A Burning Alaska

by Scott Maxham
Cloudy Alaskan wilderness

Cloudy Alaskan wilderness Credit: Daniel Hoherd

Since it seems the media only highlights the forest fires that take place in the lower 48 states, many people would be surprised to know that millions of acres of forestland is burned in Alaska each year. Yes, you read correctly, Alaska. The National Interagency Fire Center reports that Alaskan fires have burned 1,043,908 acres so far this year. In comparison, this is 10 times the amount of acres that have burned in California this year. In fact, Alaska has burned more in the last few years than it has in the past 10,000 years, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In the study, researchers analyzed charcoal samples found in 14 lakes in the Yukon Flats of Alaska to study the history of fire in the boreal forest. They discovered that over the last 10,000 years, there have been periods of increased fire activity in the region, most notably during two distinct periods:

  • Between 6,000 and 3,000 years ago, which the researchers hypothesize was due to an increase in the flammable black spruce.
  • And 1,000 years ago during a period referred to as the Medieval Climate Anomaly, which was a warm, dry period similar to today’s climate.

Both of these periods pale in comparison, though, to the fire activity of the last few decades. According to the report, the Yukon Flats area experienced an average of 10 fires per 1,000 years over the last 3,000 years. Over the last 50 years, that number has risen to 20 fires every 1,000 years.

What does this level of fire do to the boreal forest? The forest changes, as less flammable trees survive and reproduce. Periods of increased fire activity mean that the coniferous white and black spruce are replaced by deciduous trees, such as aspen and birch trees. This process can take a long time, which is why we see it as beneficial to help out nature by planting trees that will survive forest fires.

In 2012, American Forests Global ReLeaf supported a project in Tok, Alaska, that planted 2,700 trees. Not just any old trees, but birch trees that are resistant to fire, but still provide a healthy forest habitat. The trees were primarily planted around a school that acts as a community evacuation center. It is important that such a place be away from flammable trees, but still be surrounded by nature.

Birch trees

Birch trees credit: Marc Buehler

A complicating factor of increased fire activity in boreal forests is carbon. Boreal forests make up 10 percent of the Earth’s surface and contain half of the world’s underground soil carbon, which is released by forest fires. This contributes to a positive feedback loop in which forests burn and cause temperatures to rise, which could lead to more forest fires.

The researchers behind the Yukon Flats study are hopeful, though, that history will repeat itself in Alaska, with deciduous trees replacing coniferous ones and thus stabilizing wildfire rates in the region. Only time will tell if this comes to pass.


Dreaming Big

by Susan Laszewski
Needles of the tamarack in autumn

The needles of the tamarack change color in autumn. Credit: Kim Faires

Big, bigger, biggest. It’s no surprise that here at American Forests, the headquarters of the National Big Tree Program, we have big trees and champion trees on the brain quite a bit. But we’re not the only ones. People take a lot of pride in their local big trees, and big trees make for quite a story.

We recently heard about a very special, very big tamarack (Larix laricina, also known as an American larch) in Nashua, N.H., that’s been generating a lot of local buzz. Local resident Tracy Pappas told NewHampshire.com, “Not that long ago, the neighborhood thought we would have to save up money to tear down that tree,” explaining, “At certain times of the year, the tree looks dead.”

That’s because tamaracks are one of few softwoods to drop their needles in the winter, after they turn yellow in the fall, just like a hardwood’s leaves. Residents that were unfamiliar with the species mistook the yearly transformation for illness.

Tamarack trees in different stages of losing their needles.

Tamarack trees in different stages of losing their needles. Credit: funpics47/Flickr

That is, until it was nominated for the New Hampshire Big Tree Program. It was nominated by Kevin Martin, a big tree enthusiast who’s working on a book about big New Hampshire trees. Martin tells NewHampshire.com he hopes the book will help people recognize and identify native tree species to avoid such confusion. Ultimately, what seems at first glance like a friendly competition among trees is really about education.

It’s a goal that aligns with the goal of the National Big Tree Program. Preserving and promoting the iconic stature of notable big trees helps to educate people about the key role that trees and forests play in sustaining a healthy environment. By helping people become familiar with different species, the national and state big tree programs are also helping to ensure that residents are more aware of whether a tree is healthy or not.

Now, for the question on everyone’s mind: Does this tree have anything else in common with national champions? Like say, its size? The Nashua tamarack is 79 feet tall with a circumference of 118 inches and a crown spread of 56 feet, giving it a total of 212 points. That’s not too far behind the 219 points the current national champion in Minnesota claims. Could national recognition be in this tree’s future? Only time will tell.

Luckily, when it comes to new national champions, the wait is never too long. The National Register of Big Trees is updated each fall and spring, but applications are accepted on a rolling basis. So, get out and get measuring! If you’ve never measured a tree before, check out our measuring guidelines to find how you can measure a nominee with just a ruler and a string or tape measure. And don’t forget to snap a picture of your friendly giant. Happy hunting!

The Forest Service Assists America’s Pastime

by Alison Share, Environmental Public Policy Associate, Crowell & Moring LLP
broken bat

Broken bat at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 2011. Credit: Keith Allison

Something special happens about mid-February every year. The days become a little less gray and a little less cold. There is promise on the wind — of warmer weather and sunnier days. If you close your eyes, you can smell the grass, hear the cheers and the crack of the bat, taste the Cracker Jacks. February and March are the preseason of the most glorious seven months of the year. Baseball.

The 2013 major league season is more than halfway over; we’ve just had the Mid-Summer Classic, also known as the All-Star game, and we are about to hit the dog days of August before racing into September, the playoffs and then the (not quite) World Series. Although some teams have seen the promise of the beginning of the season fade into the inevitability of mediocrity, many other teams still have a view to the playoffs and October glory.

Many fans bring a glove to games in the hope of snagging a foul ball, but that is not the only potential flying object from the field of play. Unlike in the other levels of baseball — from Little League to college — where metal bats are used, major league baseball bats are made from only one type of material — wood. And wooden bats, encountering pitches that can exceed 100 mph, only need the ball to strike one weaker spot on the bat before they break into two or shatter into multiple pieces. The results of these broken bats do not create cinema-quality moments like the one at the end of “The Natural.” Instead, flying bat pieces can create moments of fear for players, managers and fans alike.

Ángel Berroa breaks a bat

The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Ángel Berroa breaks a bat. Credit: Malingering/Flickr

But Major League Baseball, working with the U.S. Forest Service researchers at the Forest Products Laboratory, has spent the money and time over the last five years to make safer baseball bats. Researchers examined every broken bat that occurred in the major leagues from July through September 2008 while studying video of every bat breakage from 2009 onwards. Using these bats and the video, the folks at the Forest Products Laboratory were able to chart the composition, the cut and the quality of the bat and the wood, allowing them to pinpoint the causes of bat failure.

The two leading factors are, perhaps unsurprisingly, wood grain and density. A bat that is crafted with the grain, thus having a straight grain along the length of the bat is less likely to break into two than a bat that is crafted across the wood grain, leaving the grain angled. And while maple and ash bats continue to be the overwhelming favorite of major league players, a low-density maple bat is more likely to shatter into multiple pieces than ash or higher-density maple bats.

Seeing Restoration at Work

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

A butterfly at the 2012 Muskegon Partnership for Trees project site.

A butterfly at the 2012 Muskegon Partnership for Trees project site. Credit: Michelle Werts/American Forests

I never knew that walking through a forest could feel like walking on the beach, but that was the experience I had last week on the west coast of Michigan.

On Thursday, my forest restoration colleagues and I were in Muskegon visiting the project sites of work we’ve supported through the American Forests and Alcoa Foundation Partnership for Trees Program. Three years ago, we partnered with Alcoa Foundation on this 10-year initiative to identify restoration needs near Alcoa plant locations throughout the world. That led us to Muskegon and the dedicated Muskegon Conservation District, which has been conserving local natural resources since 1938.

American Forests' Jami Westerhold and Megan Higgs discuss the 2011 Muskegon Partnership for Trees project with the Muskegon Conservation District's Dallas Goldberg.

American Forests’ Jami Westerhold and Megan Higgs discuss the 2011 Muskegon Partnership for Trees project with the Muskegon Conservation District’s Dallas Goldberg. Credit: Michelle Werts/American Forests

The Muskegon Conservation District conducts a variety of conservation activities, from watershed health — one of their major recent projects has been helping restore White Lake, which they are hoping to get removed from the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Areas of Concern” list — to protecting and managing more than 1,200 acres of forested land. This, of course, is where the district’s work and our interests align.

Over the last three years, three Muskegon Conservation District projects have been funded through the American Forests and Alcoa Foundation Partnership for Trees, and we got to see all of them during our trip last week. These projects have been focused on helping some of Muskegon’s forests recover from outbreaks of bark beetles and the disease diplodia, which have been affecting the area’s red pine — a species with an interesting history in Michigan.

A native species to the state, much of the red pine was cleared to make way for agriculture as the state was settled. Then, during the era of the Civilian Conservation Corps, that enterprising group of men restored stands of red pine to Michigan. After that, the U.S. Forest Service used red pine stands in Muskegon for various experiments for management and other research purposes. After decades under Forest Service management, these experimental stands were passed along to the Muskegon Conservation District, and because of their monoculture of red pine due to the experiments, when the beetles and disease struck, they struck hard.

On location at the 2012 Muskegon Partnership for Trees project site.

On location at the 2012 Muskegon Partnership for Trees project site. Credit: Michelle Werts/American Forests

Our hosts in Michigan walked us through multiple sites planted through the financial help of American Forests and Alcoa, explaining how they had salvaged what they could of the damaged red pine while preparing the forest sites for replanting. Over the last three years, more than 55,000 trees have been planted in the Muskegon area through our Partnership for Trees with Alcoa Foundation. Each year, Alcoa employees have joined the Muskegon Conservation District to assist in tree planting and restoration work.

From a restoration perspective, one of the most exciting things about these projects to our team is the diversity of tree species and age that the district is using in their plantings — more than a dozen different species are being used. Through a combination of hardwoods and conifers of varying ages, a healthy, diverse forest stand will develop in this Michigan community. As for that sandy soil I mentioned at the beginning, it’s very common in this part of Michigan — being on the coast of Lake Michigan — so all of the species being planted must be compatible with these unique growing conditions. Of course, the Muskegon Conservation District has this covered: only trees native to the area are being used and only ones that can survive a beach-like soil. Seeing these little seedlings flourishing in this environment was heart-warming.

Overall, we had a lovely trip and are proud of the work we’ve been able to accomplish in Michigan with the help of the Muskegon Conservation District and Alcoa Foundation.

When Life Gives You Lemons, Plant Trees

by Susan Laszewski
Lemonade money for trees

Credit: Amanda Edwards

There’s absolutely nothing like a cold glass of lemonade on a hot summer day. But when that lemonade goes to help a cause you believe in, it tastes even sweeter. We recently heard about two young entrepreneurial minds that are using this principle to the benefit of forests.

Amanda Edwards of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, recently wrote to tell us about her 10-year-old son’s lemonade stand. According to Edwards, her son loves trees so much that he began to wonder if he cared too much. She told him, “It’s not possible to care too much … and that it just meant he has a passion.” She then encouraged him to think of a way to help trees over the summer.

lemonade stand

The young conservationists at work. Credit: Amanda Edwards

And so, the idea of creating and running a homemade lemonade stand to raise money for American Forests was born. With mouthwatering merchandise and a commendable cause, who could resist? Last we heard, the young conservationist, together with his seven-year-old sister, has already earned enough to plant 300 trees, which we’ll do proudly for him.

So, if you’re visiting the beaches of Maine this summer, keep an eye out for a lemonade stand that supports forests. And if you can’t make it to Maine, but these young tree-huggers have inspired you, you can always become a member of American Forests and protect our trees. It may not quench your thirst the same way, but hopefully, it will begin to sate your hunger to help our planet’s forests.

Raising money to plant trees

Credit: Amanda Edwards

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, Bugwood.org

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, CaptainKimo.com

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?