Protecting Big Cacti

by Alex Cimon

More than 61 years before Saguaro National Park was created, the area was recognized as a national monument. Herbert Hoover approved this designation on March 1, 1933, in an effort to protect the saguaro cactus, which is a symbol of the Southwest and the Sonoran Desert. This decision marked the first time a national monument was established in order to protect a specific species. After years of environmental expansion and diversification, President Bill Clinton officially signed a bill designating Saguaro as the 52nd national park. This Sunday, October 14, marks the 18th anniversary of the park.

The plants, land and wildlife of Saguaro have seen many changes since 1933. Rincon Mountain District was the original site of Saguaro National Monument. Since then, a wilderness area, a second mountain district and an additional 3,500 acres have been added to the area. Today, the park consists of two major districts almost 40 miles apart. The eastern, Rincon Mountain District, and the western, Tucson Mountain District, provide two unique environments for visitors and the species that call Saguaro home.

Young Saguaro Forest

Young Saguaro Forest. Credit: Tony Fischer/Flickr

While both regions are filled with the iconic saguaro cacti, they are diverse in their landscape and biological makeup. Tucson, the newer district, ranges in elevation from about 2,200 feet to almost 4,700 feet and contains two different desert environments: desert scrub and desert grassland. Coyotes, quail and the desert tortoise are some of the common wildlife in this region. In comparison, the Rincon Mountains peak higher than those in Tucson (almost 8,700 feet) and contain six different environments, ranging from the scrubs of the Sonoran Desert to mixed conifer forests in higher elevations. Due to the elevation and diverse biotic communities, there is a great range of animals, including black bears, Arizona mountain king snakes and white-tailed deer.

Spring is a popular time for visitors, as wildflowers, bird, and other desert life become active. The saguaro cactus flower, which has been the Arizona state flower since 1931, blooms in the months of May and June. Visitors will want to take advantage of the various trails, drives and tours Saguaro has to offer. One of several scenic roads available in the Tucson District is Bajada Loop Drive. Spanning six miles through the western region of Saguaro, Bajada runs through large groups of cacti and leads travelers to short hikes and convenient picnic areas. Those looking for wildlife and nature walks can venture to the east and make their way around Cactus Forest Drive, an eight-mile road circling clockwise through the Rincon Mountain District.

P.S. Shockingly, neither of the two national co-champion saguaro cacti are located in the national park, but they are nearby. Where are they? Head to our Big Tree section to find out.

Listening to the Numbers

by Susan Laszewski

With last week’s release of the fall update to the National Register of Big Trees, there has been a lot of talk around American Forests lately about setting and breaking records. But not all records are ones to celebrate.

Cow in Tennessee drought

A cow kicks up dust in Tennessee drought conditions. Credit: Clint Alley/Flickr

July made the news this year as the hottest month on record in the United States. Now, the entire year of 2012 is poised to follow its example and become the hottest year in recorded history. According to the latest “State of the Climate” report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), September marked the first time that above average temperatures have continued for 16 straight months. The first nine months of this year have already been the warmest on record, with 46 states recording temperatures among their 10 all-time warmest.

While people in many parts of the country are breathing sighs of relief as October ushers in cooler weather, at this point, the last three months of 2012 would have to be some of the coldest in recorded history to prevent the year from breaking the record. According to meteorologist Nick Wiltgen of, the chance of 2012 not finishing as the warmest year in recorded history is less than seven percent. Many factors shape weather patterns, but this year’s heat is not independent from the overall trends of increasing average temperatures, whose causes include increased greenhouse gases and whose symptoms include the increasing intense weather events we’ve all been experiencing — 2012’s U.S. Climate Extremes Index (USCEI) number is more than twice the average. This may come as no surprise to Americans — nearly 65 percent of the contiguous U.S. is experiencing drought.

NASA studies changing conditions in the Arctic

NASA studies changing conditions in the Arctic. Credit: NASA Goodard Space Flight Center/Flickr

The U.S. isn’t the only one sweating; global temperatures this year were also some of the hottest on record. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, August was the 135th month in a row with smaller than average global sea ice extent and the first time that it has ever dropped below four million square kilometers. The loss in sea ice since this time last year is around the size of Texas.

NOAA introduced the USCEI to help policymakers make informed decisions on matters that affect and are affected by climate. Let’s hope they’re listening to the numbers.

Finding Foliage from Coast to Coast

by Amanda Tai

Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Flickr/vastateparksstaff

Growing up in New England, I feel lucky that I got to experience both impeccable fall weather and what I consider to be the most beautiful phenomena in nature: the leaves changing colors. I remember going on weekend hiking trips with my family where all we did was look at the trees.  Things are quite a bit different now, living in Washington D.C. It’s so easy to get caught up in the city bustle and forget to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, like a hike in the woods. That’s why it’s so important to me to take time for a special trip this fall in order to reconnect with what once was a staple of my childhood years and, in doing so, reconnect with myself.

According to the fall foliage guide on the Great Outdoors Recreation Page (GORP), peak leaf color will be in D.C. from October 30 to November 5. That only gives me a few weeks to plan a trip to check out the colors. For planning a fall foliage trip, there are plenty of online resources available, including our Forest Files feature “Falling for Autumn” and information through GORP, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Forest Service. As I began my online research, I was surprised to find the variety of parks, forests, and wildlife refuges that were just a short drive from the city. So far, my top choices are:

Old Rag Mountain, Shenandoah. Credit: Flickr/daveynin

But before I explore the East Coast colors at the end of the month, I’ll be travelling to Portland, Oregon next week. According to GORP, I’ll be arriving in Portland just as leaf color is hitting its peak. Perfect timing. While I won’t have time to travel outside the city, I found out that the Hoyt Arboretum hosts some of the city’s best fall foliage and is only a few subway stops from where I’ll be staying! Over the next few weeks, stay tuned for pictures and updates from my bi-coastal fall foliage adventures.

Hoyt Arboretum, Portland, OR. Credit: Flickr/tatooedme

Forests, Snow and Floods

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Flooding in southwest Washington

Flooding in southwest Washington. Credit: Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT)/Flickr

Maybe it’s because I grew up as a snowbunny, skiing the slopes of the Rocky Mountains during many a spring break, but one of my favorite “ecosystem functions” of forests is their impact on snow. When I accidently hugged that tree at age 12, I had no idea how grateful I should have been that it was there.

As many a forest lover knows, trees have multiple impacts on snow, including slowing its melt through the shade they provide and stabilizing the soil upon which it lies. While these might seem like simple things, a new study makes it clear just how vital these functions are.

Kim Green and Younes Alila’s new research published in Water Resources Research reveals that deforestation doubles — and may even quadruple — the number of large floods in waterways affected by those forested areas. Studying data from four creeks in Colorado, the authors discovered that deforestation caused 10-year floods to occur every three to five years, 20-year floods every 10 to 12 years and 50-year floods every 13 years! As Green mentions in the announcement on the study’s publication, “Once you look at how the frequency has changed, you start to realize that deforestation has had a pretty dramatic effect on floods.”

Glacier National Park, Montana

Glacier National Park, Montana. Credit: dr-scott/Flickr

Unfortunately, deforestation isn’t the only way we’re losing forests’ impact on snowy peaks. In the Mountain West, white pine blister rust and mountain pine beetles are decimating five-needle pines that live at high-altitudes. More than 40 million acres of forest across 10 states in the West are thought to be dead or dying. Since these pines live at high-altitudes, they play a significant role in protecting the snow and water supply, which is just one of the reasons American Forests is working to restore these endangered western forests.

If we continue to lose high-elevation forests to deforestation, disease and pests, we could be facing serious financial and health consequences. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration reports that the 30-year average per year for flood damage is $7.82 billion. If the frequency of flooding events increases, so too will this figure. Plus, more than half of the drinking water in the U.S. originates in forests. Both of these seem to be pretty convincing arguments as to why we should be deeply concerned about the state of our forests and how they are protecting our nation’s beautiful, snow-capped peaks.

The Enormity of Life

by Susan Laszewski
Champion common hackberry

Champion common hackberry in Warren County, NJ. Credit: Jonathan Carlucci

Colossal. Gigantic. Immense. Astronomical. Words seem small next to some of our nation’s biggest trees. Standing at the foot of a huge tree, the enormity of life can make your head spin. Those sudden flashes of understanding of our own smallness — of seeing ourselves as just a blip on the timeline of life — can be scary. At the same time, it’s comforting to stand witness to the enduring vastness of nature. To stand so close to something with the strength to grow from a one-inch acorn to a mighty 150-foot oak, to be a part of the same web of life as a giant sequoia whose life reaches 2,500 years back in time.

Today, the fall 2012 National Register of Big Trees has been released, recognizing more than 780 of the biggest trees of their species throughout the country. This marks the first time that the Register has been issued twice in a year. Champion trees are constantly changing, so American Forests has changed to keep up with them — and to keep up with dedicated big-tree hunters. These tree-lovers search all year round for these giants — braving high climbs, bad weather and the sting of defeat when one of their champs is dethroned.

Check out the Register to join us in following these trees’ triumphs and losses. We’re celebrating new champion trees like the California sycamore that joined the Register’s top 15 trees in terms of overall points toward championship, ranking near the mighty redwoods. But we’re also commiserating with dethroned monsters like the Goodding willow in New Mexico — which has lost its crown just shy of 20 years as champ — and mourning ancient giants like the American holly of Arlington, Virginia, which have at last, after a generation of humans have come and gone, completed their life cycle.

If reading about these trees inspires you to get more involved, you might consider hunting for big trees yourself. Visit our Big Tree section to learn more about how to nominate trees and who knows, maybe the spring Register could be your champ’s debut. With trees like these, there’s a lot of competition out there.

Hot, Thirsty Forests

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

When I think of the Southwest, I picture swirling sand, cacti and heat radiating off of pavement. And while it’s true that the Southwest has its fair share of arid deserts, it also is home to forests — for now.

A pinyon pine on the lower slopes of Bryce Canyon in Bryce Canyon National Park

A pinyon pine on the lower slopes of Bryce Canyon in Bryce Canyon National Park. Credit: Peter Nijenhuis/Flickr

In a study released last week in Nature Climate Change, scientists reveal that the Southwest could be headed toward the worst megadrought scenario since A.D. 1000, which will lead to massive forest decline. The research developed a forest drought-stress index (FDSI) to study tree ring data from 1000-2007 to decipher the influence of specific climate parameters on forest decline. Through their modeling, scientists discovered that the drought experienced by the Southwest in the early 2000s was the most severe drought event since a megadrought in the 1500s, and they caution that “the recent forest response to drought may serve as a harbinger of how drought-sensitive forests globally may respond to warming” — especially considering that the drought situation is only going to get worse as the 21st century continues.

This study is just the latest in mounting evidence that the Southwest’s forests are headed toward tough times, which is why one scientist is baking trees to try determine the scope of the damage that may lay ahead, as reported by E&E News.

At a research station in New Mexico, Nathan McDowell is putting juniper, pinyon pine and other plant species into contained chambers, where he then drives the temperature up and cuts precipitation — mirroring what scientists expect the Southwest’s climate to be in the middle of the 21st century. As predicted, the trees succumb to these extreme conditions, but McDowell is hoping that by understanding how stressors like water loss, carbon starvation and other factors interact to overwhelm plants and trees, scientists can better predict how they will react on a wider scale to climate change.

With all of this different research and focus on impending hardships ahead for southwestern forests, let’s hope that the Southwest’s land managers are able to use this data and foreknowledge to find ways to help and protect these vulnerable forests.

When Policy Goes Public

by Amanda Tai

The Chugach National Forest is an early adopter site. Credit:Alaskan Dude/Flickr

Updating the U.S. Forest Service Planning Rule in April marked a major milestone in this country’s long history of forest management. Up to that point, the agency was operating under a rule that was created 30 years ago. The planning rule provides the agency with an overarching framework for how to create land-management plans for individual national forests so it’s important that the rule be up to date and adaptable to modern forest conditions. After 30 years, I say it was about time for a makeover! Along with hundreds of thousands of other groups and individuals, American Forests submitted its comments on the proposed rule, helping the agency pull together a comprehensive and updated final rule.

In an effort to continue the strong emphasis on public engagement, the U.S. Forest Service established a Planning Rule FACA (Federal Advisory Committee Act) Committee comprising a diverse group of individuals. Members of the committee represent various interest groups like nonprofits, Native American tribes, forest landowners and energy-sector representatives. They hail from all geographic regions of the country. What better way to make forest management decisions that will affect all national forests than with a diverse panel of experts! The Federal Advisory Committee met for the first time last month, and the group seemed optimistic about implementing the new rule. During its first meeting, the committee established working groups and discussed plans for upcoming meetings. U.S Forest Service Chief Tidwell noted the “collaborative spirit” of the group and believes the diversity and collective knowledge will lead to good decision making for forest management.

The Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest is an early adopter site. Credit: Forest Service - Northern Region/Flickr

But public involvement doesn’t just end there. The U.S. Forest Service plans to look to the public in several ways as the new rule is implemented, including more public-comment opportunities on future decisions and the “early adopter” forest efforts. Eight national forests were selected as early adopters to begin the implementation of the new rule. These eight forests are the first to revise their management plans using the new planning rule and were selected because their management plans were in dire need of revision. Through collaborative efforts with their local communities, these early adopter forests will lead the way for other forests looking to redevelop their management plans.

A Golden Day for New Mexico

by Susan Laszewski

Last Thursday was a good day for New Mexico.

On that day, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar dedicated the 559th and 560th units of the National Wildlife Refuge System, both in New Mexico.

Fall in the bosque.

Fall in the bosque. Credit: Frank Carey/Flickr

Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, meaning Valley of Gold, will indeed bring riches to New Mexico. These 390 acres are one of only a handful of urban national wildlife refuges in the country and the first in the Southwest. The refuge’s location just five miles from downtown Albuquerque puts it within a half hour’s drive of half of New Mexico’s population. From this prime location, Valle de Oro will provide opportunities for outdoor play and education for children and recreation for all ages. Considering that a full 38 percent of Americans were involved in wildlife-related recreation last year — and that they spent $145 billion dollars on it — it’s also expected the new refuge will be a boon for tourism in the area.

It goes without saying that humans aren’t the only ones who will benefit from the wildlife refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will work to restore the native bosque forest — an ecosystem rarely seen outside the dry Southwest. In this riparian ecosystem, cottonwoods, often called the “heart of the bosque” — a play on their heart-shaped leaves — provide critical habitat for more than 500 species, from desert cottontails and beavers to porcupines and coyotes. The bosque also serves as an important stopover for migrating birds such as snow geese and sandhill cranes. For more on New Mexico’s unique bosque ecosystem, check out the American Forests feature on Albuquerque’s forest.

Willow flycatcher.

Willow flycatcher. Credit: Bill Bouton/Flickr

Down the road, other woodland species, including threatened and endangered species like the southwestern willow flycatcher and the Mexican spotted owl, will benefit from the establishment of the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area, more than 42,000 acres of land dedicated the same afternoon as Valle de Oro. Coupled with the recently established Sangre de Christo Conservation Area in Colorado, Rio Mora will create a wildlife corridor around five miles of the Mora River, ensuring protection for the Rio Mora watershed.

From natural riches to educational riches and economic riches, these wildlife refuges have the potential to bring great fortune to New Mexico. It’s a golden opportunity.

Yosemite’s Spokesman

by Julia Sullivan
Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite National Park. Credit: Randy Le'Moine Photography/Flickr

One hundred and twenty-two years ago today, one of America’s most celebrated national parks came into being – Yosemite. Located in the central eastern portion of California and covering an area roughly the size of Rhode Island, this park boasts dramatic valleys, a protected grove of ancient sequoia trees, waterfalls coursing into Yosemite Valley, and hundreds upon hundreds of wildlife species. No wonder it draws in more than 4 million visitors every year!

Yosemite National Park’s landscapes and features have inspired awe and wonder in its beholders for centuries, but one man in particular was especially moved by its scenery. John Muir, revered by many as “the father of conservation,” played a critical role in the establishment of Yosemite National Park on October 1, 1890.

Muir first set foot in Yosemite in 1868 and – in a sense – never left. He settled nearby, working first as a shepherd and later at a sawmill, and wrote various articles for publication in newspapers across the country. Deeply attached to the area and with a burgeoning interest in preservation, he became a prolific writer and somewhat of a Yosemite spokesman.

In the 1880s, Muir focused his attention on areas surrounding the state-administered Yosemite Grant, which had been set aside in 1864, and threw himself into the preservationist role with great vigor. He was alarmed by livestock animals’ degradation of the delicate ecosystems of the High Sierras and sought to convey this threat to Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century Magazine. In 1889, he took Johnson to the park and impressed upon him the need to incorporate the area into a national park. After Johnson’s publication of Muir’s exposés, a bill emerged in Congress. It proposed creating a federally administered park surrounding the old Yosemite Grant, and it passed. The following year, Yosemite National Park was born.

He did not rest at this achievement, however. In 1903, Muir led President Theodore Roosevelt on a tour of Yosemite and lobbied for additional protections. Three years later, state authorities ceded the land under the Yosemite Grant to the federal government, thus completing the park.

Muir only truly lived in Yosemite for a few years, but his experience there left him forever changed. After discovering his calling in the California wilderness, he embarked on what would become a lifelong fight for preservation.

Celebrating Public Lands

by Alex Cimon
A group of young volunteers came to clean up Russell Lake in Savannah, Georgia during NPLD 2011

A group of young volunteers came to clean up Russell Lake in Savannah, Georgia during NPLD 2011. Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District

Tomorrow, thousands of volunteers will recognize our diverse natural environments — and what they have done for us — through the 2012 National Public Lands Day (NPLD). This National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) program has taken off since 1994, when the first NPLD was held. That year, the program was supported by 700 volunteers at three sites. In 2011, more than 170,000 volunteers worked on 2,067 different sites in every state. And this year, both those numbers are expected to grow.

Each location offers a different opportunity for volunteers. The projects range from removing invasive vines and trees in Washington, D.C., parks to identifying and recording the diverse species of migratory birds and wildlife around Caesar Creek Lake in Ohio. Governors, mayors, and for the past three years the President of the United States, issue proclamations, through National Public Lands Day, urging their citizens to participate.

Besides the contributions of local sites, national parks also play a major role in NPLD. In addition to their individual volunteer efforts, such as maintaining a carriage road and trail for Maine’s Acadia National Park, many of these locations will also be waiving their daily fees for visitors. This gives the National Park Service an opportunity to educate the American public by making them aware of how important public lands are and what they can do to protect them. Education, along with building networks and supporting outdoor recreation, is one of the main goals of NEEF and why this day exists.

These goals have been accomplished with the help from partners, like long-time corporate sponsor, Toyota, and a diverse group of friends, such as the Boy Scouts, Audubon Society and even the North American Inter-Fraternity Council.

NPLD also pays homage to volunteers of the past. Each year, NPLD honors of the Civilian Conservation Corp’s “tree army,” which ran from 1933-1942. As one of the public relief programs under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the army was an effort to maintain the natural environment of America.

See what your community is doing for NPLD and what you can do to help at