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.

Can Trees Save the Chesapeake Bay?

by American Forests

By Tacy Lambiase

During my spring break “vacation,” I spent last week camping on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis, Md. With 13 of my fellow classmates from the University of Maryland’s Alternative Breaks program and a fearless staff advisor, I participated in service projects to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay, a waterway plagued by pollution. Since the Chesapeake Bay is one of our nation’s natural treasures, not to mention an integral part of Maryland’s state identity, I wanted to explore the root causes of the problems facing this fragile ecosystem. But after spending two days planting trees along rivers that lead to the bay, I realized just how integral trees are to preserving the watershed and keeping the water clean.

Students from the University of Maryland’s Alternative Breaks program plant trees along a stream in Frederick, Maryland. Credit: David Tana

Students from the University of Maryland’s Alternative Breaks program plant trees along a stream in Frederick, Maryland. Credit: David Tana

Since agricultural and stormwater runoff are two of the main sources of pollution that flow into the bay, incredible amounts of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus end up in the water. These nutrients, in addition to sediment, are washed into the bay from farms, which use fertilizer containing these nutrients, and urban areas, where water cannot easily soak into the ground. Once in the bay, these pollutants stimulate the growth of algal blooms (large accumulations of algae) which use up the oxygen in the water, creating “dead zones” where other plants and aquatic life cannot survive.

A simple and natural way to mitigate the harmful effects of nutrient pollution, planting trees along the Chesapeake Bay and its many tributaries could drastically improve the bay’s water quality. Trees naturally absorb water in their root systems, preventing rainwater and excess runoff from flowing into streams and rivers. By absorbing the runoff, trees also filter out harmful pollutants. More cost-effective than expensive water treatment procedures, planting trees along riparian zones in the watershed will not only help to clean the water before it reaches the bay, but also prevent soil erosion along riverbanks.

Trees provide a buffer along a stream in Virginia that flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr

Trees provide a buffer along a stream in Virginia that flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr

Planting trees along rivers and streams doesn’t just have to benefit the Chesapeake Bay Watershed — this technique can also help other ailing waterways across the United States. According to a report released this week by the EPA, “more than half of the country’s rivers and streams are in poor biological health, unable to support healthy populations of aquatic insects and other creatures.” The report concludes that nutrient pollution and human development are putting significant stress on the health of these ecological systems.

Since trees can effectively filter pollution before it reaches bodies of water, American Forests has been involved with planting projects along the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways. In a partnership with the James River Association, American Forests planted more than 10,000 trees to restore forest buffers along the James River, which flows into the southern part of the bay. Additionally, in 2009, American Forests worked with Delmarva Poultry to create buffer zones that would protect the Chesapeake Bay from the poultry industry’s pollution. Poultry farms and the chicken manure they produce contribute heavily to the bay’s nutrient pollution, and the trees planted through this project help to filter dirty runoff.

After a hard week of service, I am proud to say that my spring break team helped to plant more than 1,200 trees along streams in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. These saplings, which consisted of native species like sycamores, eastern redbuds, maples and oaks, will hopefully grow into a natural filtration system, defending our precious water from irreparable harm.

The Deal for Izembek National Wildlife Refuge

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

Last month, I discussed the opening salvo by Rep. Rob Bishop and the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation concerning the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). But, as you may remember, it is not just NEPA that Rep. Bishop has his sights on: The Antiquities Act is also a point of focus for the subcommittee. Regardless of rumblings from Rep. Bishop, President Obama recently put his Antiquities Act authority to use and designated five new national monuments. The monuments include the First State National Monument in Delaware and 240,000 acres of high-desert plateau in New Mexico. The move has its supporters in environmentalists, local government officials and congressional delegations. It also has its detractors — among others, the same lawmakers that are looking to curtail the executive prerogative granted by the Antiquities Act.

Emperor geese in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

Emperor geese in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Credit: K. Mueller/USFWS

One Hill standoff did reach a temporary conclusion last week when Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar agreed to take a second look at approving a proposed gravel road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

Izembek-Becharof National Wildlife Refuges, Alaska

Izembek-Becharof National Wildlife Refuges, Alaska. Credit: Corey A. Anco/USFWS

The refuge is located in the midst of the Aleutian Islands, that long string of islands that juts out from Alaska’s southwest corner. While Izembek is the smallest of Alaska’s wildlife refuges, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined it is one of the most ecologically unique based on its wildlife and fish habitats. The refuge itself is remote — remote in a way that many in the lower 48 states may not be able to appreciate. In order to reach the refuge, you must either take a ferry, which serves the bay that abuts the refuge once a month from April through October, or take a once a day flight from Anchorage and then a four-wheel drive vehicle across 40 miles of gravel roads. In other words, you have to really want to get there; Izembek isn’t a place you can just happen upon.

Grizzly sow and cub, Izembek-Becharof National Wildlife Refuges, Alaska

Grizzly sow and cub, Izembek-Becharof National Wildlife Refuges, Alaska. Credit: Corey A. Anco/USFWS

In 2009, Congress authorized a land exchange within Izembek National Wildlife Refuge for lands owned by Alaska and the King Cove Corporation (a tribal organization) in order to construct a single lane gravel road to connect the King Cove and Cold Bay communities. This proposed road would run through the refuge and the inset Izembek Wilderness. Its purpose would be for the health and safety of the communities, while prohibiting commercial purposes outside of public transportation. The draft environmental impact statement (EIS) compared the impacts of building the road with five alternative actions: no action, a more southern road alignment, a central road alignment, hovercraft service and six-day-a-week ferry service with an updated ferry terminal. Each alternative would impact the amount and location of the land exchange.

When the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would choose the “no action” alternative, the response was a mixture of celebration from many environmental groups and ire from area residents and the Alaska congressional delegation. Senator Lisa Murkowski announced that she would put a hold on the nomination of Sally Jewell to be the new secretary of the interior until this decision was revisited. Last Wednesday, a deal was struck: Current Secretary Ken Salazar agreed to additional environmental reviews of the proposed road in exchange for Senator Murkowski lifting her hold on Sally Jewell. On Thursday morning, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted on Jewell’s nomination, advancing her to the full Senate.

So now the ball is back in the Interior Department’s court. Secretary Salazar directed that additional consultations take place with the relevant tribal governments, as well as a public meeting to take place in King Cove to gather more testimony on the proposed road. Once these further steps are accomplished, Interior will review all available information, including the EIS, and make its final decision. And when Interior’s final decision is made, chances are, it will be Sally Jewell at the helm of the agency as the newly confirmed secretary.

Have You Hugged a Tree Lately?

by Loose Leaf Contributor
Northern Flicker

The northern flicker, a species of state conservation concern in Minnesota, often nests in or near urban areas. Credit: minicooper93402/Flickr

That’s the question our director of urban forests, Melinda Housholder, asks in a guest blog on the National Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife Promises blog.

To quote Melinda:

When I did field work with the National Park Service a few years ago along the National Mall, I hugged trees on a daily basis. Well, by that I mean, when checking for the DBH (diameter at breast height) of specific trees, I often had my arms wrapped around trees. Not in a uniform, I am sure it looked like I was just a visitor to D.C., taking some time out of my day to embrace the tree for a moment of gratitude. And, well, why shouldn’t I?

Why not indeed!

Go read about Melinda’s urban adventures — and about why urban forests are so important to people and wildlife — on our friends at the National Wildlife Federation’s blog.

Cooperation for Water

by Susan Laszewski

Happy World Water Day, everyone,

Green Mountain NF

Chittenden Brook in Green Mountain National Forest. Credit: Colin Rhinesmith

Yesterday, we celebrated the International Day of Forests, declared as such by the UN just last year. But today is another important day, which was first designated by the UN way back in 1993. It’s World Water Day, a day to reflect on the importance of freshwater and to advocate for its sustainable management. In addition, 2013 is the International Year of Water Cooperation, which is why cooperation is the theme of year’s World Water Day.

First, let’s look at the way that forests — to anthropomorphize — “cooperate” with precipitation to provide clean drinking water for communities. Trees catch, filter and cleanse rain on its way toward the underground aquifers from which we get our drinking water. Forests also play the important role of maintaining snowpack at higher elevations so that melting and runoff occur more slowly. Without the forests, much of this snow would melt more rapidly and flood areas downstream. In the U.S., more than 50 percent of our freshwater comes from forests.

Bridger-Teton NF

Island Lake in Bridger-Teton National Forest. Credit: Show Us Your Togwotee/Flickr

Of that percent, much comes from our national forests. That’s why over the years, American Forests has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service and others to maintain and restore these important resources. This kind of cooperation is vital to ensure our nation’s supply of freshwater. Over the years, we’ve conducted more than 200 Global ReLeaf projects in national forests. This year’s projects include plantings in 14 national forests, from Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont, where we’re reforesting a riparian corridor damaged by Hurricane Irene to improve stream health, to Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming, where planting of whitebark pine may help with snowpack.

You can also play an important role in this cooperation for conservation. Discover all the ways you can give and help.

As Secretary‐General Ban Ki‐moon said in his video message for the International Year of Water Cooperation 2013, “We must work together to protect and carefully manage this fragile, finite resource.”

Dedicate Today to Celebrating Our Forests

by American Forests

By Tacy Lambiase

Here at American Forests, we celebrate the beauty and benefits of our Earth’s forests every day of the year. But thanks to the United Nations General Assembly, there is now an official holiday dedicated to trees around the globe.

A view of the forests around El Bolsón, Argentina

A view of the forests around El Bolsón, Argentina. Credit: Juan Manuel

On December 21, 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring March 21 as the International Day of Forests and the Tree. According to the UN, “The International Day of Forests and the Tree is held annually on 21 March to raise awareness of sustainable management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests for the benefit of current and future generations. … The resolution encourages all Member States to organize activities relating to all types of forests, and trees outside forests, such as tree-planting campaigns.”

The UN Forum on Forests, an intergovernmental policy forum tasked with implementing this day of observance, produced a short film about the impact that forests have on the well-being of our planet and the lives of humans and animals:

As you may already know, American Forests doesn’t just support tree planting initiatives in the United States — some of our Global Releaf projects are focused on restoring international forests.

  • American Forests has worked with the La Cruz Habitat Protection Project in Mexico to restore the winter home of migrating monarch butterflies. In 2012 alone, 100,000 trees were planted to stabilize degraded soil, provide forest cover and create a buffer between the monarchs’ habitat and human development.
  • Black-and-white colobus monkey in Kenya

    Black-and-white colobus monkey in Kenya. Credit: Sum_of_Marc/Flickr

    Although the highlands in Kenya used to be covered in trees, deforestation has wiped out 99.9 percent of the region’s native forests. In 2012, American Forests teamed up with Plants for Life International (PLI), a non-governmental organization that works out of Brackenhurst Botanic Garden in Kenya, to reforest part of this area. This project involved planting 15,000 trees of almost 300 different species, which will hopefully have positive long-term effects on the region. Native tree species can stabilize the soil, improve the water flow in the region and allow for the reintroduction of native animals and bird species to the forest, including the colobus monkey.

  • In 2013, American Forests Global ReLeaf is conducting five international projects. Our projects in Honduras, India, Indonesia, Mexico and Panama are helping those countries restore lost forest cover, while improving the economies of local communities, improving habitat for endangered wildlife or stabilizing needed waterways.

From everyone at American Forests, Happy International Day of Forests and the Tree!

ReLeaf by the Numbers

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

1,888,012 trees
5,038 acres (or 5,038 football fields if that helps you picture the size)
25 forests
14 states
5 countries
1 healthier planet

Sumatran orangutan

The endangered Sumatran orangutan, a species whose habitat is being restored through a 2013 Global ReLeaf project. Credit: TomD./Flickr

This afternoon, American Forests announced our 2013 Global ReLeaf restoration projects. As you can glean from above, these 25 projects are planting 1.8 million trees to restore forest ecosystems across the U.S. and around the world.

From Montana’s mountains to Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley, from Vermont’s White River to California’s North Yuba River and from India to Mexico, Global ReLeaf in 2013 is helping forests overcome damage from intense wildfires, disease, insects, clearing for agriculture and more.

We’re restoring habitat for the endangered Sumatran orangutan in Indonesia. We’re planting whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Area. We’re using trees to stabilize a river in North Carolina to improve habitat for trout and other fish. We’re planting jack pine in Michigan for the endangered Kirtland’s warbler. And so much more.

Check out our complete list of 2013 projects in our Global ReLeaf section, and remember that we can’t do this alone. Our cherished members, donors and friends help make our work possible. The Earth’s forests thank you.

Mad for Big Trees

by Susan Laszewski

Big Tree Madness bracket

Have you heard the word? March is a month of madness in more ways than one! Today marks the opening of American Forests’ “Big Tree Madness!” We’re asking you to help us choose the Ultimate Big Tree from our carefully selected Sweet Sixteen. Will it be the towering western redcedar, giant among giants in Olympic National Forest? Or could it be the 12-foot Texas redbud, a “tiny titan,” dwarfing others of its species?

Like us on Facebook to join in the fun. We’ll post each day’s matchup at 10:00 a.m. ET, and you’ll have until 10:00 the next morning to vote. It’s up to you to decide who will be crowed Ultimate Big Tree.

Check out our bracket and the full rules of Big Tree Madness over at our Big Tree page.

  1. What: Big Tree Madness. Vote for the Ultimate Big Tree!
  2. Where: American Forests on Facebook
  3. When: March 19th through April 8th. Winner announced on April 9th!
  4. Learn more
sweet sixteen trees

The sweet sixteen

Tree News

by American Forests

By Tacy Lambiase

Over the past week, we’ve been tracking several interesting stories related to forests and trees around the world. From wildfire season predictions to victories over an invasive insect species, here are several stories from the world of trees.

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery. Credit: Tara Siuk

Arlington Cemetery Proposes Plan That Would Cut Down Almost 900 Trees
An expansion plan sparked some controversy at Arlington Cemetery when it was revealed that almost 900 trees would be cut down to make room for more burial plots. In response, a new plan was recently released by the Army Corps of Engineers to address concerns about razing so many century-old trees, but many people who opposed the original plan are still not satisfied. Although cemetery officials have promised to replace most of the trees that will be but down, the revised plan would only save eight of the historic trees.

New Jersey Is Declared Free From the Notorious ALB
Earlier this month, we posted on our blog about the damaging effects that Asian longhorned beetles can have on maple trees. Now, some good news has emerged from officials in New Jersey: The state has now declared itself free from the Asian longhorned beetle, an invasive insect that had plagued trees in New Jersey for more than a decade. In 2008, Illinois declared itself free from these beetles, making New Jersey the second state to eradicate this species.

China’s Demand for Disposable Wooden Chopsticks Could Be Putting a Strain on Forests


Credit: i_yudai/Flickr

According to an article in Time, the demand for disposable chopsticks in China has increased dramatically, and more than 80 billion wooden sets of chopsticks are used and thrown away each year. The chairman of China’s Jilin Forestry Industry Group, Bo Guangxin, estimates that 20 million 20-year-old trees need to be cut down every year to satisfy this demand. Government officials are attempting to solve the problem by encouraging citizens to carry around reusable chopsticks.

U.S. Forest Service Develops Map to Illustrate Wildfire Risks
The Forest Service has developed a map that shows the wildfire risk to every state in the continental United States. The color-coded 2013 map shows the level of risk that a particular area is under for experiencing a wildfire this year, from a “very low” risk to a “very high” risk. Since the U.S. Forest Service ran out of money during last year’s fire season to combat dangerous wildfires, American Forests has signed a letter with other conservation groups to petition the U.S. Senate to allocate more funds for wildfire fighting programs.

Disappearance of the Monarch

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly. Credit: William Warby

What’s black and white and orange all over? Probably many things, but I’m thinking specifically of the monarch butterfly. Why? Because earlier this week, Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas announced that the wintering population of the monarch butterfly declined by 59 percent this winter. The monarch — which can’t be counted individually, but whose population is measured instead by the amount of canopy covered while they are huddled together in the winter for warmth — occupied more than seven acres last winter and less than three acres this year.

This year’s figure represents the lowest number of butterflies in Mexico in the last two decades, when record keeping began, and the third year of declines. Lincoln Brower, a leading entomologist at Virginia’s Sweet Briar College, tells the Associated Press (AP) that “the report of the dwindling monarch butterfly winter residence in Mexico is ominous. This is not just the lowest population recorded in the 20 years for which we have records. It is the continuation of a statistically significant decrease in the monarch population that began at least a decade ago.”

For years, the monarch’s winter home in Mexico has been threatened by deforestation. At a peak in 2005, logging consumed more than 1,100 acres of areas in Michoacán, Mexico, where the butterfly winters. A year later, American Forests began work to restore oyamel firs in Michoacán to benefit the monarch; we’ve helped plant a million trees for the monarchs since 2006. The AP reports, though, that aerial surveys in 2012 revealed little logging in the monarch’s home, which has left some researchers looking at another culprit for the monarch’s decline: U.S. herbicide use.


Milkweed. Credit: Jerry A. Payne, USDA Agricultural Research Service,

During the migration from its summer homes in the northern U.S. and southern Canada to Mexico and back again, the monarch relies on milkweed growing throughout America’s agricultural fields for sustenance. However, herbicide-resistant crops have meant more herbicide use, which means very little milkweed peeking up between rows of corn and soybeans. Add in drought, and there are a lot of missing food sources for the monarch.

Chip Taylor, director the University of Kansas’ Monarch Watch, tells The New York Times that the butterfly migration is at a tipping point. If numbers continue to decline, the butterfly may not be able to readily recover from a natural disaster, such as an extremely harsh winter in Mexico.

The magnificent migration of the monarch butterfly is a wondrous, natural marvel, and its current precarious state is a prime example of how interconnected our natural systems are. Animals, insects, plants and trees flow from one ecosystem and habitat to another more rapidly than we sometimes realize. That’s why we’re focused not only on trees, but on the forests overall. If we protect them, we protect so much more.