An Unfair Trade

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

shipping containers

Shipping containers from Asia in the port of Oakland (Photo credit: MentalMasala/Flickr)

As a culture, we’re used to getting our products from just about anywhere in the world. In someone’s home, it isn’t uncommon to find coffee from Mexico, chocolate from Ghana, fruit from Ecuador, shrimp from Thailand and so on. We’ve gotten so used to it that we hardly notice. But the downside of having our stuff come from all over the planet is that we’re so far from the source, we don’t really register the environmental impact of our products.

A new study, recently published in the journal Nature, has taken the first fully comprehensive look at the ties between global trade and environmental impact. The team of researchers started with data on 25,000 animal species from the Red List — the list of species that are internationally recognized as threatened or endangered. Then, they looked at more than 15,000 products traded across 187 different countries and a stunning five billion supply chains, taking into account everything from the pollution created by manufacturing plants to the amount of deforestation caused by harvesting a product or the extent to which re-routing waterways for crop irrigation can affect local environments. By cross-checking all this information, researchers found that 30 percent of threats to animal species are a direct result of international trade.

orangutan

Orangutans in Indonesia are suffering extreme habitat loss because of the demand for palm oil (Photo credit: ArianZwegers/Flickr)

That number includes only direct effects of the supply chain, and doesn’t even take into account factors like the consequences of invasive species. Plants, fungi, diseases and animals can hitch a ride on shipping containers, in packing materials, in the bilge water of ships and a number of other ways to find themselves on our turf, making a new home for themselves in our native environments. As we know from our oh-so-pleasant dealings with critters like the gypsy moth and emerald ash borer, invasive species can cause severe and widespread damage all on their own.

Digging into the team’s data with greater detail, the researchers were able to pinpoint the products and countries that contribute the most to biodiversity loss, and those that suffer most because of it. They found that the U.S. was the top nation contributing to the problem because of its demand for imported goods — with Japan, Germany, France and England trailing not far behind. The flow of coffee and tea from Mexico to the U.S., for instance, is linked to 57 separate threats to species. On the other end of the supply chain, Indonesia, Madagascar Papua New Guinea, the Phillipines and Sri Lanka are paying the highest price, with the most loss of biodiversity.

Despite the fact that our international trade habits are driving species to the brink, it’s hard to imagine everyone suddenly agreeing to go without commodities like coffee or chocolate. So what can we do? The team that conducted the study hopes that their findings will lead to stricter regulations and better labeling practices so that consumers can be more aware of the impact of what they buy. Hopefully, they’re right. But I also hope that people concerned about the impact their products have on biodiversity will do some research beforehand on the brands they buy. A dollar may not go very far these days, but its impact can be felt around the world.


The Many Sides of Wildfire

by Amanda Tai

Wildfire has frequently been in the headlines this past week, as a megafire continues to blaze through the Southwest. Two separate fires, the Whitewater and Baldy, that began last week have merged and taken over Gila National Forest, becoming the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history. The Whitewater-Baldy fire has caused several highway and recreation site closures to ensure civilian safety. Burning 15 miles east of Glenwood, New Mexico, the fire started as a result of two lightning strikes and severe drought-like conditions. About 250,000 acres, approximately 390 square miles, have already been claimed by the destructive fire. To prevent the fire from spreading even faster, crews are working to contain the blaze.

You may be wondering why firefighters are trying to contain the fire rather than putting it out. It’s fairly common these days for forest managers to let wildfires burn naturally, as long as they are burning at a low intensity and are far away from people. Fire is a natural part of a forest’s life cycle that helps release necessary nutrients into the soil, and this kind of controlled, natural burning clears out debris that causes fires to spread more quickly.

Credit: Forest Service - Northern Region/Flickr

More than 1,000 firefighters are trying to keep the Whitewater-Baldy fire away from nearby communities — which is quickly spreading due to strong winds, but is burning at a lower intensity than originally anticipated. Currently, about 20 percent of the fire is contained, meaning those areas are no longer spreading and are being allowed to extinguish naturally. To accomplish this containment, firefighting crews are using a method called aerial ignition, where they get rid of debris before the wildfire reaches it, preventing the fire from spreading. With aerial ignition, debris is ignited via aircraft to keep firefighting crews far away from the flames. Despite safety precautions, firefighter safety is still a major concern for wildfire work. Just this week, tragedy struck as an aircraft carrying two Boise firefighters crashed into rugged terrain on its way to a wildfire on the Utah-Nevada border, killing both passengers.

As you can see, wildfires are an increasingly complicated matter that poses threat to both forest ecosystems and human safety. Such a complex issue requires congressional and federal agency leadership, continuous technological advancements, and community involvement. Wildfire policy must be flexible in order to adapt to changes in climate, ecosystem threats and human development. With the increase in the number of wildfires, more funding for firefighting and prevention is required, which is difficult to do with a tight federal budget.

American Forests has been a long-time advocate for a number of programs and policies that address the numerous sides of wildfires. One of these — the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act — enforces funding for wildfire prevention and suppression without dipping into other funding pools. Another is the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program that has as one of its main goals to reduce the costs of fire suppression in overgrown forests by proactively managing the forests before a fire hits. These and other programs are necessary to reduce the effects of out-of-control fires and introducing natural fire back into the forest life cycle. Fitting everything into the federal budget can be a tricky game, but it’s critical for the sake of forest communities and ecosystems that proactive approaches to wildfire management remain a funding priority.


Celebrating World Environment Day

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Today marks the 40th World Environment Day.

Started in 1972 by the United Nations, World Environment Day aims to be “the biggest and most widely celebrated global day for positive environmental action.” Each year, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) chooses a theme to help focus its environmental message around World Environment Day and the rest of the year. This year, that theme is “Green Economy: Does it include you?”

And while the phrase “green economy” might not scream forests, forests are actually an important element of the world economy. According to UNEP’s Green Economy report on forests:

Forest goods and services support the economic livelihoods of over 1 billion people, most of whom are in developing countries and are poor. While timber, paper and fibre products yield only a small fraction of global GDP [Gross Domestic Product], public goods derived from forest ecosystems have substantial economic value estimated in the trillions of dollars. Forests sustain more than 50 percent of terrestrial species, they regulate global climate through carbon storage and protect watersheds. The products of forest industries are valuable, not least because they are renewable, recyclable and biodegradable. Thus, forests are a fundamental part of the earth’s ecological infrastructure and forest goods and services are important components of a green economy.

Chitwan National Forest, Nepal

Chitwan National Forest, Nepal. Credit: chaostrophy/Flickr

For instance, in Nepal, 35 percent of the country’s citizens are involved in managing forests under community forestry practices. As a result, those involved receive employment and income through everything from protecting the forest to tree felling and log extraction to the use of non-timber forest products. And community forestry groups have been known to develop scholarship programs and provide savings and credit opportunities. All of this while Nepal’s forests now grow by 1.35 percent per year compared to a declining rate of 1.9 percent in the 1990s.

So what does this mean? If we protect and properly use our forests, they will protect and help people around the world, providing jobs while keeping our environment cleaner. Green economy indeed.

But the conversation doesn’t end today. Later this month, leaders from around the world will gather in Brazil for the Rio+20 Summit, which will continue the focus on creating a worldwide green economy to help combat global issues like the financial crisis, food crisis, ecosystem degradation and more.

Twenty years after the landmark 1992 Earth Summit, where countries adopted “Agenda 21” — a way to rethink economic growth, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection — the UN is bringing the world together again to address the major environmental issues of the day. It is once again an opportunity for concerned citizens, officials and leaders to influence how we want to shape our future. And considering the daily scientific reports of unsettling things happening in nature, in our cities and around the world that can be connected to the environment, there is no time like the present to start protecting that future.


More Trees, Please

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Across this blog and throughout the American Forests website, you can find a wealth of information about the various and sundry benefits that trees can provide — from the physical (cleaner air) to the economic (higher property value). Trees can also tell us a lot of things, whether it is the inconsequential cliché etched in their bark that “Jimmy loves Sally” or the more important (at least scientifically) history of a region’s climate. And, as pointed out recently by another blogger, trees can also tell us how wealthy a neighborhood is — from space.

In his blog, Per Square Mile, Tim DeChant discusses a 2008 study published in Landscape and Urban Planning that worked to better understand the relationship between income and tree cover in U.S. cities. What it found is that even small increases in income would increase an area’s tree cover. Similarly, even small decreases in income correlate to a decrease in tree cover. To put it simply: more money equals more trees. In his blog, Tim illustrated this point through satellite photos of high- and low-income neighborhoods. Sadly, you don’t have to look hard to see which ones are greener.

Here is a shot of Oakland, California:

Photo credit: Google Maps

Compare that to this one of Piedmont, California, less than five miles away.

Photo Credit: Google Maps

Another example can be found in the areas around Boston. Here is Somerville, Massachusetts:

Photo Credit: Google Maps

And here is the wealthier area of West Cambridge.

Photo Credit: Google Maps

The reasons behind this connection are many. Homes with higher income generally have more land and, therefore, more space for trees. Since trees can have a tougher time growing in urban settings, they’re also more expensive to obtain and care for, which means an urban tree canopy can be considered a luxury not all neighborhoods can afford. However, looking at trees as a luxury is a pretty one-dimensional view. Yes, they’re pretty, but they also provide a host of benefits, particularly in urban settings — benefits that people in high-income areas may enjoy, but that could also work to significantly improve the lives and livelihoods of people in low-income areas, like better air quality (particularly important for those who can’t afford good healthcare), higher property values and even lower crime rates. Cities always seem to have one plan or another to improve life for neighborhoods in need, many of them costly and cumbersome. Trees certainly don’t hold all the answers, but if given a chance, a touch of Mother Nature may be able to make a great deal of difference.


Take a Hike

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Hiking Vermont’s Long Trail

Hiking Vermont’s Long Trail. Credit: Adam Franco/Flickr

Tomorrow, Americans across the country will be celebrating the 19th annual National Trails Day, which was started by the American Hiking Society back in 1993 — but the idea of a day for celebrating America’s hiking trails actually goes farther back.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan’s President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors recommended that every person in the country should be able to walk out their front door and reach a trail within 15 minutes. While this might not be a reality for every American yet, the country does boast 200,000 miles of hiking, biking and other types of trails that can be enjoyed tomorrow — and every day. And the benefits they provide are never-ending.

First, there’s the obvious: Physical activity is good for you. Getting out and hiking or biking along a recreational trail helps keep your body in shape. Plus, as featured in American Forests, studies show that being amidst forests helps reduce stress, lower blood pressure and strengthen immune systems.

And, now, a new study is revealing that not only is traipsing through nature good for your body, it’s good for your brain. The study conducted by the University of Kansas’ Ruth Ann Atchley reveals that hikers who have been on a trail for four days are 50 percent more creative than those who haven’t been communing with nature. So get out and enjoy some of America’s trails to benefit your mind and body!

Where to go?

Well, there’s always the Triple Crown of long-distance hiking trails:

  • The Appalachian Trail – 2,000 miles that stretch from Georgia to Maine
  • The Pacific Crest – 2,600-plus miles that traverse the Cascade and Sierra Nevada Mountains from British Columbia down to California
  • The Continental Divide – 3,000 miles along the famous divide from Montana to New Mexico that takes travelers to high-altitude peaks in the Rockies

… or, you can head to some of American Forests’ Best Hiking Trails in the U.S.

… or, urban dwellers can check out National Geographic’s list of the best hiking cities for trails ideas. They also have a list of the best trails in national parks.

… or, you can simply go through your front door and just keep walking. Big trail, small trail, no trail, sidewalk or other walking surface, the spirit of National Trails Day is just to get out and enjoy nature. I’ll see you there.


Smoggy Sequoias

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Giant sequoias in Sequoia National Park. Credit: James Berk/Flickr

More often than not, you expect a park or forest to have pretty clean air. Even more so if it happens to be a well-known place, located far from the nearest urban center that could be smogging up its air. But sadly, this is not always the case. Sequoia National Park, home to some of the biggest and oldest trees in the U.S., is also home to a higher level of air pollution than any other national park.

There are 52 national parks in the U.S. that monitor their air quality each day to make sure that it is safe for visitors. High temperatures, levels of smog and levels of certain allergens or pollutants can all add up to make a bad air-quality day. Ozone in particular can be a nasty problem, capable of literally causing lungs to blister when it’s found at high enough concentrations. That national parks — the places we go to get away from cities and their many urban problems — also have to monitor for air pollution is a bit alarming. This week, the EPA and the National Park Service released a list of the 10 national parks with the worst pollution in 2011 based on ozone levels and days that failed to meet EPA standards for air quality, and Sequoia National Park topped the list.

Despite its reputation for immense trees and remote forests, Sequoia had a total of 87 days that failed to meet federal air-quality standards in 2011 — and it’s hardly a new problem. Park employees and volunteers have come to expect regular lectures on the dangers of air pollution and watch as once-clear vistas have become routinely wreathed in smog. In fact, according to the National Park Conservation Association (NPCA), Sequoia National Park has levels of ozone comparable to those in major cities like Los Angeles. Already this year, though summer has just begun, the park has seen levels of ozone well beyond those set by federal health standards.

How can this be the case when the park is miles away from the closest city? Unfortunately, it comes down to a quirk of geography. The park lies north of the San Joaquin Valley, which contains several major trucking highways, a number of power and food-processing plants and acres upon acres of farmland overseen by diesel-powered machinery. Pollution from this region is pushed north by winds off San Francisco Bay and meets the cooler air moving south, creating an eddy that traps the polluted air in the region, which gives it a chance to seep into the area where the park is located.

View from webcam of smog in Sequoia National Park. Credit: National Park Service

Human safety is certainly important, but such severe air pollution in what is supposed to be a remote, natural location also begs the question, what about the trees? Scientists are uncertain what effect long-term exposure to these levels of ozone might have on the environment in these locations, though foresters do see needles turn yellow as the trees soak up ozone, which interferes with their ability to photosynthesize. Young seedlings also struggle to survive and grow with such obstacles to overcome.

With this disturbing news about air pollution in national parks, we can only hope that Sequoia and other parks will benefit from legislation like the Clean Air Act, through which officials aim to give the region pure, clean air by the year 2064. The problem is that the only way to cut down on the pollution that enters Sequoia is to cut down on the pollution in the entire San Joaquin Valley air basin — a tall order given the sheer number of sources of pollution.


(500) Jobs of Summer

by Amanda Tai

Credit: a loves dc/Flickr

Memorial Day weekend is viewed as the official kickoff of summer. This past weekend, many folks headed to the beach or gathered at backyard barbeques to celebrate the holiday. It’s also the time of year when schools let out, and young people start looking for summer jobs. But unlike the flocks of interns that flood D.C. in the summer, some young people are planning to spend their summers working outside. Thanks to a new federal grant program, there are even more opportunities for youth to work outside this summer. With $3.7 million available for conservation projects, the grant will help employ more than 500 youths over the summer, adding to the existing 20,000-plus youth summer employment opportunities in national forests, parks and wildlife refuges.

Since President Obama launched his America’s Great Outdoors Initiative back in 2010, conservation and outdoor recreation have been highlighted as ways that we can protect our natural heritage. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), U.S. Department of Interior (DOI), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) worked together to develop a conservation action plan after receiving more than 100,000 public comments.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Summer Intern. Credit: YouthGO.gov

In response to the Obama administration’s call to expand youth engagement in the outdoors, DOI Secretary Ken Salazar, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley recently announced the creation of a new competitive grant program to expand the summer youth corps on public lands. The grant program is part of a new Youth Initiative funded through the Bureau of Land Management (part of DOI), the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service and private partners from the America’s Great Outdoors development initiative. The initiative’s website serves as an educational resource for youth, provides an events calendar to find local opportunities to engage and even has an online job search available.

Secretary Salazar noted the importance of engaging young people in working on public lands and developing the next generation of land stewards: “President Obama’s call to expand summer job opportunities for young people is helping us engage and train the next generation of natural resource professionals and build a workforce that represents all of America.” So, whether it’s indoors or outdoors, an intern at an environmental nonprofit or working in a national forest, it’s encouraging to see how summer jobs are shaping the future of conservation.


Geology vs. Ecology

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Thirty-two years ago this month, Washington’s Mount St. Helens erupted and collapsed, creating a massive avalanche and a stone- and ash-filled wind that would decimate the surrounding countryside. Nearly 150 square miles of forest were destroyed almost instantly — and then the eruption continued for nine hours. What was once a lush, green landscape was now a barren, gray landscape, but over time the green has slowly returned to Mount St. Helens, as evidenced in this recently released Landsat timelapse from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Note: The red in the first few years is how Landsat used to register vegetation.

As shown in this photo taken after the eruption (use the sign as a comparison point between the two photos), Mount St. Helens’ eruption destroyed the old-growth forest.

Mount St. Helens’ eruption destroyed the old-growth forest (use the sign as a comparison point between the two photos). Credit: U.S. Forest Service

In 1979, before the eruption, the ridges north of the volcano were shrouded in old-growth Pacific silver fir and mountain hemlock forests.

In 1979, before the eruption, the area was covered in old-growth Pacific silver fir and mountain hemlock forests. Credit: M. Hemstrom/U.S. Forest Service

Through this video, you can see how vegetation has slowly returned to the Mount St. Helens area while the surrounding areas have been constantly evolving, as well. And for 30 years, scientists have been studying the area around the famous volcano to gather new insight into how areas recover from such catastrophic events. Here are some highlights of what they’ve learned:

  • Legacies can regrow a forest: At the time of the eruption, scientists believed that Mount St. Helens’ ecology would renew the barren landscape with help from species once unknown to the area. Some did, but much of the regrowth can also be attributed to “biological legacies” — the fallen trees, buried seeds and amphibians that survived the blast and have been resilient restarters of the green spaces around the volcano.
  • Thousands of acres of dead trees don’t necessarily equal fire and insect outbreaks: Many advocated for rapid salvage logging of the trees destroyed by the eruption, but in the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument created in 1982, no such logging was completed — and no massive fire or insect outbreaks occurred. It turns out that volcano ash reduces flammability and repels insects.
  • Native is better: Non-native seeds were spread around Mount St. Helens to help minimize erosion, but it wasn’t very successful. However, natural revegetation was successful in the area, showing that native seeds should always be considered first for erosion control efforts.

While 30 years might seem like a long time and many plants, trees and animals have repopulated this once-ravaged landscape, in ecological terms, recovery has only just begun. It’ll take centuries for the old-growth forest of firs (like Pacific silver and Douglas-fir) and hemlocks to regenerate fully. It’s amazing how one geologic event — a 5.1 Richter-scale earthquake that shook the volcanic mountain, causing the collapse and eruption — can destroy centuries of ecological work. And, it serves as a lesson that once destroyed, nature is not always easy to replace, but the Mount St. Helens area is making a mighty attempt.

Mount St. Helens in 2007

Mount St. Helens in 2007. Credit: Adrien Vieira de Mello (adrivdm)/Flickr


At Crater Lake

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

When I was seven, my family took the first of many summer vacations traveling through the Pacific Northwest. We camped, hiked, fished and traveled to all kinds of places — from caves to redwood forests to rocky beaches. Some sites we saw only once, others we liked so much that we returned each year. Though I loved every one of these trips, no single experience had quite the impact as the first time I saw Oregon’s Crater Lake. My family reached the viewing point along the rim; I looked out at the immense scene before me and was completely, breathlessly awestruck with the size of it all. Knowing little about natural history at the time, all I knew was that at some point, somehow, nature made all this.

Crater Lake

Crater Lake Credit: Frank Kovalchek

Earlier this week, Crater Lake National Park (CLNP) celebrated its 110th anniversary. Established May 22, 1903, the park covers more than 183,000 acres around Crater Lake itself. At less than six miles across, the lake certainly isn’t the largest in the U.S., but with a depth of 1,943 feet, it is easily the deepest. In fact, it is one of the 10 deepest lakes on the entire planet. The blue water that the lake was once named for — so clear because the lake is fed almost solely from snowfall — sits inside a massive crater that formed roughly 7,700 years ago when the stratovolcano Mount Mazama erupted and collapsed. The resulting crater is so deep that the lake itself only begins more than 2,000 feet below the crater rim. So when you look down into the lake, you look way, way down — so far that it seems impossible.

A tree on the rim of Crater Lake Credit: Frank Kovalchek

The rim itself sits at about 7,000 feet above sea level, so if you manage to turn your back on the sight of this lake that seems to sit on the top of the world, you still have a fantastic view of the rest of the Cascades sprawled out around you — much of it more pristine than you could hope to see. Because the park was established, and therefore protected, before commercial logging reached the area, almost all the forests on CLNP are old growth. At the high altitude and with the inhospitable soil that comes from taking root in an area with so much volcanic activity, many of the trees that you can see from Crater Lake have fought to be there for longer than most of us have been alive. So while you may visit to see the lake itself — and I strongly suggest you do — don’t forget that it sits amidst a landscape carved out by raw, natural energy and covered with some of the most determined life on the planet.

 

 

 

 

 


Trees Can’t Swim

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a place I’ve always associated with vacation cottages and well-to-do New Englanders. Little did I know that this set of islands off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is actually a hotbed for forest researchers, who are studying some interesting phenomena on this idyllic locale.

The breach of North Point Beach on April 20, 2007

The breach of North Point Beach on April 20, 2007. Credit: Bill Brine/Flickr

First, there’s the case of the forest consumed by the sea. Since an April 2007 storm breached Norton Point Beach — the storm cut this barrier beach in half — the ocean has been eating away the beach and land at Wasque Point, aka the southeast corner of Chappaquiddick Island. With the beach now gone, the waves are attacking the bluffs — and the pitch pine forest that grows there. As the bluffs go, so do the pitch pines, tumbling into the ocean currents below. And as Harvard Forest Director David Foster told the Harvard Gazette, pitch pine forests are “very salt tolerant, but they’re not that salt tolerant.”

Foster, a paleoecologist who studies how landscapes change over long periods of time, plans on bringing research fellows and students to Wasque this summer to study how this environment is rapidly changing thanks to one destructive storm and the power of the ocean. As The Trustees of Reservations Director Chris Kennedy, whose conservation group manages the area around Wasque Point, told the Vineyard Gazette, “There’s nothing to block the waves. … They’re crashing right against the cliffs, which are just sand. So we can lose 10 to 15 to 20 feet overnight.” At other points in the area, the surf is adding feet of sand to the beaches and is creating a myriad of sandbars offshore. Kennedy expects that in two to five years that part of Norton Point Beach that is migrating west parallel to the shore will reconnect to the island and hopefully reduce the extreme erosion.

A stretch of Chappaquiddick Island that is being eroded

A stretch of Chappaquiddick Island that is being eroded (pictured in July 2011). Credit: Alexander Cheek (arwcheek)/Flickr

This isn’t the only drastic change to Martha Vineyard’s landscape in the 21st century. In 2007, the island’s Polly Hill Arboretum experienced a massive oak die-off, and according to Foster, this wasn’t the first time that the Vineyard’s oaks died en masse — it had happened 5,000 years earlier. Foster and other researchers had previously studied a massive oak die-off on the island and determined that 5,000 years ago, the oaks succumbed to a warming period in Earth’s history and were replaced by beech trees that flourished for 1,000 years before the oaks were able to reassert themselves. The 2007 die-off, according to Foster, appears to be following that pattern, as insects — which were likely more prevalent due to a warming climate — attacked the trees for three consecutive years before the oaks lost the battle. Now, five years later, history continues to repeat itself as where once oak trees stood, young beech trees are rising in their place.

So, Norton Point Beach will attach itself to Wasque and thus slow the erosion that is decimating the coast, and Martha Vineyard’s birch trees, bushes and shrubs are sprouting up to take the place of the forests that were lost. We get two prime examples of how nature is always changing and always evolving — they just both happen to be on the same tiny set of islands. Astonishing.