Messing With Texas

by Michelle Werts

Matt Bonham, Texas AgriLife Extension Service assistant, checks out a red oak tree whose leaves are browning and dropping off early due to the drought. Credit: Robert Burns/Texas AgriLife Extension Service

Apparently, someone forgot to tell Mother Nature that you “Don’t mess with Texas.” First, there were the fires: 27,411 of them in 2011 through November 21 that destroyed almost four million acres. That’s 47 percent of the acreage burned by fire in the entire country for 2011. Almost 3,000 homes were ravaged along with nearly 3,000 other structures, and the damage from the Bastrop Fire alone equals $750 million, which made fire one of NOAA’s billion-dollar weather disasters in 2011. What a mess! And, sadly, Texas’ woes don’t end there.

Texas’ year-long drought is another one of those billion-dollar weather disasters — make that $10 billion so far. And no end is in sight, as climatologists reported last month that the drought will stretch into next summer. This is bad, bad news for living things in Texas: two-legged, four-legged, winged, rooted and more.

Between 100 and 500 million trees in Texas fell victim to the drought. That’s up to 10 percent of the state’s tree total! And as Katrina covered last week, this may just be a prelude to years of die-offs from the drought, as the damage to trees inflicted by droughts can have lasting consequences. In the immediate future, there is another concern: fire. That’s right, we’ve come full circle. Dead trees make good fuel for fire. Also, deeply affected is an area of trees known as Piney Woods, which is also one of the largest producers of wood and paper products. The extent of damage of the drought on that major employer isn’t known yet.

One industry that’s already feeling the heat is the ranchers. Last week, experts revealed that Texas’ cowherd has decreased by 12 percent since January. Many livestock owners have had to prematurely sell or slaughter their herd or send them out of state to try to survive. All of this equals millions, possibly billions, of dollars lost to the Lone Star State’s hardworking residents.

From fewer cows to dead trees to more dry-conditions to come, it’s a bit dismal for nature in Texas these days — and I haven’t even touched on the possible effects of the drought on the migrating monarch butterflies that traverse the state twice a year. While I wish X-Men’s Storm were real and could go conjure some rainstorms for Texas, alas she is not, so I’m going to go wish upon a star, send a letter to Santa, fight for the wishbone at my upcoming holiday dinner and use every other trick I know to ask for some rain to head Texas’ way because all of the creatures great and small down there need a break.

For those you living through the drought and trying to save your trees, check out this helpful video from the Texas Forest Service:

 


Treks and the City

by Amanda Tai

Credit: Bex Walton/Flickr

Recently, there’s been a huge push in this country to get people to be more active and maintain a healthier lifestyle. A major part of that effort is encouraging people to go outside. When we go outside, there’s a whole world of activities to explore: hiking, skiing, biking, kayaking and camping – just to name a few. There are also a lot of great things to see outside like trees, rivers and wildlife. But with a lot of us living in cities and suburbs, it’s not always easy to find the time and opportunity to really connect with nature.

President Obama is well aware of the issue and has made it a top priority. Last year, he launched America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) initiative, with the goal of reconnecting Americans to the natural environment and making outdoor recreation opportunities more accessible for the public. The First Lady also has her own campaign targeted towards kids called Let’s Move Outside. Together, these initiatives work with federal agencies to promote outdoor recreation, health, conservation, urban green spaces and youth engagement. People are starting to realize the importance and necessity of spending time outside. Nancy Sutley, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, stated it best:

“The quality and accessibility of our outdoor spaces have a significant impact on the economic and physical health of American communities … actions under the America’s Great Outdoors initiative are reinvigorating a national discussion about the value of conservation, resulting in smart, innovative strategies and investments that respond to the priorities of American communities.”

Outdoor recreation has been shown to improve so many parts of our lives, from early childhood development to physical health to jobs and economic growth. But you don’t have to get all the way to the woods to recreate outside. Green spaces, like parks and trails in urban environments, can be just as beneficial to your health and well-being. I was encouraged to see this article from the Forest Service that draws the connection between city trees and better overall health. And it’s not just researchers saying it; I can tell you from my own experience. I’ve always been a pretty active person. I remember going camping and hiking as a kid with my family and going for runs around the lake on my college campus. But living in Washington, D.C. has been a real adjustment for me. In the city, I’ve learned how important it is to find green escapes (as I like to call them). They really are escapes because they transport you to another more peaceful world, even though you haven’t set foot outside the city. It just goes to show that you’re never too far from an outdoor adventure.


Raindrops Keep Falling

by Katrina Marland

When was the last time you heard anything about acid rain? It’s been awhile, right? Though the issue had a good deal more coverage back in the 90s, it certainly hasn’t gone away. And now, scientists have discovered a new and unexpected effect it will have on some forests here in the U.S.

Maple leaves (Credit: Flickr/LizWest)

Acid rain occurs when the pollution in the atmosphere — especially sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide — mixes with precipitation and falls back down to earth as water with higher levels of nitric and sulfuric acids. Soil, especially in forests, has to maintain a careful balance of acidity and nutrients for it to support the local flora. So when acid rain enters the picture, it throws everything out of whack. That’s what has been happening to sugar maples in the Northeast. The species is especially vulnerable to nutrient imbalances and soil acidification, and much of its range is in areas with calcium-poor soil. Without this natural buffer to neutralize the acid, the trees absorb it through the groundwater and are poisoned. Over the past few decades as the sugar maples in the Northeast started to decline, one consolation has been that the sugar maple forests of the Great Lakes region would be safe because of the high calcium content in the area’s soil. And while that soil has protected the forests from absorbing too much acid, a recent study has found that those forests may soon have a whole new problem to worry about.

By simulating the effects of increased levels of acid rain on sugar maple forests, scientists found that as the acid falls on the layer of dead leaves and other waste that litters the forest floor, it slows the decomposition process. In a healthy ecosystem, this process breaks down the leaves and other organic matter, clearing them away to make room for new trees. When the acid slows this process, the dead leaves pile up, creating a much thicker layer than the forest understory is used to — in some places increasing it by 50 percent — which prevents new trees from taking root. This means that as current generations of sugar maples die off, there will be fewer and fewer trees to take their place.

These findings, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, are the result of a 17-year study by ecologists at the University of Michigan, the Michogan Technological University and the University of Idaho. Although the research reveals a new, negative effect of acid rain, its discovery could prove extremely important, influencing the management of sugar maple forests to give seedlings a fighting chance and giving foresters and scientists a push to look more closely at the ecology that takes place on the forest floor. Because of the continued burning of fossil fuels, nitrogen deposits from acid rain are expected to double in the next 100 years worldwide, so it is crucial that we fully understand the consequences they can have on our forests.


Brazilian Insects to the Rescue

by Michelle Werts

Guava. It’s a juice-bar staple because of its abundant amount of fiber, vitamins A and C, folic acid and other dietary minerals. In the wild, it’s a small tree, only three to 16 feet in height, with colored berries. It’s native to Brazil — and the Hawaiian forests wish it had stayed there.

Brought to the tropical islands in 1825, strawberry guava has become one of the most damaging invasive species in Hawaii. Spreading rapidly across the landscape by shoots and seeds, strawberry guava crowds out native plant species, disrupts animal communities and causes adverse effects on Hawaii’s water. According to a study by the University of Hawaii, forests infested with strawberry guava evapotranspire — or release water into the air — 27 percent more than forests without. This means that 27 percent less water is entering Hawaii’s streams and groundwater, which means that a quarter less water is available for drinking or for feeding agriculture crops. And don’t forget about the oriental fruit flies, which love strawberry guava as much as those juice-bar aficionados, but cost Hawaii millions of dollars each year due to the damage they cause to the state’s agricultural crops.

The Brazilian scale causes strawberry guava to form growths on its leaves, which cause the tree to have less energy to grow and spread. Credit: USDA Forest Service

But hope is on its way — fittingly, from Brazil. For six years, researchers with the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry have been seeking permission to release Tectococcus ovatus, aka an insect more commonly known as the Brazilian scale, into Hawaii’s forests as a biocontrol to counter the growth and spread of strawberry guava. You see, the scale loves strawberry guava. It loves it so much that it doesn’t eat anything else. And last month, the final step in securing permission to allow the scale to gorge itself on Hawaii’s wild strawberry guava was taken when the final environmental assessment was submitted to the Department of Health’s Office of Environmental Quality Control. Per that filing, insect release will begin this month at a site on the island of Hawaii, pending any last-minute delays spurred by farmers worried that the scale will affect their strawberry guava crops.

Hold on a second: isn’t Hawaii in this mess because of the introduction of a non-native species? True. Then, won’t the introduction of another non-native species as a solution create a bigger problem? Not necessarily.

Scientists studied the Brazilian scale’s potential as a biocontrol for 15 years before proposing its release in Hawaii. During that time, it was determined that it does not and would not pose a threat to other tree and plant species in Hawaiian forests because, as already mentioned, it loves strawberry guava and strawberry guava alone. The very definition of modern biocontrol science revolves around the specification that the biocontrol be host specific — in other words, it only wants to eat the plant or tree which it’s being sought as a biocontrol against. Furthermore, in the case of the Brazilian scale, it also won’t eradicate the strawberry guava from Hawaii entirely. It will just check its growth and spread, allowing native species to have a fighting chance of growing big and strong. So strawberry guava survives, as does Hawaii’s native flora. And the tropical islands are once again a happy place for forests.


Dying of Thirst

by Katrina Marland

Aspen trees (Credit: Flickr/jcookfisher)

Aspens are particularly striking trees. Their pale bark and bright fall colors have made them the subject of nature photographers, painters and even poets. But for the last 10 years, aspens have been disappearing.

Sudden Aspen Decline — or the aptly acronym-ed SAD — has been a thorn in the side of foresters, arborists and nature enthusiasts for the better part of a decade. The phenomenon is exactly what it sounds like: otherwise healthy aspen trees suddenly and quickly sicken and die, leaving swaths of forest decimated. SAD has killed hundreds of thousands of acres of trees across much of their native range in the high elevations of our western mountains.

Was it a disease? A fungus? An insect? Scientists seemed to find each of these and more in the dead stands, but only as symptoms of a deeper, undiscovered problem. Eventually, the phenomenon was determined to be a delayed response to the drought that struck the region in the early 2000s. But even this didn’t solve the problem because though they knew what was killing the trees, they didn’t know how.

So the search was on to discover exactly how a decade-old drought kills a tree. There are two main theories. The first is that drought affects a tree’s ability to photosynthesize, which forces it to use up its stored carbon reserves until there’s nothing left — effectively starving itself. The second theory is that drought interferes with a tree’s ability to conduct water internally, and when the roots are no longer able to provide water throughout the tree, it dies. So which one is it: death by hunger or thirst? No one knew — until this week.

Scientists with the Carnegie Institution for Science believe they may have found the answer. William Anderegg and his team of researchers found that while trees affected by SAD showed some signs of impeded photosynthesis, there was overwhelming evidence of damage to their water conduction systems. Their findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that trees affected by SAD actually lost around 70 percent of their ability to conduct water, suffering crippling losses to their root system. Thirst, not hunger, was the culprit.

It may sound like depressing news, but this one detail could help scientists and foresters predict future areas at risk of SAD, an important step in restoring our aspen forests to health. And since the bulk of the damage caused by SAD has been in the Rocky Mountains, a region where forests are already decimated by the mountain pine beetle, even a little hope goes a long way.


Going to Pot

by Michelle Werts

Credit: Anthony Tenorio (kurei18)/Flickr

On a trek through many of Southern California’s national forests, you might stumble upon an unexpected invasive species: cannabis. Yes, the same cannabis that is more commonly referred to as marijuana.

The illegal production of marijuana in our national forests was first detected in 1995, and since then, the problem has spread to 20 states and 67 national forests, according to the USDA Forest Service. And it’s turning out to be a big problem with far-reaching consequences.

While debates continue across the country about marijuana’s medicinal qualities and legalization, there is no question that these clandestine growing operations are not beneficial to the health of our national forests:

  • First, forestland is cleared to make way for the new crop. During a hearing on marijuana cultivation on U.S. public lands last week, the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control co-chair, Senator Dianne Feinstein, revealed that more than 100-multi-acre sites on farmlands were discovered in Fresno County, California, this year. It’s estimated that the average plot size on public lands is 10-20 acres.
  • Next, thousands of feet of tubing are used to irrigate the site, taking water away from the native streams, lakes and watershed. Around 5,000 gallons of water per day are needed to care for an average marijuana plot. That’s water that we cannot afford to be diverted: in the last 10 years, the Colorado River’s water levels have dropped 35 percent. Since the Colorado supplies the water to many southwestern states, including the rich agricultural fields of California, having water diverted puts a big strain on water supplies.
  • Then, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, these illegal growing operations use highly toxic insecticides and other chemicals to protect the crop from insects and wildlife. And the chemicals are also entering our groundwater, spreading their toxic elements throughout the forest and beyond.
  • And as if all of that wasn’t enough, there’s the trash (130 tons of it from 335 sites) and the weapons and violence (six California homicides were related to marijuana on public lands in 2011).

How is all of this happening? Well, our national forest system consists of about 191.6 million acres. The number of employees nationwide? Around 35,000, with less than 1,000 accounting for law enforcement personnel. That’s one person per 5,500 acres, leaving a lot of unmonitored land ripe for the picking. Drug operations are taking advantage of this weakness and damaging sections of our forests in the process. The USDA Forest Service is working closely with the Office of National Drug Control Policy to improve the situation, but considering the daily fights over budget appropriations, I’m worried about funding for a slew of environmental initiatives and programs, which causes the goal of adequate funding to address issues like this to slip farther and farther away.


Say it Ain’t So, Smokey!

by Amanda Tai

Credit: Washington Post

I remember watching TV as a kid and seeing USDA Forest Service ads with Smokey Bear and his famous catchphrase, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” I also just learned that Smokey’s fire-safety campaign is the longest-running PSA campaign in U.S. history! Last week, House Republicans considered cutting Forest Service educational programs, including the famous Smokey campaign.

But this isn’t just about Smokey the Bear and PSAs. It’s about all environmental education programs. House Majority leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) led the charge in an online voting program called YouCut, which allowed people to vote on programs that the House should cut spending on. Environmental literacy programs run by the Forest Service were up for voting on last week’s YouCut ballot. The site stated that while students may benefit from environmental education, using taxpayer dollars to generate advocacy is inappropriate.

Inappropriate? As a taxpayer, I feel good knowing that children are being taught about sustainability and conservation with my tax money. These programs promote going outdoors and being active. Children need to learn to develop healthy habits and a sense of environmental responsibility. Online voters felt the same way and were able to spare the Forest Service education programs. The House GOP’s reasoning to cut environmental education is that it would reduce federal spending and save taxpayers $50 million over the next 10 years. While that may seem like a large number, it’s actually a tiny amount by federal government spending figures. Also, by cutting these programs, costs could increase in other areas like wildfire relief. Many communities rely on Forest Service education programs to increase public awareness about wildfire prevention. Without widespread public awareness, more fires could occur, and the cost of fighting these fires could increase.

Right now, with Congress scrambling to put together a budget for next year, I’m glad to see the government actually reaching out to see what people think is important. But it’s not going to be solved with just a one-time vote. This YouCut ballot is a victory for environmental education, but be sure to watch out for what other environmental programs may be up next.


Mountain Majesty

by Katrina Marland

Grand Teton National Park (Credit: Flickr/JeffGunn)

You may not have realized it, but Sunday was an important day. December 11 was International Mountain Day. Yes, I know, just about everything from waffles to pirate lingo seems to have its own day, but this is actually one to take note of.

I’ve always been exceptionally fond of mountains. I grew up in the Sierra Nevada, and today I’m lucky enough to have a fantastic view of the Rockies out my window. Part of why I like them so much is that they are so intertwined with forests — you rarely see one without the other, and so you end up with these incredibly massive formations that are literally teeming with life; you just can’t help but be impressed. And since this year’s theme for International Mountain Day was mountain forests, it seems I’m not the only one who thinks so.

All forests are important, but few have the potential to affect so many people as mountain forests. These ecosystems are directly responsible for the health of innumerable watersheds. The rivers and streams that we pull from to supply our cities and towns with water — they all start in the mountains. As the water flows from mountaintop to faucet, mountain forests protect rivers from runoff, erosion and pollution. Most of us owe the water we drink to mountains and forests we’ve never seen, and natural processes we’ve never even heard of.

This year, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations released a new report entitled Mountain Forests In A Changing World, which explains why mountain forests are so vital to populations around the globe, and how we can work to protect them. The report is detailed, and goes into many benefits in addition to watersheds, but here are just a few key points worth knowing:

  • Although mountains cover only 24 percent of the planet’s surface, they provide 60 percent of the world’s freshwater.
  • The entire state of California (that’s more than 37 million people) relies on mountain ecosystems for its water supply.
  • About half the population of New York State, including New York City, gets its water from the Catskill Mountains — more than 1 billion gallons every day.

A changing climate is affecting mountain forests around the world, leading to floods and droughts, allowing once-manageable pests to become dangerous, and causing some tree species to shift or die out. Here in the U.S. alone we have lost millions of acres of forest over the last decade, much of it in mountain ecosystems, particularly out west.

If you don’t live near mountains, it’s easy to dismiss them as something far off and unimportant. But as climate change continues to interfere with the natural processes in those ecosystems, we may not need reports to tell us that something is going wrong. We may see more clearly than ever that mountains, and mountain forests in particular, are vitally important to all of us, no matter where we live.


Storms Are A-Brewing

by Michelle Werts

It’s fitting that in a week when climate change talks were heating up and concluding in Durban, NOAA (the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) announced that 2011 set a record for weather disasters in the U.S.

Strewn debris, pictured on June 14, 2011, from the EF-5 tornado that struck the Joplin, Missouri, area on May 22, 2011. Credit: U.S. Army photo/John Daves

2011 bore witness to 12 weather disasters that cost more than $1 billion in damage each for a total of $52 billion for the year thus far. Even worse than this economic toll was the loss of more than 1,000 lives due to weather catastrophes this year. These disasters ranged from the cold (January’s Midwest blizzard) to the hot (the Southern Plains and Southwest’s drought and heatwave and the Texas/New Mexico/Arizona wildfires) and from the windy (destructive tornadoes across tornado alley) to the wet (flooding along the Mississippi and a little storm known as Irene). To say that 2011 was a little rough is an understatement. And the scary thing is that this might not be as bad as it gets.

NOAA’s chief, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, says that this year’s weather disasters are not outliers, but rather “a harbinger of things to come.” Yikes!

And if you thought Mother Nature wasn’t happy before, how do you think she’ll react to even dirtier air and water?

A battle is going on in Congress over environmental riders that would regulate — or fail to regulate — our air and water, among other concerns, on the 2012 appropriations omnibus. For those not following the appropriations work closely, more than 50 riders — basically new rules and regulations — have been added to the fiscal omnibus — a single legislative document containing many laws and amendments — that pose to seriously cripple the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of the Interior’s regulations and operating budgets. In fact, according to The Hill, one of the most contentious funding items in the omnibus centers around the EPA. Some of the hotly contested issues include regulations and rules on cross-state air pollution, toxic emissions from power plants and mining operations’ water pollution.

The final text of the 2012 omnibus is scheduled to be released today so that the House and Senate can vote on it by the end of the week, which is when current government funding is expected to expire. The environmental community is waiting with baited breath to see which environmentally harmful riders have remained intact in the final text or if environmental funding has been cut completely from the package, which would necessitate a continuing resolution to keep certain programs operating.

Storms are on the horizon, both figuratively and literally, so we’re shoring up and battening down the hatches to settle in for the long haul because as NOAA’s report indicates, Mother Nature will not and should not be ignored.


Here We Go Again

by Katrina Marland

Satellite images of deforestation in Brazil's Amazon (Credit: NASA)

It has been an odd week of ups and downs. For instance, NASA released new satellite images showing that coal pollution has been drastically reduced in recent years; but then an international research team showed us that global carbon emissions have gone up 49 percent since 1990. It’s not uncommon to find such highs and lows in the realm of environmental news lately and, hold on tight, because the roller coaster continues — in the Amazon.

On Tuesday, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) finished its estimate of Amazon deforestation from 2010 through 2011 — like NASA, they use satellite images to determine this — and announced that the iconic rainforest is enjoying its lowest deforestation rate in decades. Granted, the Amazon still lost about 2,400 square miles of rainforest between August 2010 and June 2011, but even that amount is 11 percent lower than the previous year. In fact, it is the lowest amount recorded since 1988, when INPE first began these annual estimates. The deforestation rate in the Amazon has been on a steady decline since a spike in 2004 — an encouraging trend that many attribute to Brazil’s longstanding Forest Code, which requires landowners to keep a certain percentage of their land as natural rainforest.

That’s the slow, fun climb to the top of the ride. Ready for the stomach-turning plunge? On the very same day that INPE announced their findings, Brazil’s Senate passed some very controversial (and highly ironic) changes to its Forest Code. Unfortunately, the new revisions also make a number of less-than-desireable changes. If the revisions are approved by Brazil’s lower house and the president and become law, the following will take effect:

  • The amount of forest that private landowners are required to protect will be reduced from 80 percent to 50 percent.
  • Landowners who violated the law before July 2008 will be granted amnesty and not be required to replant their land to bring it into compliance.
  • The margin of required protection along waterways (particularly important for watershed health throughout the Amazon ecosystem) will be reduced from 100 feet to 50 feet.

It’s worth noting that, before these revisions were proposed, Brazil was on track to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent by the year 2020, a commitment the nation made in 2009. What impact the new Forest Code will have on that goal, as well as the recently declining deforestation rate, we can only guess at this point, but I think it’s safe to say that it can’t be anything good.