Buffalo Soldiers in the National Parks

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

The House of Representatives had a busy week last week, even beyond the machinations surrounding the Farm Bill. On Monday, June 17, the House passed a raft of environmental bills, including ones addressing land exchanges, creating a new national historic trail and analyzing forest sites for potential inclusion in the National Park System. Two of the more interesting bills are H.R. 674 and H.R. 520.

Rota, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

Rota, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Credit: ctsnow/Flickr

H.R. 674 is the Rota Cultural and Natural Resources Study Act, directing the Secretary of the Interior to examine the suitability of designating prehistoric, historic and limestone forest sites on the island of Rota, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which is located just east of the Philippines and north of Guam in the Pacific Ocean. As an insular area of the Commonwealth, Rota is recognized by archeologists as having the most numerous and intact prehistoric sites of any of the many islands in the Mariana Archipelago. The bill recognizes that beyond natural beauty, Rota also possesses a great deal of historical value, namely from the period of Japanese ownership from 1914 until 1945 due to its importance in World War II. A study on the island is to be completed once funds are available and the results will be reported back to the House and the Senate.

Also interesting from a historical standpoint is H.R. 520, known as the Buffalo Soldiers in the National Parks Study Act. This act, like the Rota Cultural and Natural Resources Study Act, addresses a topic of historical significance. It calls for the Secretary of the Interior to study potential alternatives to commemorating the role of Buffalo Soldiers during the beginning of the National Park System. And who are the Buffalo Soldiers? Glad you asked.

Five U.S. Army soldiers of the 24th Mounted Infantry, mounted on horses in Yosemite National park.

Five U.S. Army soldiers of the 24th Mounted Infantry, mounted on horses in Yosemite National park. Courtesy of San Joaquin Valley Library System.

H.R. 520 identifies the main points of their history. While Bob Marley may have brought the buffalo soldier into popular culture, it isn’t until you really examine their full role that you can appreciate how vital they were in the Western United States at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Originally based out of the Presidio, a former military base and current national park, the Buffalo Soldiers were African-American regiments, which included many former slaves, assigned to patrol the western frontier. They assisted with constructing roads and telegraph lines, but also fought in numerous campaigns against American Indians, including the Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche and Apache. They also participated in the Spanish-American War. But one overlooked aspect to the history of the Buffalo Soldiers is their role as some of the first national park rangers in the Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks.

Assigned to the parks to help evict poachers and timber thieves, they also served as firefighters and park police before the National Park Service was established. Working in the parks at the turn of the century, the soldiers also assisted with trails, roads and other park infrastructure. Some of their many noteworthy accomplishments included constructing the first usable road into the Giant Forest and completing the first trail to the top of Mt. Whitney (the tallest peak in the lower 48 states) in Sequoia National Park. In Yosemite, they built an arboretum close to the Merced River’s south fork.

H.R. 520 is designed to study the most effective ways to raise awareness of the Buffalo Soldiers’ roles in the early years of our national parks and may include establishing a national historical trail to commemorate their journey from the Presidio to the Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks; identifying places that could be recognized in the National Register of Historic Places; and creating educational opportunities for visitors to these parks.

While Congress has not gained a reputation for expediency this term, there are still some noteworthy and important bills being passed. Highlighting those that worked to protect our national parks is certainly worth celebrating, and the Buffalo Soldiers are a key part of that history.

The Successors of Giants

by Susan Laszewski
The hemlock wooly adelgid quickly transforms entire swaths of forests to skeletons. Credit: Will Blozan

The hemlock wooly adelgid quickly transforms entire swaths of forests to skeletons. Credit: Will Blozan

It’s been a little more than two years since Will Blozan of the Eastern Native Tree Society shared his story of documenting the last giants of a dying species in American Forests magazine. In “The Last of the Giants,” Blozan tells of his race against the clock to document some of the East’s most magnificent trees before the invasive hemlock wooly adelgid (HWA) decimated the species. The Tsuga Search Project he headed produced an “ecological snapshot” of southern Appalachian forests in the age of the hemlock.

Since then, HWA has continued to decimate hemlock populations, while other species gradually move in to fill their place. A new study from the U.S. Forest Service Coweeta Hydrological Laboratory in North Carolina more closely reveals some of the effects the replacement of hemlock with other species is having on the southern Appalachian forest — specifically on the hydrologic cycle.

A stream meanders through a forest of hemlocks and mixed hardwoods. Credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli

A stream meanders through a forest of hemlocks and mixed hardwoods. Credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli

Because of their dominance in riparian areas and constant year-round transpiration — the loss of water from needles or leaves — hemlocks have played a huge role in forests’ hydrologic cycle. As the hemlocks decline, they are largely being replaced by deciduous trees like sweet birch and red maple, which do not transpire year-round. The only evergreen which has been a contender to replace the hemlock has been the woody shrub rosebay rhododendron, which has a lower total leaf area and thus lower transpiration rate than hemlock. The researchers, led by Steven Brantley, found that as a result of the new species composition, annual transpiration rates fell by 22 percent from 2004 to 2011, while winter transpiration rates fell by 74 percent.

As Brantley says in the U.S. Forest Service publication CompassLive, “In the growing season, transpiration rates will likely rise, leading to lower streamflow in the summer. However, transpiration rates in the winter will be reduced, which could cause increased winter stream discharge.”

Not that streamflow is the only thing that would be affected by hemlock loss along riparian areas. The loss of shade is also causing increased water temperatures, threatening eastern brook trout and other species that live in the cold water. That was a problem in Fridley Gap in George Washington National Forest, Va., for example, where American Forests planted 240 trees in riparian areas to restore cooler water temperatures for the benefit of brook trout.

It remains to be seen what these forests will look like in the future, but by researching what to expect, we can hope to head off some of the negative effects to ecosystems.

The Slaughter of Innocent Trees

by Scott Maxham

There is a new threat facing trees in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that in September, park officials noticed 28 young trees that were damaged. While 28 may not sound like a lot of trees when you think how many trees are in a rural forest, in an urban forest, each tree is crucial. Then, there is the oddity of the event: In a normal year, 20 to 30 years are reported damaged in Golden Gate, but somehow, 28 trees were damaged in just one night. Fast forward to May 21 and more than 200 trees have been damaged throughout the park. An atypical number, which when combined with how the trees are being damaged, indicates something sinister is afoot.

Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park. Credit: Daniel Ramirez

The damage reported on the Golden Gate trees is not simply a fallen or sheared limb from natural causes. Large portions of the tops of trees are snapped off, and this causes the trees to rot or become infected with a life-ending disease. These high numbers of tree battery lead park workers to the conclusion that some tree-killing lowlifes are sneaking around the park at night to do their dirty work. It is estimated that the damage done is around $50,000.

Most of the trees damaged were just three to five years old, meaning they were just reaching the stage of self-sufficiency — a major accomplishment, as tree survival is also a major challenge for restoration projects. In many reforestation efforts, it is important to plant more trees than necessary because not all the trees will survive so when an outside force comes in like this and takes out the survivors, it is especially heartbreaking. Reforestation projects involve more time and effort than many realize. Digging holes and plopping in trees is the fun part of reforestation, but for true success, there is a continued commitment to caring for trees for many years after they are planted.

Above is a depressing story of trees being destroyed with no silver lining. Elsewhere in San Francisco, arborists have made the best of a potential sad story. A strong windstorm caused a city-dwelling tree to crack under the pressure. Instead of simply cutting the sidewalk-adjacent tree to make a flat, boring stump, though, the tree was cut by someone in the San Francisco Department of Public Works in such a way that it is now a small seat for weary city walkers (Check out the story from The Atlantic Cities to see a picture of the new “bench.”). Eventually, the stump will be removed, but on the bright side, another tree will be planted in its place. Now, if only someone can catch and stop those pesky tree vandals from destroying the urban forest the city is working so hard to create for its residents.

We Grow ’Em Big Out Here

by American Forests

By Josh DeLacey

The world’s biggest Sitka spruce. Credit: Josh deLacy

The world’s biggest Sitka spruce. Credit: Josh deLacy

There is a rivalry between Washington and Oregon that has been going on for decades, and it isn’t just about football and hipster cred — we fight over trees, too. For 15 years, each state had a claim to the “world’s largest Sitka spruce,” as judged by American Forests, and whenever it was time for the annual measuring, Pacific Northwesterners on both sides of the state line would bristle a little that their tree was only a “co-champion.” When a 2006 storm took Oregon’s tree out of the running, Oregonians half-jokingly blamed the northerners.

Last week, I visited the surviving champion while backpacking in Washington’s Quinault Rain Forest, part of which is in Olympic National Park. At 191 feet tall and almost 60 feet around, the 1,000-year old Sitka spruce is big. But compared to its neighbors, not especially so.

In Quinault Rain Forest and Olympic National Park, big trees are at home. Five other national champion trees populate the area: western redcedar, Alaska-cedar, Douglas-fir, western hemlock and mountain hemlock. They all grow within a few miles of the Quinault River, along a stretch less than 30 miles long.

In Quinault Rain Forest, big trees, moss and lichens abound.

In Quinault Rain Forest, big trees, moss and lichens abound. Credit: Josh deLacy

This area is a temperate rainforest, one of several in the western Olympic Peninsula. Outside of this narrow area between mountains and coast, though, temperate rainforests are rare. Less than one fifth of one percent of the world’s land has ever been classified as temperate rainforest, and logging and development have shrunk that number even more. It’s no surprise that trees in the protected Olympic National Park hold so many records — most of their peers are holding up bridges or ceilings or doing some other job.

The surviving temperate rainforests crank out big trees because, for starters, they get a lot of rain. Twelve to 14 feet annually, in fact, which is about four times more rain than Seattle gets. Consistently moderate temperatures allow for massive trees, as well, as extreme cold and heat both can cause cavitation in a tree, a phenomenon that limits the flow of fluid and nutrients from roots to leaves. In Quinault, temperatures rarely fall below freezing or creep above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. On top of that, temperate rainforests have nutrient-rich soil. It’s an ideal location, plant-wise. Instead of struggling to survive, trees have nothing to do but grow and set records.

A map based on NASA images shows the world’s distribution of average tree heights, and aside from a small region in south Asia, the Pacific Northwest’s rainforests tower high above everywhere else. Forests in Indonesia, New Zealand even the Amazon don’t come close.

So if you want to see big trees, visit Quinault Rain Forest. Just don’t tell an Oregonian.

Help Forests by Supporting the Farm Bill

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

What do food stamps, biofuels and environmental conservation have in common? A little something called the Farm Bill. And when I say little, I’m being facetious: The Farm Bill is a big, expensive, important deal to the tune of $939 billion in government spending and programs.

Larriland Farm, Md.

Larriland Farm, Md. Credit: Travis Modisette

What is it exactly? To use legislative speak, it’s an omnibus bill pertaining to agriculture and food policy that comes up for debate and renewal every five years. In layman terms, it’s a massive piece of legislation that contains a whole ton of laws that impact a heck of a lot of stuff, including forests and conservation. And for the last eight months, the programs it controls have been operating under an extension, as the last Farm Bill was originally set to expire in October 2012, which is not an ideal situation and needs your support to help rectify.

Right now, as I write this, the House is debating its version of the Farm Bill reauthorization — the Senate passed its version earlier this month — with a vote expected tomorrow. At stake are myriad forest and conservation-related programs. If the House does not vote “yes” for a new Farm Bill, we’ll most likely end up with another extension, which means we’ll continue to be operating billions of dollars’ worth of programs circa 2008. Translation: not as cost-effective or up-to-date as we should be. The new Farm Bill is designed to save money and improve the programs under its purview, which means strengthened conservation programs.

So head to our Action Center and send our pre-written letter to your congressional member asking him or her to vote “yes” on the Farm Bill reauthorization, as this is the crucial next step in getting a new Farm Bill approved. Once the House has approved its version, conferencing can begin, where the two houses negotiate about the differences in the two bills and come up with a final version to go before President Obama.

Farewell, Skippers

by Susan Laszewski

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Pollinator Week is a time to celebrate pollinators and marvel at how some of the smallest among us — bees, hummingbirds, bats and others — facilitate the reproduction dance of so many of our flowering trees. In fact, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), more than 75 percent of all flowering plants are pollinated by animals. Without pollinators, we wouldn’t have crops like coffee, chocolate or many fruits and vegetables. Pollination by insects alone contributed to approximately $30 billion worth of crops in 2010.

zestos skipper

The Zestos skipper hasn’t been spotted in Florida since 2004. Credit: Marc AuMarc

But, this year, there is also sad news: Last week, the FWS, alongside other members of the Imperiled Butterflies of Florida Working Group, concluded that two south Florida pollinators, both butterflies, are likely extinct. The rockland grass skipper hasn’t been spotted since 2000, while the Zestos skipper was last seen in 2004 and even that was after decades without any sightings. What makes the Zestos skipper’s story particularly poignant is that it was only recently discovered to be a separate subspecies, distinct from the Zestos skippers in the Bahamas and eastern Antilles. Those skippers’ healthy populations account for why the disappearing Florida butterfly was never listed as endangered.

While many factors may have contributed to the skippers’ disappearances, including pesticides, invasive species and poaching, scientists believe the main culprit is habitat loss and fragmentation. That’s why we work to protect and restore wildlife habitat in order to protect biodiversity. We’ve planted more than 44 million trees, including some projects focused specifically on pollinator habitat, such as our Forests for Monarchs partnership with the La Cruz Habitat Protection Project, planting 100,000 trees in the monarch’s winter habitat. But our habitat restoration work depends on the support of people like you. Please help us continue our protection and restoration efforts.

Cell Phones to the Rescue

by Scott Maxham

In today’s rapidly evolving society, you can find a cell phone in almost everyone’s pocket. Working at a toy store, I find it amazing how much people are glued to their devices. Even more amazing is that their children are borrowing their phones, and more common than not, they have their own phone to play with. When I was their age, I could only dream of such technology by pretending my folded-up juice box was a phone. So with everyone and their dog using a cell phone, why not give our trees this same luxury?

Agriculture drastically changes the look of Indonesia.

Agriculture drastically changes the look of Indonesia. Credit: Neil Franklin

The San Francisco-based company Rainforest Connection plans to protect trees by giving them cell phones — I hope the phones are hands free, or should I say branch free. The company plans to use old Android smart phones to monitor illegal deforestation in Indonesia’s rainforests. Over the last 25 years, Sumatra, an island of Indonesia, has lost more than half of its rainforest due to agricultural conversion. To put this loss into perspective, Indonesian rainforests represent a third of the world’s total rainforest. The deforestation is so severe that a May 2013 report by England’s The Observor reveals that scientists are worried that many of the area’s species will be extinct in 20 to 30 years since only fragments of the forest may remain. Enter Rainforest Connection’s old cell phones.

Sumatran orangutan.

Sumatran orangutan. Credit: Schristia/Flickr

As detailed by The Huffington Post, the company is testing technology that allows cell phones to be placed throughout threatened forests, they are left on to monitor forest sounds. If the phones pick up the sound of chainsaws where they shouldn’t be, they send a message to forest rangers. While cell phones can be expensive, the phone plans for these trees are much cheaper, costing less than three dollars a month. Powered by solar energy, one phone can monitor a third of a square mile. Currently, Rainforest Connection is doing a trial test of 15 phones in the Western Sumatra’s Air Tarusan Reserve in Indonesia, an area of the world with which American Forests is very familiar.

In the last decade, we have done multiple restoration projects in Indonesia to aid the threatened wildlife species, especially the endangered Sumatran orangutan. Since 2006, we’ve planted more than 100,000 trees in Sumatran to rebuild orangutan habitat. It is reassuring to know that the work we have done is being supported by other efforts, especially to curtail the rapid, and often illegal, destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests.

Big Mountains and Big Trees

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Credit: Matthew Paulson

The Great Smoky Mountains, which run along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, comprise one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world; they were formed 200 to 300 million years ago. A mere 79 years ago tomorrow, these mountains became protected as Great Smoky Mountains National Park after years of fundraising and effort by local residents to get the area officially designated as a national park.

The most visited national park in the country is an ecological wonderland that is home to more than 17,000 documented species — scientists believe the park may actually be home to up to 80,000 undocumented species. These species include more than 100 species of native trees, which is no surprise given that the park is 95 percent forested and 25 percent of that is old growth. And where there is old-growth forest, there are big trees … including national champions.

National champion red spruce

National champion red spruce. Credit: American Forests

In past years, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been home to more than 10 national champion trees listed on the National Register of Big Trees. As of the Spring 2013 update, the North Carolina side of the park claims three champion trees:

  • The red spruce (Picea rubens), which is the biggest of the park’s current champions. Nominated in 2007 by Jess Riddle and Josh Kelly, the tree measures 147 feet tall and 152 inches around with a 24-foot average crown spread for a whopping 305 total points.
  • The cinnamon clethra (Clethra acuminata). A species native to the area, this national champion is 33 feet tall and 10 inches around with a 12-foot average crown spread for 46 total points.
  • The Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense). Also nominated by Jess Riddle, this champion is just a touch smaller than the cinnamon clethra with 44 total points.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park isn’t the only home for North Carolina national champions, though. The state boasts 26 national champions. Its biggest is a mammoth eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) located in Macon County, which is 159 feet tall with 362 total points. Beyond national champions, the North Carolina Champion Big Tree Program, which has been operating since the 1970s, has almost 400 state champions in its database.

So, this weekend, in honor of Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s anniversary, here’s a toast to the mountains, forests and big trees that make Appalachia so special.

Bald Eagles, From Sea to Shining … Lake

by Susan Laszewski
Bald eagle

Bald eagle. Credit: Andrew Price

I was delighted to read in the USDA blog this month about “Bald Eagles Making a Comeback.”

Anne Poopatanapong, district wildlife biologist for the San Jacinto Ranger District, writes that the pair of bald eagles she has been monitoring for 13 years in California’s Lake Hemet is doing well and has been fruitful. Since 2007, she and volunteer eagle enthusiasts have observed fledgling eagles every year.

It came as no surprise to read that the U.S. Forest Service is putting efforts into protecting and restoring the bald eagle — we’ve worked with them on it ourselves. We partnered with the forest service last year to plant 88,000 trees in Superior National Forest to the benefit of bald eagles and other wildlife.

Two bald eagles

Two bald eagles. Credit: blmiers2/Flickr

The 2011 Pagami Creek Fire was a bad blow to bald eagles and other residents of Minnesota’s Superior National Forest. It blazed through 90,000 acres, just four years after the Ham Lake Fire had burned 75,000. And while fire is a natural part of the boreal forest ecosystem of Superior, declines in the diversity of tree species had left the forest more vulnerable to the blaze and less able to recover — and left the bald eagles and osprey with fewer places to nest.

So, we teamed up with the Forest Service to plant a more diverse mix of trees, from white and black spruce to northern white cedar and white, red and Jack pines that bald eagles are particularly fond of nesting in.

So, we thank the Forest Service for keeping up the good work. From California to Minnesota, we’re rooting for bald eagles. We’ll continue doing our part to restore the forests they rely on, and you can help.

Fire Season Off to Hot Start

by Scott Maxham

On the West Coast, the forest fire season has started early this year due to a dry winter and spring. Areas of California that usually receive more than 10 inches of rain by early summer have only gotten about two inches so far. This has led Cal Fire to report that fire activity is up this year by 45 percent.

The 2008 Freeway Complex Fire in Riverside County, Calif.

The 2008 Freeway Complex Fire in Riverside County, Calif. Credit: Erik Nielsen

The threats of forest fire are not just domestic this year. Researchers from NASA have predicted that the Amazon will experience an increase in forest fires, too. This is due to a lack of rain — projections show this trend will continue. Researchers are tracking the water temperature of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This year, both are warmer than average, which scientists interpret to mean a lack of rain that leads to dry, flammable forests.

And this just marks the most recent in a string of years that has seen intense wildfires wreak havoc on ecosystems across the country:

Unfortunately, these damaging wildfires — as opposed to low-intensity fires needed for many species to reproduce — are likely to become more common as experts predict that climate change will exasperate the intensity of forest fires in the future. Increased water temperatures often lead to a decrease in participation, and if seasons change, wildfire season may start earlier and end later. It appears that intense wildfires are on the horizon.