A Fight for Funding

by Amanda Tai

House Ag Appropriations Subcommittee at a FY 2013 budget hearing. Credit: USDAgov/Flickr

Last fall, the Congressional Supercommittee failed to reach a final deficit reduction plan. If Congress doesn’t come up with a solution again this year; government programs are going to see some devastating budget hits. It can be hard to see how federal budget cuts impact our daily lives, but to give you an idea, this series of cuts could result in reduced functions within our agriculture industry, national parks and even weather service. That’s what happens during a budget sequestration — a series of across-the-board cuts to federal programs. And if this happens, the U.S. Forest Service’s budget could be reduced by 10 percent starting as soon as January 2013!

It’s doubtful that Congress will address the budget deficit situation until after the November election. But if they wait that long, there isn’t much time left in 2012 for them to figure out a budget plan. If Congress fails to agree on a federal budget-reduction plan in the next few months, we may face a budget sequestration starting in 2013. After receiving bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, President Obama signed off on the Sequestration Transparency Act late last month, formalizing a $1.2 trillion budget cut to domestic and defense programs over the next 10 years. This act will go into effect in 2013 if Congress is unable to agree on another way to address the federal deficit and would consist of automatic cuts for federal funding across all agencies and programs. Only a few programs would be spared  from these cuts, such as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.

So what kind of impact would these budget cuts have on our national forest and land-management agencies? The cuts would begin on January 2, 2013, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) could be asked to cut up to $2.2 billion in discretionary program spending for FY 2013. That’s a 10 percent cut in the USDA budget! Falling under the USDA umbrella, a 10 percent cut for the U.S. Forest Service budget would equate to $486 million. This would have a significant impact on all of the agency’s work, including wildfire management, recreational trail maintenance, conservation projects, invasive species management, wildlife habitat restoration and the jobs associated with this work.

The Sequestration Transparency Act requires the agencies to supply the administration with a detailed report of the proposed budget cuts by the first week of September, so we should know what’s on the chopping block in the next month. Our land-management agencies are already operating under tight budgets, so I really hope I don’t have to see what happens after another slash to their budgets.

Completion of the Appalachian Trail

by American Forests

Seventy five years ago today, the 2,184-mile Appalachian Trail was completed. Finishing the trail was a huge task that took more than 15 years and hundreds of volunteers. Today, though, it is unlikely that the original volunteers would even recognize it with all the transformation it has undergone over the years.

Credit: Rebecca Sudduth/Flickr

In its 75-year existence, it is estimated that 99 percent of the original trails have been relocated or rebuilt to better protect the land and navigate more scenic landscapes. The relocations and reconstruction of the trail have made it much more sustainable since the original trail was routed straight up and down mountains, which made pathways inclined to erosion. Each year, trail crews manipulate and move sections of the trail in order to maintain and improve the path. Mark Wenger, executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry tells the Associated Press, “One of the tenets of the trail is to provide that personal experience of sort of being one with nature. You can’t necessarily do that if you’re walking along a major highway. So it’s been relocated to give it some degree of privacy and that sense of the wonder of nature.”

Fun facts of the Appalachian Trail:

  • It is estimated that five million steps are required to complete the trail.
  • It passes through 14 states: (from south to north) GA, TN, NC, VA, WV, MD, PA, NJ, NY, CT, MA, VT, NH and ME
  • The trail is marked by more than 160,000 white “blazes” that are six inches by two inches in size. They are primarily found on the trees lining the path.
  • Virginia is home to the most miles of the trail (about 550), while West Virginia is home to the least (about four).
  • Maryland and West Virginia are the easiest states to hike, while New Hampshire and Maine are the hardest.
  • The total elevation gain of hiking the entire trail is equivalent to climbing Mount Everest.
  • The trail spans across six national parks and eight national forests.

Each year two to three million people visit some section of the Appalachian Trail, but only 2,000-3,000 people each summer attempt the “thru-hike” of journeying along the entire length — and only one in four are successful. If you are anywhere along the East Coast this summer, there is a chance that the Appalachian Trail is not far out of your reach. Take a day, week or month and see how far you can make it on this historic trail. Enjoy what it is today, as, who knows, it could be completely transformed in the next 75 years.

A view along the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park.

A view along the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park. Credit: Compass Points Media/Flickr

Weathering the Weather

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Traditionally, in the U.S., August weather is described as the dog days of summer. (Fun-fact alert: The expression “dog days” goes back to the Greeks and Romans who noticed that Sirius — the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, meaning large dog — would rise at daybreak and therefore thought it brought the summer heat.) However, with this year’s record-breaking heat waves, it feels like the dog days have been with us for months, and as a result, we’re already seeing their consequences while the heat is still upon us.

Cannibalized Corn Crops

Corn is harvested on a farm in Augusta County, Virginia, in 2008

Corn is harvested on a farm in Augusta County, Virginia, in 2008. Credit: Bob Nichols/USDA

With the mild temperatures of spring in the air, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that a record corn harvest was expected this year, as farmers had planted the most acres of the crop since 1937. In a few short months, that prediction went horribly wrong.

On Friday, the USDA announced that it expected the corn crop to be at its lowest level since 2006. But for individual farmers, the news is even worse, as the average yields per farmer are expected to be at their lowest level in the last 17 years. And things could still get worse. Plus, there’s the ripple effect, as a majority of the corn being affected isn’t the kind that us humans eat, but the kind that livestock and poultry eat, meaning we could see an increase in meat prices early next year.

Hungry Bears

The drought hasn’t just been affecting America’s crops, but it’s also impacting our natural areas. For bears — among other animals — this has meant shriveled and dry food sources. And a hungry bear is a roaming one.

Bear rummaging through trash

Credit: Mark F. Levisay/Flickr

You may have noticed that there have been quite a large number of bear sightings in the news recently. Many biologists are attributing this to the fact that bears’ normal food sources aren’t producing, and therefore, the mammals are getting creative in their hunt for sustenance — recently, a bear in Estes Park, Colo., broke into the same candy store seven times to score some sweet stuff.

“This has been an interesting year for bears, especially in the Catskills,” Jeremy Hurst, a big-game biologist with the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation, tells the Associated Press. “In multiple communities, bears have gotten into people’s homes, in some cases even when people were at home. Half a dozen to a dozen bears have been euthanized. More have been trapped and relocated. Typically, complaints of bear damage peak in late spring, but this year, the frequency of bear complaints picked up strongly with the drought in July.”

Hurricane Season

Okay, so technically, this one doesn’t have to do with the drought, but it is weather related, so I’m going with it.

On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season may produce more named storms than originally thought. In May, NOAA anticipated we’d see a “near-normal” season of nine-15 storms. Now, the administration thinks we could see up to 17 named storms this year.

“We are increasing the likelihood of an above-normal season because storm-conducive wind patterns and warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures are now in place in the Atlantic,” says Gerry Bell, Ph.D., lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at the Climate Prediction Center, in NOAA’s announcement. “These conditions are linked to the ongoing high activity era for Atlantic hurricanes that began in 1995. Also, strong early-season activity is generally indicative of a more active season.”

Fingers crossed that these storms stay at sea and away from America’s coastlines.

The Father of Conservation

by American Forests
Pinchot with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, 1907.

Pinchot with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, 1907. Credit: Emerson7/Wikimedia Commons

Saturday marks the birthday of Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forests Service. He is known as the “father of conservation” and credited for launching the conservation movement in the United States by urging Americans to preserve the past in order to protect the future. When asked by his father as a young boy, “How would you like to be a forester?” Pinchot answered, “I had no conception of what it meant to be a forester than the man in the moon … but at least a forester worked in the woods and with the woods — and I loved the woods and everything about them. … My father’s suggestion settled the question in favor of forestry.” Now, that’s what I would call loving what you do!

Pinchot traveled —no matter the cost — to learn forestry skills in a time when no American university offered a degree, or even a class, on the subject. After graduating from Yale, he took his studies abroad to France, where he began to frame his opinions on forestry. Upon his return to the United States, he first worked as a resident forester at Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Forest Estate before eventually finding his way to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he was named chief of the Division of Forestry. Around the same time his friend, Theodore Roosevelt, was being elected president. Then, the management of forest reserves shifted from the Department of Interior to the Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Forest Service was created. This new service tapped Pinchot to be its first chief.

Serving just five years in office, he helped the United States to go from 60 units covering 56 million acres of forest reserves to 150 national forests covering 172 million acres. After serving as chief, Pinchot continued his forestry services by helping to set up the Society of American Foresters. And, the U.S. Forest Service’s chief is honored with a 1.6 million-acre national forest in Washington that bears his name.

This weekend, I encourage you to go out and enjoy the outdoors, whether it be in one of our nation’s national forests or not, to celebrate Gifford Pinchot and his contributions to conservation and forestry.

Happy Birthday, Smokey!

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Today, one of the most famous bears in the country celebrates his 68th birthday. The U.S. Forest Service and Ad Council’s famous Smokey Bear made his first appearance back in 1944 with the tagline “Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires.” And while Smokey’s visage has undergone many changes over the years, his basic message has always stayed the same: When in nature, we must be sure to leave it the way we found it. Here’s 68 pots of well-deserved honey to you big guy!

Changing Wildfire Policy for a Changing Climate

by Amanda Tai

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that fire is a natural part of a forest’s life cycle that helps replenish soil nutrients. It’s for this reason that wildfires are usually allowed to burn out on their own , granted that they remain at a low intensity and are far from developed areas.

Credit: footloosiety/Flickr

However, a new U.S. Forest Service directive has put a temporary hold the agency’s typical response to wildfires for the last two decades. This new directive instructs forest supervisors to act more proactively by quickly putting out wilderness fires in the early stages, while they’re still small, instead of using more manpower and equipment to monitor the fire. The hope is that putting out small wildfires will ultimately save the agency time and resources, as things like equipment, aircrafts and firefighting crews will be more readily available to tend to higher-priority fires that may arise near developed and populated areas.

This new directive is the end result of too many fires and not enough funding. Kris Reichenbach, public affairs officer for Superior National Forest, told Minnesota Public Radio that this directive aims to improve the agency’s approach to national wildfire emergencies and make better use of funding. Based on the string of huge fires that have plagued the West this summer — forcing people to evacuate their homes — the agency hopes the directive addresses issues of resource availability for catastrophic wildfires. In an agency-wide memo, James E. Hubbard, U.S. Forest Service deputy chief for state and private forestry, supported the directive, stating that “safe aggressive initial attack is often the best suppression strategy to keep unwanted wildfires small and costs down.”

I’m encouraged by the U.S. Forest Service’s plan to use their resources more effectively to stop a fire in its initial stages, but I wonder how these efforts will keep up with the rise of megafires. According to NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen, climate change is one of the major factors that intensify wildfire. In the last few years, unusually hot, dry and windy weather conditions — the products of climate change — have caused fires like the Pagami Creek Fire in Minnesota and the Whitewater-Baldy Fire in Colorado to quickly become catastrophic in scale. Such conditions are putting even more strain on firefighting resources, as fires are spreading and intensifying faster than ever. In the U.S., from 2002-2011, wildfires burned an average of 6.9 million acres annually. That’s almost double the annual average from the previous decade!

As the issue of wildfire becomes more and more complex, it’s important to take a management approach that takes all factors into consideration — development, climate change, weather conditions, etc. This is a critical time for wildfire management, especially when it appears as though these megafires are becoming the new norm.

Pesky Pachyderms

by American Forests
Elephant in Kruger National Park.

Credit: Peter Guilliatt/Flickr

When I think of elephants, big, friendly giants come to mind. This said, I would much rather prefer to enjoy the friendly giants, weighing up to 16,500 pounds and standing close to 13 feet tall, with the comfort of a fence between us. New studies show, though, that it is trees that need to worry about the destruction an elephant can do.

As stated by the Conservation Ecology Research Unit, elephants are known for their ability to uproot, debark and break branches of many savanna trees. Scientists have known the destructive nature elephants play in toppling trees in order to reach leaves growing on top branches, but it has not been until recently that they have been able to quantify the number of trees African elephants have taken down.

New technologies have allowed scientists at the Carnegie Institution of Science to determine tree loss from elephants on the savannas of Kruger National Park in South Africa. Greg Asner of Carnegie’s Department of Global Ecology and his team used a light detection and ranging (LiDAR) model mounted to their Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO), a flying device, to monitor the growth and height of trees in the savannas. This technology provides detailed 3-D imagery of the vegetation canopy using laser pulses as the model flies above the African savanna.

The studies showed that elephants are the primary culprits of trees destruction in the savannas in Kruger National Park: “Their browsing habitats knock trees over at a rate averaging six times higher than in areas inaccessible to them,” says the report. For two years, the scientists studied 58,000 trees and found that elephants were responsible for almost 20 percent of downed trees. The team studied other environmental factors, such as other herbivores and fire, but came to the conclusion that elephants were the major factor to blame in tree loss.

Elephants in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

Elephants in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Credit: Artem/Flickr

Also in the report, Greg Asner states how this information could be useful in managing the land in the future saying, “The elephant-driven tree losses have a ripple effect across the ecosystem, including how much carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere.” Elephants toppling trees is a natural occurrence and will continue to impact the abundance and growth of savanna trees in the future. These new studies will give park and government officials insight into what regions are being most affected and how to better manage the trees and protect them from elephants.





Carbon-rich Coastlines

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Grey mangroves

Grey mangroves. Credit: Brisbane City Council/Flickr

At American Forests, we’ve long recognized the importance of mangrove forests — by doing reforestation work for them and discussing them in our magazine and right here on Loose Leaf — and according to new research, protecting these forests should be seen as an affordable way to offset CO2 emissions.

Mangrove forests, which grow in the tropical waters within 30 degrees of the equator, represent less than one percent of the world’s forests, but have the capability to store approximately 20 billion metric tons of CO2. Considering that world carbon emissions are approximately eight billion metric tons per year, mangroves can be a big factor in the global carbon picture.

According to a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “In most areas of the world, we find that preventing a ton of carbon emissions from mangrove deforestation is competitive (less costly) relative to reducing a ton of carbon emissions from currently regulated GHG [greenhouse gas] sources in developed countries. The estimated cost of avoiding emissions from mangrove loss is also below the recent monetized estimates of damage caused by GHG emissions.” Basically, it’s pretty cheap ($10 per ton of CO2 saved) to conserve and protect mangroves compared to many other types of forests that could offset carbon emissions.

And we need to conserve and protect mangrove forests because over the last 50 years, we’ve lost about 50 percent of our mangrove forests. Beyond their large carbon storage capabilities, mangroves are key elements of marine ecosystems, providing protective feeding, breeding and nursing areas for a variety of fish, crustaceans and other aquatic creatures, not to mention wading and sea birds. Plus, they protect our shorelines from destructive waves. So if we protect the mangroves, they’ll help protect us and other creatures. I think that’s a price worth paying.

Palms From the Past

by American Forests

Imagine taking tropical vacations to Antarctica. While that might seem like a stretch, new studies reveal that around 52 million years ago, palm trees were growing along the edge of the now ice-covered Antarctica.


Antarctica. Credit: Jennifer Pickens/Flickr

On Antarctica’s eastern coast researchers drilled a kilometer deep into the ocean floor and found layers of sediment containing pollen grains from palm trees that are relatives of modern baobab and macadamia trees. One of the members of the team, Dr. James Bendle from the University of Glasgow, tells Planet Earth Online, “In the sediments, we found fossilized pollen representing two distinct environments with different climatic conditions — a lowland, warm rainforest dominated by tree ferns, palm trees, baobab trees and a cooler mountainous region dominated by beech trees and conifers.”

Palm trees.

Palm trees. Credit: Amanda Richards/Flickr

The study suggests that palm trees thrived in Antarctica in a time when the temperature in the winter exceeded 50 degrees Fahrenheit and temperature in the summer got up to almost 80 degrees. Additional evidence of the warm temperatures comes from analysis of additional organic compounds that were produced by soil bacteria populating the soils along the Antarctic coast. The details of past warming periods and greenhouse conditions give insight into the increasing effects CO2 could have on our planet today and hundreds of years from now.

The samples come from the early Eocene period, ranging from around 34-56 million years ago, when CO2 levels in the atmosphere were more than twice as high as they are today. During the Eocene period CO2 levels are estimated to be around 990 parts per million (ppm), and today, they are estimated at 395 ppm. Of course, 34 million years ago, there were no humans experiencing these conditions. Although these extreme levels of CO2 will not be reached relatively soon, it is possible that if we continue to burn fossil fuels at the current same rate, they could be reached by the end of the century.

So what exactly do these findings say about the future? Kevin Walsh, a scientist from the 2010 expedition that uncovered these findings, says to Agence France-Presse, “It’s difficult to say because that’s really controlled by people’s and governments’ actions. It really depends on how emissions go in the future.” Though the future is not completely clear, it is apparent that CO2 levels will continue to rise, ice will continue to melt and we’ll witness phenomena not seen since before our species inhabited Earth.

A Scary Picture

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

As the well-known saying goes, “A picture’s worth a thousand words.” Well, how about two pictures?

First, there’s this satellite image released by the NASA Earth Observatory of lodgepole pine forests near Grand Lake, Colorado on September 11, 2005.

Grand Lake, Colorado, pine beetle damage

NASA Earth Observatory image created by Robert Simmon, using Landsat data provided by the United States Geological Survey. Caption by Adam Voiland, with information from Thomas Veblen and Bill Romme.

Now, the exact same location just six years later.

Grand Lake, Colorado, pine beetle damage

NASA Earth Observatory image created by Robert Simmon, using Landsat data provided by the United States Geological Survey. Caption by Adam Voiland, with information from Thomas Veblen and Bill Romme.

Where did the green go? What happened to the forest? Pine bark beetles happened.

These rice-sized insects have been attacking five-needle pine trees across the western U.S. for the past decade, causing widespread losses to forests across the Rocky Mountains and beyond. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that 100,000 trees in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming die each day.

This is a big problem. Actually, more than big, as many scientists call the situation an epidemic. The affected pine trees provide homes for many wildlife species, food for others (grizzly bears!) and stabilize snowpacks and soil overall.

And, American Forests is committed to helping restore affected areas with our Global ReLeaf work and advocating in support of government initiatives that will help affected areas. For more on this issue and ways you can help, visit our Endangered Western Forests page.