A Cautionary Tale of Birds and Their Trees

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Which came first the bird or the tree?

Well, I can’t really answer that question exactly without getting into a lot of complicated — and potentially controversial — details, but I can tell you that the two are intimately connected in ecosystems around the world.

The Toco toucan (Ramphastos toco) is found throughout central and eastern South America.

The Toco toucan (Ramphastos toco) is found throughout central and eastern South America. Credit: jinterwas/Flickr

A study published on Friday in Science reveals that large-billed bird populations, specifically the colorful toucan, have severely declined in Brazil’s tropical forests due to deforestation. Something else has disappeared at the same time: large seeds from the forest’s dominant palm tree, the jucara (Euterpe edulis). In their new study, researchers from Brazil’s Sao Paulo State University posit that the two are intrinsically connected, and the result will be a significant evolutionary change for the jucara in the next 100 years — an extremely fast timetable for an evolutionary change. And it all comes back to biology and reproduction.

Jucara (Euterpe edulis) in Brazil

Jucara (Euterpe edulis) in Brazil. Credit: Scott Zona

In order to reproduce, Brazil’s palm trees rely on the rainforest’s bird species to crack and eat their seeds, eventually defecating them in suitable growing locations, where the seeds can take root and sprout new jucara. The jucara, though, produce a range of seed sizes with the largest getting up to 14 mm in size — too large for tropical thrushes, but no problem for the big-billed toucan. Without the massive beaks eating the massive seeds, though, the researchers have observed that the number of small-seed-producing jucara are on the rise, while the big-seed-producing ones aren’t regenerating. While a few millimeters in seed size doesn’t seem like it would matter much, it could mean life or death for the trees in periods of drought, as the smaller seeds hold less water and are more likely to whither during extended dry periods. Hence, the scientists’ prediction of an evolutionary change for the jucara with its big-seeded trees disappearing at minimum, while its small-seed-bearing brethren are potentially not far behind because of their weaker seeds.

The scientists caution that this is a tale that might end up repeating itself around the world thanks to migrations related to climate change. In fact, there are concerns that something similar will happen in the West to another bird and tree pairing.

In the forests of the Rocky Mountains, Clark’s nutcrackers and whitebark pines are estimated to have lived side by side for more than 1.8 million years. The whitebark pine produces large, calorie-rich seeds that the nutcracker feasts upon. As discussed in our web-exclusive feature “Importance of Whitebark Pines and Clark’s Nutcrackers in Western Ecosystems,” in a single year, a single Clark’s nutcracker can squirrel away 98,000 seeds to secret caches, many of them underground and many of them never to be recovered by the bird, which means new whitebark pines. Together, the nutcracker and the pine create an endless reproduction cycle — one that’s being threatened.

Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana)

Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana). Credit: Ryan Mitchell

Whitebark pine is on the defensive, fighting a battle — and often losing — against white pine blister rust, mountain pine beetles and climate change. As a result, there are anecdotal reports of fewer Clark’s nutcrackers in Montana and Washington. With only two species — Clark’s nutcracker and red squirrels — known to eat and store whitebark pine seeds in a way that allows them to germinate, if the nutcracker goes, things don’t look good for the pine.

More bad news is that the nutcracker isn’t the only species to rely on whitebark pine seeds for sustenance, as more than 110 species have the seed in their diet, including the federally listed threatened grizzly bear. Then, there is the whitebark pine’s role as a keystone and foundation species, due to its role in controlling snowpacks and providing shelter for other species of plants and trees. Yeah, it’s scary, which is why our Endangered Western Forests initiative is working with the best scientists to develop management plans to help the pine and all the critters who love it, as we want to see Clark’s nutcrackers and whitebark pines grace the Rockies for generations to come.

Where Have All the Amphibians Gone?

by Susan Laszewski
Red eft (jevenile eastern newt). Credit: Dave Huth

Red eft (jevenile eastern newt). Credit: Dave Huth

Amphibians are a part of many people’s childhood memories: Finding tadpoles, or “pollywogs,” in puddles; checking under logs for creepy, crawly newts; catching toads; or imitating the call of bullfrogs. Because amphibians are found in all kinds of environments, most of us can find some wherever we live.

Growing up in Vermont, I was especially partial to the red eft, as the bright-orange, juvenile stage of the eastern newt is sometimes known. In this stage, they are land-dwelling before they head back to the water for adulthood. I used to like to count them when I went on walks with my mom and the dog.

If you’ve been counting your own local amphibians in recent years, you may have noticed a decline. Or maybe you’ve noticed a drop in the nighttime calls of your neighborhood’s frogs. Though it’s been recognized that amphibian numbers have been declining for years, a recent U.S. Geological Survey study published in the journal PLOS One is the first to analyze the rate of this decline. And what it found was not optimistic. The researchers discovered an overall decline in amphibian numbers of 3.7 percent each year since 2002. What’s more, that number jumps to 11.6 percent when looking at amphibian species that are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The exact reasons for the alarming decline are unknown, but likely include a combination of factors such as invasive species, climate change and pollutants.

Well-camouflaged oak toad. Credit: Bob Peterson

Well-camouflaged oak toad. Credit: Bob Peterson

Amphibian decline is bad news for ecosystems, as they play an important role in the food web as both prey for larger animals and predator for smaller ones. In fact, in many areas of drastic amphibian decline, there has been an increase in pests that damage crops. Beyond that, amphibians are important indicators of environmental health. Their thin skin helps them breath and drink, but makes them some of the first to succumb to environmental changes, meaning that when they start suffering, other animals and humans could be next.

This by itself is enough to make amphibian populations important, but besides that, amphibians are just too cool! Did you know that:

  1. Young Surinam toads emerge from their mother’s back.
  2. The spring peeper survives through winter with 65 percent of its body water as ice.
  3. The slimy salamander produces a sticky substance that glues shut the mouth of predators that dare to mess with it.
  4. Flatwood salamander. Credit: Todd W Pierson

    Flatwoods salamander. Credit: Todd W Pierson

  5. The oak toad is the smallest toad in North America.
  6. The flatwoods salamander spends most of its life underground, earning it and others in the same family the nickname “mole salamanders.” This federally endangered species is endemic to the lower Gulf and Atlantic coastal plains where its longleaf pine habitat — much of it shared with the oak toad — has been reduced to 20 percent of its historical range. For years, American Forests has been working to restore the longleaf pine for the oak toad, the flatwood salamander and a host of other endangered species that rely on it.

And the red eft? They are luckily counted among the species of least concern according to the IUCN, but that doesn’t put them in the clear. The U.S. Geological Survey researchers observed declines in every data set they studied, including species of least concern.

Many amphibians rely on forests as their habitat and their declining numbers indicate that these forests are in trouble. Help us protect and restore the forests that these amazing creatures call home.

Hit the Trail

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Sometimes, amid the scientific reports, reforestation planning and general day-to-day activities, it’s easy to lose track of one very important aspect of the work we do: recreation! Forests aren’t just oxygen-producing, carbon-sequestering machines. They’re also places for play and relaxation, and tomorrow is a day designated just for that: It’s National Trails Day.

Hikers on the Little Zigzag Falls Trail in Oregon’s Mt. Hood National Forest

Hikers on the Little Zigzag Falls Trail in Oregon’s Mt. Hood National Forest. Credit: mthoodterritory.com

Sponsored by the American Hiking Society, the first Saturday every June is dedicated to celebrating and promoting trails and all their requisite activities, like hiking, biking, horseback riding and birding. With 200,000 miles of trails in the country, there are lots of places to see and explore.

National Trails Day, though, isn’t just about fun in the sun, as it also celebrates the men and women who work hard every day to ensure that the trails are safe and navigable. Over the years, American Forests has been proud to support some of their work restorating forested recreation areas, such as our work this year with Alcoa Foundation in Dorchester County, S.C., and California’s Angeles National Forest, both of which are projects designed to improve popular recreation sites.

So, if you hit up a trail tomorrow, remember to thank those who maintain it and make outdoor recreation possible. Also, if you’re planning on visiting one of America’s most famous trails, the Appalachian Trail, check out our Spring/Summer 2013 magazine feature “One Step at a Time: Hiking the National Scenic Trail” for an inside scoop on the 2,180-mile footpath before you go.

Don’t forget to tell us about your adventures in the comments section!

A view from the south end of the Trail of the Gargoyles in California’s Stanislaus National Forest

A view from the south end of the Trail of the Gargoyles in California’s Stanislaus National Forest. Credit: Ben Marshall/USFS

Inspiration in the Everglades

by Susan Laszewski

Here at American Forests we love to celebrate birthdays, whether it’s celebrating a staff member with a generous helping of birthday cake or celebrating the “birth” of some of our nation’s most remarkable public lands. Today, another gorgeous national park celebrates its anniversary: Everglades National Park in Florida was signed into existence 66 years ago today.

Bob Showler with the national co-champion inkwood in Everglades National Park.

Bob Showler with the national co-champion inkwood in Everglades National Park.

It’s a park whose name pops up a lot around here, including in connection with our National Big Tree Program. Everglades is one two national parks in Florida to boast a national champion tree — not surprising given that Florida holds the record for the greatest number of national champs of any state.

The national co-champion inkwood in Everglades is 47 feet tall with a crown spread of 27 feet. Considering that a typical inkwood is around 30 feet tall, that’s quite a height! The tree was nominated in 2007 by naturalist Bob Showler, who has six other nominations listed in the National Register of Big Trees. Although the inkwood is this big-tree hunter’s only current Everglades champ, other projects have blossomed from his time spent hunting for such goliaths in the park.

While searching for champs, Showler began to notice the bark of different trees, and they captured his imagination. Teaming up with friend and photographer Tim Taylor, they created the exhibit “Barking up a Tree” to showcase the beauty of Florida’s native trees through close-ups. The photographs were exhibited at visitor centers in Everglades National Park and later at Florida’s Biscayne National Park, but can still be seen in the digital exhibit on the website of Everglades National Park.

So, in honor of Everglades NP, grab yourself a slice of birthday cake and curl up with a good online photography exhibit.

A Wild, Wild World

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Threatened Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus luteolus)

Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus luteolus) cubs. American Forests has conducted many black bear habitat restoration projects over the years. Credit: USDA

150 million acres of protected land & water

1,000 species of fish

700 species of birds

250 species of reptiles and amphibians

220 species of mammals


I’iwi is one of several critically endangered members of the Hawaiian honeycreeper family. It prefers native koa forests like those in Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Donald Metzner/USFWS

This is the National Wildlife Refuge System, administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), by the numbers. As you may be able to gather from its name and some of the numbers above, its mission is fairly straightforward: “The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and, where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.” In practice, though, there’s nothing simple about it.

There are more than 550 wildlife refuges in the system, and each requires its own comprehensive conservation plan, which outlines how the refuge will be managed for the benefit of the ecosystem, wildlife and visitors. To help put the enormity of this task in perspective, the National Park Service — the home of treasures like Yellowstone National Park and Grand Canyon National Park — only oversees 450 properties across 88.5 million acres.

Over the years, American Forests Global ReLeaf has partnered with the FWS to help restore forestland in many of its wildlife refuges, including planting bottomland hardwood trees in Louisiana’s Bayou Cocodrie National Wildlife Refuge to restore Louisiana black bear habitat, converting retired cropfield to forestland in Kansas’ Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge to provide habitat for wild turkeys and bald eagles and planting Acacia koa in Hawaii’s Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge to create habitat for Hawaiian birds. (For more on Hawaii’s struggle against invasive species, read “Islands in the Balance” from the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of American Forests.)

Gopher tortoise

American Forests has partnered with wildlife refuges in Florida and Georgia to restore habitat for the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus). Credit: David Syzdek

However, the impact of the National Wildlife Refuge System extends beyond wildlife. The system is also responsible for providing and administering wildlife-dependent recreation, such as hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, photography and environmental education and interpretation. As such, the system is also an economic force, as 47 million visitors use it each year, generating $1.7 billion and creating 27,000 jobs in local communities. Like all government programs, though, the National Wildlife Refuge System’s funding isn’t secure.

According to estimates, the system needs $900 million to cover annual operations and maintenance budgets — a number it doesn’t usually get. The president recommended in his FY2014 budget that $499.2 million be allocated to the National Wildlife Refuge System, a number American Forests believes is justified.

Funding for Urban Forests

by Amanda Tai

Downtown Denver. Credit: Navreet Vaidwan

A recent U.S. Forest Service study published in Environmental Pollution indicates that America’s urban forests store up to 700 million tons of carbon, which is estimated to provide a $50 billion benefit. American Forests Science Advisory Board member David Nowak led the study at the agency’s Northern Research Station by looking at field data from 28 cities.

In the 486 urbanized areas in the United States, there is an overall population density of 2,534 people per square mile. With such densely concentrated urban populations, it’s important to continue funding the federal programs and research that invest in urban forests. There are several federal agency programs that do this. American Forests has worked with the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition (SUFC) to advocate for funding these programs in FY 2014.

Urban and Community Forestry (UCF) Program

This cooperative program focuses on stewardship of natural resources in urban areas. UCF responds to the needs of urban areas and the people who live there by helping to maintain, restore and improve urban forests. In FY 2012, the UCF Program helped 7,499 communities in all 50 states by providing them with technical assistance, education, funding and research.

Forest Health Management Program

Invasive pests like the Asian longhorned beetle (ALB) are detrimental to trees in urban areas like New York, Boston and St. Paul. The Forest Health Management Program aids efforts to combat pests like ALB that impact urban and rural forests. The program coordinates the national management of pests, which includes the U.S. Forest Service, Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the National Association of State Foresters (NASF) and the National Plant Board (NPB).

Urban Natural Resources Research

There is still a lot of research to be done on urban forests to understand how they function and the many benefits they provide. Also, since urban areas are constantly changing, it’s important that urban foresters and managers are using the most updated research to inform their work. Work like the carbon storage study mentioned earlier is funded through Urban Natural Resources Research, part of the U.S. Forest Service’s Research and Development. Such research can provide useful information for local governments, businesses, decision makers and individuals that want to invest in and advocate for urban forests.

Urban Waters Federal Partnership

Urban forests help manage stormwater, water storage and pollution. This partnership brings together several federal agencies, in coordination with the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), to revitalize urban waterways and the communities around them. This work includes leveraging local resources and engaging local communities in water conservation efforts, pollution control, building recreation opportunities and promoting ways to keep urban waters clean.

Green infrastructure, like urban forests, not only helps us deal with increasing amounts of carbon emissions, but also with increased flood and storm risks, heat island effects and other climate change-related challenges. Investing in the health of urban forests means investing in the health of people. With more than 80 percent of Americans living in urban areas, urban forests and the programs that support them are becoming more and more important to our health and well-being.

A Central Park Walkabout

by Matthew Boyer

Despite a steady rain, 16 American Forests’ supporters showed up for a beautiful stroll through the least visited part of New York’s Central Park called the North Woods over the weekend. This was the inaugural event for American Forests Walkabouts, a newly created program that provides opportunities for members and their friends to get out and enjoy forests in their own city or out in the wilderness.

American Forests supporters explore Central Park's North Woods

American Forests supporters explore Central Park’s North Woods. Credit: American Forests

Regina Alvarez, former director of horticulture and woodland management for the Central Park Conservancy, guided our walk and did a wonderful job of teaching us all about the history of the North Woods, as well as the invasive species the park is trying to get under control and the importance of this urban park for New York, which American Forests named one of the 10 Best Cities for Urban Forests earlier this year. During the walk, we took time to enjoy the North Woods’ bridges, tunnels, waterfalls and, most importantly, trees and the wildlife that lives amid them. Who knew there were such natural waterfalls in Central Park?!?

Because American Forests is proud to take its friends out into the forest and show them our work, I will be creating many more free experiences like this across the country, including in cities like Pasadena, Dallas, Portland, Seattle and Washington, D.C.! In addition, I will be looking into opportunities to take members to places where they can encounter the giant redwood or see the monarch butterflies in their Mexican winter home. To be informed instantly when events are occurring near you, become a member and supporter of American Forests today. And stay tuned here at Loose Leaf, as I’ll be back to share further Walkabout adventures.

The Survivor Tree

by Melinda Housholder, Urban Forests Program Director
Oklahoma City Survivor Tree

Oklahoma City Survivor Tree. Credit: American Forests

A week ago, I stood in front of “The Survivor Tree” at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing, humbled by the strength of this tree that so accurately reflects the courage and spirit of the Oklahoma City community.

Today, as I hear stories and see images of the destruction caused by the tornado just four days after I left, my heart is saddened, and my thoughts are with those who must soon start to face the journey of recovery. Tearing through 17 miles of central Oklahoma and leveling hundreds of homes on Monday, the F5 tornado spanned 1.3 miles and packed winds that topped 200 mph. As the search continues for those who are missing, I’ve found myself reflecting on the city, the loss and the challenges that are being endured. And, I am reminded of The Survivor Tree.

This 80-year-old American elm witnessed one of the worst terrorist attacks in our country. Prior to the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, this lone elm stood in the middle of a parking lot, surrounded by concrete and cars, outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. While some folks enjoyed parking under the limited shade of its limbs, others thought it was an eyesore. Not much went into caring for this tree — until it was the only thing left standing.

On April 19, 1995, a 4,000-pound bomb exploded at the federal building, killing 168 people, injuring hundreds and destroying multiple buildings. But this tree, in the midst of the explosion and fires, survived. Then, it was almost cut down to recover evidence embedded in its trunk and limbs, but the community, survivors and rescue workers all came together to protect the tree as a symbol of resilience. Today, the tree thrives, surrounded by special features that protect and highlight it.

As I watch the news and hear stories of the newest tragedy to strike Oklahoma City, I reflect on the courage and strength of this community. As we make strides to make some sense of the natural and man-made horrors that come our way, I find hope in the tenacity of our human spirit. As we seek to support the recovery of this town in its time of need, I wanted to share the story of The Survivor Tree as a symbol of the strength of Oklahomans. As the inscription around the tree reads, “The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated; our deeply rooted faith sustains us.”

Survivor Tree inscription.

Survivor Tree inscription. Credit: Melinda Housholder/American Forests

The Spice of Life

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Have you ever been in one of those subdivisions where every house looks the same? Or how about have you ever had to eat the same leftovers for several days in a row? In my experience, the first experience leaves me feeling a little creeped out, while the second can become tiresome. As the old cliché goes, variety is the spice of life. The same exact thing is true in nature, which is why the United Nations has declared today the International Day for Biological Diversity. Connecting with the UN’s designation of 2013 as the International Year of Water Cooperation, the theme of this year’s International Day for Biological Diversity is “Water and Biodiversity” — two things that go hand-in-hand, as plants and animals are all part of the water cycle.

Brule Lake, Superior National Forest, Minnesota

Brule Lake, Superior National Forest, Minnesota. Credit: Mr. Moment/Flickr

In ecosystems across the world, health is often predicated on biodiversity, as each plant and animal species has a specific role to play. For instance, a tree or plant’s transpiration (the evaporation of water from its leaves and stems) plays a major role in an area’s humidity and rainfall. As I’m sure you can imagine, forests often contain some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet. In fact, forests are more biologically diverse than any other land-based ecosystem according to the UN, and they protect more than two-thirds of all land-based animal and plant species. Forests, though, also protect aquatic species, which is just one of many fitting connections to this year’s theme of “Water and Biodiversity.”

Water and biodiversity are also two words that come up quite frequently in our 2013 Global ReLeaf projects:

  • In Minnesota’s Superior National Forest, we’re planting 43,000 white, red and jack pines and white spruce to increase biodiversity to an area that has lost a number of its pines to pests. At the same time, we’re planting these trees along riparian areas to help protect the forest’s streams for its diverse fish populations.
  • Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico was affected by a 2011 wildfire, which is why we’re helping plant 45,000 aspen, bog birch, coyote willow, American plum and other species to restore the area’s Rito des los Indios watershed — an important wildlife habitat.

  • Pisgah National Forest’s North Fork Mills River is eligible for designation by the U.S. government as a Wild and Scenic River, and the North Carolina river also provides drinking water to the surrounding communities. By planting 1,800 trees representing seven different species, we’re helping restore this riparian zone that is also home to a variety of animal species.
  • 2011’s Hurricane Irene tore up the East Coast, causing major flooding in many areas, including Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest. Vegetation along the forest’s White River was devastating, so we’re planting 7,000 trees to help stabilize the river and create a safe environment for its fish and other wildlife.

And the list could go on. Suffice it to say, our work protecting and restoring forests touches on a lot more than just the trees in the forest. But we couldn’t do it without our partners and supporters, so today, let’s celebrate the wonderfully diverse world that we’re all helping protect and create.

Logging Roads and the Clean Water Act

by Alison Share, Environmental Public Policy Associate, Crowell & Moring LLP
Cut logs

Credit: Juhan Sonin

Logging truck in Ohio

Logging truck in Ohio. Credit: Don O’Brien

It doesn’t really matter what your political party affiliation is: There are times when you hear about a Supreme Court ruling, and you are left scratching your head. Whether it’s because you believed an issue was so cut and dry it is hard to imagine anyone else coming out the other way or you thought the Court could have gone a lot further in its decision than it actually did, it is not an unusual moment to find yourself perplexed by a decision of the Court.

Unlike most of us, however, the U.S. Congress is actually in a position to right a wrong that it may see in a decision — for example, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, passed specifically to counteract the Supreme Court’s decision in Lily Ledbetter v. Goodyear. Likewise, even if the Court resolves an issue in a way that many find acceptable, Congress may pass legislation to shore up that decision or fill in any remaining holes.

Such was the case last week. On Thursday, a bipartisan group of legislators introduced a bill to reinforce and expand the recent Supreme Court decision in Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center. In its decision, the Court held (lawyer parlance for determined) that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acted lawfully in not requiring foresters to have permits for stormwater runoff from logging roads and other logging activities, which might otherwise require a permit under the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act itself is a behemoth of a statute, stating that many types of stormwater runoff from specific, identified sources, such as construction runoff into streams or wetlands, require a permit if the runoff flows into other bodies of water.

When the Supreme Court issued its Decker decision in March, it agreed with the EPA’s position that logging is not an “industrial activity” and, thus, did not require a stormwater permit for logging roads. Some in the logging industry and legislators from timber-heavy states, such as Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), felt that the Court’s decision still left too many questions about the extent of the logging road and activities exemption from Clean Water Act permitting. These concerns arose because while the Court addressed whether logging roads and activities needed discharge permits, it did not decide whether those same roads or activities qualified as “point sources” under the Clean Water Act. Concerned legislators, therefore, took the matter into their own hands and introduced S.971, the Silviculture Regulatory Consistency Act, to clear up any remaining questions.

The act, introduced by Senator Wyden and co-sponsored by Senators Crapo (R-ID), Baucus (D-MT) and Risch (R-ID), specifically identifies forestry activities, which includes timber harvesting, as nonpoint sources under the Clean Water Act and thus exempt from the stormwater permit requirement. While logging organizations and forestry groups praise the recent legislation, when Senator Wyden introduced a similar bill two years ago, Oregon environmental groups expressed their displeasure with the proposed legislation.

Last week, S.971 was read into the Congressional Record (another interesting resource that provides access to our federal government) and then was referred to the Environmental and Public Works Committee, the same committee that has been enmeshed in a political struggle over the nomination of Gina McCarthy to be the next EPA Administrator. I will continue to track this legislation, as it is an interesting example of the power of the Congress to alter or support decisions of the Supreme Court.