By Katrina Marland & Michelle Werts
American Forests wishes everyone a happy and safe 4th of July.
By Katrina Marland & Michelle Werts
American Forests wishes everyone a happy and safe 4th of July.
By Katrina Marland
Deforestation is a common topic here on Loose Leaf.
There are just so many things that can — and are — destroying forests and trees across the globe: from human activities like development and water management to natural factors like wildfires and climate change. We lose acres upon acres of forest each year. So you would think that whenever more trees are growing, we would be happy about it … but not all new forest growth is worth celebrating.
In the far north, warming temperatures are causing the frozen tundra’s permafrost to thaw out, paving the way for new forests to grow in places where trees haven’t existed in millennia. Scientists from the University of Oxford’s Biodiversity Institute and the University of Lapland’s Arctic Center have found that in stretches of tundra along Russia’s arctic coast, new greenery is appearing much faster than anyone had anticipated. With a longer growing season, shrubs are growing to the size of trees, several feet taller than one would normally find them — all in just in the past few decades. The team’s findings completely thrashed the previously accepted notion that a warming climate would turn tundra into forests slowly as the treeline crept across the tundra over several centuries. Whether or not this is a good thing is unclear, as scientists continue to debate the issue. Some argue that the conversion of tundra to forests will result in more carbon sinks — areas that absorb more carbon than they produce. Others argue that these new tundra forests will actually result in more carbon being produced: Warming temperatures and the resultant increase in biological activity could release the carbon that has been long stored in the disappearing permafrost.
And the not-as-frozen tundra isn’t the only habit seeing new trees. Recent studies tell us that savannas and grasslands may be slowly transforming into forests too. Normally, grasslands hold almost no trees at all, while sparse trees and shrubs dot the landscape across savannas. The increase of CO2 in the atmosphere is essentially fertilizing the plants in these ecosystems, allowing some of them to grow more rapidly than usual and disturbing the ecosystem’s regular balance of flora. Scientists from Goethe University and the Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre in Germany have found that Africa’s iconic savannas — vital habitats to any number of creatures including lions and zebras — could be transformed into forests by the year 2100. In fact, a full-scale ecosystem shift could occur across the continent, changing deserts into grasslands, existing grasslands into savannas and existing savannas into forests. Such a wide-scale change could have devastating results for the species that rely on these various ecosystems.
Though we cannot predict the exact rate or details of these changes, the mere scope and speed of these massive ecosystem shifts is unsettling. If the Arctic tundra and African savanna — both landscapes known for their lack of dense tree cover — could become forests in less than a century, exactly how different will our planet look in 100 years?
Climate change is a greatly talked about topic these days, and huge proportions of Canadian birds are feeling its impact and in serious trouble. As the ozone depletes, so do the habitats of these birds, causing a severe domino effect.
Since 1970, there has been a 12 percent overall drop in bird species across Canada. These shocking numbers were part of Canada’s newly released The State of Canada’s Birds, the first report of its kind for the country. Of the 460 bird species in Canada, 44 percent of them have declining populations, and 66 species have dropped so drastically that they have ended up on the endangered list. And scientists are finding it hard to pinpoint exactly what is causing these shifts in population. As Ted Cheskey, manager of bird conservation programs at Nature Canada and author of The State of Canada’s Birds, told Scientific American, “One of the concerns is … that climate change is happening so fast it’s throwing out of synchrony the food supply and cycle of migration.”
Much of the decline is largely due to loss of food supply and habitat. Some of the species in sharpest decline are grassland birds, migratory shorebirds and birds that eat insects in flight. Aerial insect feeders, like barn swallows, chimney swifts and flycatchers, have seen an overall decline of 64 percent. Part of this could be due to climate change causing many insect populations to peak earlier in the year than the birds expect. Because these insects are peaking earlier in the year, the birds are not able to feed them to their young when they are born in the spring.
When trying to cope with the warming climate, many species have shifted where they live and breed in order to stay in ideal temperatures. In turn, this shift alters their migration patterns. Birds that travel great lengths for food sources and breeding grounds are being greatly affected because they are not able to determine the status of their final destination. Species like the wood warbler suffer from the accelerated season changes because when they arrive at their destination, often, their food supply has already come and gone.
There is a small silver lining to this report, though. A handful of bird species in Canada are thriving. Many waterfowl populations have found success living in wetlands like bogs and marshlands, where they have an abundance of food sources and nesting sites. Many duck and goose species have seen notable increases, like the snow goose, whose population has increased by more than 300 percent in recent years.
Knowing the effects of climate change on such a large group of birds in a specific area gives a good indication of how climate change is affecting our environment as a whole. This report brings to light the decline in bird populations, while also revealing the state of the ecosystems that the birds live in. Protecting areas where we have seen bird populations decline will also aid in protecting areas that have suffered harmful effects from climate change.
By Michelle Werts
Have you ever marveled at the diversity of America’s national parks? If not, today is your chance as we celebrate two drastically different, but equally impressive locations.
As I experienced last week on my first trip to the Pacific Northwest, that area of the country is full of some spectacular landscapes — and one of those landscapes is celebrating an anniversary today.
On June 29, 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed legislation creating Washington’s Olympic National Park, preserving and protecting almost 100,000 acres that encompass a great diversity of landscapes and ecosystems:
It’s no wonder that the United Nations named this majestic, diverse landscape a World Heritage Site in 1981.
Also celebrating an anniversary today is a national park known more for its history than its landscape: Mesa Verde National Park. According to the park’s website President Theodore Roosevelt established it on this date in 1906 to “preserve the works of man,” making it the first national park of its kind.
Located in Southwest Colorado, the park protects more than 4,000 known archeological sites, such as cliff dwellings, pueblos, masonry towers and other structures that were constructed by Pueblo Indians, who inhabited the region from about 550 to 1300 A.D. The famous cliff dwellings, like Cliff Palace, are multi-story, multi-room structures built of sandstone and mud mortar. Like Olympic National Park, Mesa Verde is a United Nations World Heritage site. Mesa Verde also represents one of my favorite aspects of America’s national park system: It recognizes beauty in a variety of ways, from those of the nature-made variety to those representing the feats of man.
By Katrina Marland
As quickly as I’ve adapted to being back here in our nation’s capital, it doesn’t seem like so very long ago that I was at home in Colorado Springs, with the Rockies on my doorstep and a view of Pike’s Peak out the window. So you can imagine how the headlines coming from the fiery front lines in Colorado are grabbing my attention.
As I’m writing this, the Waldo Canyon Fire has burned through more than 18,500 acres near Colorado Springs and has forced the evacuation of 32,000 people from the city’s outskirts. The High Park Fire, now the second largest to ever hit Colorado, is burning near Fort Collins; it has destroyed hundreds of homes, forced the evacuation of 4,300 residents and claimed at least one life. According to Reuters, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has declared this “the worst fire season in the history of Colorado.”
The Southwest is no stranger to wildfires, but lately conditions across the region are drier, hotter and windier than the norm. Experts agree that the low amount of winter precipitation means the 2012 wildfire season is likely to get worse before it gets better. For the towns and cities threatened by these fires and the others burning across the Southwest, the impacts are felt in the losses to property, lives and economies. But what will the cost be for the landscape itself?
Craig Allen, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, asserts that the severe wildfires throughout the Southwest, combined with the effects of climate change on the region, are transforming the landscape from forests to grassland. Using tree ring data, scientists studying the climate history of the Southwest have established that the region is historically prone to frequent fires, but not intense ones — fires of the past rarely reached the treetops. These regular fires cleared the forests of surface debris and prevented overcrowding without permanently damaging the forest itself.
Over the years, forest management practices have changed the game, leading to denser forests with too much fuel — fuel that burns hot enough to destroy the forest. Once this happens, the ecosystem has to start from scratch. Allen notes that tree species common to southwestern forests are struggling to reestablish themselves in an environment that is even drier and hotter than they’re used to. Without new trees and their seeds, every acre of forest burned has less chance of ever becoming a forest again. Instead, hardier, more opportunistic plant species like grasses and brush take hold. As this process occurs over and over again, we may see more acres of grassland rise up where forests once took root. As commonplace as wildfires have become across the Southwest, we may need to start seeing these fires not just as natural disasters, but as agents of permanent change, capable of irreversibly transforming landscapes.
I’ve mentioned the Farm Bill in a previous post, talking about its significance for forests and conservation program funding. The comprehensive bill also determines national policies for trade, rural development, research and many other affairs under the authority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The current bill passed in 2007 to begin in fiscal year 2008. Now, halfway through its fifth year, the bill’s expiration date is quickly approaching. Congress has been working to get a new version together this year; ideally before the election takes over the agenda.
Despite the challenges of a partisan and stagnant Congress, several groups have helped move the Farm Bill forward. For example, American Forests — as part of the Forests in the Farm Bill Coalition — advocated that the Farm Bill prioritize issues like increasing forest research opportunities, combating invasive species, and strengthening forest conservation programs. The coalition distributed a list of forest priorities and letters to the House and Senate Agriculture committees to ensure that forests have a voice in the Farm Bill discussion.
The Senate passed their version on Thursday last week and the House plans begin their drafting process soon after it returns to session on July 11. In the weeks leading up to the Senate vote, we tracked several amendments to the bill. We supported some and opposed others. The main effort was geared towards making Senators aware of the harmful amendments so they would not vote for them. Here are the ones we opposed:
In the voting process, the first two amendments were voted against and the last three were not even brought up for vote. Passing the Farm Bill and voting against amendments that threaten conservation programs is a big win for the forest conservation community!
While expectations might not have been high entering the recent Rio+20 United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development, hopes certainly were. With leaders and delegates from 188 countries, including more than 100 heads of state and government, as well as thousands of representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), businesses and other organizations, this was to be the next step forward for bold initiatives in human rights, sustainable development and the environment.
As Amanda noted in her post last week, forests were sadly left off the list of the major areas to discuss during official meetings and negotiations. But forests were only the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg: As the talks progressed, it became clear that nothing along the lines of the Rio Conventions on Biological Diversity, on Climate Change and to Combat Desertification that came from the original 1992 meeting would be replicated this year. The final document that emerged from Rio+20 — The Future We Want — is replete with nonbinding and modestly aspirational goals.
The parties to The Future We Want did commit to improving the conditions of people and communities around the world so that they can better sustainably manage their forests. This commitment to improvement includes strengthening the “areas of finance, trade, transfer of environmentally sound technologies, capacity-building and governance.” In other words, a lot of encouraging words, but not a lot of actual action. Lest the forest community feel alone in their soft-shoe treatment, climate change, desertification, mountains, oceans and other critically important environmental topics also received similar commitments, reiterations and reaffirmations.
Yet, while the final language of the document left many observers and participants deflated, the conference still produced action and tangible excitement. Many individuals came ready to discuss what is actually happening on the ground around the myriad of environmental challenges we face. Set apart from the main negotiations, individuals representing cities, community groups, businesses and other organizations had the opportunity to attend numerous side events covering a gamut of topics. Topics ranged widely, such as “The Protection of Lake Chad,” “Agro Ecological Farming Can Feed the World: In Practice” and “Healthy Women, Healthy Planet: Women’s Empowerment, Reproductive Health.” It is these side events that can — and maybe should — be the true legacy of Rio+20.
The 1992 Rio Convention on Climate Change has its own legion of supporters and detractors, both in and outside of the environmental movement. The convention also contained promises and encouragements, and its enforcement was the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which required its signatories to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions. As Kyoto has shown, however, even with large-scale, binding documents, the results can be less than expected. But, the individual meetings, conversations, ideas and actions taken towards achieving the same goal — reduction of greenhouse gas emissions — often can make a more permanent impression. While protocols can be superseded, changes to individual habits and the creation of innovative technologies and their progeny can last much, much longer.
Think about your own life.
Chances are, you are not a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, but you may be taking steps within your own day-to-day activities to stabilize or reduce your greenhouse gas emissions. Maybe you walk to the store only a few blocks away, rather than drive. Perhaps your home is composed entirely of Energy Star appliances. Or maybe when you do drive, it is a vehicle that gets more than 35 mpg. These individual actions are a recognition that no single country, business or person can limit all greenhouse gas emissions alone.
Maybe that is how we can best view the Rio+20 result: There was no grand Convention on Sustainable Development and a Green Economy (a pure hypothetical), but there are thousands of people that had a conversation with a mayor or an environmental activist or a start-up company that may lead to tangible action. Be it a removal of barriers to bringing off-grid solar power to India, more renewable energy in Brazil or a joint project for forest protection and conservation in the African Mayombe area of conservation, these projects and actions may lead to more positive results than the platitudes of The Future We Want. Their importance should not be discounted.
When I think of a flourishing and healthy habitat, green trees and acres of vegetation come to mind. Although healthy, prospering land is an important part of most plant and animal lifecycles, it may not always be the best. In Britain brownfield sites are coming into focus as significant reservoirs of biodiversity for a variety of ground plant species and invertebrates. The federal government defines brownfield as “abandoned, idled or underused industrial and commercial properties where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination.” This may make you think of unclean wasteland but in reality, many brownfield sites have had little environmental damage from previous construction.
Brownfield sites are rich in bare ground, which can serve as a framework for hardy, slow-growth plants. The hard, compact soil is perfect for the development of diverse, complex plants. These plants — which include willowherb, prickly lettuce and dandelions — are able to grow at a slower pace and mature without the interruption of fast-growing plants that would otherwise dominate nutrient-rich soil. Low nutrient soil provides opportunities for a variety of other plants to grow, increasing plant diversity. In turn, this creates habitat for many invertebrates that have complex life cycles and need more time to mature. The exposed ground also heats under sunlight and becomes a microclimate for insects like moths and beetles that cannot normally survive in a humid and damp environment.
One moth in particular — the small ranunculus, which was last seen in Europe before World War II — was recently spotted in brownfield sites in England and Wales. The UK wildlife charity Butterfly Conservation noted that the moth’s larvae find food in plants that thrive in low-nutrient soil of abandoned industrial sites. Other moth species, like the four-spotted, wormwood, bright wave and elephant hawk moths, can also be found in brownfields across Europe. These seemingly useless lands are not just providing habitat for these invertebrates, but are also attracting other species that depend on them, jump-starting a new ecosystem.
The problem is that, thanks to their aesthetic shortcomings, most government officials do not recognize these lands as beneficial to wildlife or the environment. Because of this, they have done little to reverse the trend of “greenwashing” — turning these abandoned industrial sites into green spaces by replacing low-grade soil with rich topsoil. This practice can be devastating to the rich wildlife that find homes in this unexpected goldmine of fertile land.
It is important to bring attention to this susceptible land to show that individual species can prosper in a variety of habitats. These UK findings will hopefully draw attention to the environmental potential of brownfield sites in the United States and all over the world. If the trend of converting brownfield sites continues, there is no way of knowing what threatened species could go down with them.
By Michelle Werts
As the old adage goes, it takes a village to raise a child. I don’t know how true this is for child rearing, but I do know it takes a village to raise a forest in a city. I’ve spent the last week in Sacramento, California, and Portland, Oregon, meeting with the dedicated men and women who help keep their cities’ urban forests in tip-top shape — and what a job that is.
In Sacramento, every tree that the city possesses — we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of trees — was deliberately placed there, beginning way back at the city’s founding in 1850. This is because Sacramento’s climate isn’t so tree-friendly. Hot and dry, the Sacramento landscape doesn’t naturally support the elms, oaks and other species that one finds in the city’s many parks and neighborhoods. And even though Sacramento has a lovely tree canopy, it’s only through the continued efforts of the city’s residents, employees and dedicated partners that the trees thrive.
The City of Sacramento’s Urban Forestry Services, the Sacramento Tree Foundation and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD). I like to think of these guys as the trifecta of tree lovers in Sacramento — together, they are working to make the city’s urban forest even stronger. The Urban Forestry staff is responsible for maintaining the city’s trees on public lands, not to mention permitting concerns and tree plantings. The Sacramento Tree Foundation works with neighborhoods and residents to plant trees throughout the community. SMUD works with the Sacramento Tree Foundation, putting up the funds to plant trees in people’s yards across the city to reduce energy demands in their homes. Each of these groups plays a vital role in Sacramento, and all three do their best to work in tandem to enhance the city’s forest, while also engaging the people of Sacramento in their work.
In Portland, growing trees isn’t as difficult as it is in Sacramento — Portland gets plenty of rain to support lush greenery around the city. Portland’s issue, though, lies in the fact that the city is growing — as are most urban centers in the U.S. And in Oregon, natural spaces around cities are protected by Urban Growth Boundaries (UGB), designed to keep urban sprawl within the urban space, protecting the landscape beyond the city. However, this also means that protecting trees from development within the UGB can be difficult.
From Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services to the Bureau of Transportation to the Portland Water Bureau to Parks and Recreation to the Bureau of Development, all five of these bureaus touch the city’s trees in some way. As a result, representatives from all five bureaus meet regularly to discuss all things tree-related. Add on nonprofit partner Friends of Trees, plus Portland’s tree-loving neighborhoods and citizens, and you have a pretty formidable team in place working to protect and expand Portland’s urban forest.
The work these people do in Sacramento and Portland isn’t easy. Budgets are constantly under pressure on the city level, creating more and more work for less and less staff. Caring for a city’s trees is a never-ending job, but a worthwhile one. All of the people I’ve spoken to this week have expressed their love of and passion for trees: They clean the air we breathe, filter the water we drink, provide shade on hot, summer days. Trees’ benefits know no bounds, which is why the work of our urban foresters, city arborists, tree-planting nonprofits and others need to be supported. Together, we can all make our cities greener and more beautiful.
By Katrina Marland
Trees need a lot of things to stay healthy. The water, air and soil conditions all need to be right; the temperature can’t go too high or low; and of course, they need sunlight. But there’s something else trees need — something so important that without them, our forests, parks and backyards all across the U.S. would be completely different: pollinators.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has dubbed this National Pollinators Week. What a great idea! A week to recognize all the creatures that carry pollen among flowering trees and other plants, allowing them to reproduce and maintain genetic diversity. They also make a lot of our food possible, pollinating an estimated 75 percent of our crops, which accounts for billions of dollars each year. So to whom do we owe our health and wealth, natural and otherwise?
All these creatures keep countless plant species healthy and producing the fruits that many other species depend on. Then, of course, there are the carnivores, which prey on the species that depend on those plants. All of it adds up to the fact that pollinators are an important part in any ecosystem, and a vital link in the food web. Unfortunately, this means that when the pollinators are threatened, it can present a serious challenge to the ecosystem, and put other species in danger. Of all the pollinator species in the U.S., more than 30 are endangered, including several birds, three bats, and more than 25 species of butterflies.
For some species, the threats are obvious. Pesticides are a clear danger, spreading harsh chemicals to the creatures that feed from or make their homes in the sprayed plants. Habitat loss is another major factor. Since many pollinators are migratory, their migration corridors also need to remain healthy in order for them to survive. For some species, that can mean a very large swath of land. The monarch butterfly, for instance, travels the roughly 3,000 miles from Canada to Mexico each year. As patches of its habitat along that path disappear, the journey becomes more and more difficult.
Fortunately, there are several things you can do to help. You can plant a garden of native plants, especially milkweed, to provide a healthy habitat for native pollinators like butterflies and other insects. Staying informed about the pesticides you use is also a good step — especially knowing where and when not to apply them. You can also learn a lot more about pollinators through the materials offered by the USFWS, including podcasts and webcasts. Lastly, you can help support our work. Many of American Forests’ projects each year work to reestablish habitats and migration corridors for wildlife, including pollinators like the Monarch butterfly and ruby-throated hummingbird.