More Cuts for Conservation

by Amanda Tai

It’s a really tough political climate for conservation programs right now.

We just saw the House and Senate propose programmatic and funding cuts to conservation programs in the Farm Bill, cuts that would eliminate at least $6 billion in funding and consolidate 23 programs to 13 over the next 10 years. Congress is moving quickly to pass this legislation before the August recess and the current bill’s expiration date in September. The Senate has already passed their version of the bill, and now, it’s onto the House Agriculture Committee to markup their version today. Even deeper cuts are being proposed on the House side — approximately $12 billion more than the Senate bill. And if that isn’t already concerning enough, we’re seeing even more conservation cuts in other pieces of legislation.

Protection of Glacier National Park in Montana is partly funded by LWCF. Credit: jessicafm/Flickr

The House Appropriations Committee recently approved the Interior and Environment Appropriations Budget Bill for fiscal year 2013. This bill authorizes funding levels for the Department of the Interior (DOI), Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other environmental agencies. The most notable cuts were to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (under DOI), the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the EPA. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faces a funding cut of 20 percent or more, affecting endangered species protection, wildlife refuge restoration and wildlife-associated recreation. The LWCF, which was dropped in the Transportation bill and is currently funded at $345 million through Interior Appropriations, could be cut to $66 million in FY 2013. This is a significant loss as this program funds restoration of outdoor recreation areas, national forests, wildlife refuges, and historic sites across the country. As far as the EPA, the bill brings the agency funding back to its 1998 level!  That puts our health at risk as EPA regulates our water and air quality.

So what is there do about these funding cuts? You can contact your members of Congress by writing on their Facebook pages, urging them to support conservation funding — adding your voice to those of the conservation, wildlife and recreation groups that have already spoken out against the Interior and Environment Appropriations Budget Bill and its several anti-environmental riders.

Protection of the Zuni Mountain Landscape in New Mexico is funded by CFLRP. Credit: Ben Burkland/Carolyn Cook/Flickr

There is a bright side to the situation, though. There are still champions in the House, like House Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Norm Dicks (D-WA) and Subcommittee Ranking Member James Moran (D-VA), sticking up for conservation programs. Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) noted that Interior and Environment Appropriations Budget Bill goes against our nation’s long history of bipartisan support for environmental and natural resource protection.

Thankfully, programs like the U.S. Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) and Urban Forest Research were spared in the Interior Appropriations funding cuts. American Forests worked with Representative Moran’s office to advocate for urban and community forestry-related research. Though it seems like there isn’t much to cheer about, there are plenty of people and organizations working hard to find new vehicles to fund conservation work.

Oh, How I Love Forests

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Last Friday marked my one-year anniversary at American Forests.

At times, it seems like I’ve been toiling away on behalf of forests for much, much longer, but at others, it feels like I’ve only just begun. Maybe this dichotomy is due to the fact that crusading for and protecting the environment is a never-ending task, but also one that is constantly evolving as new science and policies are unveiled.

Thus, I enter my second year at American Forests knowing that each day can result in new adventures of some kind. While I anticipate those unknown bright lights and shadows on the horizon, I’m also reveling in how differently I see the world and how much I’ve learned in a mere year:

  • Area burned by the B&B Complex Fire in Deschutes National Forest, Oregon, pictured in June 2012

    Area burned by the B&B Complex Fire in Deschutes National Forest, Oregon, pictured in June 2012. Credit: American Forests

    I’m much more conscience of the trees in my everyday life.
    Thank you, wonderful residents of the Virginia Square neighborhoods for taking care of the large shade trees that line my daily walk to the metro.

  • Fire-ravaged forests look devastating in person.
    It’s been almost 10 years since the B&B Complex Fires burned areas of Deschutes National Forest and Willamette National Forest, but the landscape is still mostly scorched trunks.
  • A concern for nature can intrude in the most unlikely places.
    Superheroes (specifically, members of the Avengers Initiative), if you’re going to beat each other up, do so without destroying the trees — even if they’re only CGI.
  • Seal pup

    Seal pup. Credit: Richard Child (Tuftronic10000)/Flickr

    People who work in various forest communities are some of the most passionate, articulate and intelligent individuals I’ve ever met.
    From those at national forests to those in cities around the country, these people have extremely difficult jobs, as oftentimes they’re trying to help our forests and trees on miniscule budgets.

  • Even a simple outing to a golf tournament with one’s father can lead to many sad exclamations.
    Many of the trees at the beautiful Congressional Country Club were unable to escape the wrath of last months’ derecho.
  • I never grow tired of baby animal pictures.
    See that seal pup to the right? Enough said.
  • It is really difficult to punctuate and spell common names of trees — let alone Latin names.
    Why, oh why, is there a hyphen in Douglas-fir and no space in redcedar?
  • I have so much more to discover.
    It’s a good thing I plan on being here awhile.

So, here’s to year two amidst forests and trees. Do forests and trees amaze you, too? Share how below!

Cute, Cuddly and Endangered

by Loose Leaf Team
Panda at the Chengdu Panda Base, Sichuan, China

Panda at the Chengdu Panda Base, Sichuan, China. Credit: Stephen Bugno (BohemianTraveler)/Flickr

July 4th marked the beginning of Panda Awareness Week (PAW) when 108 people dressed in panda suits and took London by storm by performing a choreographed tai-chi dance in the middle of Trafalgar Square. PAW was created by the Chengdu Panda Base, a nonprofit organization that currently houses 108 pandas and engages in wildlife research, captive breeding, conservation education and educational tourism in the capital of Southwest China’s Sichuan Province. The purpose of the week is to increase awareness and support for pandas, one of the world’s most endangered species. With the largest captive-breeding panda population in the world, this week, the 25-year-old Chengdu announced a goal to increase its panda total to 150 in the next 10 years.

The importance of bringing awareness to the plight of giant pandas cannot be overemphasized, as the number of giant pandas across the world has diminished at an astounding rate over the years. Fewer than 1,600 giant pandas, which are native to southwest China, remain in the wild. Habitat loss and fragmentation continue to be the biggest factors in the species decline, but a growing Chinese population and land lost to road and railroad construction outside of protected areas are also serious problems.

Giant pandas eating bamboo at the Chengdu Panda Base, Sichuan, China

Giant pandas eating bamboo at the Chengdu Panda Base, Sichuan, China. Credit: Hyjk2000/Wikimedia Commons

In the wild, pandas survive in cold, damp coniferous forests that are best suited for bamboo’s survival, as it makes up 99 percent of giant panda’s diets. Much of a panda’s life in spent in these generally high, mountainous regions, usually from 8,500 to 11,500 meters above sea level. The forests that contain the giant panda’s natural habitat are some of the most biologically rich temperate areas on Earth. Because of development in rapidly growing China, in recent years, pandas have been left confined to narrow belts of bamboo in lower river valleys and mountain slopes, where they are forced to compete with farmers for land. But habitat loss isn’t the only impediment to their survival.

One serious obstacle for repopulating the endangered species is that captive breeding success rates — already quite low — are declining. At Chengdu Panda Base, the staff is engaging in extraordinary efforts to aid panda populations by creating the most natural environment possible for giant pandas to breed and live. This habitat that’s housed on conservation land combines natural scenery and man-made landscapes to provide the endangered pandas with the best home possible. Chengdu is a high ideal in the world of captive panda breeding. Over the 25 years of its existence, the base’s research and expertise have aided in the birth of 124 panda cubs, some of which have been loaned to zoos all over the world. However, the rest of the world isn’t so successful.

Recent studies show that of 160 giant pandas in North American zoos, 83 percent are not meeting breeding targets. Many conservationists are requesting that the money once put into breeding efforts at zoos and other captivities be redirected to preserving the panda’s wild habitats, where breeding is fairly consistent. Researchers today are teetering between the decision to channel money towards preserving natural habitats or keeping the efforts in conservations and zoos. It is a hard decision to make knowing that captive breeding is struggling, while also being aware that human development is gradually stealing away these species’ natural habitats.

There is good news, though. In the spirit of PAW, a baby giant panda was born on Thursday at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo for the first time in 24 years. And, hopefully, PAW will help spread awareness about the plight of the panda and increase efforts to aid these magnificent mammals.

Til the River Runs Dry

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Colorado River

The Colorado River Credit: StormeTX/Flickr

In the Colorado River Basin, water is in short supply. Millions of people rely on the Colorado River for domestic water, agricultural irrigation and even electricity. Take the products produced by the agricultural fields fed by the Colorado, factor in where all of them are shipped and consumed and you’d be hard pressed to find many areas in the U.S. that aren’t in some way dependent on the Colorado River.

Recently, this important waterway has been subjected to a number of problems. The whitebark pines that shade its northern snowpack are declining; recent wildfires are interfering with water quality and temperature; and development is diverting the water for a variety of purposes. (For a sobering documentary on the Colorado River, check out Peter McBride’s Chasing Water.)

This is why recent findings in the arid Southwest are particularly troubling. A large-scale study of ecosystems in the American Southwest — supported by scientists from Oregon State University, the Conservation Biology Institute and NASA — has found that the death of millions of acres of trees could have an immense impact on the local ecosystems throughout the region, including the Colorado River itself.

It is a fairly well understood fact that trees need water to live. What we often forget — and what many never learn in the first place — is that to flow properly, water also needs trees. Even a river in dry, rocky, nearly barren land (say, the Southwest) is depending on trees to keep it flowing. Trees along riverbanks stabilize the soil, preventing erosion into the water, which keeps the water cleaner and the river flowing at its current level. The trees also filter out pollutants, regulate the water temperature (which aquatic creatures, like fish, appreciate) and provide additional oxygen. But even trees that don’t border a river can ensure its steady flow. Trees shade snowpack from the glaring sun and prevent it from melting too quickly. This allows the snow to melt at a steadier rate over a longer period of time, which can keep water flowing into rivers long through the summer months — even when rain is scarce.

New Mexico Plains

Pinyon pines in New Mexico Credit: Robyn Gallant

In the Southwest, two particularly hardy trees — pinyon pine and juniper — act as the framework for an ecosystem that has adapted to survive on small amounts of water. Winds in this region can be harsh and kick up a great deal of dust and soil, but pinyon pines and junipers literally hold the dry, dusty land together. They also protect the water supply by shading the seasonal snowpack and prevented sun-warmed dust from blowing onto the snow and causing it to melt. And, don’t forget the wildlife — they provide food and habitat for a variety of species.

Yet, over the past 15 years, more than 2.5 million acres of these trees across the Southwest have fallen victim to a combination of severe drought and mountain pine beetle infestations, leaving the landscape open to what scientists fear could quickly become extreme deterioration. Without the pines and juniper, this windy, arid region could become severely eroded, and the ecosystem’s ability to protect or add to the water supply could disappear. With millions relying on the water it provides, we can’t afford to underestimate the value of trees to this river that acts as a lifeline to the entire Southwest.

Science Versus Perception

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

The shelf cloud on the leading edge of June 29th’s derecho in LaPorte, Indiana

The shelf cloud on the leading edge of June 29th’s derecho in LaPorte, Indiana. Credit: Kevin Gould/NOAA

According to the National Climatic Data Center, June 2011-May 2012 was the warmest 12-month period in the U.S. since recordkeeping began more than a century ago. Heat waves across the U.S. over the last few weeks have helped fuel record-setting fires and major storms like the derecho that left millions of people without power across the East. But, yet, in a new poll released this week by The Washington Post-Stanford University, climate change is no longer Americans’ top environmental concern. Curious.

The poll, conducted just days prior to the onslaught of extreme heat and storms in late June, reveals that only 18 percent of Americans rate climate change as their primary environmental concern, compared to 33 percent in 2007. Today, the top concerns at 29 percent are water and air pollution. So why this shift despite the U.S. experiencing two of the warmest winters and springs on record this year?

According to some of the interviews in The Washington Post report, it might boil down to lip service. In 2007, the UN had just released a major climate report and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was making the rounds. In 2012, political headlines have been dominated by health care, the economy and elections. As the Post relates:

“I really don’t give it a thought,” said Wendy Stewart, a 46-year-old bookkeeper in New York. Although she thinks warmer winters and summers are signs of climate change, she has noticed that political leaders don’t bring up the subject. “I’ve never heard them speak on global warming,” she said. “I’ve never heard them elaborate on it.”

For those of us in the environmental community who think about climate change quite frequently, this disconnect between the reality of the climate-change situation and the perception of its importance is a bit alarming.

A helicopter drops water on the Waldo Canyon Fire on June 27, 2012

A helicopter drops water on the Waldo Canyon Fire on June 27, 2012. Credit: Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock/U.S. Air Force

While scientists are loath to connect all extremes in heat and weather directly to climate change, they are willing to point to the recent, devastating weather events as prime examples of what’s to come with climate change. As University of Arizona’s Jonathan Overpeck tells the Associated Press’ Seth Borenstein, “This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level. The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about.”

Borenstein’s story goes on to reveal some alarming data:

  • 40,000 hot temperature records have been set in the U.S. since January 1, 2012 — only 6,000 cold weather ones.
  • Throughout the 1900s, hot and cold temperature records fell evenly. In the 2000s, the ratio is 3:1 in favor of hot. In 2012, that has spiked to 7:1.
  • More than 2.1 million acres have burned in 2012 wildfires.
  • Two-thirds of the country is currently experiencing drought conditions.

It appears that even if we humans aren’t talking about climate change, Mother Nature is doing some speaking of her own. Let’s start talking back and taking action by encouraging legislation and funding for programs and initiatives that will aid the environment. Our fate and nature’s are intertwined, so we must look out for each other.

Happy 4th of July!

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland & Michelle Werts

American Forests wishes everyone a happy and safe 4th of July.

Fireworks over Hood Canal, Washington

Fireworks over Hood Canal, Washington. Credit: GoRun26/Flickr

Where Not To Find Forests

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Deforestation is a common topic here on Loose Leaf.

There are just so many things that can — and are — destroying forests and trees across the globe: from human activities like development and water management to natural factors like wildfires and climate change. We lose acres upon acres of forest each year. So you would think that whenever more trees are growing, we would be happy about it … but not all new forest growth is worth celebrating.


Arctic tundra Credit: Billy Lindblom

In the far north, warming temperatures are causing the frozen tundra’s permafrost to thaw out, paving the way for new forests to grow in places where trees haven’t existed in millennia. Scientists from the University of Oxford’s Biodiversity Institute and the University of Lapland’s Arctic Center have found that in stretches of tundra along Russia’s arctic coast, new greenery is appearing much faster than anyone had anticipated. With a longer growing season, shrubs are growing to the size of trees, several feet taller than one would normally find them — all in just in the past few decades. The team’s findings completely thrashed the previously accepted notion that a warming climate would turn tundra into forests slowly as the treeline crept across the tundra over several centuries. Whether or not this is a good thing is unclear, as scientists continue to debate the issue. Some argue that the conversion of tundra to forests will result in more carbon sinks — areas that absorb more carbon than they produce. Others argue that these new tundra forests will actually result in more carbon being produced: Warming temperatures and the resultant increase in biological activity could release the carbon that has been long stored in the disappearing permafrost.

African savanna

African savanna Credit: gary.fotu

And the not-as-frozen tundra isn’t the only habit seeing new trees. Recent studies tell us that savannas and grasslands may be slowly transforming into forests too. Normally, grasslands hold almost no trees at all, while sparse trees and shrubs dot the landscape across savannas. The increase of CO2 in the atmosphere is essentially fertilizing the plants in these ecosystems, allowing some of them to grow more rapidly than usual and disturbing the ecosystem’s regular balance of flora. Scientists from Goethe University and the Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre in Germany have found that Africa’s iconic savannas — vital habitats to any number of creatures including lions and zebras — could be transformed into forests by the year 2100. In fact, a full-scale ecosystem shift could occur across the continent, changing deserts into grasslands, existing grasslands into savannas and existing savannas into forests. Such a wide-scale change could have devastating results for the species that rely on these various ecosystems.

Though we cannot predict the exact rate or details of these changes, the mere scope and speed of these massive ecosystem shifts is unsettling. If the Arctic tundra and African savanna — both landscapes known for their lack of dense tree cover — could become forests in less than a century, exactly how different will our planet look in 100 years?

Northern Neighbors

by Loose Leaf Team

Climate change is a greatly talked about topic these days, and huge proportions of Canadian birds are feeling its impact and in serious trouble. As the ozone depletes, so do the habitats of these birds, causing a severe domino effect.

least flycatcher

Least flycatcher Photo: Seabamirum/Flickr

Since 1970, there has been a 12 percent overall drop in bird species across Canada. These shocking numbers were part of Canada’s newly released The State of Canada’s Birds, the first report of its kind for the country. Of the 460 bird species in Canada, 44 percent of them have declining populations, and 66 species have dropped so drastically that they have ended up on the endangered list. And scientists are finding it hard to pinpoint exactly what is causing these shifts in population. As Ted Cheskey, manager of bird conservation programs at Nature Canada and author of The State of Canada’s Birds, told Scientific American, “One of the concerns is … that climate change is happening so fast it’s throwing out of synchrony the food supply and cycle of migration.”

Much of the decline is largely due to loss of food supply and habitat. Some of the species in sharpest decline are grassland birds, migratory shorebirds and birds that eat insects in flight. Aerial insect feeders, like barn swallows, chimney swifts and flycatchers, have seen an overall decline of 64 percent. Part of this could be due to climate change causing many insect populations to peak earlier in the year than the birds expect. Because these insects are peaking earlier in the year, the birds are not able to feed them to their young when they are born in the spring.

When trying to cope with the warming climate, many species have shifted where they live and breed in order to stay in ideal temperatures. In turn, this shift alters their migration patterns. Birds that travel great lengths for food sources and breeding grounds are being greatly affected because they are not able to determine the status of their final destination. Species like the wood warbler suffer from the accelerated season changes because when they arrive at their destination, often, their food supply has already come and gone.

snow geese

Snow geese Photo: Glyn Lowe

There is a small silver lining to this report, though. A handful of bird species in Canada are thriving. Many waterfowl populations have found success living in wetlands like bogs and marshlands, where they have an abundance of food sources and nesting sites. Many duck and goose species have seen notable increases, like the snow goose, whose population has increased by more than 300 percent in recent years.

Knowing the effects of climate change on such a large group of birds in a specific area gives a good indication of how climate change is affecting our environment as a whole. This report brings to light the decline in bird populations, while also revealing the state of the ecosystems that the birds live in. Protecting areas where we have seen bird populations decline will also aid in protecting areas that have suffered harmful effects from climate change.

Diverse Heritages

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Have you ever marveled at the diversity of America’s national parks? If not, today is your chance as we celebrate two drastically different, but equally impressive locations.

As I experienced last week on my first trip to the Pacific Northwest, that area of the country is full of some spectacular landscapes — and one of those landscapes is celebrating an anniversary today.

On June 29, 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed legislation creating Washington’s Olympic National Park, preserving and protecting almost 100,000 acres that encompass a great diversity of landscapes and ecosystems:

  • Some of the largest areas of old-growth forest and temperate rainforest in the lower 48 states, plus three other forest types (coastal, montane, subalpine).
  • More than 1,450 types of vascular plants — equal to the number on the much larger British Isles.
  • The glacier- and stream-carved peaks of the Olympic Mountains.
  • The 73 miles of wilderness coastline with its sandy beaches, tidepools and rocky cliffs.
  • More than 10 major river systems that provide habitat for a variety of aquatic species.

It’s no wonder that the United Nations named this majestic, diverse landscape a World Heritage Site in 1981.

  • Olympic National Park. Credit: Jason Pratt/Flickr Olympic National Park. Credit: Jason Pratt/Flickr
  • Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park. Credit: Evan Balbier ([evan hunter])/Flickr Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park. Credit: Evan Balbier ([evan hunter])/Flickr
  • Marymere Fall, Olympic National Park. Credit: Rickz/Flickr Marymere Fall, Olympic National Park. Credit: Rickz/Flickr
  • Hoh River Valley rainforest, Olympic National Park. Credit: James Gaither (J.G. in S.F.)/Flickr Hoh River Valley rainforest, Olympic National Park. Credit: James Gaither (J.G. in S.F.)/Flickr
  • Lake Crescent, Olympic National Park. Credit: Hawthorne Ave/Flickr Lake Crescent, Olympic National Park. Credit: Hawthorne Ave/Flickr
  • View from Anderson Pass, overlooking Dosewallips Valley, Olympic National Park. Credit: ((brian))/Flickr View from Anderson Pass, overlooking Dosewallips Valley, Olympic National Park. Credit: ((brian))/Flickr

Also celebrating an anniversary today is a national park known more for its history than its landscape: Mesa Verde National Park. According to the park’s website President Theodore Roosevelt established it on this date in 1906 to “preserve the works of man,” making it the first national park of its kind.

Located in Southwest Colorado, the park protects more than 4,000 known archeological sites, such as cliff dwellings, pueblos, masonry towers and other structures that were constructed by Pueblo Indians, who inhabited the region from about 550 to 1300 A.D. The famous cliff dwellings, like Cliff Palace, are multi-story, multi-room structures built of sandstone and mud mortar. Like Olympic National Park, Mesa Verde is a United Nations World Heritage site. Mesa Verde also represents one of my favorite aspects of America’s national park system: It recognizes beauty in a variety of ways, from those of the nature-made variety to those representing the feats of man.

  • Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: Justin Otto/Flickr Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: Justin Otto/Flickr
  • Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: jphilipg/Flickr Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: jphilipg/Flickr
  • Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: Mark Byzewski/Flickr Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: Mark Byzewski/Flickr
  • Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: Mark Byzewski/Flickr Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: Mark Byzewski/Flickr
  • Pipe Shrine House and Far View House, Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: Catherine Snodgrass (Caitlyn Willows)/Flickr Pipe Shrine House and Far View House, Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: Catherine Snodgrass (Caitlyn Willows)/Flickr
  • Overlook of Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: Jeffrey Keeton (Mulsanne)/Flickr Overlook of Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: Jeffrey Keeton (Mulsanne)/Flickr

The Flames of Change

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Waldo Canyon Wildfire Colorado Springs

View of the Waldo Canyon fire from Garden of the Gods, a major tourist attraction in Colorado Springs Photo: Don Savage Photography

As quickly as I’ve adapted to being back here in our nation’s capital, it doesn’t seem like so very long ago that I was at home in Colorado Springs, with the Rockies on my doorstep and a view of Pike’s Peak out the window. So you can imagine how the headlines coming from the fiery front lines in Colorado are grabbing my attention.

As I’m writing this, the Waldo Canyon Fire has burned through more than 18,500 acres near Colorado Springs and has forced the evacuation of 32,000 people from the city’s outskirts. The High Park Fire, now the second largest to ever hit Colorado, is burning near Fort Collins; it has destroyed hundreds of homes, forced the evacuation of 4,300 residents and claimed at least one life. According to Reuters, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has declared this “the worst fire season in the history of Colorado.”

The Southwest is no stranger to wildfires, but lately conditions across the region are drier, hotter and windier than the norm. Experts agree that the low amount of winter precipitation means the 2012 wildfire season is likely to get worse before it gets better. For the towns and cities threatened by these fires and the others burning across the Southwest, the impacts are felt in the losses to property, lives and economies. But what will the cost be for the landscape itself?

High Park Fire Ft. Collins, Colorado

National Guardsmen approach the High Park Fire near Ft. Collins, Colorado Photo: Sgt. Jess Geffre, Army National Guard

Craig Allen, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, asserts that the severe wildfires throughout the Southwest, combined with the effects of climate change on the region, are transforming the landscape from forests to grassland. Using tree ring data, scientists studying the climate history of the Southwest have established that the region is historically prone to frequent fires, but not intense ones — fires of the past rarely reached the treetops. These regular fires cleared the forests of surface debris and prevented overcrowding without permanently damaging the forest itself.

Over the years, forest management practices have changed the game, leading to denser forests with too much fuel — fuel that burns hot enough to destroy the forest. Once this happens, the ecosystem has to start from scratch. Allen notes that tree species common to southwestern forests are struggling to reestablish themselves in an environment that is even drier and hotter than they’re used to. Without new trees and their seeds, every acre of forest burned has less chance of ever becoming a forest again. Instead, hardier, more opportunistic plant species like grasses and brush take hold. As this process occurs over and over again, we may see more acres of grassland rise up where forests once took root. As commonplace as wildfires have become across the Southwest, we may need to start seeing these fires not just as natural disasters, but as agents of permanent change, capable of irreversibly transforming landscapes.