From Farms to Forests

by Amanda Tai

The Farm Bill benefits farms as well as forests. Credit: NRCS

I’ve mentioned the Farm Bill in a previous post, talking about its significance for forests and conservation program funding. The comprehensive bill also determines national policies for trade, rural development, research and many other affairs under the authority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The current bill passed in 2007 to begin in fiscal year 2008. Now, halfway through its fifth year, the bill’s expiration date is quickly approaching. Congress has been working to get a new version together this year; ideally before the election takes over the agenda.

Despite the challenges of a partisan and stagnant Congress, several groups have helped move the Farm Bill forward. For example, American Forests — as part of the Forests in the Farm Bill Coalition — advocated that the Farm Bill prioritize issues like increasing forest research opportunities, combating invasive species, and strengthening forest conservation programs. The coalition distributed a list of forest priorities and letters to the House and Senate Agriculture committees to ensure that forests have a voice in the Farm Bill discussion.

The Senate passed their version on Thursday last week and the House plans begin their drafting process soon after it returns to session on July 11. In the weeks leading up to the Senate vote, we tracked several amendments to the bill. We supported some and opposed others. The main effort was geared towards making Senators aware of the harmful amendments so they would not vote for them. Here are the ones we opposed:

  • Amendment 2313, from Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), would eliminate the Forest Legacy Program, a voluntary grant program of the U.S. Forest Service that helps states acquire or purchase conservation easements for threatened forest lands, wetlands and wildlife habitats. Many of these privately owned lands would otherwise be lost to development.
  • Amendment 2314, also from Lee, would repeal the Conservation Stewardship Program and Conservation Reserve Program which provide economic incentives for landowners to implement conservation practices on their land.
  • Amendment 2353, from Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), would repeal two critical Natural Resources Conservation Service programs: the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program. Both programs have been critical means for providing financial and technical assistance to landowners that want to implement conservation practices on their land.
  • Amendment 2291, also from Coburn, would repeal the International Forestry Program, which deals with trade issues and prevention of invasive species.
  • Amendment 2292, also from Coburn, would repeal the Urban and Community Forestry Program which helps reforest urban areas and create green space.

In the voting process, the first two amendments were voted against and the last three were not even brought up for vote. Passing the Farm Bill and voting against amendments that threaten conservation programs is a big win for the forest conservation community!

The Bright Side of Rio+20

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

Rio de Janeiro. Credit: Terry Dunn (terrydu)/Flickr

While expectations might not have been high entering the recent Rio+20 United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development, hopes certainly were. With leaders and delegates from 188 countries, including more than 100 heads of state and government, as well as thousands of representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), businesses and other organizations, this was to be the next step forward for bold initiatives in human rights, sustainable development and the environment.

As Amanda noted in her post last week, forests were sadly left off the list of the major areas to discuss during official meetings and negotiations. But forests were only the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg: As the talks progressed, it became clear that nothing along the lines of the Rio Conventions on Biological Diversity, on Climate Change and to Combat Desertification that came from the original 1992 meeting would be replicated this year. The final document that emerged from Rio+20 — The Future We Want — is replete with nonbinding and modestly aspirational goals.

The parties to The Future We Want did commit to improving the conditions of people and communities around the world so that they can better sustainably manage their forests. This commitment to improvement includes strengthening the “areas of finance, trade, transfer of environmentally sound technologies, capacity-building and governance.” In other words, a lot of encouraging words, but not a lot of actual action. Lest the forest community feel alone in their soft-shoe treatment, climate change, desertification, mountains, oceans and other critically important environmental topics also received similar commitments, reiterations and reaffirmations.

Panelists at the Rio+20 UN Women Leaders Forum

Panelists at the Rio+20 UN Women Leaders Forum. Credit: UN Women/Fabricio Barreto

Yet, while the final language of the document left many observers and participants deflated, the conference still produced action and tangible excitement. Many individuals came ready to discuss what is actually happening on the ground around the myriad of environmental challenges we face. Set apart from the main negotiations, individuals representing cities, community groups, businesses and other organizations had the opportunity to attend numerous side events covering a gamut of topics. Topics ranged widely, such as “The Protection of Lake Chad,” “Agro Ecological Farming Can Feed the World: In Practice” and “Healthy Women, Healthy Planet: Women’s Empowerment, Reproductive Health.” It is these side events that can — and maybe should — be the true legacy of Rio+20.

The 1992 Rio Convention on Climate Change has its own legion of supporters and detractors, both in and outside of the environmental movement. The convention also contained promises and encouragements, and its enforcement was the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which required its signatories to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions. As Kyoto has shown, however, even with large-scale, binding documents, the results can be less than expected. But, the individual meetings, conversations, ideas and actions taken towards achieving the same goal — reduction of greenhouse gas emissions — often can make a more permanent impression. While protocols can be superseded, changes to individual habits and the creation of innovative technologies and their progeny can last much, much longer.

Think about your own life.

Chances are, you are not a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, but you may be taking steps within your own day-to-day activities to stabilize or reduce your greenhouse gas emissions. Maybe you walk to the store only a few blocks away, rather than drive. Perhaps your home is composed entirely of Energy Star appliances. Or maybe when you do drive, it is a vehicle that gets more than 35 mpg. These individual actions are a recognition that no single country, business or person can limit all greenhouse gas emissions alone.

Maybe that is how we can best view the Rio+20 result: There was no grand Convention on Sustainable Development and a Green Economy (a pure hypothetical), but there are thousands of people that had a conversation with a mayor or an environmental activist or a start-up company that may lead to tangible action. Be it a removal of barriers to bringing off-grid solar power to India, more renewable energy in Brazil or a joint project for forest protection and conservation in the African Mayombe area of conservation, these projects and actions may lead to more positive results than the platitudes of The Future We Want. Their importance should not be discounted.

Wasteland Gold

by Loose Leaf Team

When I think of a flourishing and healthy habitat, green trees and acres of vegetation come to mind. Although healthy, prospering land is an important part of most plant and animal lifecycles, it may not always be the best. In Britain brownfield sites are coming into focus as significant reservoirs of biodiversity for a variety of ground plant species and invertebrates. The federal government defines brownfield as “abandoned, idled or underused industrial and commercial properties where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination.” This may make you think of unclean wasteland but in reality, many brownfield sites have had little environmental damage from previous construction.

A brownfield site in Britain Credit: Richard Croft

Brownfield sites are rich in bare ground, which can serve as a framework for hardy, slow-growth plants. The hard, compact soil is perfect for the development of diverse, complex plants. These plants — which include willowherb, prickly lettuce and dandelions — are able to grow at a slower pace and mature without the interruption of fast-growing plants that would otherwise dominate nutrient-rich soil. Low nutrient soil provides opportunities for a variety of other plants to grow, increasing plant diversity. In turn, this creates habitat for many invertebrates that have complex life cycles and need more time to mature. The exposed ground also heats under sunlight and becomes a microclimate for insects like moths and beetles that cannot normally survive in a humid and damp environment.

One moth in particular — the small ranunculus, which was last seen in Europe before World War II — was recently spotted in brownfield sites in England and Wales. The UK wildlife charity Butterfly Conservation noted that the moth’s larvae find food in plants that thrive in low-nutrient soil of abandoned industrial sites. Other moth species, like the four-spotted, wormwood, bright wave and elephant hawk moths, can also be found in brownfields across Europe. These seemingly useless lands are not just providing habitat for these invertebrates, but are also attracting other species that depend on them, jump-starting a new ecosystem.

Small ranunculus moth Credit: Entomart

The problem is that, thanks to their aesthetic shortcomings, most government officials do not recognize these lands as beneficial to wildlife or the environment. Because of this, they have done little to reverse the trend of “greenwashing” — turning these abandoned industrial sites into green spaces by replacing low-grade soil with rich topsoil. This practice can be devastating to the rich wildlife that find homes in this unexpected goldmine of fertile land.

It is important to bring attention to this susceptible land to show that individual species can prosper in a variety of habitats. These UK findings will hopefully draw attention to the environmental potential of brownfield sites in the United States and all over the world. If the trend of converting brownfield sites continues, there is no way of knowing what threatened species could go down with them.


Raising Urban Forests

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

As the old adage goes, it takes a village to raise a child. I don’t know how true this is for child rearing, but I do know it takes a village to raise a forest in a city. I’ve spent the last week in Sacramento, California, and Portland, Oregon, meeting with the dedicated men and women who help keep their cities’ urban forests in tip-top shape — and what a job that is.

sacramento urban forest

American Forests' Lea Sloan and Urban Forestry Manager Joe Benassini in Sacramento's William Land Park. Credit: American Forests.

In Sacramento, every tree that the city possesses — we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of trees — was deliberately placed there, beginning way back at the city’s founding in 1850. This is because Sacramento’s climate isn’t so tree-friendly. Hot and dry, the Sacramento landscape doesn’t naturally support the elms, oaks and other species that one finds in the city’s many parks and neighborhoods. And even though Sacramento has a lovely tree canopy, it’s only through the continued efforts of the city’s residents, employees and dedicated partners that the trees thrive.

The City of Sacramento’s Urban Forestry Services, the Sacramento Tree Foundation and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD). I like to think of these guys as the trifecta of tree lovers in Sacramento — together, they are working to make the city’s urban forest even stronger. The Urban Forestry staff is responsible for maintaining the city’s trees on public lands, not to mention permitting concerns and tree plantings. The Sacramento Tree Foundation works with neighborhoods and residents to plant trees throughout the community. SMUD works with the Sacramento Tree Foundation, putting up the funds to plant trees in people’s yards across the city to reduce energy demands in their homes. Each of these groups plays a vital role in Sacramento, and all three do their best to work in tandem to enhance the city’s forest, while also engaging the people of Sacramento in their work.

Washintgon Park, Portland

Maintenance workers in Portland's Washington Park. Credit: American Forests

In Portland, growing trees isn’t as difficult as it is in Sacramento — Portland gets plenty of rain to support lush greenery around the city. Portland’s issue, though, lies in the fact that the city is growing — as are most urban centers in the U.S. And in Oregon, natural spaces around cities are protected by Urban Growth Boundaries (UGB), designed to keep urban sprawl within the urban space, protecting the landscape beyond the city. However, this also means that protecting trees from development within the UGB can be difficult.

From Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services to the Bureau of Transportation to the Portland Water Bureau to Parks and Recreation to the Bureau of Development, all five of these bureaus touch the city’s trees in some way. As a result, representatives from all five bureaus meet regularly to discuss all things tree-related. Add on nonprofit partner Friends of Trees, plus Portland’s tree-loving neighborhoods and citizens, and you have a pretty formidable team in place working to protect and expand Portland’s urban forest.

The work these people do in Sacramento and Portland isn’t easy. Budgets are constantly under pressure on the city level, creating more and more work for less and less staff. Caring for a city’s trees is a never-ending job, but a worthwhile one. All of the people I’ve spoken to this week have expressed their love of and passion for trees: They clean the air we breathe, filter the water we drink, provide shade on hot, summer days. Trees’ benefits know no bounds, which is why the work of our urban foresters, city arborists, tree-planting nonprofits and others need to be supported. Together, we can all make our cities greener and more beautiful.

The Birds and the Bees…And the Bats

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

ruby throated hummingbird

Ruby-throated hummingbird Photo: Chrisdupe/Flickr

Trees need a lot of things to stay healthy. The water, air and soil conditions all need to be right; the temperature can’t go too high or low; and of course, they need sunlight. But there’s something else trees need — something so important that without them, our forests, parks and backyards all across the U.S. would be completely different: pollinators.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has dubbed this National Pollinators Week. What a great idea! A week to recognize all the creatures that carry pollen among flowering trees and other plants, allowing them to reproduce and maintain genetic diversity. They also make a lot of our food possible, pollinating an estimated 75 percent of our crops, which accounts for billions of dollars each year. So to whom do we owe our health and wealth, natural and otherwise?

  • Birds: Our feathered friends help pollinate plants as they feed from the flowers. Hummingbirds are most common type in the U.S. When they put their bill into a flower to eat its nectar, the flower’s pollen rubs off on them. Then they spread that pollen to the next flower they feed from, and so on.
  • Bees: Actually, a whole host of insects are responsible for the majority of pollination. Bees are at the head of the pack though, pollinating an estimated 80 percent of crops across the globe, from fruit orchards to vegetable gardens. Beetles, flies, moths, wasps, butterflies and many other species also work to pollinate flowering trees, shrubs, and other plants.
  • Bats:There aren’t many mammals in the pollinators club, but several species of bats are among them, including the lesser long-nosed bat and the Mariana fruit bat.

All these creatures keep countless plant species healthy and producing the fruits that many other species depend on. Then, of course, there are the carnivores, which prey on the species that depend on those plants. All of it adds up to the fact that pollinators are an important part in any ecosystem, and a vital link in the food web. Unfortunately, this means that when the pollinators are threatened, it can present a serious challenge to the ecosystem, and put other species in danger. Of all the pollinator species in the U.S., more than 30 are endangered, including several birds, three bats, and more than 25 species of butterflies.

monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly Photo: Paul Jonusaitis

For some species, the threats are obvious. Pesticides are a clear danger, spreading harsh chemicals to the creatures that feed from or make their homes in the sprayed plants. Habitat loss is another major factor. Since many pollinators are migratory, their migration corridors also need to remain healthy in order for them to survive. For some species, that can mean a very large swath of land. The monarch butterfly, for instance, travels the roughly 3,000 miles from Canada to Mexico each year. As patches of its habitat along that path disappear, the journey becomes more and more difficult.

Fortunately, there are several things you can do to help. You can plant a garden of native plants, especially milkweed, to provide a healthy habitat for native pollinators like butterflies and other insects. Staying informed about the pesticides you use is also a good step — especially knowing where and when not to apply them. You can also learn a lot more about pollinators through the materials offered by the USFWS, including podcasts and webcasts. Lastly, you can help support our work. Many of American Forests’ projects each year work to reestablish habitats and migration corridors for wildlife, including pollinators like the Monarch butterfly and ruby-throated hummingbird.



by Amanda Tai

The Tijuca Forest in Rio de Janeiro. Credit: Quiltsalad/Flickr

Rio de Janeiro is home to the largest urban forests in the world: the Tijuca Forest and the forest in Pedra Branca State Park. These lush rainforest ecosystems are home to several threatened plant and animal species, such as collared anteaters, brown capuchins, and channel-billed toucans. It makes sense that the United Nations would want to bring their annual Conference on Sustainable Development to such an environmentally rich area. But when I looked at this year’s conference schedule, I was surprised to see that forests were largely missing from the discussion. Why leave forests out of the conference agenda, when right outside the meeting doors, forests play a huge role in Brazil’s sustainable development?

This year’s conference, the Rio+20 Earth Summit, is already underway and continues through Friday. Organizers of the summit have identified seven key issues to discuss: oceans, water, food, energy, cities, jobs and disasters. Forests don’t appear much in the conference program other than a mention in the food issue description. That’s become an issue for forest-focused groups that advocate for the critical role that forests play in all sectors of sustainable development: economic growth, environmental health, agriculture, natural resources, and so on.

Pedra Branca State Park. Credit: Rede Globo

Forest research groups weren’t going to sit back and wait until the meeting was over to make changes. These groups want to ensure that forests become part of the international discussion about sustainability. The International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO) criticized the International Council for Science (ICSU) — which helped draft the Rio+20 processes — for its minimal inclusion of forest issues. IUFRO also put together a statement about why forests need to be a priority at Rio +20. Michael Kleine, IUFRO’s deputy executive director, pointed out that only three references to forests were made in the entire ICSU document — not nearly enough to cover the full spectrum of resources and services that forests provide. Another group, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), held a Rio+20 counterpart conference yesterday that explored the role of forests in research, policy and a green economy. CIFOR hopes the conference, entitled Forests: The 8th Roundtable at Rio+20, will make a statement about the importance of forest issues and bring them into the international sustainable development discussion.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stated that 350 million of the world’s poorest, a sixth of which are indigenous people, depend on forest ecosystems for their livelihoods and daily survival. Clearly, forests are an essential part of our sustainable future and it’s time world leaders include them in the discussion. As I follow Rio+20 over the next few days, I hope to see a lot of buzz about forests.

Urban Trees For Carbon Offsets

by Melinda Housholder, Urban Forests Program Director

Earlier this month, I attended a workshop in Davis, California, called “Urban Forests & Carbon Markets” that American Forests participated in and co-sponsored through a grant with the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban & Community Forestry Program. As California takes the lead to develop a cap-and-trade model to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions statewide, American Forests is excited to be involved in efforts to advance urban forest projects for use in this cap-and-trade model. But before we get into my experience at the workshop, a little background:

California power plant

A California power plant. Photo credit: John Watson

What’s going on in California?
In 2006, California committed to reduce GHG emissions and passed Assembly Bill 32: Global Warming Solutions Act, often known as “AB 32.” This act directs the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to reduce GHG emissions throughout the state by 2020 to the levels of emissions in 1990. To accomplish this goal, CARB has played an integral role in developing California’s Greenhouse Gas Cap-and-Trade Program.

With this Cap- and-Trade Program,  California state sets an absolute limit, or cap, on the amount of GHG emissions allowed throughout the state. Allowances to discharge a certain amount of pollution are auctioned off to emitters such as industries, buildings, manufacturers. To comply with the cap, the emitter then has the choice to either 1) reduce their emissions on site; 2) buy allowances to emit; or, 3) buy offsets.

How do offsets work and where do urban forests fit in?

If an entity is emitting more than their allowed amounts of GHG, they have the option to buy a certain amount of offset credits issued through approved sources. In California’s case, these projects are approved under The Climate Action Reserve. Urban forest projects all over the country can apply under the Climate Action Reserve’s Urban Forest Project Protocol to receive offset credits that they can then sell to firms in California that are emitting more than their allowed amounts of GHGs.

However, as I learned at the workshop at UC-Davis, urban forest projects have not yet been successful at registering under this protocol to serve as offset projects. Some of the main challenges that we discussed were about the protocol’s requirement of a 100-year, lifetime guarantee of project, the high costs of urban trees and monitoring/reporting costs, and the limited eligibility for applicants (e.g. non-governmental organizations and developers are not allowed to apply). Without being able to register under this protocol, urban forest projects cannot be credited as carbon offsets to be used in the California cap-and-trade market.

Tree-lined street

Tree-lined city street Photo credit: Randy Levine

However, there is great potential for urban trees to help reduce GHG emissions throughout the state. According to an article from the non-profit California ReLeaf, researchers estimate that “if 50 million urban trees were planted strategically, then they could offset emissions of an estimated 6.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually — around 3.6 percent of the statewide goal.”  Currently, the urban forestry project closest to registering under the Urban Forest Protocol for carbon offset credits is a Greenhouse Gas Tree-Planting Project in Santa Monica that is designed to plant 1,000 new trees in parkways along boulevards.

One of American Forests’ main roles at the “Urban Forests & Carbon Markets” workshop was to advance the next steps to help give urban forests the credit they deserve and highlight their potential for helping meet GHG goals. We are planning on creating a national network around these issues to help advance the role of urban forests in the carbon market. Stay tuned, as I’ll provide more information as we continue to develop this program.

Endangered in Hawaii

by Loose Leaf Team

Making it on the endangered species list is becoming a harder feat every day, as the number of threatened species rises along with climate change. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is proposing new ways to protect the high number of threatened species.

The hāhā plant, one of many Hawaiian species proposed for the endangered species list

The hāhā plant, one of many Hawaiian species proposed for the endangered species list. Credit: David Eickhoff/Flickr

Last week, FWS announced a proposal to protect 38 Hawaiian species (35 plants and three snails) under the Endangered Species Act, making Hawaii the U.S. state with the highest number of federally listed and candidate species. These plants and animals — some of which have populations in single and double digits — are all native to the Hawaiian islands of Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe and Maui, collectively known as the Maui Nui island cluster. This new FWS proposal, known as the Maui Nui listing and critical habit package, advocates not only for getting the 38 species on the endangered list, but also proposes name and spelling changes for 13 listed species, delisting one plant and designating 271,062 acres on the islands as critical habitat.

Newcomb’s tree snail, found only on the island of Maui

Newcomb’s tree snail, found only on the island of Maui. Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Almost all of the proposed species are threatened by habitat loss and competition from non-native species like pigs, goats and deer. Other threats include natural disasters, agricultural developments and climate change. Because habitat loss is such a pressing issue for many of the species, the FWS is focusing its efforts on preserving total ecosystems instead of small habitats for individual species. This idea of designating large areas as critical habitat for a range of species is a new one for the FWS — this proposal is only the third of its kind. Many of these native Hawaiian species live in similar ecosystems, so instead of dividing and conquering, which would diminish the effect of already stretched funds, the FWS is identifying and preserving large sections of habitat that can then benefit each individual species. This is an approach that American Forests greatly supports, as every element in an ecosystem — from individual plant species and animals to soil, water and air — affects another element. Therefore, we should be managing for ecosystem survival as much as individual species.

However, there is still the issue of funding. Because of the increasing number of species being threatened in recent years, many proposed animals and plants often get placed on the Endangered Species waiting list. Twenty of the species in the Maui Nui proposal are currently candidate species for the list, meaning the FWS has enough information to propose them for the Endangered Species Act, but higher priority issues and species are keeping them from being considered for addition. The problem with candidate species is that while they are recognized as being in trouble, they do not receive protection or funding from the government.

With the Maui Nui proposal public, but still no funding, there is not much to do but wait and see if these threatened species and their habitat make the list under this new ecosystem approach.

The Smokies

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

History is complicated — probably because life is complicated. Great Smoky Mountains National Park celebrates its 78th anniversary today, but the story of the founding of America’s most visited national park — more than eight million people visit each year — is much more complex than a simple anniversary suggests.

View from Mount Sterling in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

View from Mount Sterling in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Credit: Miguel Vieira/Flickr

The idea of creating a national park in the famous eastern mountains first cropped up in the late 1800s, but it would really take flight in the 1920s. A number of individuals were influential in sparking the movement, including two friends who gave the park a voice and a vision: Horace Kephart and George Masa. In 1913, Kephart published Our Southern Highlands, a book about people who live in the Smokies. He would become a key voice for the creation of a park through his journalistic writings for magazines and newspapers. In 1915, photographer Masa came to the Smokies and connected with Kephart, providing stunning images to accompany Kephart’s writings.

Through the effort of Kephart, Masa and other influential Tennesseans and North Carolinians, in 1926, President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill for the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There was a catch, though: The government couldn’t buy the land for the park — that had to be done with outside funds. The park’s supporters began a major fundraising drive and eventually secured enough funds to buy hundreds of thousands of acres. Then, there was a second catch: People and businesses owned that land. Unlike the western parks, whose acreage could easily be set aside because no one lived there yet, the Smokies were filled with homesteads, timber and lumber companies and other development. Those people had to be compensated for their losses — some individuals were actually given lifetime leases to keep their homesteads within park lands. Finally, on June 15, 1934, land in hand, Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established, and six years later, it would be officially dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Baxter Creek Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Baxter Creek Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Credit: Miguel Vieira/Flickr

And what a park it is:

  • Its 800 square miles are home to 17,000 known species of plants and animals, although scientists estimate that 100,000 different species probably call the park home.
  • Its 200-million-year-old mountains can reach up to 6,643 feet.
  • Its land is 95 percent forest and houses more than 100 native tree species, which is more than any other national park.
  • It hosts the largest protected bear habitat in the East, protecting its iconic American black bears, which number around 1,500.
  • Its 700 miles of waterways are home to more than 50 native fish species.
  • It’s called the Salamander Capital of the World, according to its website, because of the 30 salamander species that can be found there.
  • Its 800-plus miles of trails offer visitors a myriad of ways to see the mountains, old-growth forests, dozens of preserved historic buildings, waterfalls and more.

So while the park may have been tricky to get founded, aren’t we glad its supporters persevered?

Forney Ridge Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Forney Ridge Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Credit: Miguel Vieira/Flickr

P.S. For more beautiful photos of Great Smoky Mountains (like those in this post) and other national and state parks, check out Miguel Vieira’s Flickr stream. Spectacular.

Climate Change Plays Dirty

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Soil on the forest floor (Photo credit: Ari Moore)

Back in February, I wrote about how there is a part of every forest ecosystem that is important for us not to overlook: soil. As active as trees are in absorbing and storing carbon, the soil they’re rooted in can play a similar role, storing CO2-loaded debris like leaves and branches that litter the forest floor. Microbes in the soil consume the carbon, which is then released back into the atmosphere. As long as the microbes work at a normal rate, the amount of carbon stored in the soil far outpaces the carbon that is released. I bring this up because this week, forest soils have been making headlines again.

A team of scientists at UC Irvine has put together a study, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, on the role that soil could play in climate change — and vice versa. They wanted to know what effect an increase in temperature would have on the rate of activity in forest soils, so they set up a series of experiments in forests in Wisconsin and North Carolina. They found that heating the soil in these forests by 10 or 20 degrees significantly sped up the natural process and caused the soil to release carbon dioxide up to eight times faster than normal. Even carbon that had been locked in the soil for decades, which scientists thought would be less susceptible to warmer temperatures, was released during the experiments. These findings indicate a potential feedback loop between forest soils and climate change. As global temperatures increase, the soils could release more CO2 into the atmosphere, further contributing to warmer temperatures, and on and on in a vicious cycle. The forests of the northeastern United States — many of which were once farmland and are thought to contain nearly 26 billion tons of carbon — could be a particularly dangerous addition to this cycle of warming soil.

Photo credit: Mirjana Chamberlain Vucic

Now, I’ll grant you that a 10-degree increase in global temperatures seems like a heck of a lot, much less a 20-degree increase. But if recent weather hasn’t been enough of a sign — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently stated this spring was the warmest on record — what about the last 100 years’ worth of weather info? Just yesterday, the group Climate Central released a new interactive map showing the average temperatures in each state over the past century using data from the National Climatic Data Center. The numbers gets particularly interesting after the 1970 mark, and some of the information on individual states may surprise you. Minnesota, for instance, has seen the third-fastest increase of its average temperatures. Some states show average temperatures increasing much faster than the rest, while others seem to be experiencing only a slow increase. But no matter where you are, you don’t have to look at the map very long to see that the mercury is rising.