This is Your Brain on Nature

by Susan Laszewski
A walk in the park

A walk in the park. Credit: Vincent Brassine

It’s not news that time in the great outdoors is good for your brain. We’ve written before about how exposure to nature is good for creative problem solving and mental health.

But how can we determine how much of this relationship is causal when there could be other reasons for correlation? Well, a new study released from researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh published in the British Journal of Science has begun answering that question with some pretty high-tech tools.

The 12 study participants were given portable electroencephalograms (EEGs) called Emotiv EPOC to wear under hats against their scalps. The EEGs measured brain waves and sent data wirelessly to a laptop in the participant’s backpack. And here I thought Google glasses sounded high-tech! The participants were then sent on a mile-and-a-half stroll through three neighborhoods — a quiet shopping district, a park and a busy business district.

Analyzing their brain waves for patterns associated with short-term excitement, frustration, engagement, long-term excitement (mental arousal) and meditation, the researchers found that walking through the park eased participants’ brain fatigue. While they maintained attention to their surroundings, they also were able to reflect, unlike the heightened mental arousal that they experienced on the busy streets.

While a study of 12 participants doesn’t provide a large pool of data, the use of the new portable EEGs may open up a whole new world of studying nature’s effect on the brain in real-time. It certainly adds to the growing body of data telling us that planting and maintaining urban forests makes for a happier, healthier city and happier, healthier people.

Big Tree Madness Recap

by Loose Leaf Contributor
The "Prickly and Persistent" Ozark Chinkapin of Missouri won the title of "Ultimate Big Tree."

The “Prickly and Persistent” Ozark Chinkapin of Missouri won the title of “Ultimate Big Tree.”

What a win for the Midwest! Not only did the Louisville Cardinals take home the crown in last night’s NCAA championship, but the title of “Ultimate Big Tree” also went to a Midwestern tree in the Big Tree Madness final. Congratulations to Missouri’s “Prickly and Persistent” Ozark chinkapin!

Many may look at the champion and think, “It’s not that big. There are giant sequoias and southern live oaks that dwarf that tree.” But, remember, size is relative. All Big Tree Madness contenders are national champion trees — the largest known of their species in the country. Even the Texas redbud of Connecticut, which was eliminated in the first round, is a giant among its own kind — a “tiny titan” as they’re respectfully classified on the National Register of Big Trees.

Even so, the size of the Ultimate Big Tree becomes impressive when you take into account that the Ozark chinkapin is a member of the chestnut family, susceptible to the dreaded chestnut blight and, consequently, a species of conservation concern. Maybe that’s part of why it means so much to the legions of fans who came out to vote. Not only is the wood of this amazing tree rot-resistant, it proved itself resistant to defeat as well.

Perhaps the biggest upset of the tournament was the western redcedar’s fourth quarter defeat by the “Brave Giant” of Hawaii — the Acacia koa. Coming from a state known for its old-growth forest, Washington’s western redcedar was an early favorite to win, but the Brave Giant’s fans mobilized to crush the competition and went on to take their tree all the way to the Final Four.

The Acacia koa is the largest native tree species on an island that struggles with keeping invasives at bay. More than half of Hawaii’s original forests have been lost, largely due to invasives, so it’s no wonder that the “Brave Giant” would be an important symbol of pride in Hawaiian native forests. [Editor’s preview: The Spring/Summer 2013 issue of American Forests, which is being released next month, features an article on Hawaii’s delicate ecosystem and the struggle against invasives.]

But, as they say, everything is bigger in Texas, and in the Final Four, that included the “Mighty” Montezuma baldcypress’ fan base. The Montezuma baldcypress brought the koa’s run to an end, before facing its own defeat in the final.

You can review the entire bracket on our Big Tree page.

What’s next for Big Trees?

There are more than 780 national champions currently listed onthe National Register of Big Trees, so if your favorite big tree didn’t make it into the tournament, it doesn’t mean it’s not a national champion. Search the register, and if you still don’t see your favorite tree, stay tuned. The Spring 2013 release of the register is coming April 26th. Champions will rise, and reigning champs will be dethroned. Some new species may even see their first champion crowned. And, yes, we may mourn some fallen giants, as all life must eventually come to end. If you enjoyed Big Tree Madness, then hold on to your seats: The big tree fun is just getting started.

Under the Sea

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Green sea turtle

Green sea turtle. Credit: puuikibeach/Flickr

You know that old expression about “work following you home”? Well, last week, I had work following me on vacation. No, I wasn’t checking emails while visiting the Caribbean, but I did find myself reflecting on topics that are often discussed around the halls of American Forests and here on Loose Leaf, such as:

  • Rainforest deforestation – The island of St. Lucia used to be more than 80 percent rainforest, but those forests have been reduced to less than 45 percent due to past agricultural practices.
  • Endangered species – A snorkeling trip had me spying on threatened green sea turtles living in a protected bay and cove near St. Thomas, a U.S. territory.

And upon my return to work this morning, I found that the Caribbean had followed me home, as a study published yesterday in Nature Geoscience reveals how air pollution —something we normally discuss in the realm of how it affects human health, how it is impacting climate change, how forests help filter it — is affecting an unlikely species: coral in the Caribbean.

Reef off St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

Reef off St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Credit: NOAA CCMA Biogeography Team

A team of climate scientists and coral ecologists studied coral growth rates in the western Caribbean between 1880 and 2000, using previously published data, and discovered that while coral may live under the sea, the atmosphere plays a big role in its growth.

In a release about the study, Dr. Paul Halloran explains that “particulate pollution or ‘aerosols’ reflect incoming sunlight and make clouds brighter. This can reduce the light available for coral photosynthesis, as well as the temperature of surrounding waters. Together these factors are shown to slow down coral growth.” The study shows that in the early 1900s, slower coral growth rates were a result of volcanic activity, as aerosol emissions clouded the atmosphere, but by the late 1900s, aerosol emissions slowing coral growth could be attributed to industrialization.

Coral reefs support a fourth of the world’s oceanic species, and the researchers behind this new study hope it will lead to more understanding about how climate change and regional industrialization may affect coral habitats.

America’s Most Popular Parks

by American Forests

By Tacy Lambiase

This week, the National Park Service released a list of the most visited National Parks during 2012. The total number of national park visitors for the year — over 282 million people — was the sixth highest number of annual visitors in the history of the National Park Service.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Credit: Miguel Vieira/Flickr

Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Credit: Miguel Vieira/Flickr

Great Smoky Mountains National Park maintained its status as the most visited national park in the country, welcoming over 9 million visitors last year. The list also includes Yellowstone National Park, America’s first national park, and Zion National Park, a biologically diverse preserve in Utah.

“The National Park Service strives to represent all that America has to offer,” says National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “People come to national parks for many reasons — for recreation and to learn about American history by strolling through a battlefield. They come to listen to a park ranger at Independence National Historical Park and marvel at the Continental Congress. And people come to national parks for old-fashioned enjoyment of the great outdoors.”

Below is the list of the most visited National Parks in 2012:

1.    Great Smoky Mountains National Park (9,685,829 visitors)
2.    Grand Canyon National Park (4,421,352 visitors)
3.    Yosemite National Park (3,853,404 visitors)
4.    Yellowstone National Park (3,447,729 visitors)
5.    Rocky Mountain National Park (3,229,617 visitors)
6.    Zion National Park (2,973,607 visitors)
7.    Olympic National Park (2,824,908 visitors)
8.    Grand Teton National Park (2,705,256 visitors)
9.    Acadia National Park (2,431,052 visitors)
10. Cuyahoga Valley National Park (2,299,722 visitors)

National champion Western redcedar.

National champion Western redcedar.

Millions of people travel to these sites every year to go hiking, camping, exploring and to simply enjoy the beauty of nature. While it’s obvious that trees enhance the landscapes of many of our national parks, it’s not very well known that several of these parks are home to some of our nation’s “Big Trees.” For more than 70 years, American Forests’ National Big Tree Program has kept a record of the largest trees of each species in the United States. Several of the program’s champion trees are located in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Olympic National Park.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park draws huge crowds and big trees. On the North Carolina side of the park, a national champion red spruce tree stands 147 feet tall. This national park is also home to the national champion cinnamon tree. At just 33 feet tall, this tree is considered a “tiny titan” among the larger trees on the register.

Located in Washington, Olympic National Park boasts several national champion Big Trees. If you visit the park, you can marvel at two pacific silver fir trees which stand over 200 feet tall. Another of Olympic’s Big Trees, a Western redcedar, was a contender in American Forests’ Big Tree Madness competition this past month. (Though the redcedar has been eliminated, you can still vote for the remaining contenders through Monday.) This popular tree was first nominated for the register in 1945.

Want to visit a Big Tree? Curious about which Big Trees may be located near you? Stay tuned — the spring 2013 National Register of Big Trees will be released later this month!

Big Tree Madness Final Four

by Loose Leaf Contributor

Big Tree Madness Final Four kicked off today with the “Mighty” Montezuma Baldcypress from Texas representing the South and the “Brave Giant” Acacia Koa of Hawaii representing the West. Tomorrow the “Prickly and Persistent” Ozark Chinkapin of Missouri will go up against the “Overtly Awesome” Osage-orange from Virginia. The Ozark chinkapin will be one to watch. The tree has had a strong and mobilized fan base throughout the competition. But the Brave Giant’s fans have not been taking the competition sitting down either, not have the fans of the Mighty, and the osage-orange has a lot of popular and historic appeal. At this point, it’s too close to call.

Cast your vote!


Final Four tree stats:

  1. “Mighty” Montezuma Baldcypress (Texas)

    Tree Circumference:301
    Crown Spread:99
    Total Points:394
    Location: San Benito

  2. “Brave Giant” Acacia Koa (Hawaii)

    Tree Circumference:343
    Crown Spread:93
    Location: Kona Hema Preserve

  3. “Overtly Awesome” Orange-Osage (Virginia)

    Tree Circumference:349
    Crown Spread:88
    Location: Red Hill Shrine, Charlotte, VA

  4. “Prickly and Persistent” Ozark Chinkapin (Missouri)

    Tree Circumference:35
    Crown Spread:38

Not Just for Children

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

wonder of nature

Oh, the wonder of nature. Credit: Jonf728/Flickr

I was feeling a bit whimsical the other night, so in honor of National Poetry Month I pulled out my old copies of The Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein, immersing myself in the lyrical, satirical world of Shel’s creation. All of the funny bits were still there: the boa’s eating people, kids not taking the garbage out, all of the poems that uniquely required the hand-drawn illustration to grasp the meaning. But I also discovered the poems on a whole new level than I had before — having not read them in more than a decade. Shel wasn’t just writing wacky, silly poems for kids; he was saying things that are just as relevant today as they were 30 years ago. I could share dozens with you, but I’ll limit myself to just two, hoping they touch you as they touched me.

Forgotten Language

Once I spoke the language of the flowers,
Once I understood each word the caterpillar said,
Once I smiled in secret at the gossip of the starlings,
And shared a conversation with the housefly
in my bed.
Once I heard and answered all the questions
of the crickets,
And joined the crying of each falling dying
flake of snow,
Once I spoke the language of the flowers….
How did it go?
How did it go?




The saddest thing I ever did see
Was a woodpecker peckin’ at a plastic tree.
He looks at me, and “Friend,” says he,
“Things ain’t as sweet as they used to be.”


Take a moment today, during Earth Month, to remember the language of nature. Take a moment to bask in the loveliness of the world. Take a moment to be thankful for the diverse sounds, colors and species that surround us. And, if you’re inclined, take a moment to help us protect the natural world we sometimes take for granted.

In Bloom: Washington’s Cherry Blossoms

by American Forests

By Tacy Lambiase

The Washington Monument overlooks the tidal basin’s blooming cherry trees. Credit: Rob Posse/Flickr

The Washington Monument overlooks the tidal basin’s blooming cherry trees. Credit: Rob Posse/Flickr

The arrival of Washington’s cherry blossoms is a highly anticipated event that draws thousands of people to the National Mall and Tidal Basin every year.  Since 1935, the Cherry Blossom Festival has marked this annual occasion with parades, performances and exhibits. This year’s festivities will surely be no exception. But while many people flock to our nation’s capital to enjoy the visual splendor of cherry trees in bloom, the historical significance of these trees should also be celebrated.

It may be common knowledge that the original 3,020 cherry trees planted in Washington, D.C., were a gift of friendship from the nation of Japan to the United States. According to the National Park Service, in 1912, these trees were shipped by boat from Yokohama, Japan, to Seattle, where they were then loaded onto a train bound for Washington. Upon the arrival of the trees in late March, First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, held a ceremony to honor the friendship between their two countries. They planted the first two cherry trees on the north end of the Tidal Basin. From 1913 to 1920, nearly 1,800 cherry trees of the Somei-Yoshino variety were also planted along the basin. The other 11 varieties took root in East Potomac Park and on the grounds of the White House.

While initially given as a gift, these cherry trees have become part of a long-term exchange of culture and blossoms between Japan and the United States. In 1965, the Japanese government gave 3,800 more cherry trees to “Lady Bird” Johnson, an environmental enthusiast and First Lady. Many of these trees were planted around the Washington Monument. Later, in 1982, the United States allowed Japan to take hundreds of cuttings from the trees by the Tidal Basin to grow cherry trees with a similar genetic make-up. These would replace many cherry trees that had been destroyed in Japan when a river’s original course was altered. These and other gestures involving cherry trees have come to symbolize the enduring friendship and peace between the United States and Japan. Hopefully, these trees will continue to foster goodwill and an appreciation of trees for many years to come.

Although Tokyo’s cherry trees bloomed early this year, residents of Washington, D.C., have been patiently waiting for the District’s trees to show signs of spring. Horticulturalists with the National Park Service, however, have predicted that “Peak Bloom Date” for this year’s buds will happen this week–between April 3 and April 6. According to the Park Service, the Peak Bloom Date is defined as the day when 70 percent of the blooms are open on the cherry trees surrounding the Tidal Basin. Although the blooming period starts a few days before this date, and can last as long as two weeks, be strategic when planning your visit to see these beautiful trees in action.

Can’t make it to this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival? Watch the Smithsonian’s beautiful timelapse video of last year’s blooms:

Give a Peep for Birds

by Susan Laszewski

Peeps. Credit: James Vela.

American Bird Conservancy’s current Bird of the Week has been drawing a lot of attention. For the second time, they have declared the bird of the week to be the peep — that marshmallow treat so popular this time of year.

Though the peep has earned the honor once before, in 2011, only the yellow peep was recognized. Now, scientists have determined pink, purple, and blue peeps to be separate species. “There simply isn’t any evidence that these forms interbreed,” says American Bird Conservancy senior scientist, David Wiedenfeld. “While they can often be found roosting in the same box, the fact is that nobody has ever seen an intermediate bird between the color morphs.”

While American Forests currently has no projects that benefit peep habitat directly — in fact, as American Bird Conservancy says, “Although Peeps are heavily consumed, their populations appear to quickly rebound in subsequent years and therefore they are not a species of conservation concern” — we have been pleased in the past to see some of the endangered species we’re working on behalf of awarded the honor of Bird of the Week.

Red-cockaded woodpecker

Red-cockaded woodpecker. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters.

The red-cockaded woodpecker held the honor last year during the week of April 13. Endemic to the continental U.S., this unique bird requires an extremely specialized habitat. Unlike most woodpeckers, it nests in live pines, not in dead trees. The pines must be mature (at least 80 years old) and have red heart disease, making the wood soft enough for the woodpeckers to chip away at, even while the living pine is healthy enough to push out pitch, further protecting the nest. American Forests has been working to restore longleaf pine forests that the woodpecker can call home for decades, including our recent work in the Hal Scott Regional Preserve and Park in Florida.

Spotted owl

Spotted owl. Credit: Lip Kee Yap.

Another bird we’ve been paying a lot of attention to held the Bird of the Week title in July 2011: the spotted owl. The spotted owl has suffered from a severe loss of its old-growth forest habitat, largely due to logging. American Forests has conducted restoration projects in spotted owl habitat for years, including work in San Bernadino National Forest for the California spotted owl and work in Cibola National Forest on behalf of the Mexican spotted owl. We’ve also advocated for policy to benefit these endangered birds, submitting comments last year to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the recovery plan for the northern spotted owl.

Not all birds have the healthy populations that the peep is lucky to have, but with your help, we hope we can restore habitat to give more species a fighting chance.

The First National Forest

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

John Aston Warder

John Aston Warder

Most people know that Yellowstone was America’s first national park, established back in 1872, but less well-known is the fact that Yellowstone also claims the status as our first national forest, established on March 30, 1891. There’s a national forest named Yellowstone? Not anymore … but let’s start at the beginning.

For much of the 19th century, America had more land than it knew what to do with. This led to a push by the Department of the Interior to dispose of public lands — selling them to private citizens or businesses for homesteads, timber production, development and more. In addition, many of the public lands weren’t well-policed, leading to degradation from activities like illegal logging. By the mid to late-1800s, the U.S. natural landscape had changed drastically from what was first witnessed by European settlers.

In 1873, Dr. John Aston Warder travelled to Europe as the U.S. commissioner to the International Exhibition in Vienna. In a report on his travels, he wrote, “This subject of forestry is now claiming, and must receive, greater attention than heretofore. The increasing scarcity of timber within the first century of the nation’s history, and that in a country famous for the richness and value of its sylva, and for the extent of its woodlands, is a subject that calls for the most serious consideration of the statesman, and perhaps also for the interference and care of government…” Two years later, Dr. Warder would call together a conference on forestry, which birthed American Forests (then known as the American Forestry Association).

Hiking in Bridger-Teton National Forest

Hiking in Bridger-Teton National Forest, which was once part of Yellowstone Park Timber Land Reserve. Credit: Nick Pedersen

After merging with the like-minded American Forestry Congress in 1882, the new organization focused on its mission of “the protection of the existing forests of the country” by pushing for national forest reserves. For almost a decade, the group would introduce resolutions and petitions to Congress to try and get protection for and management of public lands. Finally, on March 3, 1891, Congress gave the president the power to create forest reserves from public lands. On March 30, 1891, President Benjamin Harrison exercised that right, creating Yellowstone Park Timber Land Reserve along the eastern and southern boundary of Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone Park Timber Land Reserve consisted of more than 1.2 million acres, and during his tenure, President Harrison would add nearly 11 million more acres of forest reserves, while his successor, President Cleveland, added almost five million. Then, came President Theodore Roosevelt and, man, did that man love to set aside special lands for conservation. Under President Roosevelt, millions of additional acres became forest reserves, forest reserves became national forests and a service to manage them, the U.S. Forest Service, finally came into existence.

Custer National Forest

Custer National Forest, which was once part of Yellowstone Park Timber Land Reserve. Credit: John Hyun

During President Roosevelt’s tenure, though, the first national forest reserve would cease to exist — it became multiple national forests, instead! Today’s Bridger-Teton, Custer, Shoshone and Caribou-Targhee National Forests emerged from portions of Yellowstone. And wouldn’t you know, American Forests is still there.

For years, Global ReLeaf has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to restore our national forests. In 2013, we’re working with 15 different national forests, including Bridger-Teton, where we’re planting 11,000 whitebark pine. And, of course, there is our Endangered Western Forests initiative, which aims to protect and restore the Greater Yellowstone Area’s forests that are being damaged by disease and mountain pine beetles. If we can’t conserve the part of our country that was deemed so magnificent it became our first national park and our first national forest — I can only imagine the shudders of our forefathers. Join us in our efforts to preserve the legacies of the first conservationists.

Backyard Biodiversity

by American Forests

By Josh DeLacey

“Conservation is about waiting for a long time,” says Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. So, in a society that wants speed and short waits, Ashe explains, conservation too often gets neglected.

Ashe was one of four plenary speakers at the 78th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference, a week-long event coordinated and administered by the Wildlife Management Institute (WMI). Held in Arlington this week, the annual conference brings together environmentally-minded scientists, administrators, managers and educators from organizations across the country, including the U.S. Forest Service, various bureaus from the Department of Interior, National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Boone and Crockett Club. Some reoccurring topics in the panels and presentations included the importance of working in partnerships and focusing on shared goals; the need to capture the public’s attention with the importance of environmental protection; and the impact of both a changing climate and a changing U.S. demographic.

native plant nursery

A native plant nursery in Florida. Credit: Tom Potterfield.

One presentation in particular stood out to me — and not just because it was about trees. Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware delivered a fascinating lecture that showed how individual people can actively improve the environment — and how, unlike most conservation efforts, that improvement produces noticeable results quickly. It might sound like a scam, but it checks out. If done correctly, backyard landscaping is a boon to biodiversity.

The problem is, most residential landscaping is not. The average American house is surrounded by lawn and nonnative plants — two major problems for urban ecosystems. Even when cropped to the recommended height of two inches, grass has very little biomass, especially compared with shrubs and trees. Without an abundance of plants to eat and live in, insect populations plummet; without enough insects, arachnids and birds and animals disappear, too. Tallamy used chickadees as an illustration: a single pair of these tiny birds bring their young between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars before they leave the nest, and each urban-sized tree holds about 25 caterpillars at any given time. Grass, on the other hand, contains just 10 percent of a tree’s potential biomass, which means a lot fewer caterpillars and a lot fewer chickadees around a traditionally landscaped home.

As for the decorative non-native plants found so often in nurseries and favored by landscapers and homeowners, those are just as bad. Although they might have plenty of biomass, most invasive species cannot fill the biological role of the native species they drive out. In the northeastern United States, for instance, a native black cherry tree can support more than 450 different caterpillar species, but the invasive Russian olive (also known as Ugly Agnes) can support just a few dozen. And, just like plants, those caterpillar species aren’t interchangeable. Tallamy explains that there is no redundancy among species: “every species loss reduces ecosystem function.”

The solution to typical biodiversity-killing lawns is simple, though — landscape property with an eye to the ecosystem. Replace vast swaths of grass and ornamental invasives with native trees and shrubs. Plenty of aesthetically pleasing native plants exist, and their benefits to the ecosystem, Tallamy says, will appear in just a few years. Chickadees will multiply, rabbits will return, and deer will be more likely to wander through.  Most conservation work might require long waits and decades of growth, but homeowners are a lucky bunch — they can get the short waits our society wants and still help the local ecosystem.

Read Doug Tallamy’s article on this subject in American Forests magazine.