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.



A Balancing Act

by Amanda Tai

Talladega National Forest. Credit: USDAgov/Flickr

Talladega National Forest in Alabama is a prime destination for recreational hikers and wildlife watchers. It all began in the 1930s, when the federal government purchased an eroded wasteland and helped transform it into a rich forest ecosystem. Today, Talladega National Forest is well-known for its popular hiking trails, used by many visitors and Alabama residents. But despite its successful restoration and popularity among outdoor recreationalists, the forest still faces challenges. Threatened longleaf pine habitat and endangered species like the red-cockaded woodpecker are found in Talladega National Forest. This year, American Forests is working with the National Wild Turkey Foundation to plant 31,000 longleaf pines in Talladega National Forest to help restore the tree species.

Another growing threat for Talladega National Forest is energy development. Last week, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service announced their plan to auction off leases on the forest’s 43,000 acres of land for oil and gas exploration. If properly managed and in the appropriate spot, this type of energy development can be okay on public lands. But when aggressive efforts interfere with fragile ecosystems and species, it can become a problem.

Red Cockaded Woodpecker on a Longleaf Pine tree. Credit: USFWS Headquarters/Flickr

Opponents of energy development on public lands are weary of the hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) methods that may be used to extract gas and oil. The fracking process involves injecting high volumes of water, sand and chemicals into rock formations in order to break up the rock and allow gas or oil to flow upwards. Fracking is a controversial method for oil and gas extraction because it has been shown to contribute to serious health problems and water pollution, as groups like NRDC point out. Other groups, like the Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development, are working to strike a balance on public lands and reform oil and gas development.

Like with other fracking plans (Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and Barnett Shale in Texas), the Talladega announcement was met with protest from local officials, outdoor recreation enthusiasts and other residents. In response, the BLM and U.S. Forest Service recognized the need for public input on the matter and halted the auction, which was set for June 14th. While the auction is suspended for Talladega, the agencies say that they are still pursing energy development in other national forests. In the face of our country’s increasing energy demands and transition to a sustainable energy economy, it’s often tricky to find the right balance for public land use.


Meet the Street View Trekker

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

I tend to be adverse to technology. I have a “dumb” cell phone that is mainly used for phone calls, although an occasional text will pass its way. I prefer my books as physical books — can I admit that on a blog about forests? When going places, I rely on handwritten directions and a good ol’ map versus a GPS. But one piece of technology that I’ve always found simultaneously useful, fascinating and creepy is Google Street View. And last week, those crazy individuals — and by crazy, I mean über-talented — at Google announced that they were taking their street view to a whole new level.

In the past, their maps have been limited to places that you could get to using motorized vehicles like cars, snowmobiles, trolleys and, in the case of the Amazon and its rainforest, boat. Foot-based expeditions, though, were verboten, as the equipment wasn’t conducive for such trips. All of that has now changed with the unveiling of Google’s 40-pound, backpack-style Street View Trekker.

According to, the device took Google a year to build, features 15 five-megapixel cameras that capture images to a hard drive and runs off a computer powered by Android. All of this technology in a backpack form will enable someone to simply strap on the pack and set off into the great unknown, while the cameras record a 360-degree view of the trek that will then be uploaded to Google and placed online for all to enjoy. Because the Street View Trekker will be subjected to individuals scrabbling around uneven terrain, eventually, Google hopes to make the device smart enough to analyze one’s gait and enable it to make adjustments for unusual vibrations.

The Google team has already tested the Trekker on ski slopes and hopes to soon take it to the Grand Canyon and other national parks, as well as historic castles and ruins. Now, while I highly recommend getting out to see these places in person — as nothing beats seeing natural wonders up close and personal — I applaud Google for helping celebrate these places by documenting them for people who might not be able to make the trek to these environmental icons. As something designed to share the beauty of the world with people around the world, this is one piece of technology I think I can get behind.

An Environmental Upbringing

by Loose Leaf Team

Today, Loose Leaf welcomes a guest blogger who will be joining us weekly this summer to write about forests, nature and environmental news. Caity Gonano will be a senior this fall at Virginia Tech and is spending her summer interning here at American Forests, immersing herself in our world of forests and trees, which as you’ll see from her post below is a natural fit. ~K&M

Wild Horses in Corolla, North Carolina

Wild Horses in Corolla, North Carolina. Credit: Gary Cooper/Flickr

For as long as I can remember, I have grown up in an environmentally conscious household, and most of my childhood memories revolve around spending time outdoors. I feel a strong relationship with the Earth and can credit most of this to the way I was brought up. I remember my response to junk food in preschool being, “I don’t know if I can eat this. My mom’s sort of a health and environment nut; she recycles and puts wheat germ in her morning shake.” Although embarrassed as a kid to have carrots in my lunch instead of Twinkies, I am extremely grateful that I was brought up to know the importance of conserving and respecting the environment and to have been able to experience nature firsthand in ways most people cannot.

One of my favorite places growing up was Corolla, North Carolina, on the northern part of the Outer Banks. I have come to love and appreciate the variety and quiet nature of the secluded community. Over the years, I have been chased out by a hurricane and woken up to wild horses in my front yard. Sadly, I have also witnessed environmental threats to the beauty of the beaches and variety of wildlife. I find my personal connection with such a place is what keeps me so interested in nature and wanting to preserve it.

Poás Volcano National Park, San José, Costa Rica

Caity and some classmates in Poás Volcano National Park, San José, Costa Rica. Credit: Liz Bell

During my senior year of high school, I went to Costa Rica with a group of 15 or so kids in my AP Environment class to enjoy and observe the ecologically diverse country. We took the trip to survey various tree species and learn of the diminishing populations of much of the wildlife. While there, we also ziplined through rainforests, walked across natural bridges and hiked to the top of active volcanoes. It was easy to forget I was initially there to do more than just vacation, but to enhance my understanding of the effects of climate change on the various Costa Rican communities.

Most recently, I have been a witness to the inspiring power of the environment. My mom, an occupational therapist, has created a unique therapy approach that provides all the benefits of traditional therapy with the added benefits of a truly natural environment. With the help of animals (horses, miniature sheep, chickens and ducks) and nature, she motivates children to develop new skills, become stronger and improve social skills, while participating in sensory-rich activities on our seven-acre farm.

All of this has just served as inspiration over the years, but as I get older, I realize I have the opportunity to implement everything I have grown up with into my own environmentally conscious life, and I look forward to conversing with you each week about the latest news, science and extraordinary things happening in nature.

Trees of the Sea

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Mangroves in Koh Hong, Thailand

Mangroves in Koh Hong, Thailand. Credit: Jim Winstead (jimw)/Flickr

When I hear the word ocean, I picture sparkling blue waters, colorful fish and wide open sky. Having been accused of being able to swim better than I walk, I have a natural affection for all types of water, including oceans. So today’s celebration of World Oceans Day is near to my heart. The idea of a day celebrating oceans was first proposed back in 1992 at the Earth Summit and was then unofficially celebrated for almost two decades until the United Nations officially declared June 8th as World Oceans Day in 2008. Wondering why I’m talking about oceans on a tree blog? Beyond being near to my heart, oceans are also dear to a certain tree species.

Meet the mangroves.

These trees include 80 different species that grow along tropical coastlines — most within 30 degrees of the equator — with oxygen-poor soils and slow-moving water. Actually, they don’t grow along the coastline: They grow in the water itself. Their roots act like stilts, holding their branches above the wake. This unique structure allows them to withstand the ebb and flow of the tides. They also have an ultrafiltration system to regulate the amount of salt in their system.

Beyond being fascinating to view and contemplate, mangroves provide crucial benefits to the tropical and subtropical ecosystems that they call home:

  • They provide shelter underwater for schools of fish, oysters, crabs and other aquatic life, and their branches provide shelter and food for birds, monkeys, bats, bees and more.
  • Their complex roots slow the water lapping the shore, helping control sediment buildup and reducing erosion from the shore.
  • They protect shoreline communities, acting as a buffer against powerful waves and storms.

Despite their important contributions to these ecosystems, though, mangroves are disappearing, thanks to activities like industrial shrimp farming and house/community building — beachfront property is always sought after. In the last 50 years, the world has lost about 50 percent of its mangroves. As a result, groups like American Forests have been working over the years to restore mangrove forests. For more on mangroves and the difficulties they face, check out the American Forests feature “Mangroves in the Mist.” And while celebrating the oceans today, give a thought to the trees who love the oceans, too.


Credit: Senorhorst Jahnsen (rabanito)/Flickr

An Unfair Trade

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

shipping containers

Shipping containers from Asia in the port of Oakland (Photo credit: MentalMasala/Flickr)

As a culture, we’re used to getting our products from just about anywhere in the world. In someone’s home, it isn’t uncommon to find coffee from Mexico, chocolate from Ghana, fruit from Ecuador, shrimp from Thailand and so on. We’ve gotten so used to it that we hardly notice. But the downside of having our stuff come from all over the planet is that we’re so far from the source, we don’t really register the environmental impact of our products.

A new study, recently published in the journal Nature, has taken the first fully comprehensive look at the ties between global trade and environmental impact. The team of researchers started with data on 25,000 animal species from the Red List — the list of species that are internationally recognized as threatened or endangered. Then, they looked at more than 15,000 products traded across 187 different countries and a stunning five billion supply chains, taking into account everything from the pollution created by manufacturing plants to the amount of deforestation caused by harvesting a product or the extent to which re-routing waterways for crop irrigation can affect local environments. By cross-checking all this information, researchers found that 30 percent of threats to animal species are a direct result of international trade.


Orangutans in Indonesia are suffering extreme habitat loss because of the demand for palm oil (Photo credit: ArianZwegers/Flickr)

That number includes only direct effects of the supply chain, and doesn’t even take into account factors like the consequences of invasive species. Plants, fungi, diseases and animals can hitch a ride on shipping containers, in packing materials, in the bilge water of ships and a number of other ways to find themselves on our turf, making a new home for themselves in our native environments. As we know from our oh-so-pleasant dealings with critters like the gypsy moth and emerald ash borer, invasive species can cause severe and widespread damage all on their own.

Digging into the team’s data with greater detail, the researchers were able to pinpoint the products and countries that contribute the most to biodiversity loss, and those that suffer most because of it. They found that the U.S. was the top nation contributing to the problem because of its demand for imported goods — with Japan, Germany, France and England trailing not far behind. The flow of coffee and tea from Mexico to the U.S., for instance, is linked to 57 separate threats to species. On the other end of the supply chain, Indonesia, Madagascar Papua New Guinea, the Phillipines and Sri Lanka are paying the highest price, with the most loss of biodiversity.

Despite the fact that our international trade habits are driving species to the brink, it’s hard to imagine everyone suddenly agreeing to go without commodities like coffee or chocolate. So what can we do? The team that conducted the study hopes that their findings will lead to stricter regulations and better labeling practices so that consumers can be more aware of the impact of what they buy. Hopefully, they’re right. But I also hope that people concerned about the impact their products have on biodiversity will do some research beforehand on the brands they buy. A dollar may not go very far these days, but its impact can be felt around the world.

The Many Sides of Wildfire

by Amanda Tai

Wildfire has frequently been in the headlines this past week, as a megafire continues to blaze through the Southwest. Two separate fires, the Whitewater and Baldy, that began last week have merged and taken over Gila National Forest, becoming the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history. The Whitewater-Baldy fire has caused several highway and recreation site closures to ensure civilian safety. Burning 15 miles east of Glenwood, New Mexico, the fire started as a result of two lightning strikes and severe drought-like conditions. About 250,000 acres, approximately 390 square miles, have already been claimed by the destructive fire. To prevent the fire from spreading even faster, crews are working to contain the blaze.

You may be wondering why firefighters are trying to contain the fire rather than putting it out. It’s fairly common these days for forest managers to let wildfires burn naturally, as long as they are burning at a low intensity and are far away from people. Fire is a natural part of a forest’s life cycle that helps release necessary nutrients into the soil, and this kind of controlled, natural burning clears out debris that causes fires to spread more quickly.

Credit: Forest Service - Northern Region/Flickr

More than 1,000 firefighters are trying to keep the Whitewater-Baldy fire away from nearby communities — which is quickly spreading due to strong winds, but is burning at a lower intensity than originally anticipated. Currently, about 20 percent of the fire is contained, meaning those areas are no longer spreading and are being allowed to extinguish naturally. To accomplish this containment, firefighting crews are using a method called aerial ignition, where they get rid of debris before the wildfire reaches it, preventing the fire from spreading. With aerial ignition, debris is ignited via aircraft to keep firefighting crews far away from the flames. Despite safety precautions, firefighter safety is still a major concern for wildfire work. Just this week, tragedy struck as an aircraft carrying two Boise firefighters crashed into rugged terrain on its way to a wildfire on the Utah-Nevada border, killing both passengers.

As you can see, wildfires are an increasingly complicated matter that poses threat to both forest ecosystems and human safety. Such a complex issue requires congressional and federal agency leadership, continuous technological advancements, and community involvement. Wildfire policy must be flexible in order to adapt to changes in climate, ecosystem threats and human development. With the increase in the number of wildfires, more funding for firefighting and prevention is required, which is difficult to do with a tight federal budget.

American Forests has been a long-time advocate for a number of programs and policies that address the numerous sides of wildfires. One of these — the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act — enforces funding for wildfire prevention and suppression without dipping into other funding pools. Another is the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program that has as one of its main goals to reduce the costs of fire suppression in overgrown forests by proactively managing the forests before a fire hits. These and other programs are necessary to reduce the effects of out-of-control fires and introducing natural fire back into the forest life cycle. Fitting everything into the federal budget can be a tricky game, but it’s critical for the sake of forest communities and ecosystems that proactive approaches to wildfire management remain a funding priority.

Celebrating World Environment Day

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Today marks the 40th World Environment Day.

Started in 1972 by the United Nations, World Environment Day aims to be “the biggest and most widely celebrated global day for positive environmental action.” Each year, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) chooses a theme to help focus its environmental message around World Environment Day and the rest of the year. This year, that theme is “Green Economy: Does it include you?”

And while the phrase “green economy” might not scream forests, forests are actually an important element of the world economy. According to UNEP’s Green Economy report on forests:

Forest goods and services support the economic livelihoods of over 1 billion people, most of whom are in developing countries and are poor. While timber, paper and fibre products yield only a small fraction of global GDP [Gross Domestic Product], public goods derived from forest ecosystems have substantial economic value estimated in the trillions of dollars. Forests sustain more than 50 percent of terrestrial species, they regulate global climate through carbon storage and protect watersheds. The products of forest industries are valuable, not least because they are renewable, recyclable and biodegradable. Thus, forests are a fundamental part of the earth’s ecological infrastructure and forest goods and services are important components of a green economy.

Chitwan National Forest, Nepal

Chitwan National Forest, Nepal. Credit: chaostrophy/Flickr

For instance, in Nepal, 35 percent of the country’s citizens are involved in managing forests under community forestry practices. As a result, those involved receive employment and income through everything from protecting the forest to tree felling and log extraction to the use of non-timber forest products. And community forestry groups have been known to develop scholarship programs and provide savings and credit opportunities. All of this while Nepal’s forests now grow by 1.35 percent per year compared to a declining rate of 1.9 percent in the 1990s.

So what does this mean? If we protect and properly use our forests, they will protect and help people around the world, providing jobs while keeping our environment cleaner. Green economy indeed.

But the conversation doesn’t end today. Later this month, leaders from around the world will gather in Brazil for the Rio+20 Summit, which will continue the focus on creating a worldwide green economy to help combat global issues like the financial crisis, food crisis, ecosystem degradation and more.

Twenty years after the landmark 1992 Earth Summit, where countries adopted “Agenda 21” — a way to rethink economic growth, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection — the UN is bringing the world together again to address the major environmental issues of the day. It is once again an opportunity for concerned citizens, officials and leaders to influence how we want to shape our future. And considering the daily scientific reports of unsettling things happening in nature, in our cities and around the world that can be connected to the environment, there is no time like the present to start protecting that future.

More Trees, Please

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Across this blog and throughout the American Forests website, you can find a wealth of information about the various and sundry benefits that trees can provide — from the physical (cleaner air) to the economic (higher property value). Trees can also tell us a lot of things, whether it is the inconsequential cliché etched in their bark that “Jimmy loves Sally” or the more important (at least scientifically) history of a region’s climate. And, as pointed out recently by another blogger, trees can also tell us how wealthy a neighborhood is — from space.

In his blog, Per Square Mile, Tim DeChant discusses a 2008 study published in Landscape and Urban Planning that worked to better understand the relationship between income and tree cover in U.S. cities. What it found is that even small increases in income would increase an area’s tree cover. Similarly, even small decreases in income correlate to a decrease in tree cover. To put it simply: more money equals more trees. In his blog, Tim illustrated this point through satellite photos of high- and low-income neighborhoods. Sadly, you don’t have to look hard to see which ones are greener.

Here is a shot of Oakland, California:

Photo credit: Google Maps

Compare that to this one of Piedmont, California, less than five miles away.

Photo Credit: Google Maps

Another example can be found in the areas around Boston. Here is Somerville, Massachusetts:

Photo Credit: Google Maps

And here is the wealthier area of West Cambridge.

Photo Credit: Google Maps

The reasons behind this connection are many. Homes with higher income generally have more land and, therefore, more space for trees. Since trees can have a tougher time growing in urban settings, they’re also more expensive to obtain and care for, which means an urban tree canopy can be considered a luxury not all neighborhoods can afford. However, looking at trees as a luxury is a pretty one-dimensional view. Yes, they’re pretty, but they also provide a host of benefits, particularly in urban settings — benefits that people in high-income areas may enjoy, but that could also work to significantly improve the lives and livelihoods of people in low-income areas, like better air quality (particularly important for those who can’t afford good healthcare), higher property values and even lower crime rates. Cities always seem to have one plan or another to improve life for neighborhoods in need, many of them costly and cumbersome. Trees certainly don’t hold all the answers, but if given a chance, a touch of Mother Nature may be able to make a great deal of difference.