The Giving Trees

by Scott Maxham

With obesity rates constantly climbing and 75 percent of adults not consuming the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables, could trees help humanity pick a pear in place of a burger? Many cities believe that free fruits and vegetables could be a simple way to engage the public and help us all stay healthy. Cities are seeing trees and plants that provide fruit, vegetables and nuts pop up all over — in medians, parking lots, abandoned lots, sidewalks and even graveyards.

Apple trees are among the fruit trees being planted in this project. Credit: Liz West

Apple trees are among the fruit trees being planted in this project. Credit: Liz West

It is a sad fact that eating fast food is cheaper than buying fruits or vegetables. The CDC recommends that fresh and free produce be made as accessible as fast food. I can see it now: Instead of a morning commuter running by a McDonalds, they can simply roll down the window and pick a fresh fruit.

As reported by CNN, plots of “forgotten” land in cities are being utilized by gorilla gardeners, who come in and plant produce — often in the night to avoid detection — but urban gardening is growing beyond these guerilla efforts:

  • In Seattle, city officials are creating a seven-acre “food forest” is being opened that will grow all types of food from apples and raspberries to walnuts.
  • In Provo, Utah, instead of placing planters that are expensive to maintain outside city hall, city planners planted produce plants instead, which were less costly for the city to maintain and let visitors go home with fresh food.
Fruit Tree growing by parking lot. Credit: Lars Plougman

Fruit Tree growing by parking lot. Credit: Lars Plougman

Urban gardening isn’t just for those on the West Coast, though. In Cincinnati, food crops are being planted along 28 miles of the Ohio River to provide a food source within walking distance to those who are not close to supermarkets. And the most famous address in the world has an urban food garden, as First Lady Michelle Obama planted an 1,100 square foot garden on the south lawn of the White House in 2009.

Here at American Forests, we also recognize the benefit fruit and produce trees can provide to urban communities. This year, in partnership with ALCOA Foundation, we are planting 500 fruit trees in Hannover/Hildesheim region of Germany. By planting on public and ecclesiastical spaces, as well as in the gardens of schools and other public buildings, this project is making sure the fruit it provides is available for all members of the community. As tree lovers and urban forests supporters, we definitely like the idea of fruit trees helping improve health, while creating nicer greenspaces in our cities.

Are Beetles Fanning Western Wildfires?

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Members of the U.S. Army fight the Black Forest Fire in Colorado

Pilots and crewmembers of the 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment, 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, go into the thick smoke to release water onto the burning fires in Black Forest, Colo., June 12, 2013. Credit: Sgt. Jonathan C. Thibault, 4th Combat Aviation Brigade Public Affairs Office, 4th Infantry Division/U.S. Army

The last two wildfire seasons have been devastating to Coloradans. Lives have been lost, and homes and communities destroyed. Last year’s Waldo Canyon Fire caused more than $450 million in damages, destroying 347 homes in the Colorado Springs area and killing two people. This year’s recently contained Black Forest Fire is starkly similar: almost $300 million in insurance claims filed already, more than 500 homes destroyed and two lives lost. These two fires represent the costliest wildfires in state history.

And this heightened fire intensity has many wondering if there is a connection between these fires and the 3.35 million acres of Colorado’s forests that have been decimated by mountain pine beetle and the additional 924,000 acres affected by spruce beetle. Scientists’ opinions are mixed, according to a news story by I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS.

The research of Dr. Monica Turner, a University of Wisconsin professor, and Dr. Jesse Logan, a former U.S. Forest Service scientist and college professor, outlines the cycle of a beetle-killed forest. This cycle is most easily described by colors:

  • Green is a happy, healthy forest.
  • Red represents a forest in the throes of a beetle infestation with its green needles now red in death.
  • Gray is the final stage, as the trees lose their dead needles.
A damaged, multi-colored forest due to the mountain pine beetle

A damaged, multi-colored forest due to the mountain pine beetle. Credit: U.S. Forest Service, Region 2, Rocky Mountain Region Archive,

Turner and Logan tell I-News that forests in the green and red stages are much more combustible than those in the gray. “The overall trend would be that immediately after trees are killed and they still have all those fine fuels, needles in particular, on the tree, then it’s highly flammable, probably more flammable than a green forest,” Logan says. “But after those needles fall and that can be, like in lodgepole, a couple years after the tree is killed, then the standing forest is actually less likely to lead to a crown fire [one in which fire spreads rapidly from the top of one tree — the crown — to the next] than a green forest.”

So green and red mean a highly flammable forest, but gray is okay? Not so fast, says Matt Jolly, a researcher at the U.S. Forest Service’s Missoula Fire Sciences Lab in Montana. He tells I-News, “A standing gray tree, particularly one like a spruce, will have a lot of really, really fine dead branches. It may not have needles, but it will have those fine branches that will also burn and support a crown fire.”

All of the scientists agree on one thing, though: More research is needed on the consequences and effects of beetle damage to our Mountain West.

And that’s what we’re doing at American Forests. We’re working with top scientists, forest managers and more for our Endangered Western Forests initiative, which is protecting and repairing beetle and disease-ravaged forests in the West. Forests across the Rockies from Colorado into Canada are going from green to red to gray at an alarming rate, and all hands are needed on deck to save these iconic forests. Please consider making a donation to our Endangered Western Forests program today to help us help our Mountain West forests.

Defenders of the Coasts

by Susan Laszewski

There is a silent army out there protecting our coasts from invasion — a second Coast Guard, if you will. This army has protected us not from war, but from hurricanes, floods and other catastrophes.

Loxahatchee Slough in Palm Beach County, Florida

Wetlands, like Loxahatchee Slough in Palm Beach County, Florida, act as a coastal buffer. Credit: Kim Seng,

I’m talking about coastal buffers — the mangrove forests, wetlands and oyster beds that protect us from hurricanes, floods and other catastrophic natural events. A new report published in Nature Climate Change finds that without these important natural defenses, twice as many Americans would be exposed to storm surges. That’s more than 1.4 million people who live within a kilometer of either coast, not to mention billions of dollars in property value that would be at risk.

And that’s just the risk that today’s storms would bring without coastal buffers. The researchers also modeled several scenarios of rising sea levels expected in the coming century. They found that by 2100, as many as 2.1 million people will likely be living in “high hazard” areas compared to the current 1.4 million people. That’s an additional 700,000 people who will depend on coastal buffer ecosystems to protect their lives and homes from extreme weather events. Scarily, that’s the best-case scenario, as the study did not take projected population growth into account.

But for all their importance, these ecosystems are not always valued as they should be. Though destruction of wetlands has slowed since the 1970s, we are still losing more than 13,000 acres a year. Mangroves are faring better in the United States — being protected in Florida — but worldwide, the outlook is not so good. Only 6.9 percent of the planet’s mangroves are officially protected, according to a 2010 U.S. Geological Survey study. In the last half a century, we’ve lost 50 percent of the world’s mangroves, largely due to the increase in industrial shrimp farming.

Of course, these ecosystems are not the only factor in how well coasts are protected from severe weather. There’s also infrastructure to take into account, as well as policy regarding how close to the shore developers can build. But what the study makes clear is that without this silent army of ecosystems, people would face substantially more risk from extreme weather events.

That’s why many of our Global ReLeaf projects work to restore these ecosystems. We’re reforesting wetlands in Illinois and South Carolina. Through our work with Alcoa Foundation and China Mangrove Conservation Network in Fujian Province, China, and the Sumatran Orangutan Society in Indonesia for example, we’re helping organizations in places with fewer protections for mangroves preserve those important trees to help protect coast dwellers and us all.

Celebrating Simplicity

by Loose Leaf Contributor

Today is the birthday of American author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, best known for Walden, a celebration of nature and of living simply. So, today, let’s all take a moment to reflect on our own relationship with nature.

Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., where Henry David Thoreau lived and wrote for two years.

Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., where Henry David Thoreau lived and wrote for two years. Credit: Pablo Sanchez

Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness — to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.

-Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)


Credit: Vern/Flickr

overlooking wildflowers

Credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli

boat on lake

Credit: Bob White

If You Protect It, They Will Come

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

The gopher tortoise. The ocelot. The red-cockaded woodpecker. The black bear.

The endangered ocelot, which we’ve been protecting through habitat restoration work in Texas

The endangered ocelot, which we’ve been protecting through habitat restoration work in Texas. Credit: Dan Bodenstein

Within the last two years, American Forests Global ReLeaf projects in Florida, Texas, Alabama and Louisiana have restored forest habitat in these Gulf Coast states for each of the above listed species — alongside many more — and while we’re incredibly proud of these efforts, we’re also proud of the fact that conservation isn’t just about forests, wildlife and ecosystems. Conservation and restoration activities help the economy — in a staggering way.

In the Gulf Coast states, wildlife tourism (wildlife watching, recreational fishing and hunting) generates more than $19 billion in annual spending, according to a new report, “Wildlife Tourism and the Gulf Coast Economy,” released earlier this week by the Environmental Defense Fund. This translates to 2.6 million jobs, 1,100 guide and outfitter organizations and 11,000 lodging and dining facilities to support the 20 million people who participate in wildlife tourism in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas each year. And, according to local business owners, the health of environment is tantamount to economic viability.

“My business depends 110 percent on the health of the environment … on the resources themselves — the fact that I’m allowed to go on Dog Island for my birding and shelling trips,” says Capt. Chester Reese, owner/operator of Natural World Charters in Carrabelle, Fla., in the report. “It’s dependent on the fish biting; it’s dependent on the dolphin jumping out of the water. You know, if you just go out there and nothing happens, you know jeez, it’s like ‘great trip, but it was only a boat ride.’”

We’re doing our part to help improve the environment, wildlife habitat and more in communities across the country so that trips like Capt. Reese’s can continue to bring people closer to nature. Will you join us?

Hot and Cold

by Susan Laszewski
Red maple

Red maple. Credit: geneva_wirth/Flickr

Back in the Winter 2013 issue of American Forests magazine, we visited Harvard Forest in Petersham, Mass., where researchers are heating the soil with buried electric cables to gain some insight into how the changing climate will affect soil organisms like microbes and ants. So my interest was piqued when I read in E&E News about similar experiments with an important twist being carried out in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

The hypothesis that climate change is expected to lead to warmer soils seems intuitive, but it actually doesn’t hold true throughout the year. In New England, as the climate warms, winter soils are getting colder. The key to this seeming paradox is snowpack.

We’ve written before about how snow cover serves as a warm, cozy blanket for many soil organisms and other living things under the snow. Tree roots are no exception. Without the blanket of snow, water in the soil freezes, expands and often cuts and damages tree roots. When spring comes, the damaged roots’ ability to take in nutrients from the soil has been compromised.

That’s why researcher Pamela Templer is going one step further in simulating future climates by taking colder winter soils into account. At Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in White Mountain National Forest, she has wired four plots that are home to three red maples each. On these four plots, the four-inch-deep cables will warm the soil to simulate increasing summer temperatures — an increase of five degrees Celsius during the growing season. But, here’s where it gets more interesting: On two of those plots, she shovels off the snow that currently falls during winter, leaving the soil exposed to mimic the loss of snowpack predicted over the next 100-200 years. The maples will be monitored for root growth and other metrics of health on all six plots.

The experiment, which began last summer, will run for five years, and researchers hope it will lead to a better understanding of the effects climate change will have on New England’s forests. For an area of the country that relies on the forests not only for clean air, clean water and aesthetic beauty, but also for much of its economy, understanding how climate change will affect forests could mean getting a glimpse into the future of local communities.

Creeping Away

by Scott Maxham

About 1,700 years ago, humans first arrived on the scene on the island of Hawai’i. Since then, the island’s biodiversity has steadily declined. This is due to several factors: deforestation, humans repurposing land for agriculture and, possibly most detrimental, the introduction of non-native species. And it’s a non-native species that has put a Hawai’ian bird on the brink of extinction.

Non-native plants and animals have been brought to the Big Island of Hawai’i for a wide variety of reasons. First, Polynesians, who were the first inhabitants of Hawai’i, brought animals and plants for food. In the 18th century, Europeans brought over more livestock and other plants that would go on to out-compete native species. Then, in the 1920s, two devastating invasives were introduced: the banana poka, an ornamental vine that has taken over tens of thousands of acres of forest, and the Japanese white-eye (Zosterops japonicus), a bird introduced to shrink insect populations. It is doubtful that people realized in 1929, when the bird was introduced, that it would also be responsible for shrinking the population of something else, a native honeycreeper.

Japanese white-eye

Japanese white-eye
Credit: Toshihiro Gamo

In a new study released last week in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers from the University of Hawai’i at Monoa reveal that the endangered Hawai’i creeper (Oreomystis mana) population at Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge has shrunk by 63 percent in the last decade, most likely from food limitation associated with increased numbers of the Japanese white-eye. For the last 80 years, the creeper and white-eye have been forced to share food sources on the confined island, and the white-eye has been winning the foraging battle, as its population increased while the creeper’s declined. Beyond the population numbers, though, the study’s authors document that the surviving young creepers have lower body mass, shorter bills and shorter legs than past generations of creepers, and overall, the species is showing signs of malnutrition.

From 1992 to 1996, American Forests planted more than 150,650 trees in Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge to help reestablish nesting ground for Hawai’ian birds. The tree most commonly planted was the acacia koa, a hardwood tree that provides a habitat for birds like the creeper. It is important that these trees be replanted because half of the island’s native forests have disappeared.

These birds have surely seen better days — before humans disrupted their natural ecosystem. Scientists and volunteers on the island are hard at work trying to save both the native forests and native wildlife from the threat of invasive species. For more on this fight and struggle to protect Hawai’i’s native species, check out our Spring/Summer 2013 magazine feature “Islands in the Balance.”

Clearing the Air

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

“Air pollution is causing more deaths than HIV or malaria combined,” Kandeh Yumkella, director general of the U.N. Industrial Development Organization, told a conference in Oslo trying to work out new U.N. development goals for 2030. The Huffington Post Green, April 9, 2013

Air pollution in New York City’s Washington Heights

Air pollution in New York City’s Washington Heights. Credit: Susan Sermoneta

Sometimes, when talking about air pollution, we get so caught up in the web of science and climate change that we forget about one of the basics: Air pollution is bad for you.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, poor air quality can:

  • Irritate the respiratory system.
  • Reduce lung function.
  • Inflame and damage the cells that line the lungs.
  • Make the lungs more susceptible to infection.
  • Aggravate asthma.
  • Aggravate other chronic lung diseases.
  • Cause permanent lung damage.

And unfortunately, 131.8 million people — or 42 percent — of the U.S. population live in areas with dangerous pollution levels as reported in the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2013” report.

While various agencies put emissions restrictions and building regulations in place to try to create cleaner air throughout the country, a new study reveals that we can do something to help ourselves: plant trees!

Last month, U.S. Forest Service researchers David Nowak, who is also an American Forests Science Advisory Board member, and Robert Hoehn, along with The Davey Institute’s Satoshi Hirabayashi and Allison Bodine, revealed that the urban forests in 10 cities across the country save on average one person a year from pollution-related death. In New York City, that number increases to eight people per year.

New York City, where eight lives are saved each year from trees removing fine particulate matter from the air

New York City, where eight lives are saved each year from trees removing fine particulate matter from the air. Credit: Chris Topher

The study, published in Environmental Pollution, looked specifically at the removal of particulate pollution less than 2.5 microns in size — you need a microscope to see particles that small. This size of particulate is often referred to as a fine particulate and is produced by motor vehicles, power plants, wood burning, wildfire, agricultural burning and more. The research details how the average annual percent of air quality improvement ranged between 0.05 percent in San Francisco and 0.24 percent in Atlanta with the total amount of fine particulates being removed annually by urban trees varying from 10,361 pounds in Syracuse to 142,198 pounds in Atlanta. When converting the fine particulate removal to a monetary value, urban forests are doing millions of dollars’ worth of work! And all they ask of us in return is a little TLC.

So, make sure to support your local urban forest program that is helping take care of those trees. The trees are working for us, so let’s work for them, too.

Conifers Under Threat

by Susan Laszewski
Whitebark pines. Creid: Bjorn/Flickr

Whitebark pines. Credit: Bjorn/Flickr

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that the latest update to their Red List — a database in which the world’s species are classified according to threat level — includes the first global reassessment of conifers.

In addition to the shelter and food they provide for wildlife, conifers play an important role globally by sequestering carbon. Coniferous forests take three times more carbon out of the air than temperate or tropical forests. Given all the benefits these trees provide, the results of the assessment aren’t too uplifting. While some species have made gains in the 15 years since the last assessment — such as Lawson’s cypress, which went from being classified as vulnerable to near threatened — overall, conifers are in decline. The assessment found that 34 percent of these important trees are threatened with extinction.

Longleaf pines. Credit: Michael Heston

Longleaf pines. Credit: Michael Heston

The world’s most widely planted pine, the Monterey pine (Pinus radiata), whose decline is largely attributed to pine pitch canker, a fungal disease, is among 33 species of conifer whose status has declined since the previous assessment and among the 34 percent of conifers in danger of extinction. Also among that 34 percent is another tree suffering from a fungal disease: whitebark pine, which is threatened by white pine blister rust. Listed as endangered, whitebark pine is a species of special concern in the American West, where it is a foundation species in the high-elevation ecosystems of the Greater Yellowstone Area. Also listed as endangered is the longleaf pine, a keystone species in the southern United States that supports nearly 600 other species, including the keystone species red-cockaded woodpecker, Bachman’s sparrow and wild turkey.

“Plants are the foundation of life on Earth, providing valuable ecosystem services as well. The recent assessment of conifers shows that many species, including those with known economic and human benefit, are under increasing threat,” says Dr. Thomas Lacher of Texas A&M University in a news release on the assessment. “As IUCN expands the coverage of assessments to more and more plant groups, it will allow conservation actions to focus on protecting the species and ecosystems that support the survival of all life.”

At American Forests, we’re already at work with conservation actions to protect and restore conifers. Our Endangered Western Forests initiative was established to help protect the whitebark pine, not only from white pine blister rust, but also from the exploding mountain pine beetle population brought on by a changing climate. Our Longleaf Pine Restoration project, part of the Alcoa Foundation and American Forests Global ReLeaf Partnership for Trees, is planting 26,000 longleaf pines across 65 acres in South Carolina. You can help, too. Though many conifers are threatened with extinction, we can still fight to save these species upon which so many others depend.

Beyond the Call of Duty

by Scott Steen, President & CEO

Along with the rest of the nation, the American Forests family mourns the loss of the brave members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew, who died Sunday while combatting Arizona’s Yarnell Hill Fire. In memory of this elite group of men that regularly braved dangerous conditions to prevent wildfires from destroying communities and ecosystems alike, we wanted to share a story that recently came to our attention of a very special tree that the Hotshots went out of their way to save.

Members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots climb the national co-champion alligator juniper, which they saved from the Doce Fire.

Members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots climb the national co-champion alligator juniper, which they saved from the Doce Fire. Credit: docefire azpnf/Flickr

On June 18, fire broke out in Prescott National Forest near Prescott, Ariz. Over the next week and a half, the fire consumed more than 6,700 acres of the forest, while firefighters, including the Granite Mountain Hotshots, worked to contain the blaze threatening the national forest — including a huge and significant tree: American Forests’ national co-champion alligator juniper, tied for being the largest of its species in the entire country.

As reported by Joanna Dodder Nellans with The Daily Courier, “When [Prescott National Forest Wilderness and Trails Manager Jason] Williams told the Hotshots about the tree and asked them to save it, they headed up the mountain and cut out thick brush at the base of the co-champion alligator juniper and cut a fire line around it. The Hotshots checked on the tree Monday when they were in the vicinity and saw that the fire had burned right up to that line.” The national co-champion alligator juniper survived thanks to the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Our debt to these brave men for protecting our forests and communities, along with saving the potentially 1,000-year-old alligator juniper, can never be repaid, but working alongside our partners in Arizona’s Champion Tree Program, we will endeavor to make sure the alligator juniper continues to thrive as a monument to their courage. American Forests will also plant 1,900 trees in a national forest damaged by fire in memory of the 19 Hotshots who lost their lives doing a job they loved.

Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and friends.