Where’s the Water?

by Amanda Tai

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that the world’s forests sequester 2-2.8 billion metric tons of carbon annually. A new study published in Nature Geoscience indicates that evergreen forests ranging from northern Mexico to Canada took up a lot less carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during a 2000-2004 drought period, dropping 30-293 million metric tons below normal levels. And, according to the study, this might just be the beginning: Forests in the western U.S. could be facing a 100-year drought.

Just check out this map that shows the current drought situation in the U.S. The destructive impacts of drought are clear with this year’s catastrophic wildfires in Colorado and the ones happening now in Texas, Utah and California. But drought has even longer term impacts that will last longer than one hot, dry summer season. Severe drought may actually convert western evergreen forests into scrubland by the end of the century.

Trees, like all living things, need water to be healthy and functional. I know that I certainly don’t feel well when I’m dehydrated. When trees don’t get enough water, it greatly impairs their ability to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Water helps facilitate the leaf development process and the greater the leaf surface area, the greater the ability to sequester carbon. Also, as trees die, the carbon dioxide that is stored within them is released back into the atmosphere. This is bad news not only for forest ecosystems, but the atmosphere.

The research team at Northern Arizona University School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability that led the Nature Geoscience study thinks that drought may become the new norm. Researcher Christopher Schwalm said the current trends of extreme temperature and droughts could last decades or even a century as a result of global climate change; and drought is just one of the many impacts we have started to see as a result of global climate change. Schwalm noted that although trees are somewhat amenable to change, the type of forests we see in the western U.S. could drastically change over the next century thanks to drought conditions.

Volcanic Beauty

by American Forests

This Wednesday, marks the 96th anniversary of two of Hawaii’s most prized national parks: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and Haleakalā National Park, both of which were established decades before Hawaii was even a state. Back in 1916, only one park was actually created to represent the combination of volcanic areas on the islands of Maui and Hawaii. It was not until 1960 that the two islands volcanic wonders were divided to create two separate national parks. Here are some of the each parks highlights.

Lava cove in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Lava cove in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Credit: John Hyun/Flickr

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, named for what else but its famous volcanoes:

  • The park is located on the southeastern edge of the Big Island of Hawaii.
  • The active volcano Mauna Loa is the most massive mountain on Earth when measured from the seafloor at 33,000 feet.
  • The park’s most recent volcanic activity occurred at the small volcano known as Kilauea, which means “spewing, much spreading.”
  • With lava flowing at an average rate of 800-1,300 gallons per second from the currently erupting volcano Kalauea, more than 500 acres of new land have been added to the island of Hawaii since the eruption began in 1983.

Haleakalā National Park:

  • This park stretches across Maui’s southern and eastern coastline and is home to Maui’s highest peak.
  • Haleakalā is Hawaiian for “house of the sun.”
  • The park is home to the rare Haleakalā silversword, a plant endemic to the islands that only grows in a 2,471-acre area at an elevation of 6,890 to 9,843 feet.
  • The park surrounds and includes the Haleakalā crater, a massive shield volcano that forms more than 75 percent of Maui.
Haleakala National Park.

Haleakala National Park. Credit: Peter Kemmer/Flickr

Both parks have been named by the United Nations as an International Biosphere Reserve — and Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is a World Heritage Site — due in part to their diverse ecology and native species. But these species have been facing grave challenges from invasive species and animals. The parks have made strong efforts to prevent this destruction from invasive weeds and feral pigs by fencing off the native species in the parks to protect them.

Over the years American Forests has had a variety of planting projects in Hawaii. This year we will be teaming with the Hawaiian Silversword Foundation, an organization dedicated to restoring native plants and ecosystems, to plant 6,000 trees in the Waihou Spring Forest on Maui. Hopefully these plantings and efforts in the future will help to keep Hawaii and its famous national parks healthy and diverse for years to come.

On Time Departures

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

I am fascinated by annual migrations.

I find it remarkable that so many creatures around the world are able to make the same trek season after season, year after year, when most humans these days have trouble navigating without their smart phones or GPS units. However, the mind-blowing regularity of some species’ habits may also be their downfall.

Wood thrush

Wood thrush. Credit: Bill Lynch (Billtacular)/Flickr

Dr. Bridget Stutchbury, professor of biology at York University, and colleagues just published a study in the journal PLoS One that details the migratory patterns of individual songbirds. Strutchbury attached penny-sized geolocators to wood thrushes to track their long-distance migrations from Pennsylvania to Costa Rica and Belize and back again. The results of the study revealed that while departure dates in the fall for Central America varied, the individual birds would depart for North America each spring within the same three-day window. En masse, spring migration departures occurred over a month period, but Stutchbury’s research reveal that each individual wood thrush adhere to a punctual departure date each spring, which has interesting implications.

As stated in the report, “The high repeatability in spring departure date suggests a stronger influence of endogenous schedules than local environmental conditions.” Basically, no matter what the external circumstances, the studied wood thrushes were following an internal clock that told them when to leave each spring. The consequence of such a rigid schedule is that as climate changes, the birds’ food sources will begin peaking at different times — regardless of whether or not the birds have arrived to consume them. A 2010 study (by Both C, Van Turnhout CAM, Bijlsma RG, Siepel H, Van Strien AJ, et al.) in Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences revealed that such a “mismatch between timing of food requirements and food availability” “may have become a major cause for population declines in long-distance migrants in highly seasonal habitats.”

So while an individual bird’s punctuality is both awe-inspiring and impressive, it may not be so good in the long run for its health and survival.

The Oaks Are Moving Up

by American Forests
Old oaks in Gladstone Park, California.

Old oaks in Gladstone Park, California. Credit: Penman2/Flickr

In a study published in 2011, researchers found that more than half of the tree species in eastern U.S. forests are not adapting to climate change as quickly or consistently as predicted. Only about 21 percent of the species studied appeared to be shifting northward. With warmer temperature zones shifting northward, scientist expected to see the tree populations follow, but the study revealed that this is not the case with a majority of tree species.

The concept of climate-driven migration states that as temperature increases mature trees will die out, while young seedlings spread to northern areas with higher altitudes to take root in newly favorable climates. The researchers found little evidence to support the idea of climate-driven migration for many North American tree species. But there is one species defying the crowd. Recent research shows that the mighty oak is advancing northward by genetically transforming to adapt to climate change.

Jeanne Romero-Severson, associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Notre Dame, and her colleagues are tracking the live oaks of eastern North American to see how the trees adapt to climate change. Oak trees are originally from Southeast Asia, but can now be found all over the world. However, it is in North America that the highest diversity of oak species are located. Researchers have long thought that this diversity was attributed to the oaks ability to adapt to climate challenges. Romero-Severson’s studies focus on the migration of live oak into northern Canada, the diversity of oaks in North America and their ability to genetically transform to adapt to varying temperatures.

An oak tree in Kensington Metro Park, Michigan.

An oak tree in Kensington Metro Park, Michigan. Credit: Maia C/Flickr

As reported by Phys.org, the researchers are hypothesizing that “trees in contact with a relative who could just manage to survive the cold were able to ‘capture’ from these relatives a few genes favorable for survival in colder climates, without retaining extensive genetic changes that would alter morphology.” The goal is to understand the role that climate change plays in the hybridization of the oaks and the general evolution of forest diversity. The study includes four research teams, each studying different aspects of how the oaks engaged in interspecies hybridization, while still maintaining species distinction. The unique thing observed in oaks is that the trees moving north acquire genes to survive in the different temperatures, while also maintaining all the genes that keep their species identity. Many species, animals and trees alike, have gone through similar adaptions, but lose the identity of the parent genes.

The mystery is how and why this tree species is able adapt so well and evolve which Romero-Severson and her team are just beginning to find out. Figuring this out will be completing a small piece of a much bigger puzzle: “We feel that we have to define the problem so carefully that what we learn from these live oaks will help us understand how evolution works and how natural adaptation arises,” says Romero-Severson. It will be interesting to see what the study reveals about how oak trees are adapting to climate change. It may even bring new insight into how other species, of all kinds, will adapt to climate change in the future.

Spying on Bears Live

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

A few years ago, I vacationed in Alaska, and while I was lucky enough to see some caribou and moose while in Denali National Park & Preserve, I must admit I was a bit disappointed not to encounter — from a safe distance — a bear. Well, on Tuesday, Alaska’s Katmai National Park & Preserve gave me a way to vicariously see a bear — and become increasingly distracted from my work — with its newly launched Brooks Camp Bearcam.

Brown bears in Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska

Brown bears in Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska. Credit: Patrick Moody/Flickr

Yes, you read that right: a bearcam. A live camera that is continuously streaming footage of bears fishing for salmon in the Brooks River. It’s engrossing — bears are there all the time! But why? As I’ve discovered, it’s all about the salmon.

According to Katmai National Park’s website, “The world’s largest run of sockeye salmon occurs in Bristol Bay, Alaska, each summer. Part of those salmon move into Katmai National Park using the Naknek drainage and end up at Brooks Camp. This is why so many bears gather in July on the Brooks River Falls.”

Pacific salmon, of which there are many varieties, spend their adult lives at sea in the saltwater of the Pacific Ocean. However, they’re born in freshwater — from intertidal pools to mountain streams — and every year, thousands of mature salmon must return to the waters where they were born to give birth to a new generation. Once they leave their saltwater habitat behind, they face various threats to survival, including brown bears. Some salmon will die of starvation on the trip since they stop eating the minute they enter freshwater. Some will die from polluted waters, while others are caught up in fishing nets. All of these difficulties and other factors, such as habitat loss, have led many Pacific salmon species to be declared threatened and endangered under the Endangered Species Act. (Click here to watch a video about and discover some of the work American Forests is doing to help Pacific salmon.) But I digress.

Brown bear cubs in Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska

Brown bear cubs in Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska. Credit: Patrick Moody/Flickr

Salmon are an essential part of bears’ diets, as salmon helps shore up a bear’s fat reserves for winter hibernation. Therefore, anywhere where salmon are ripe for the picking is ripe for bear spotting. About 100 bears live in the Brooks Camp area, where the bearcams are located, but Katmai is actually home to an estimated 2,200 brown bears. Because of its remoteness, which is good for the bears, Katmai only receives about 10,000 visitors per year, so the webcams are a way to bring the experiences of this Alaskan wilderness to a wider variety of people.

“I think it’s an unparalleled opportunity for people to get that front-row seat of the lives of the bears at Brooks Camp,” Roy Wood, chief of interpretation for Katmai National Park and Preserve, told the Associated Press. While two cameras are running now, the Associated Press reports that two more are to come, giving wildlife lovers many different bear activities to enjoy — from the catching of salmon on the falls to moms and their cubs downstream to aerial views of the ecosystem. You know I’ll be watching.

Clearing a Path for Illegal Logging

by Amanda Tai

Credit: D H Wright/Flickr

The Lacey Act was introduced more than a century ago and was the first piece of federal legislation to protect against wildlife trafficking.

Today, because of a 2008 amendment, the Lacey Act is primarily used to protect against importing non-native plant species and illegal logging practices. This act has been an important part of protecting not only the American wood-product industry and domestic forestry jobs from being undercut by illegally imported goods, but also promoting the sustainable use of domestic trees over the illegal logging practices that lead to global deforestation. In the next week, a House floor vote could change all that.

House leadership has announced that H.R. 3210, the “Retailers and Entertainers Lacey Implementation and Enforcement Fairness” or RELIEF Act, will be coming up for a full House vote in the next week. The RELIEF Act would undermine efforts to prevent illegal logging and trading by:

  • Eliminating the requirement for non-solid wood products manufacturers (i.e. paper products makers) to know their wood source.
  • Establishing a fixed penalty for first-time offenders regardless of the volume of or value of the illegal product – instead of using a scale with higher penalties for more severe offenses.
  • Eliminating the requirement for manufacturers to turn over goods that have been proven to be stolen.

These components of the RELIEF Act take away from the measures and punishments in the Lacey Act that deter illegal practices, leaving less incentive to stay away from them.

Dave Matthews is one of the many musicians that support the Lacey Act. Credit: chris friese/Flickr

Since the 2008 amendment that included the protection of timber and wood products, illegal logging is slowly on the decline as new practices become more commonplace. But even with the Lacey Act in place, these illegal practices still occur and cost the American wood products industry around $1 billion annually. Passing the RELIEF Act would only exacerbate this figure.

There is hope though. The RELIEF Act may have passed the House Natural Resources Committee, but several environmental groups, the timber industry, labor unions and even musicians are already speaking out against this bill. You too can take action by telling your representative to vote NO on the RELIEF Act by filling out and sending advocacy letters through NRDC or Sierra Club. I hope that representatives will hear this message loud and clear before the bill comes up for a vote.

Fire in the West – Part 1

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

British Columbia smokerjumper. Credit: August Gregg (August G)/Flickr

Last week I had the tremendous opportunity to travel to Wyoming and learn more about American Forests’ work in some of our western forests. The trip was eye-opening to the devastation caused by the mountain pine beetle and white pine blister rust. These two factors — along with the fire-suppression policy implemented by the U.S. Forest Service in the early 1900s — have played a major role in the current condition of forests in the West. Like many issues, there are very strong opinions on all sides of the fire debate, and it is not my role (nor my wish) to become enmeshed in the merits of one school of thought over another. Instead, over my next two posts, I am going to give you a look into how the current Forest Service fire policy came to be. It is a great example of decades of how changing views, science and, most importantly — at least for my role — law, all interact on one issue.

Now, as a history buff, the timeline of the Forest Service’s original fire-suppression policy alone is fascinating stuff. From smokejumpers to Smokey the Bear, it’s a gripping tale (if you haven’t clicked the link above, go on and click it!). The Forest History Society also gives a nice overview of the early policy complete with first-hand accounts of firefighting and black-and-white archival photographs. But even more interesting is how fire-suppression practices in the 1930s and 1940s shifted in the early 1970s to a more tolerant burn policy based on scientific advances, while still including suppression where and when appropriate. The burn policy was further altered and tightened in the wake of the 1988 Yellowstone fires, which burned hundreds of thousands of acres in and outside of the park. Science and experience are powerful drivers in the ever-shifting fire policy of the Forest Service.

The drive from Cody, Wyoming, to the East Gate of Yellowstone gives insight into yet another challenge faced when creating and adapting fire policy: human habitation. Throughout the Wapiti area and even into Shoshone National Forest, houses and businesses dot the landscape, providing an additional factor in firefighting procedures. Should homes be saved at all cost? Or does choosing to build in more-remote areas mean that your home is not a priority when fire does come? These questions have no easy answers, as the fluctuation in the Forest Service’s approach to fighting fires attests.

Calfire S-2F3AT Tanker 71 working the Sawtooth Complex Fire in San Bernardino County, California, September 2006

Calfire S-2F3AT Tanker 71 working the Sawtooth Complex Fire in San Bernardino County, California, September 2006. Credit: U.S. Forest Service

Additional voices from Washington, D.C., joined the fire-policy conversation in 2002 when President George W. Bush established the Healthy Forests Initiative (HFI). The HFI directed the Department of Agriculture (home of the Forest Service), the Department of Interior and the Council on Environmental Quality to streamline the regulatory process that accompanies fire-management policies. Streamline, regulatory, blah, blah— what does it mean?

Well, in the smallest nutshell I can find, there is a law called the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to consider the impacts of any major federal action that may significantly affect the environment. To do this, agencies use either an environmental assessment (EA) or an environmental impact statement (EIS) to assess their actions. The HFI designated certain activities, such as hazardous-fuel reductions and rehabilitation actions on smaller acreages, to be excluded from the EA and EIS requirements. Simple regulatory changes, right? Well, not really. But that’s a story for next month. See you then.

Restoring Forests to Help Prevent Wildfire

by Scott Steen, President & CEO
Battling the High Park Fire in Colorado

Nebraska National Guard crewmembers of Company C 2nd-135th General Support Aviation Battalion dump water from a Bambi bucket onto flames of the High Park Fire, in Larimer County, Colorado, June 18, 2012. Credit: Staff Sgt. Tate Petersen, Company C, 2nd-135th General Support Aviation Support

This June, more land burned from wildfires than in any other June in the last decade — more than 1.3 million acres. At the same time, there were actually fewer fires than usual. This pattern of fewer fires resulting in greater levels of destruction is getting more common each year. Across the U.S., we are seeing more and more megafires like that in Colorado’s Waldo Canyon, which was the most destructive fire in the state’s history.

Now, more than ever, we need to find ways to minimize these incredibly destructive fires to protect homes, land and resources. The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) Coalition today announced the success of a number of projects designed to do this very thing. For the second year in a row, reports show that this U.S. Forest Service program focused on pre-emptive thinning and controlled burns is a cost-effective solution in addressing wildfire.

For the same cost of fighting a single megafire (approximately $40 million), CFLRP funds restoration projects that bring together local forest workers, sawmill owners, conservationists, businesses, sportsmen and outdoor recreationists to collaboratively address forest-health concerns on Forest Service lands near their communities. In 2011, the combined efforts of these projects reduced the risk of fire across more than 120,000 acres, while creating more than 500 jobs and improving 192,000 acres of wildlife habitat, among other results.

Deschutes National Forest, Oregon

Deschutes National Forest, Oregon. Credit: American Forests

American Forests is a founding member and sits on the steering committee of the CFLRP Coalition, which is comprised of more than 140 local, regional, and national forest stakeholders. The coalition exists to ensure the success of all CFLRP projects, which range from accelerating longleaf pine restoration in Florida to collaborative work in Oregon’s Deschutes National Forest to reduce fire risk to forest restoration in Arizona. The coalition also advocates for full and consistent funding of the program. As part of these efforts, we have been meeting with members of Congress across the country to gain support, and with Congress busy drastically cutting funding for conservation programs, we are heartened that CFLRP will continue to receive the full funding level next year, allowing its important work to continue.

A hallmark of CFLRP and the coalition is bringing diverse groups — including private businesses, communities, counties, tribes, water suppliers, associations, nonprofits and more — together to accomplish work that benefits all: the restoration of healthy forest ecosystems. We look forward to continuing to fight for the CFLRP and programs like it and to working with our partners across the country to continue our mission of protecting and restoring forests for the benefit of communities, families and individuals across the country.

Thieving Rodents Save Trees

by American Forests

Usually, when we talk about trees and wildlife, we emphasize how important trees are to the animal’s survival. I never knew before working here that the reverse could also be true — that trees would be relying heavily on animals for their survival. New studies are revealing that small rodents known as agoutis are a key to the survival of many trees in Central and South American rainforests.

Colorful seeds of a palm tree in Florida.

Colorful seeds of a palm tree in Florida. Credit: James Albright (greyhound dad)/Flickr

Because plants and trees are fairly stationary, they rely on outside factors for seed dispersal to continue their lines. Some of the methods of transportation include self-projectile mechanisms, wind, water and animals. Some seeds have hooks and burrs to attach to the fur of animals; some hitch a complimentary ride inside the animal, as an enjoyable fruit or snack. The issue with the trees in the American tropics is that the seeds are so large that it is unlikely that animals can swallow them. So how are they being transported from their parent tree and ensuring future generations?

Many years ago, ancient elephant relatives known as gomphotheres roamed these tropical regions, eating the large fruits and passing them as they traveled from place to place. When these mammoth creatures became extinct, the land became inhabited by smaller animals, who have found other ways of spreading the seeds of these trees that rely on seed dispersal for their survival. As scientists recently discovered, the thieving agoutis go around uncovering and stealing each other’s buried seeds and transporting them to areas they would never naturally reach.

An agouti enjoys some fruit in Playa del Carmen.

An agouti enjoys some fruit in Playa del Carmen. Credit: The Sean & Lauren Spectacular/Flickr

In one of the first studies of its kind, researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute led by Patrick Jensen studied the black palm on Panama’s Barro Colorado Island by not only radio tracking the potential seed-dispersing animals, but also the seeds themselves. Jensen’s team followed 589 black palm seeds, which had the fruit already scraped off, and 16 agoutis, while also having remote cameras on 154 of the agoutis’ seed supply locations. What they found out was that many of the original seeds were stolen, buried and then stolen again by another thieving rodent. Over the course of a year, one of the palm seeds was hidden 36 times and traveled more than 2,460 feet, eventually being eaten 920 feet from its parent tree.

How beneficial is this for the trees? Without these large rodents, it is likely that certain tropical tree species could become extinct. In the case of the black palm, the agoutis may be carrying the fate of the trees in their paws. Without the wide-spread dispersion of seeds, only a small percentage of the tree’s fruit will become new trees with little chance of survival or future.

Tales of Snow Leopards and Beetles

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Oftentimes, environmental news follows similar themes and patterns: forests are being lost to industry, development, climate change, insect and pests, disease, etc. Every now and then, though, the news gets flipped on its head, showing that nature is a complex, interrelated web — as was the case with a few stories this week.

Snow leopard

Snow leopard. Credit: Зелёный_hornet/Flickr

Usually, I come across depressing stories of how climate change is causing problems for various forests around the world — like the rapid decline of white pines in the West — so imagine my shock this week when I read about a new study in Biological Conservation that discusses how forests themselves are becoming a problem for snow leopards in the Himalayas. Forests and big cats clashing is not something I expected to come across this week, but below the surface, I discovered a more familiar foe: climate change.

Snow leopards make their homes in Asia’s high-alpine peaks — areas so high that no forest can grow there and not many other predatory species can survive. But according to the study, if greenhouse gases continue to increase, forests will creep up the Himalayas, bringing tigers and other big cats into up to 30 percent of the snow leopard’s current turf — turf that the leopards can’t afford to lose.

Less than 6,500 snow leopards exist in the wild, making the species endangered and making the loss of their habitat a very big cause for concern. To compound matters, snow leopards are an indicator species, which means if they’re in trouble, there’s a good chance the ecosystem as a whole is in trouble. Communities and governments in Nepal, India, Bhutan and China are trying to develop plans for how best to manage the snow leopard population, as no one wants to lose our “queens of the mountains.”

Northern tamarisk beetle sibling the Mediterranean tamarisk beetle

Northern tamarisk beetle sibling the Mediterranean tamarisk beetle. Credit: Robert D. Richard, USDA APHIS PPQ, Bugwood.org

And, just when I finished digesting this information about snow leopards and forests, I was struck by another topsy-turvey headline: how beetles destroying plants can be a good thing. Most of the time, we hear about beetles and other insects in a negative light, such as the emerald ash borer decimating millions of ash trees across the East and Midwest, but in the Southwest, the site of a northern tamarisk beetle may actually be a good thing.

Scientists introduced the leaf beetle Diorhabda carinulataI, or northern tamarisk, to the Southwest with the intent of using it as a biocontrol against the region’s invasive tamarisk plants. Tamarisk was imported to this country centuries ago and often outcompetes common species like willow and cottonwood. Plus, it steals copious amounts of precious water supplies, as it is one thirsty plant. The northern tamarisk beetle is a natural predator of tamarisk and, since its introduction a decade ago, has rapidly evolved to the American lifestyle and is getting busy attacking tamarisk plants. Of course, the beetle isn’t without its detractors, as some groups question the use of the beetle as a biocontrol, but for the moment, the beetle seems to be settling in and performing its task well. Only time will tell if the project is ultimately a success or whether the beetle will find itself at the center of a problem of its own.