Creativity in the Wild

by Susan Laszewski

Have you ever been strolling through the park and suddenly been hit by with a sense of clarity or the solution to a problem you didn’t even know you were thinking about? Or said to yourself, “I need some fresh air,” just as you were on the verge of throwing in the towel on a difficult task?

Yesterday, we shared a video with you about how trees help create a sense of calm and reduce stress. Director of our Urban Forests program Melinda Housholder has also written on the positive effects of urban forests on our health — both mental and physical. Now, a study published earlier this month in PLOS One addresses the effect of time spent in nature on the creative intellect as well.

Thinking and creating in nature

Some of the best thinking and creating takes place in nature. NPS photo by Michael Quinn.

Past research has shown that exposure to nature helps with attention — an effect known as the Attention Restoration Theory — making outdoor playtime important for development. David Strayer, a cognitive scientist at the University of Utah, wanted to test whether exposure to nature had similar effects on higher-level cognitive tasks, specifically creative problem solving. Based on personal experience, he hypothesized an emphatic “yes” answer to his question and teamed up with outdoor leadership program provider Outward Bound to test his theory. Their tool was the Remote Associates Test — an established test of creative problem solving that will seem familiar to anyone who’s played the game Taboo. (Wilderness adventure and Taboo? I’m starting to wish I’d been a participant in this study!) Half of the 56 participants took the test before heading out into the great outdoors and the other half took it four days into their trip, with the wilds of Alaska, Colorado and Maine as the setting.

Not surprisingly, those who took the test four days into the trip did better, but what may surprise you is just how much better they were able to problem solve: Those four days of immersion in the natural environment increased problem-solving success by 50 percent!

While it’s true that such research could have far-reaching implications for our education system, work structure and other institutions, it also suggests a much more easy-to-enact change: get outside more. You don’t have to be heading out on a three-week trek into the wilderness to take time out from your electronic devices and take a walk outdoors — whether outdoors means the Alaskan wilderness or a nearby city park. The science just keeps piling up: Nature is good for you.

Grand canyon

Painting at the Grand Canyon. NPS photo by Michael Quinn.

Video Break: Urban Forests

by Loose Leaf Contributor

For today’s post, we’d like to give our readers a fun three-minute break. If you enjoy these short videos about the benefits of urban forests, please share them with your friends and tell your city council how much your neighborhood trees mean to you!

  1. Urban Forests Cool Our Cities

    Trees and greenspaces in cities cool our cities, reducing heating and cooling costs and making time outdoors more pleasant, but often this benefit is forgotten in the midst of other municipal concerns. Contact your city council or mayor’s office to tell them how important trees are in your city.
  2. Urban Forests Clean Our Air

    Trees and greenspaces in cities clean our air, reducing smog and pollution, but often this benefit is forgotten in the midst of other municipal concerns. Contact your city council or mayor’s office to tell them how important trees are in your city.
  3. Urban Forests Create Happy Cities

    Trees and greenspaces in cities create a sense of calm and community, reducing stress, but often this benefit is forgotten in the midst of other municipal concerns. Contact your city council or mayor’s office to tell them how important trees are in your city.

Happy Holidays!

by Loose Leaf Contributor

Wishing all of our readers and their loved ones safe and happy holidays.

Winter Wonderland

Credit: Marc Samsom/Flickr

Analyzing Our Forests

by American Forests

By Gerry Gray, Ph.D., Senior Vice President

On Tuesday, the U.S. Forest Service released its major, long-term assessment of the current conditions, trends and future projections for our nation’s forests and rangelands. Known as the 2010 Resources Planning Act Assessment, or simply the RPA assessment, this document — and the many technical reports on which it is based — contains a wealth of information for anyone interested in our forests and rangelands and the services and benefits they provide to society. In 1974, Congress mandated the preparation of an RPA assessment every 10 years, and each report’s job is to make projections looking out 50 years as an early warning system on emerging issues for managers and policymakers.

Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve, California

Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve, California. Credit: Miguel Vieira/Flickr

The 2010 report is the 5th RPA assessment published by the agency, and it has taken an innovative, technically-sophisticated and, I might say, bold approach to its mandate. While there are many issues and findings that I could discuss, I will focus on three items that caught my attention in my initial review of the report.

  • A new future scenarios approach to the report: The 2010 report takes a fundamentally different approach than earlier reports to help address climate change and provide a coherent framework for assessing future outcomes across various resources, such as forests, water, wildlife and carbon. The report selected a set of comprehensive global scenarios that had been developed and used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide global context and quantitative linkages between American and global trends. The various scenarios include projections for population, economic activity, climate and bioenergy.
  • New tree canopy cover data and analysis in the forest resources section of the report: While I’ve been very aware of tree canopy cover data for urban forest inventories and analysis, I have not been aware of its growing acceptance as a major set of data for discussion within the RPA assessment. The inclusion of this data enriches and expands the discussion about forests and allows the use of new technology tools to develop and present important spatial information, such as how forests in certain places might be affected by heat and drought.
  • Grand Junction, Colorado

    Grand Junction, Colorado. Credit: Ethan Lofton (ELeaf)/Flickr

    A significantly expanded analysis and discussion of urban forests: The 2010 report provides greater information about urban forests, including a thoughtful discussion about the dynamics of urban growth. As urban areas expand into rural forest areas, traditional forests will be diminished, but urban forests — or the potential for establishing and managing urban forests — will increase. The report also highlights a new — or at least quite recent — perspective from the Forest Service on urban forests that reflects their significance for our growing urban populations: “Urban forests will become increasingly important for providing a range of ecosystem service to urban populations.”

This is a perspective American Forests heartily agrees with, which is why we’ve spent the last year studying various cities in the U.S. and how they are using their urban forests to the benefit of the city and its residents — thanks in part to a grant from the U.S. Forest Service. Over the next year, we plan on expanding our Urban Forests program even more and look forward to continuing to discuss the importance that urban forests will play in our lives.


by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Is anyone else feeling a little overwhelmed these days between tragedies in the news and the hustle and bustle of the holiday season? I know I am, so instead of delving into another new report on the direness that climate change could bring, I thought we would take a moment to just appreciate the beauty of forests and nature to the tune of a quote from artist, poet and writer Kahlil Gibran.


Credit: mf.lane/Flickr


Credit: Bill Weaver (g'pa bill)/Flickr


Credit: Tom Check (tombothetominator)/Flickr


Credit: Jodi Womack/Flickr

I hope everyone is able to take a moment this holiday season and appreciate the beauty in the little and big things around us everyday.

Working Together Creates Results

by Scott Steen, President & CEO

A few years ago, American Forests started working on a program that we believed would benefit wildfire-threatened forests and their communities across the country. Along with a number of partners, we fought to make sure this program got the support and funding it deserved. Just a few years into it, we’re already seeing encouraging results, as the threat of mega-fires has been reduced on 612,000 acres.

Ouachita National Forest

Ouachita National Forest, which borders Oklahoma and Arkansas, is the site of a CFLR project. Credit: Abhishek Chinchalkar (jaxx2kde)/Flickr

The U.S. Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration program (CFLR) was created to encourage collaborative, science-based ecosystem restoration of priority forest landscapes. American Forests was a founding member of the CFLR Coalition, which exists for two reasons: first, to ensure that the program is fully funded by Congress and, second, to ensure CFLR’s program goals are successful achieved. With today’s release of the 2012 CFLR report, it’s clear that both of these goals are now being met.

The Kootenai River

The Kootenai River. The Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative is a CFLR project focused on the lower Kootenai River watershed of north Idaho. Credit: Northwest Power and Conservation Council/Flickr

2012 marked the first year that CFLR has been fully funded since its inception in 2010. This means that this important program can support 20 CFLR-designated sites across the country. Plus, three additional collaborative project sites have been deemed as High Priority Restoration Projects.

Beyond the number of acres that have been better protected against mega-fires by the CFLR, the 23 project sites are also having an impact on the local economies. More than 4,500 part and full-time jobs were created or maintained through the program’s work in FY 2012, and the projects have generated nearly $320 million in labor income. There are also the environmental impacts: 537,000 acres of improved wildlife habitat and nearly 400 miles of restored fish habitat. All of these figures put the CFLR projects well on their way to meeting their 10-year goals and provide another prime example of what we can accomplish by working together.

A hallmark of CFLR’s success is the bi-partisan support from Congress that helped get the program created in 2009 and its first funding in 2010. It’s not just Congress that is working together on this program, though. The CFLR Coalition consists of more than 140 members representing 22 states. These members range from nonprofits to private businesses, from community members to county governments, from water suppliers to associations. This diverse collective represents our shared interest in making sure our forestlands are healthy, thriving and safe, which is something we at American Forests fight to create every day.

A New Kind of Cap and Trade

by Susan Laszewski

American Forests has closely followed developments in the carbon trade market. We celebrated when our Cuyamaca Rancho State Park reforestation project was recently accepted by the Climate Action Reserve as a project that can issue Carbon Reduction Tons in California’s carbon market. We’ve also taken a keen interest in the relationship between urban forests and the carbon market. In fact, last summer, we co-sponsored a workshop on “Carbon Offsets & the Urban Forests” at the University of California, Davis.

Aerial view of the Amazon

Aerial view of the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest. Credit: CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture

So, naturally, I was excited to read about how the success of carbon markets has inspired a new environmental assets trading program — one with the potential to incentivize the conservation of the world’s largest rainforest. The Amazon is home to 10 percent of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity and produces 20 percent of Earth’s oxygen. Approximately 25 percent of modern pharmaceuticals are derived from Amazonian plant life, yet it’s estimated that only about one percent of that plant life has even been tested for pharmaceutical potential. In short, this rainforest is an important resource to all people, no matter their proximity to it. And now, it’s just become easier for landowners in Brazil to embrace its conservation.

Last Monday, BVRio — for Bolsa Verde, meaning “Green Stock,” Rio — launched in Brazil. A nonprofit with government input, BVRio facilitates the trade of many environmental assets, but the one that is garnering the most attention is the trade of native vegetation quotas.

Under Brazilian law, landowners must preserve a certain percentage of their land as native vegetation, also known as a “forest reserve.” The percentage varies depending upon the given ecosystem. Previously, a landowner who had cleared too much land was responsible for replanting areas to make sure he hit his forest reserve percentage, even though he may have no expertise in the skills needed to do so effectively. Under the new environmental assets trading program, the same landowner can meet the forest reserve requirement by going online and purchasing a corresponding amount of land of a similar ecosystem from a landowner with more than the required acres.

There are approximately five million private rural properties in Brazil, and it’s estimated that nearly four million of them do not currently meet the forest reserve requirements. It’s easy to see how this new market could soon be worth billions. Under the quota trading system, a tree’s monetary value while it’s standing could be higher than what it would be worth as timber or corresponding agricultural land.

BVRio has only a week of operation under its belt, but with so much potential to serve as a model for endangered forests around the world, I, for one, will be watching with interest to see how things unfold.

Fire on the Horizon

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Earlier this month at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, scientists presented new projections about wildfire activity over the next few decades — and it doesn’t look pretty.

The devastating High Park Wildfire on Colorado’s Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland on Thursday, June 17, 2012.

The devastating High Park Wildfire on Colorado’s Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland on Thursday, June 17, 2012. Credit: USDA

Using NASA satellite data and climate models, scientists estimate that in the next 30-50 years, we will see longer, stronger fire seasons across all regions in the U.S. Why? Because NASA’s climate projection models anticipate drier conditions as the climate changes, and drier conditions mean our grasslands and forests are riper for fire activity.

These more intense, longer fire seasons will most likely result in more carbon dioxide emissions, creating a climate change feedback loop. Scientists report that carbon dioxide emissions from wildfires in the West have more than doubled from what they were in the 1980s.

But what exactly does a “more intense” fire season mean? It means fewer fires, but more acres burned. For instance, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reported that through November 30, 2012, more than 9.1 million acres had burned across the U.S. this year, which is the third highest in their records, which go back to 1960. However, the 55,505 total number of fires this year was on the low end, according to NIFC records. Add the fact that this year’s average fire size was the highest on record, and more intense indeed.

Wildfires are a never-ending concern when it comes to forest and human health and safety. While fire is a necessary part of some forest ecosystems, intense fires can be devastating. That’s why the American Forests policy team works hard to advocate for programs and funding that support not only wildfire fighting itself, but also programs that can help diminish wildfire risk. You can add your voice to the mix by visiting our Action Center and sending a pre-written letter supporting emergency supplements to fight fires or other letters requesting funding for programs that reduce the risk of wildfire.

This NASA visualization depicts fires that burned between January 1 and October 31, 2012.

This NASA visualization depicts fires that burned between January 1 and October 31, 2012, as detected by Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer instruments. Yellow and orange indicates fires that were more intense and had a larger area of active burning. Most of these intense fires occurred in the western United States, where lightning and human activity often sparks blazes that firefighters cannot contain. Many of the lower intensity fires shown in red were prescribed fires, lit for either agricultural or ecosystem management purposes. Credit: NASA images provided by the Science Visualization Studio.

ReLeaf Close to Home

by Susan Laszewski

By working with partners far and wide, American Forests is able to fund restoration projects from Maine to Hawaii, and even in places as far from our Washington, D.C. offices as Kenya. But some projects are a bit closer to home.

Yesterday, Jesse Buff and Megan Higgs, our director and manager of forest restoration programs, took some time off from preparing the 2013 Global ReLeaf projects to visit a 2012 project that’s just a hop, skip and a jump from the American Forests offices.

American Forests volunteer helps Arlington County employee with tree-planting.

An American Forests volunteer helps an Arlington County employee with tree-planting.

We partnered with Arlington Department of Parks and Recreation to plant trees on Arlington County public lands, and some American Forests volunteers came out to help in the planting. It’s not the first time we’ve worked with Arlington; we also partnered with them on the 9/11 Memorial Tree Planting in 2002, planting 184 trees on public land and another 184 on private land, to honor the 184 individuals who lost their lives in the attack on the Pentagon.

Arlington is close to home for us, but a lot of Global ReLeaf projects are close to someone’s home. While American Forests works to put millions of trees in the ground in wilderness areas, we also know the importance of urban forests. There could very well be a tree in your neighborhood that was planted through a Global ReLeaf project!

For example, New Haven is perhaps best known as the home of Yale University, but it’s not just the ivy on the buildings that’s green. We’re partnering with the Urban Resources Initiative, a nonprofit partner of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, on a Global ReLeaf project to help New Haven reach its canopy coverage goals. By 2016, the city hopes to have planted 10,000 additional trees. Seeing as the 40 percent canopy cover they currently have saves the city $4 million a year, it’s easy to see the motivation.

It’s even easier to see in a city like Indianapolis that has lost 25 percent of its trees in the last 10 years. We are partnering with nonprofit Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, Inc. to plant 500 trees in areas of the Fall Creek Watershed, where residents use the Fall Creek Greenway Trail to stay fit and get away from the city’s hustle and bustle. As a city that ranks as one of the 10 cities in the U.S. with the worst air quality, it’s understandable that Indianapolis would want to invest in its urban forest. In addition to their Global ReLeaf partnership with American Forests, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful also created its NeighborWoods program to — in the words of program director Andrew Hart — “create a more positive tree culture in the city.” You can read more about what Keep Indianapolis Beautiful and other organizations and agencies are doing for Indianapolis’ urban forests in our case study book.

As our Global ReLeaf team can attest to, it feels good to see trees being planted close to home. Visit your city’s Urban Forestry or Parks and Recreation website to learn about projects happening close to your home!

A Win for Wetlands

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

By pushing an earthen plug into the ditch, the drainage stops and water backs up, creating a natural wetlands area on Maryland Eastern shore landowner Kirby Wells’ property on June 19, 2012, as part of the WRP

By pushing an earthen plug into the ditch, the drainage stops and water backs up, creating a natural wetlands area on Maryland Eastern shore landowner Kirby Wells’ property on June 19, 2012, as part of the WRP. Credit: USDA/Flickr

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it’s helped restore more than 2.6 million acres of wetlands habitat in the U.S. through its Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP)! The program began 20 years ago as a way to bring people together to protect, restore and enhance wetlands on private and tribal lands. With 75 percent of wetlands located on private land, getting landowners to participate in this voluntary program has been a key part of the program’s success. And more than 11,000 have, helping reduce flood damage and aiding groundwater recharging and carbon sequestration.

As Jason Weller, acting chief of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which administers the WRP, states in a news release on the program, “The Wetlands Reserve Program is a great conservation tool, providing landowners a way to protect and restore wetland areas while making improvements to their properties — it is a win-win for the environment, the landowner and the community.”

In Red River County, Texas, American Forests joined the NRCS’ WRP efforts with a multi-year project designed to restore native hardwood trees to a two-mile section of an alluvial floodplain along the Red River. The Global ReLeaf project helped plant more than 200,000 trees to convert the former agricultural land back to wetland.

A wetland in central Washington that has been restored through NRCS cooperative work

A wetland in central Washington that has been restored through NRCS cooperative work. Credit: USDA/Flickr

The WRP isn’t the only NRCS program, though, that American Forests has helped support over the years. Global ReLeaf conducted a multi-year project in Alaska to restore timber lands across 2,600 acres through NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which is another voluntary program aimed at providing assistance for agricultural landowners. We’ve also conducted multiple projects alongside the NRCS in Maryland to restore wetlands for the benefit of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Then, there are the countless other wetland projects we’ve conducted over the years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help establish healthy wildlife habitat, such as our multi-year project in Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge to create habitat for the black bear and other species. There are also the projects alongside nonprofit partners to restore wetlands and … yeah, we love wetlands.

You know what we love just as much as wetlands? Cooperative efforts to restore and protect the environment. One of the great things about the WRP’s success is that it was not built by one person or one entity alone. It was a collective effort between landowners, government, nonprofits and other partners. That’s what we love to see: People joining together for a common goal.