Fighting for Clean Water

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts


Credit: Fred Hsu/Flickr

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act (CWA), which is the federal law governing water pollution in the U.S. The enactment of this act was fraught with peril, as it was passed by the Senate in November 1971 and by the House in March 1972 only to be vetoed by President Richard Nixon on Oct. 17, 1972. A day later, both the Senate and House would override Nixon’s veto, officially establishing CWA as the law of the land for protecting the integrity of our nation’s waterways. For the last 40 years, CWA has made significant headway in the fight against water pollution, but sadly, nearly half of all rivers, lakes and streams in the U.S. are still not swimmable or fishable.

Much of the CWA’s success has been in curtailing what’s known as point-source pollution, which is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “any single identifiable source of pollution from which pollutants are discharged, such as a pipe, ditch, ship or factory smokestack.” By setting up regulations on common point source polluters like factories and sewage treatment plants, water pollution from those sources has been greatly reduced. However, there’s still the issue of nonpoint-source pollution.

Nonpoint-source pollution has the wonky definition of anything not defined as point source. Basically, this amounts to pollution that is a result of water running over polluted land during snow melts or rainstorms. Nonpoint source pollution often includes fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, oil, grease and other toxic chemicals. In the past 30 years, there has been a threefold increase in nitrogen pollution from nonpoint agricultural sources entering the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

Therefore, as the CWA moves into its next 40 years, American Forests is encouraging its governing body, the EPA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop plans and programs to address the nonpoint-source problem, especially because forests can play a crucial role. Researchers have found that for every 10 percent increase in forest cover in the source watershed, treatment and chemical costs decreased by approximately 20 percent.

Help us encourage the EPA and USDA to continue to improve the work of the CWA by visiting our Action Center and signing a pre-written letter about the CWA and its needed improvements that will be sent to the heads of the EPA and USDA.

Lewiston-Auburn, Maine

Lewiston-Auburn, Maine. (Left) Documerica photo by Charles Steinhacker from June 1973: The Androscoggin River flows between Lewiston (eastern shore) and Auburn (western shore). Lewiston is the state's foremost textile center. (Right) Same location in October 2012. Photo by Munroe Graham.

Hiking in the Hoyt

by Amanda Tai

Yesterday, I paid a visit to the Hoyt Arboretum in Portland, Oregon, and I want to share my experience and a few photos with you because I discovered that whether you’re an avid outdoorsman or a city dweller, there’s something for everyone to enjoy at the Hoyt Arboretum.

Foliage at Portland's Hoyt Arboretum

Foliage at Portland's Hoyt Arboretum. Credit: Amanda Tai

After stopping by the visitor center to grab a map, I was ready to hit the trails. I started out on the Redwood Trail, which features rich groves of redwoods and sequoias.

After stopping by the visitor center to grab a map, I was ready to hit the trails. I started out on the Redwood Trail, which features rich groves of redwoods and sequoias. Credit: Amanda Tai

From the Redwood Deck, I was able to get a 360-degree view of these gigantic trees. It’s quite a peaceful and humbling experience.

From the Redwood Deck, I was able to get a 360-degree view of these gigantic trees. It’s quite a peaceful and humbling experience. Credit: Amanda Tai

From the Redwood Trail, I veered off onto the Bristlecone Pine Trail, where I saw something I later found out is called the Chilean Monkey Puzzle Tree. Its name comes from the unique structure of its leaves and branches, which would present a challenge to a monkey trying to climb it. As you can see in the picture above, it has an unusual spiky appearance that looks like aloe vera leaves.

From the Redwood Trail, I veered off onto the Bristlecone Pine Trail, where I saw something I later found out is called the Chilean Monkey Puzzle Tree. Its name comes from the unique structure of its leaves and branches, which would present a challenge to a monkey trying to climb it. As you can see in the picture above, it has an unusual spiky appearance that looks like aloe vera leaves. Credit: Amanda Tai

Fall Fun

by Melinda Housholder, Urban Forests Program Director

I have very fond memories of raking leaves as a child.

Playing in the leaves

Playing in the leaves. Credit: Giulio Mola/Flickr

Growing up in the suburbs, we were lucky to have a big backyard. But, in the fall, in the midst of planning our Halloween costumes and carving our pumpkins, my sisters and I would always get tasked with raking the leaves. Yet, what I remember most now about this potentially tedious task is the giant leaf piles we would create. In the very back of our yard, we had a tree house with a huge ramp that you could bike, sled or peddle a three-wheeler down and into the yard. So, when we were tasked with raking the leaves, we would gather our neighborhood friends, have them help us rake the leaves into an enormous pile at the end of the ramp and then we would each take turns choosing our method down. I remember the feeling of excitement as I headed towards the great pile and being welcomed by the splash of crunchy leaves around me!

While we would eventually have to actually rake the leaves into smaller piles and into bags, the playtime that we got to enjoy while doing our “chores” made the hard work worth it. It is surprising to me that today many children are not interested in playing outside or encouraged to do so. In fact, studies show that the average American boy or girl spends just four to seven minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day and more than seven hours each day in front of an electronic screen.

The term “nature deficit disorder” was coined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods to explain this societal disconnect that America’s youth have with nature. With less access to natural spaces, competition from television and computers, traffic and time pressures, kids have less and less exposure to playtime in nature.

Yet, research shows that getting outside has tremendous benefits for kids. For example:

  • Trees and green spaces help children cope with and reduce stress.
  • Children are more creative when playing in greenspaces.
  • Play protects children’s emotional development, whereas loss of free time and a hurried lifestyle can contribute to anxiety and depression.
  • After a walk in the park or playing in greenspaces, children with ADD displayed fewer symptoms.

Thus, whether or not kids have access to large backyards and treehouses, I feel kids need to be encouraged to get outside, play and enjoy nature in some way. Fall offers such a variety of fun things to do before the weather gets unpleasant. So, whether it is walking around to see the colorful changing leaves, picking the seasonal fruits and veggies in a local urban orchard or jumping into massive piles of leaves, encourage the kids around you to go out and play! And, perhaps you might just find yourself playing like a kid again.

Is there a favorite fall outside activity that reminds you of being a kid?

No Child Left Inside

by Julia Sullivan
Earth Sciences Week

Students of Cedros Secondary School in Trinidad planted a variety of tree species after learning about the importance of coastal forests in reducing the impact of tsunamis and other coastal hazards during Earth Sciences Week in 2009. Credit: UWI Seismic Research Centre/Flickr

Happy Earth Science Week! Today marks day two of this annual international event, which the American Geosciences Institute has organized since October 1998. Each year, the event addresses the broader goal of increasing public understanding and appreciation of earth sciences and encouraging stewardship of the Earth, and this year will be no different. Throughout the course of the week, however, the event will narrow its focus to this year’s particular theme: “Discovering Careers in the Earth Sciences.”

Over the years, people in all 50 states and more than five countries have participated in Earth Sciences Week. Events and activities range from educators leading their students through earth science activities to open houses held at major United States Geological Survey field stations. For those with a competitive flare, this year’s Earth Science Week includes a series of contests: a photography contest, a visual arts contest and an essay contest. Also, several days throughout the week are designated to celebrate certain aspects of earth sciences. Wednesday is National Fossil Day, Thursday is Women in the Geosciences Day and Friday is Geologic Map Day. Tomorrow, however, is perhaps the most well-known celebratory day — “No Child Left Inside” Day, which has come to be a popular rallying cry among youth organizations, fitness groups and government agencies in their efforts to promote outdoor activities.

“No Child Left Inside” Day originated just four years ago in order to encourage young people to get outdoors and explore the earth sciences firsthand. Its establishment led to the creation of countless events across the country, but one such event stands out as being extraordinary. In 2008, students from Langston Hughes Middle School in Reston, Virginia had the opportunity to hike to a nearby stream and wooded area, where they were greeted by a series of learning stations and scientists from the American Geosciences Institute. The students observed demonstrations and engaged in discussions on subjects such as water chemistry and biological diversity. They got to sample water, observe plants and animals, and study the interactions of natural systems before talking with journalists from NBC and NPR about the event.

This particular event stands as one of the great achievements of Earth Sciences Week and is one I discuss with envy. I know I would have relished the opportunity to sneak out of the classroom midday and explore the outdoors as a middle school student. And today, as a college junior pursuing a degree in Environmental Studies, this kind of activity still excites me. Really any day can be “No Child Left Inside” Day. So get involved in Earth Sciences Week, check out events near you and help promote understanding and appreciation for earth sciences.

Protecting Big Cacti

by Alex Cimon

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

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

Young Saguaro Forest

Young Saguaro Forest. Credit: Tony Fischer/Flickr

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

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

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

Listening to the Numbers

by Susan Laszewski

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

Cow in Tennessee drought

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

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

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

NASA studies changing conditions in the Arctic

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

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

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

Finding Foliage from Coast to Coast

by Amanda Tai

Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Flickr/vastateparksstaff

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

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

Old Rag Mountain, Shenandoah. Credit: Flickr/daveynin

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

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

Forests, Snow and Floods

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Flooding in southwest Washington

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

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

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

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

Glacier National Park, Montana

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

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

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

The Enormity of Life

by Susan Laszewski
Champion common hackberry

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

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

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

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

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

Hot, Thirsty Forests

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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