A Lesson From the Past

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Mayan city of Tulum ruins, Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico

Mayan city of Tulum ruins, Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Credit: Michelle Werts

The Americas have been home to many storied cultures, like the Incans of modern-day Peru and the Aztecs of modern-day Mexico. But pre-dating both of these were the Mayans, who ruled Mesoamerica — the region from central Mexico to Central America — for centuries and centuries and who are renowned for their art and architecture, astronomy, mathematics and more. Archeologists have traced the Mayan culture back to 1,800 B.C., but the civilization’s glory period would only be from 250-900 A.D. — when all of sudden the culture’s reign ended. Unlike the demise of the Incans and Aztecs that can be attributed to European conquerors, archeologists only have theories about what happened to the Mayans. In recent years, though, more and more researchers are theorizing that the climate, specifically in the form of a series of droughts, may have played a big part in this great culture’s demise — and that the Mayans themselves may have contributed to the climate change that would be their undoing.

In a new paper in Geophysical Research Letters, researchers posit that deforestation for agricultural purposes during the Mayan reign contributed to increased drought levels, which may have been a major factor in the civilization’s decline. Based on their research, the paper’s authors estimate that precipitation during this period decreased by five to 15 percent compared to what rainfall would have been with natural forest cover. Their models also suggest that up to 60 percent of this decline in rainfall is attributable to deforestation.

Mayan city of Tulum ruins, Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico

Mayan city of Tulum ruins, Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Credit: Michelle Werts

How does deforestation for agriculture increase drought? Dark, dense vegetation — like Central America’s rainforests — absorb lots of light and energy from the sun, which aids transpiration (the evaporation of water from plants and trees). Sunlight helps the pores on leaves, called stomata, open, allowing more water to evaporate. Many crop plants, like corn, absorb less light and energy, reflecting more of it back into the atmosphere and decreasing conditions favorable for rain. So, as the Mayans cut down forest to make room for their burgeoning population of more than 19 million people — and to grow food to feed those 19 million people and build magnificent, lime-plaster-based cities — a drought-prone region of the world became even drier.

The tale of the Mayans holds much resonance today: a prosperous, technology-advanced society, struggling to keep up alters its environment to help solve its problems. Except, as it turns out, altering that environment may have actually caused more problems. So maybe we should all take the Mayans as a sober, cautioning tale — and remember to look to our forests as helps rather than hindrances.

For the Love of Trees

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Earlier this month, the International Society of Arborists (ISA) announced the five members of the 2012 class of its “True Professionals of Arboriculture.”

According to ISA President Colin Bashford, “The True Professional honor is a celebration of those who reach for and strive to maintain high standards of the arboriculture industry. Their achievements and ideas educate and inspire others. We are proud they play such a leading role in promoting quality tree care.”

Since arborists are on the frontlines every day, protecting and studying trees in our cities, communities and forests, Loose Leaf is taking the next five Fridays to recognize this year’s “True Professionals” in celebration of the work of thousands of dedicated arborists across the country and around the world.

First up is Tim Kastning, an Idaho-based, ISA-Certified arborist and owner of Grace Tree Service, Inc.

Tim Kastning did not always plan on being an arborist. In fact, he was studying theology at Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo., when his “true calling” struck. He was 25 years old and doing lawn-care work as the owner of American Lawn and Garden in Springfield. While driving down a street one day, he spotted a worker aloft in a tree on a rope and saddle.

Tim Kastning

Credit: Tim Kastning/ISA

“The man was tip-tying branches and roping them down over a house,” Kastning remembers. “I watched from my truck for about a half hour, and it was there I decided I wanted to do tree work. When this person came down from the tree, I introduced myself. Right then he taught me two knots — a taught-line hitch and a bowline. I memorized them and went home to practice them. I later bought some chainsaws, rope from a farm-and-feed store and climbing gear. I thought I was prepared. I remember the first tree I pruned was a large pin oak about 30 inches in diameter, and I killed it.”

Fortunately, the death of that tree didn’t end his career. With no real formal education in arboriculture, Kastning took advantage of various industry programs and quietly got involved where he could. He became an ISA-certified arborist, a board-certified master arborist, certified tree risk assessor and certified tree care safety professional and maintains ISA certifications as a municipal arborist specialist.

Kastning looks to his community to grow as an arborist and to run a business with a clear focus on giving back. One day while at a Chamber of Commerce leadership meeting in Coeur d’Alene, he learned about ElderHelp and the firewood charity program.

“As a tree-care company, we don’t sell firewood, so I try to dispose of it however I can,” admits Kastning. “Between the United Way and ElderHelp, we formed a partnership to provide about 100 cord a year to the elderly who cannot afford to buy it. Community volunteers from churches and clubs come to our yard nearly every Saturday in the fall to split up the wood and deliver it. This wood comes from trees that have to be removed, so if we don’t sell it, it’s ground up and sent off. This is a better and higher use of it in the end.”

“I learned a lot about arboriculture on my own,” continues Kastning, “So the best advice I can give another arborist is to simply apply oneself to education and certifications, set up a business well and follow the laws. There are a lot of arborists that ‘do what we do.’ There are fewer arborists that know ‘why’ they do what they do. The more I know about arboriculture, the more I realize there’s always more to learn.” –ISA and Tim Kastning

Come back next Friday to meet an arborist who spent 25 years working in oil fields before making the switch to arboriculture.

Preparing for Wildfire

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

High Park Wildfire in Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland

A firefighter wets down area in front of private home in an effort to retard the advance of the High Park Wildfire in Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland on Thursday, June 10, 2012. The High Park Wildfire began on June 9, 2012, because of a lightning strike on private land. Credit: U.S. Forest Service

More than 6.3 million acres across the U.S. have burned in wildland fires this year so far — and dozens of fires are actively burning. Often, when we talk about wildfires, we focus on forest land-management practices, which then devolves into debates questions about fire suppression, prescribed burns and thinning and more. This can lead to policy questions and funding debates that happen far away from the burning fires. However, there are things that those most directly affected by the fires can do to help protect their homes and neighborhoods from the destruction that fire can wreak.

Smokey Bear famously proclaims that “you can prevent forest fires,” but this statement could be expanded to “and prevent the spread of forest fires.” Fires need fuel to burn — leaf debris, lawn trimmings and more all serve as food for a fire — which is why the U.S. Forest Service, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and Ad Council have instituted a new Fire Adapted Community campaign, designed to help homeowners, land managers, community leaders and fire and emergency responders institute pre-fire strategies that will help protect everyone if a wildfire strikes nearby.

What is a Fire Adapted Community? That’s pretty simple: It’s a community that acknowledges its fire risk and takes steps to diminish it.

Why is it important to become a Fire Adapted Community? Because more than 70,000 communities nationwide are near or within fire-prone ecosystems and are at risk of wildfire.

How does a community become Fire Adapted? That’s the best part: It’s not hard.

  • For individual homeowners, it’s simple things like keeping your roof and gutters clean and making sure you don’t leave your lawn clippings piled up.
  • For developers and business owners, it’s doing things like not building in high-fire-risk areas and using non-combustible building materials.
  • For neighborhoods, it means developing emergency response plans and helping homeowners keep their lawns debris free.

Wildfire knows no political, jurisdictional or other kind of boundary — pretty much just like everything related to the environment. Therefore, we must all work together to protect ourselves, our communities and our natural landscapes. To learn more about becoming Fire Adapted, visit http://fireadapted.org/.

Fire Adapted Community

Protecting Our Parks

by Amanda Tai

A scene from the Blue Ridge Parkway in the mountains of North Carolina. Credit: Soil Science/Flickr

Federal agencies are bracing themselves for a funding crisis with budget sequestration cuts looming if Congress fails to create a plan to reduce the federal deficit. To boost funding and support, could online media be a part of the solution?

The Obama administration just announced a makeover to www.recreation.gov, the interagency website to get people to explore America’s public places. The new design provides users with a more interactive experience, where they can watch videos, plan trips and even make online reservations for their upcoming adventures. It comes as part of a multi-year effort to boost the economy through outdoor recreation and travel. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack hopes the new site will help boost the estimated $646 billion that tourism and recreation already contribute to the U.S. economy. While this figure is good news for the economy, the National Park Service is still struggling to operate on a tight budget.

Soldiers in Fredericksburg after the battle of Spotsylvania, 1864. Credit: expertinfantry/Flickr

The National Park Service makes up only one-fourteenth of one percent of the federal budget. Cuts of up to 10 percent could be made across-the-board if there is a budget sequestration — even though cutting 10 percent of one-fourteenth of one percent won’t make a dent in the deficit. Park managers are highly concerned about the effect that budget sequestration could have on jobs and the ability for parks to stay open and operating. Fixed operating costs that rely on federal funds represent a high portion of park budgets like for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and Blue Ridge Parkway. These parks could really suffer if funding is cut by 10 percent. Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA), tells The Washington Post that federal funding is the number one threat to national parks, and this means that policymakers are going to have to face some tough decisions.

In a recent poll commissioned by the NPCA and the National Park Hospitality Association, voters said they want the government to ensure protection of our national parks through federal funding. Voters also expressed concern about funding shortages negatively affecting national parks’ visitor experiences. According to the poll, parks continue to receive bipartisan support, which hopefully carries over to Congress. You can urge Congress to reach a budget deal that ensures protection of our national parks by signing onto NPCA’s letter. It would be sad to see any of our national parks close, but if Congress doesn’t listen to what voters are saying, it may become a reality.

Urban Forests for Healthy Healing

by Melinda Housholder, Urban Forests Program Director

Urban forests are vital to help maintain our emotional, mental and physical well-being.

Credit: Alex E. Proimos/Flickr

The evening before I had wrist surgery a few weeks ago, I went for a jog. In a time when I was feeling anxious and just needed some time to think about the road of recovery ahead of me, I found myself jogging along a neighborhood trail within my local urban forest. I couldn’t help but notice that my surroundings immediately made me feel much better — more relaxed and encouraged to cope with the challenges ahead. That evening, I ran past the oaks, sycamores, sweetgums and elms of my community, leaving my worries behind me and feeling the peaceful strength and soothing encouragement that came from the green landscape around me.

I think most people would agree that seeing trees or being within nature can just make a person feel better — emotionally, mentally and physically. In fact, the National Park Service and Institute of the Golden Gate have recently been involved in promoting the health benefits of being outside through a program called “Park Prescriptions,” which helps connect healthcare and park resources.

The Park Prescriptions fact sheet provides several research examples of how exposure to nature has significant health benefits:

  • A Danish study published in 2007 concluded that adults who could easily reach a green space had less stress and a lower body mass. Similar results were reported in a study of more than 3,000 inner-city children in the United States.
  • A 2005 American Journal of Medicine article reported that people with ready access to parks or open spaces were 50 percent more likely to adhere to a regular walking regimen.
  • A 2010 UK study in Environmental Science and Technology showed a positive dose-response relationship between exercise in nature and mental health, particularly for young subjects. 
  • Runners reported lower levels of stress and depression when exercising in nature than when exercising in an urban setting.


As I have been slowly recovering over the past few weeks, I have truly appreciated the urban forest outside of my windows. Not only does it offer a pleasant view that blocks the busy highway, but it also offers habitat for wildlife that allows me to enjoy the song birds and rhythmic tunes of the cicadas — helping to bring a sense of peace and relaxation to my environment as I recover.

Have you ever felt that your urban forest helped improve your stress, recovery or overall state of mind?

A Hoot in the Forest

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

One of my very first “science” reports back in elementary school was on the snowy owl. Years later, that same school system would introduce me to dissection via an owl pellet — much, much better in my estimation than the cliché of a frog. Through these formative school experiences, I’ve always had a soft spot for owls, so when news broke last week about the discovery of two new owl species — made by an assistant professor at my alma mater no less! — I immediately wanted to learn more.

Top left: Cebu hawk-owl. Bottom right: Camiguin hawk-owl

Top left: Cebu hawk-owl. Bottom right: Camiguin hawk-owl. Credit: Oriental Bird Club, original painting by John Gale

In a paper in the current issue of Forktail, Journal of Asian Ornithology, researchers revealed that two owls long thought to be simple subspecies of Ninox hawk-owls are actually species in their own right. What caused this breakthrough? Bird song.

According to the paper’s lead author Pam Rasmussen, a Michigan State University assistant professor of zoology, in a release about the breakthrough, “The owls don’t learn their songs, which are genetically programmed in their DNA and are used to attract mates or defend their territory; so if they’re very different, they must be new species. When we first heard the songs of both owls, we were amazed because they were so distinctly different that we realized they were new species.”

The first of these new owls is named the Camiguin hawk-owl, after the island where it’s found: Camiguin Sur in the Philippines. An interesting, distinctive characteristic of this owl — besides its song, of course — is its blue-gray eyes, as it’s the only known owl species to have eyes that color. The second new species is actually an owl long thought to be extinct: the Cebu hawk-owl, named after the Philippine forests it calls home. Before its vocalizations were studied, scientists simply thought the Cebu hawk-owl was a subspecies of another hawk-owl.

If you’re curious about what these unique bird songs sound like, Michigan State’s Avian Vocalizations Center has them available for a listen. Who knew that a hoot could be so informative?


Returning to Stadium Woods

by American Forests

I have spent the last three months interning here at American Forests. In the next week, I will be returning to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., to complete my senior year with a wealth of knowledge of trees, forests and the environment that I have learned in these past months. I feel like I have gained so much appreciation for trees and their benefits, so when I received an email on Monday of a press release out of Blacksburg regarding the cutting down of an 85-foot tree in the old-growth forests behind my apartment at school, it hit close to home — in multiple ways.

Virginia Tech's Stadium Woods

A satellite view of the Virginia Tech campus, showing Lane Stadium the lower left with Stadium Woods running along the right of the image. The area outlined in orange is site proposed for the new practice facility. Credit: Google Maps

In April, Loose Leaf talked about the plans that Virginia Tech’s Athletic Department has to cut down the old-growth forest, Stadium Woods, that lies adjacent to the football stadium in order to build a new indoor athletics practice facility. The release about the felled oak Monday is some of the only news on the status of this project since last spring. The release states, “Virginia Tech President Charles Steger has not made an announcement stating if the university will preserve the old-growth Stadium Woods, as the appointed review committee recommended in May 2012, or allow its destruction by building the proposed indoor athletic facility.” With no announcement made about the plans for the facility, we can only hope that the death last week of this ancient tree will bring attention to the serious matter at hand.

The tree, known as number 131, represents the history and diversity of the 11 acres of old-growth forest that will be destroyed if plans for the facility go through. Rebekah Paulson, executive director of Friends of Stadium Woods, thinks that the death of this tree reveals a sad future for the still-standing forest: “Virginia Tech officials seem intent on erecting the proposed indoor practice facility for the football team no matter the environmental cost. Ignoring all requests to delay the removal of tree number 131, one of the largest trees in Stadium Woods, is another indication of the administration’s lack of respect for the old-growth trees and the integrity of the woods.” According to university officials, the tree was removed for safety reasons, as independent, certified arborists determined that number 131 had 10-foot-long hollow area near its base, making the tree unstable. However, some members of the university’s Arboretum Committee, which requested the evaluation, had asked for a reprieve for 131 while the bigger issue of Stadium Woods is being debated.

As a Hokie football fan and tree lover, this story pulls me in all directions. But I must side with the trees this time. Hopefully, number 131 will be the only tragedy this old-growth forest will have to endure in the coming years. If you would like to know more about the issue or sign the petition, you can visit http://www.savestadiumwoods.com/.

Americans Head Outside

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Fishing at Eureka Lake

Fishing at Eureka Lake. Credit: Rachel Gardner (RaGardner4)/Flickr

Last year, 90 million Americans (about 38 percent of the population) engaged in some form of wildlife recreation — from hunting and fishing to wildlife watching. According to a report released yesterday by the Department of the Interior (DOI), this equaled $145 billion spent on licenses, gear, trips and more — making up one percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. And while the idea of hunting and fishing might initially sound counterintuitive to conservation, the truth is that licenses and other expenses for these types of recreation activities help fund conservation initiatives.

In 1937, the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act was passed, followed 12 years later by the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act, whose goal was to provide funding for wildlife and fish conservation to U.S. states and territories. These acts formed the basis of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration (WSFR) Program, which administers funding to the states through a grant program. This grant program is funded largely thanks to wildlife recreation.

According to a WSFR informational brochure, “Industry partners pay excise taxes and import duties on equipment and gear manufactured for purchase by hunters, anglers, boaters, archers and recreational shooters.” Add this to taxes on motorboat and small engine fuels, firearms and ammunition, goods imported for sport fishing and boating, and fishing and archery items, and you have a nice chunk of change to distribute to states for conservation initiatives. For instance, Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources claims that 95 percent of the funds it uses for fish and wildlife management, hunting and fishing regulations and habitat protection come from the funding provided through the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson Acts.

Thankfully that funding appears to be increasing, as the new DOI report reveals significant increases in hunters and fishers since 2006 — the last time this five-year report was published — which bucked the declining trends of the last several reports. In the announcement, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar says, “Seeing more people fishing, hunting and getting outdoors is great news for America’s economy and conservation heritage. Outdoor recreation and tourism are huge economic engines for local communities and the country, so it is vital that we continue to support policies and investments that help Americans get outside, learn to fish or go hunting.”

For a program that is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, having increased engagement is a wonderful present — that will keep giving back to us all.

A Fight for Funding

by Amanda Tai

House Ag Appropriations Subcommittee at a FY 2013 budget hearing. Credit: USDAgov/Flickr

Last fall, the Congressional Supercommittee failed to reach a final deficit reduction plan. If Congress doesn’t come up with a solution again this year; government programs are going to see some devastating budget hits. It can be hard to see how federal budget cuts impact our daily lives, but to give you an idea, this series of cuts could result in reduced functions within our agriculture industry, national parks and even weather service. That’s what happens during a budget sequestration — a series of across-the-board cuts to federal programs. And if this happens, the U.S. Forest Service’s budget could be reduced by 10 percent starting as soon as January 2013!

It’s doubtful that Congress will address the budget deficit situation until after the November election. But if they wait that long, there isn’t much time left in 2012 for them to figure out a budget plan. If Congress fails to agree on a federal budget-reduction plan in the next few months, we may face a budget sequestration starting in 2013. After receiving bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, President Obama signed off on the Sequestration Transparency Act late last month, formalizing a $1.2 trillion budget cut to domestic and defense programs over the next 10 years. This act will go into effect in 2013 if Congress is unable to agree on another way to address the federal deficit and would consist of automatic cuts for federal funding across all agencies and programs. Only a few programs would be spared  from these cuts, such as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.

So what kind of impact would these budget cuts have on our national forest and land-management agencies? The cuts would begin on January 2, 2013, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) could be asked to cut up to $2.2 billion in discretionary program spending for FY 2013. That’s a 10 percent cut in the USDA budget! Falling under the USDA umbrella, a 10 percent cut for the U.S. Forest Service budget would equate to $486 million. This would have a significant impact on all of the agency’s work, including wildfire management, recreational trail maintenance, conservation projects, invasive species management, wildlife habitat restoration and the jobs associated with this work.

The Sequestration Transparency Act requires the agencies to supply the administration with a detailed report of the proposed budget cuts by the first week of September, so we should know what’s on the chopping block in the next month. Our land-management agencies are already operating under tight budgets, so I really hope I don’t have to see what happens after another slash to their budgets.

Completion of the Appalachian Trail

by American Forests

Seventy five years ago today, the 2,184-mile Appalachian Trail was completed. Finishing the trail was a huge task that took more than 15 years and hundreds of volunteers. Today, though, it is unlikely that the original volunteers would even recognize it with all the transformation it has undergone over the years.

Credit: Rebecca Sudduth/Flickr

In its 75-year existence, it is estimated that 99 percent of the original trails have been relocated or rebuilt to better protect the land and navigate more scenic landscapes. The relocations and reconstruction of the trail have made it much more sustainable since the original trail was routed straight up and down mountains, which made pathways inclined to erosion. Each year, trail crews manipulate and move sections of the trail in order to maintain and improve the path. Mark Wenger, executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry tells the Associated Press, “One of the tenets of the trail is to provide that personal experience of sort of being one with nature. You can’t necessarily do that if you’re walking along a major highway. So it’s been relocated to give it some degree of privacy and that sense of the wonder of nature.”

Fun facts of the Appalachian Trail:

  • It is estimated that five million steps are required to complete the trail.
  • It passes through 14 states: (from south to north) GA, TN, NC, VA, WV, MD, PA, NJ, NY, CT, MA, VT, NH and ME
  • The trail is marked by more than 160,000 white “blazes” that are six inches by two inches in size. They are primarily found on the trees lining the path.
  • Virginia is home to the most miles of the trail (about 550), while West Virginia is home to the least (about four).
  • Maryland and West Virginia are the easiest states to hike, while New Hampshire and Maine are the hardest.
  • The total elevation gain of hiking the entire trail is equivalent to climbing Mount Everest.
  • The trail spans across six national parks and eight national forests.

Each year two to three million people visit some section of the Appalachian Trail, but only 2,000-3,000 people each summer attempt the “thru-hike” of journeying along the entire length — and only one in four are successful. If you are anywhere along the East Coast this summer, there is a chance that the Appalachian Trail is not far out of your reach. Take a day, week or month and see how far you can make it on this historic trail. Enjoy what it is today, as, who knows, it could be completely transformed in the next 75 years.

A view along the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park.

A view along the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park. Credit: Compass Points Media/Flickr