Diane McKnight, co-director of hydrologic sciences at the University of Colorado-Boulder, tells E&E News, “What you often see after these flood events is a legacy impact on water quality. All that ash and sediment finds its way into a stream or a river, and that affects everything, from microorganisms to insects to fish.”

Recognizing the threats and challenges that post-wildfire landscapes and communities face, American Forests Global ReLeaf conducts wildfire restoration projects every year to help restore damaged ecosystems to health. In 2013, a third of our Global ReLeaf projects are dedicated to wildfire restoration — from the mountains of California to the Ozarks and from a remote area of Montana to the forests of Florida. Help us rebuild communities, like those damaged by wildfire.

Giant Growth Spurt

by Susan Laszewski

Redwoods. Credit: proper dave/Flickr

This week, there’s new insight into some of America’s favorite trees.

On Wednesday, a group of researchers from the University of California-Berkeley, Humboldt State University and the Marine Conservation Institute presented findings from a four-year study of coast redwoods at a symposium at Berkeley. By taking core samples from redwoods on 16 test plots, they have been able to determine a chronology as far back as the year 328 A.D.

One of their most interesting findings is that the redwoods have experienced an unprecedented growth spurt since the 1970s. The exact cause is still unknown, but signs point to several effects of climate change. The iconic trees have likely been helped by the extended growing season of a warmer climate and by the climate change-induced decrease in fog, which has allowed them to get more sun. Soak up the rays, redwoods!

Their research is scheduled to continue for 10 more years. What else could we learn? Humboldt State forestry professor Stephen Sillett tells the Save the Redwoods League that these first four years of the program represent “the golden age of redwood exploration.” The study of redwoods, sequoias and climate will help the researchers understand more about how to conserve these important forests. The trees may also have much to teach us about climate change. Ancient redwood forests store at least three times more carbon above ground than any other forests on Earth.

The majestic redwoods have stood the test of time over thousands of years — the researchers identified a new record-breaker for redwood age: a 2,520-year-old colossus — and their future chances look good. Of course, that’s not the case for all the organisms that share the ecosystem, including us. As Sillett tells the Los Angeles Times, “When it comes to climate change, I’m more worried about humans than I am about redwoods. I think they’re going to hold their own.”

Like big trees? Don’t limit yourself to the coast redwoods and giant sequoias. Check out the National Register of Big Trees to discover more gentle giants.

Fire in the Rockies

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

The 153rd Airlift Wing from Cheyenne, Wyo., use a modular air firefighting system-equipped C-130 Hercules aircraft in support of the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, Colo. on June 27, 2012.

The 153rd Airlift Wing from Cheyenne, Wyo., use a modular air firefighting system-equipped C-130 Hercules aircraft in support of the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, Colo. on June 27, 2012. Credit: Staff Sgt. Stephany D. Richards/U.S. Air Force

“Euro-American settlement and the 20th-century fire suppression practices drastically altered historic fire regimes, leading to excessive fuel accumulation and uncharacteristically severe wildfires in some areas and diminished flammability resulting from shifts to more fire-sensitive forest species in others,” writes retired forester Kevin C. Ryan, et al, in the August online edition of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The article goes on to describe the drastic ecological consequences of fire exclusion for a variety of U.S. landscapes — from southeastern pine savannas and woodlands to the drier forests of the West. The lack of fire in these landscapes has resulted in species shifts, diminished wildlife habitat and denser forests. In some instances, less wildfire has contributed to a perfect storm of forest threats.

This is the case in the Rocky Mountains. Like much of the rest of the country, the forests of these spectacular mountains were managed throughout much of the 1900s with an eye toward wildfire suppression, creating a forest with more understory than ever before. “What you end up with is densely spaced forest, where the trees are competing for nutrients. And therefore they’re susceptible to disease, they’re susceptible to insects, they’re susceptible to fires,” Saratoga Forest Management owner Clint Georg tells NPR. And these insects are turning out to be a major problem.

Millions of acres of Rocky Mountain forests are dead or dying from an epidemic of mountain pine beetles. A native pest to the region, this insect population has been on the rise and more active in recent years thanks to a warming climate. As the U.S. Forest Service’s Brian Ferebee explains to NPR, “The host beetles have just taken advantage of a combination of climate change, drought and the lack of vegetation treatment across the landscape and have really spread.” Adds the Wyoming State Forestry Division’s Josh Van Vlack, “The mountain pine beetle has attacked the lodgepole pine and the Ponderosa pine at a pretty much landscape scale.” With pine trees dying by the millions, the repercussions for the area’s wildlife, other tree and plant species, recreation and more could be severe.

The gray areas of this Wyoming forest are dead or dying trees.

The gray areas of this Wyoming forest are dead or dying trees. Credit: Jami Westerhold/American Forests

As a result, forest managers, scientists, researchers, government agencies, nonprofits and others are working tirelessly to try to help this endangered western landscape. Our Endangered Western Forests initiative is protecting and restoring damaged western forests and supporting continued research, while engaging local citizens and promoting strong forest management policies to save the Rocky Mountain pine forests by focusing on the forests of the Greater Yellowstone Area.

One silver lining — if there can be any of this alarming situation in the West — is a boom in jobs through sawmills. As NPR reports, many sawmills in Colorado and Wyoming are reopening after more than a decade of disuse to harvest and process the beetle-killed trees, whose wood is still strong enough to be used as lumber. By clearing out the dead trees, the harvesters are also creating a less dense forest, which could help natural regeneration of the fallen pines.

You can help these western forests, too! Donate now to the American Forests Endangered Western Forests initiative to support forest restoration, research and other efforts to support the Rocky Mountain forests.

A Fund Worth Fighting For

by Susan Laszewski
Mule ride at Grand Canyon National Park

Mule rides are an important part of Grand Canyon visitor experience. Credit: Grand Canyon National Park.

The next time you’re enjoying the great outdoors, take a moment to thank the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Given that this fund has protected land in every U.S. state — including such iconic recreation areas as Grand Canyon National Park — and supports more than 41,000 state and local park projects, chances are good there’s a park near you that has benefited from the program.

This important fund was created by Congress in 1965 in order for natural areas, historical sites and forests to be obtained and safely maintained for our national heritage and to provide recreational opportunities throughout the country. Recently, however, the LWCF has been facing threats of cuts. The worst of these include an attempt within a recent House Appropriations Committee bill proposal to eliminate funding to this vital conservation program altogether. Thankfully, this draft did not make it past the committee, but the LWCF is not out of the woods yet.

So, why the push to limit funding for this important program? The reductions have been proposed as a way to alleviate the national debt. Tough times call for tough measures, right? There’s just one problem with that line of reasoning: The LWCF isn’t funded by taxpayer dollars. It’s financed by revenues from offshore oil and gas drilling in federal waters. Although the annual appropriation should be around $900 million from these offshore revenues, the appropriated funding has never come anywhere near that number as funds are repeatedly diverted to other areas.

Fly fishing in Yellowstone

Fly fishing in Yellowstone. Credit: IM_RON/Flickr

And that’s the main problem that LWCF is facing — reallocation of its funds for other conservation programs, especially for National Park Service backlog. The National Park Service has an ever increasing debt and badly needs funding for maintenance backlog. The LWCF would only help them acquire more land, which would seem to exacerbate maintenance problems. Or so the story goes, whereas in reality, more land will actually alleviate the visitor stress that some parks — like Oregon Caves National Monument — are under. Rather than reallocating from one to another, we want to see Congress work on ways to appropriately fund all of these vital conservation programs, such as through usage fees, permanent endowments or public/private fund matching projects.

Thankfully, the Senate appropriations have been much friendlier to conservation program funding. Senator Baucus (D-MT) has proposed a bill called the Land and Water Conservation Authorization and Funding Act of 2013 (S. 338) that would permanently protect this impactful program. With the role this fund plays in protecting our natural forested areas and providing safe recreational areas throughout the country and as a member of the LWCF Coalition, we hope that Congress will make more favorable decisions when they come back from recess.

But we don’t have to just sit back and hope. We can tell Congress how we feel. Write to the Senate to ask them to pass S. 338 to protect the LWCF and the forests and natural land that it safeguards. Get started with our pre-written letter.

To learn more about the LWCF, its history and what work we are doing to protect this program, please visit the LWCF Coalition website.

Grand Canyon National Park

View from the South Rim. Credit: Grand Canyon National Park.

More Than a Forest

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Cabinet Mountains from Bull River Road, Kootenai National Forest

Cabinet Mountains from Bull River Road, Kootenai National Forest. Credit: U.S. Forest Service Northern Region

It’s a land of Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, mountain hemlock, western redcedar, black cottonwood, quaking aspen and more. It’s 2.2 million acres of mountains, river valleys, hills, lakes and forest. Today, Kootenai National Forest celebrates its 107th anniversary of being part of the National Forest System — and we celebrate years of partnership with it.

Located along the border of northwest Montana and northeast Idaho, Kootenai National Forest contains breathtaking, glacial-formed landscapes. One of its crown jewels is the 94,000 acre Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, which has a history of big game hunting and mining, but has been protected as a “Primitive Area” since 1935 and as a wilderness area in 1964 with the passage of the National Wilderness Preservation Act. This area is so pristine that studies have shown that water from the Cabinet Mountains is among the top five percent of the purest water in the lower 48 states. The Cabinet Mountains aren’t the only area of interest in this national forest.

Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area, Kootenai National Forest

Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area, Kootenai National Forest. Credit: Robyn Fleming

Ten Lakes Scenic Area provides visitors with 89 miles of trails, taking you through alpine mountains and by high mountain lakes. It’s a popular spot for horseback riding, as no motorized vehicles are allowed in the 6,400 acres of Ten Lakes. And for the tree lovers — aren’t we all? — Kootenai boasts Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area, which is famous for the western redcedars that grow along the bank of the Ross Creek. This 100-acre grove has trees that date back more than 500 years.

Needless to say, Kootenai is a pretty spectacular place, which is why we’ve been helping to make sure it remains that way. Since 2006, we have planted more than 144,000 trees to restore various areas of this forest through our Global ReLeaf program. We’ve planted disease-resistant whitebark pine in order to help restore the population of the flagging keystone species for the benefit of the area’s wildlife, including the threatened grizzly bear, and we’ve conducting plantings in other areas to overturn the damage caused by additional pests, such as the Douglas-fir beetle, because we want to make sure Kootenai is around to celebrate many more anniversaries to come.

The Importance of Big, Old Trees

by American Forests Science Advisory Board

In the December 2012 issue of Science, American Forests Science Advisory Board member Dr. Jerry F. Franklin published an ecological study, “Global Decline in Large Old Trees,” with his colleagues Dr. David Lindenmayer and Dr. William Laurance. Dr. Franklin kindly sat down with American Forests staff members to discuss the study and the importance of big, old trees.

Old-growth hemlock within Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area of Bald Eagle State Forest, Penn.

Old-growth hemlock within Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area of Bald Eagle State Forest, Penn. Credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli

What exactly is a big, old tree? “Each forest has its own definition of what is large and what is old,” Dr. Franklin explains, “but we’re generally talking about trees that are over 150 years of age, and often, we’re talking about trees that are many centuries old.” And it’s this age, more than their size, that makes these trees so vital to the forests they call home.

“Big, old trees are not simply enlarged versions of young trees,” says Dr. Franklin. He says that this is the key point of the research and paper: to educate forest managers and the public on the impact that old trees have on an ecosystem’s health. One of these major impacts is on wildlife.

“Big, old trees have suffered the slings and arrows of climate, insects and diseases, and so they typically have a lot of features like cavities, which are really important from the standpoint of wildlife.” Various animals can use these cavities as living spaces. Dr. Franklin describes the struggles his co-author, Dr. Lindenmayer, is observing in Australia, where old trees are declining and younger trees simply don’t have the cavities to support wildlife. Unlike in North America, where woodpeckers can help form cavities in younger trees, Australia does not have any cavity-making wildlife. Only time and wear-and-tear can create these niches in the country’s trees.

Because of big, old trees’ irreplaceable role in forest health, Dr. Franklin believes strongly that we need to be developing forest plans to create diverse-aged canopies throughout our forests. “I’m really trying to get everybody to understand that we really need all elements, all stages of successional development of forests on our federal forest landscapes,” he says.

Related to this is developing forest policy that recognizes the importance of not just saving, but restoring old-growth trees and forests. “In this country, we really don’t have forest management policies that call for either retaining or restoring or maintaining populations of big, old trees [such as the ponderosa pine forests of the Pacific Northwest],” Dr. Franklin relates. “Now, in various parts of the National Forest System, we don’t log them anymore. … We save some old-growth forests. … But we don’t have a policy that says we recognize that the big, old trees are a structural element of our forests that we want to retain and restore where we’ve lost it because it’s important to the completeness of these ecosystems.”


Redwoods. Credit: Hawkoffire/Flickr

What would such policy look like in action? “Where we’ve got them, we keep them,” advises Dr. Franklin. “Where we don’t have them, but we have intermediate-aged stands, we manage some of those stands or some of the trees within the stands in a way that’s going to lead to the development of large, old trees.” Dr. Franklin cautions, though, that this isn’t about creating huge stands of old-growth-only forests: “You really need all stages of successional development of forests in our federal forest landscapes. … We need to be thinking about the early stages of succession, as well as the old stages.”

Dr. Franklin explains that the first step toward protecting and restoring big, old trees is getting people to recognize their importance: “Big, old trees aren’t just objects of oddities and objects of interest. We need to have populations of big, old trees present in much our forest landscape in order to provide the kinds of habitat that we need for a lot of our wildlife.”

It sounds simple enough, but one thing that more than 100 years of forest policy and advocacy work has taught us is that nothing is easy when it comes to policy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fight worth having. Thank you to Dr. Franklin for taking the time to chat with us. To read the complete Science article, “Global Decline in Large Old Trees,” visit

Birthday Bear Hugs

by Susan Laszewski

Smokey Bear is turning 69 today, and I have reason to believe it may his best birthday party yet. Why? Because there will be a lot more hugs to go around!

Smokey is taking a less authoritarian approach toward educating people about wildfire prevention these days. Rather than disapproving looks and stern warnings, he’s opting for positive reinforcement — in the form of hugs.

So, here’s a big birthday bear hug for the lovable Smokey, still encouraging personal responsibility in the forest after all these years!

Just remember: Although he’s a bear, the Smokey we all know and love is a park ranger, not a wild animal. Do not attempt to hug any other bears.