Fighting for the Farm Bill

by Amanda Tai
Credit: A family farm in Harlan County, KY enrolled in CSP. USDAgov/Flickr

Credit: A family farm in Harlan County, Kentucky that’s enrolled in the Conservation Stewardship Program. USDAgov/Flickr

Last week’s fiscal cliff deal included a nine-month extension for the Farm Bill. While the deal doesn’t provide mandatory funding to energy programs in the Farm Bill, it does extend most conservation provisions that are already (or set to be) expired, like the Wetlands Reserve Program and Healthy Forests Reserve Program. Other programs like EQIP, WHIP and CSP were already authorized through 2014 in a continuing resolution and were not set to expire. Even though these programs will continue to manage existing projects, they will not be able to enroll new participants due to lack of additional funding. The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), for example, is currently working on projects across the country on approximately 50 million acres of land and was authorized to enroll an additional 12.8 million acres in 2013 under the 2008 Farm Bill. The program was established to help farmers and ranchers carry out conservation plans on their land, but without additional funding in the fiscal cliff deal, enrollment has been reduced to only one million acres in 2013.

Representative Tim Waltz (D-MN) expressed disappointment with the Farm Bill extension in the fiscal cliff deal to news outlet E&E News. A long-time champion for farmland conservation programs, Waltz commented that conservation programs need long-term planning to be successful, unlike the short-term solutions currently being offered by Congress.

Federal agencies are also disappointed. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack stated that he is pleased to see an extension included in the deal, but frustrated that Congress was unable to pass a multi-year Farm Bill. Vilsack remains committed to working with Congress to pass a reauthorized five-year bill. Waltz and Vilsack’s stance is shared by many in the conservation community who understand the importance of a five-year bill. Last year, the Senate and the House Agriculture Committees passed a five-year measure that would have streamlined conservation programs and cut back funding, but for the most part, conservation groups were on board. Even though overall spending would have been cut, conservation leaders were pleased to see bipartisan support on a measure that would extend the conservation programs tools that are so important to landowners. The fiscal cliff deal ignored these efforts and created an extension that did not help conservation programs.

American Forests has been a strong advocate for funding forest and conservation programs in the Farm Bill as part of the Forests in the Farm Bill Coalition (FIFB). The coalition will continue to push for a five-year Farm Bill. As far as next steps for Congress, the House has tentatively set a Farm Bill mark-up hearing for February 27th. I hope that with the new session (and new members) of Congress comes change and progress for the Farm Bill and its conservation programs.

Voyage Through the Ages

by Susan Laszewski

A national park that speaks to the thrill of exploration celebrates its birthday today.

Voyageurs National Park

Voyageurs National Park. Credit: tommigodwin/Flickr

Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota became the nation’s 36th national park when Richard Nixon signed it into creation in 1971, but don’t plan on taking in its sites in your car. This “Land of Lakes” is more than a third water and has a rich history of exploration by boat.

Named after the French-Canadian explorers who left Montreal for the promised riches of the fur trade, Voyageurs National Park has seen its fair share of treasure and adventure seekers. The area was so well travelled by the voyageurs and the Ojibew Indians they traded with that their route became the U.S.-Canadian border. The area did a brief stint as a destination for gold seekers in the 1890s, then several decades as a loggers’ paradise before settling into its current life as a national park. But the spirit of exploration never died.

Voyageurs was recently the site of an expedition of Teen Ambassadors to the National Park Service. The group of teens from the Twin Cities and International Falls was selected to help determine how the National Park Service could better reach out to youth. They were full of ideas, from a teen-focused website and classroom visits to youth expeditions. Last summer, they got to live some of their own suggestions, as they canoed in the footsteps of the voyageurs’ birch bark canoes, camped out under the stars and even had an encounter with a wolf.

As one ambassador told the National Park Service, “I think it’s important for our national parks to have Teen Ambassadors … Considering that young people are the future caretakers of every aspect of the country, you want to get them to care more about our national parks so they will always be around.” Another said, “The outdoor experience was incredible. We got to see a beautiful natural environment that I never saw before, and I’m so thankful for this great opportunity.”

The fur trade, gold rush and pulpwood logging in Voyageurs National Park may have ended, but as these Teen Ambassadors’ words show, there are even more valuable treasures waiting to be discovered there.

Meet a man who had a heavy hand in protecting the land that would become Voyageurs in our American Forests magazine feature, “A Man Saved by Wilderness.”

The Evils of Arson

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Nature can be hard on trees. There are floods, hurricanes and tornadoes. Then, there are bugs and disease. Basically, trees are fighting a lot of forces to survive, which is why it’s so disheartening when trees are lost deliberately to human folly. While there can be a lot of human folly to discuss, I want to talk specifically about arson.

A year ago, Florida lost its famed 3,500-year-old big tree, The Senator, when police report that a local woman lit a fire to “see better,” which promptly spiraled out of control and claimed the bald cypress.

Watercolor painting by Albert Namatjira

Watercolor painting by Albert Namatjira

Now, Australia is suffering a similar loss. Last week, police in Alice Springs discovered that two famed ghost gum trees had died in a December 30th fire … and they suspect arson. The ghost gums gained attention when they became the focal point for a series of watercolors by Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira. As related to the BBC by the Northern Territory’s Minister for Indigenous Advancement, Alison Anderson, “It’s the two trees that brought this man to prominence and brought the Northern Territory and Central Australia to prominence and put us on the world map.”

The trees were so special to the Northern Territory, not to mention its indigenous people, that the government had just finished work to protect the trees from natural bush fires and were preparing to put the trees on a national heritage register. A tribal elder, Baydon Williams, told the BBC that “Those two trees symbolized a lot of sacred areas and songlines and marking of boundaries of different skin groups and different clans.”

While American Forests first and foremost looks to protect and restore forests as a whole, we have a long connection to special, individual trees through our Big Tree program, and stories like this break our heart.

The Flycatcher Catches a Break

by Susan Laszewski
A Southwestern willow flycatcher

A Southwestern willow flycatcher brings food to her nest. Photo by S&D Maslowski.

Yesterday brought more good news for the Southwestern willow flycatcher.

Back in October, I wrote about New Mexico’s two newly designated national wildlife refuges — areas that in addition to creating great outdoor recreational opportunities for New Mexico communities, protect valuable habitat for the willow flycatcher. Well, the flycatcher is on a roll. Yesterday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated more than 200 thousand acres along 1,227 miles of river as protected critical habitat for this endangered bird. The newly protected acres — in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada —  expand upon the existing 730 miles of river that were designated as protected for this endangered bird in 2005.

Jemez River

Jemez River, New Mexico. Credit: spotzilla/Flickr

The Southwestern willow flycatcher is a small brown and gray bird that eats berries, seeds and — true to its name — flying insects. The flycatcher winters in Central America, but come April or May, it returns home to breed in the riparian forests of Arizona, New Mexico and southern California, Utah and Nevada. These streamside forest ecosystems are essential to the flycatcher’s successful breeding, but the bird has lost more than 90 percent of its historical habitat due to dams, livestock grazing and urban sprawl, among other causes. Listed as endangered in 1995, the bird’s prospects have faced another blow as severe drought of the past two years has left its habitat even more vulnerable.

One of the best ways to help with the latter problem is to reforest streams’ banks. American Forests has been working with WildEarth Guardians to plant 100,000 willows, aspen and other trees along streams in the headwaters of the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico, restoring areas damaged by grazing, improving water quality and restoring nesting habitat for the flycatcher.

The flycatcher had some victories in 2012 and is off to a good start in 2013. Let’s hope that with these improvements to its habitat, we start seeing recovered populations of this little bird in the years ahead.

Tigers’ Welcome Return

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Amur tiger

Amur tiger. Credit: ucumari/Flickr

Amur tiger and cub

Amur tiger and cub. Credit: digitalART2/Flickr

For years, one of my holiday gifts to my wildlife-loving brother has been a wall calendar featuring gorgeous photography of wolves, polar bears or anything else that really pops that year. This year’s calendar was “Wild Cats,” featuring the biggest and baddest felines around. I bought it with a little bit of a heavy heart, though, knowing that wild cat populations around the world are severely threatened. Little did I expect that a new report would give some hope to big cat lovers everywhere.

Last week, the Wildlife Conservation Society announced that its scientists are seeing a recovery of tigers in a few key Asian ecosystems, one of which is very familiar to American Forests: Russia.

A decade ago, American Forests Global ReLeaf partnered with a number of Russian agencies to plant Korean pines to help the Amur, or Siberian, tiger. Found only in the Russian Far East and a few areas of China and Korea, the Siberian tiger was almost extinct by the middle of the 20th century, at less than 100 tigers left in the wild. Today, the species population has risen to between 350 and 500, leaving it still endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

Much of the tiger’s woes last century came from big game hunting, and while poaching can still be an issue, the challenge it faces today is habitat loss. As Korean pine trees have become more desirable around the world for their pine nuts and the oil they produce, logging has begun taking a toll on the Siberian tiger’s habitat and that of its prey. American Forests reforested 370 acres of Russia with 130,000 Korean pines in the early 2000s to help the tigers.

Two years ago, Russia listed the Korean pine in CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) in an effort to make illegal logging efforts more difficult to help preserve habitat for the tiger. Also in 2010, Russia hosted the first International Tiger Conservation Forum, in which 13 countries containing tiger habitat committed to doubling the animal’s population by 2022. To help this effort along, in October 2012, Russia established a new wildlife refuge, designed to create a corridor along the Russia-China border that is considered to be critical tiger habitat. Well done!

While the world’s tiger populations still have a ways to go, this good news from Russia — and India and Thailand, which were also mentioned in the new report — is a positive step for such a majestic animal that I hope is roaming the forests for generations to come.

Cliff Hanger

by Amanda Tai
Credit: Phil Roeder/Flickr

Credit: Phil Roeder/Flickr

As most people celebrated the New Year with confetti and champagne, Congress was on Capitol Hill trying to reach a last-minute agreement. The New Year’s negotiations finally ended when House Republicans agreed to a deal passed in the Senate, which was pulled together by Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY). But even though Congress reached an agreement, there is still a long road ahead.

The compromise extends unemployment benefits and Bush-era tax cuts for middle and lower-income Americans, while increasing taxes for the top income bracket, meaning individuals earning more than $400,000 or households earning more than $450,000. This change will bring in around $600 billion in new tax revenue from the wealthiest taxpayers, which may sound like good news to the majority of Americans, but the Congressional Committee on Taxation has estimated that extending tax cuts will actually cost the Treasury about $4 trillion over the next 10 years.

So what does that mean for reducing the federal deficit? Well, like I said, the agreement isn’t perfect, but it did help avoid a hasty shift towards big spending cuts. These cuts would have had a huge impact on government agency programs, including the U.S. Forest Service and other conservation programs. In December, American Forests worked with groups like America’s Voice for Conservation, Recreation, and Preservation (AVCRP) to meet with staffers and advocate for these programs. Although the agreement temporarily spared cuts, it still left a lot to be determined in 2013.

The decision on budget sequestration has been rescheduled for two months from now. Congress will also face the big question about whether or not to raise the debt ceiling in February or March. Such measures may provide short-term answers and relief for the economy, but there’s still the underlying issue Congress needs to address: how to shrink the gap between revenues and expenditures.

Perhaps a new year will provide a fresh outlook for Congress, especially with the newly elected members arriving on Capitol Hill this week. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few months, as the new Congress begins to tackle these big decisions on the national debt and economy.

Our Most Popular Facebook Posts of 2012

by Susan Laszewski

We’ve loved sharing our milestones and our love of forests with our friends in 2012. Before the year ends, let’s take a look back at some of the stories people loved most:

10. Redwood National Park

Redwood National Park

Redwood National Park. Credit: RedwoodCoaster/Flickr

People like what we do here at American Forests because they love the forests we protect. It’s no surprise that a photo paying tribute to one of America’s most iconic forests — the coastal redwood forest of Redwood National Park — attracted so much attention. Colossal beauties like these are a BIG part of why we do what we do.

9. Partnering With Fike

Coming in at number nine is a story of environmental responsibility from the corporate world. The announcement that industrial manufacturer Fike would be partnering with American Forests to plant trees to offset carbon emissions from discharges of their clean agent fire suppression system — and then some — was welcome news to many.

8. Winter Wonderland

We can’t resist sharing some of the many beautiful photographs we stumble upon. This shot of an urban forest in Szczecin, Poland, reminded some of a forest near their own neighborhood, and many took a moment to visit our donations page and support our work for forests like these.

7. Subaru Share the Love

In August, we asked friends and fans to vote for us to be part of the Subaru “Share the Love” event. In the end, we didn’t win, but we sure did feel the love. Thanks for all your support!

6. Urban Forests Video

We could go on and on about the benefits of urban forests, but much like science class back in middle school, sometimes a video is more fun.

Blue Ridge Mountains

Blue Ridge Mountains. Photo: Jeffrey Pott/Flickr

5. Blue Ridge Mountains

Our 2012 Global ReLeaf projects ranged far and wide, but Facebook friends were especially taken by Jeffrey Pott’s gorgeous shot of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the story of the longleaf pine we’re working with the National Wild Turkey Federation to restore there.

4. Olympic National Park’s Anniversary

As one reader put it, “Olympic National Park is beautiful and for anyone who wants to feel as though they are the only person on Earth, a sojourn in the rainforest will give you that rare, precious feeling.”

3. Smokey Bear’s Birthday

You joined us in wishing Smokey Bear a very happy birthday as he turned 68 on August 9. Smokey — and the U.S. Forest Service — have certainly learned a lot about how to best protect our forests since the character made his first appearance back in 1944. But one thing that’s remained the same is the lovable bear’s commitment to teaching us all how to responsibly enjoy our time in the forest.

At American Forests, we feel a special affinity for dear Smokey as we’ve been fighting similar battles against intense forest fire ourselves. We think the bear would approve of our appeal to Secretary Vilsack to use the FLAME Act to fight wildfires as intended, for example.

2. Seven Sisters Oak

People love big trees! You proved it again in September as you joined us in our countdown to the release of the fall National Register of Big Trees. We speculated whether the Patrick Henry osage-orange would keep its crown (it did) and marveled at the Cincinnati shingle oak, but the tree that really captured peoples’ hearts this year was the Seven Sisters champion live oak in Louisiana.

Seven Sisters Oak

The champion live oak in Louisiana known as the Seven Sisters.

And, finally: our most popular Facebook post of 2012:

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The list ends as it began — as a testament to everyone’s love for our nation’s forests. We wished the National Park Service a happy birthday with some photo albums of some of the many amazing parks, including the most visited national park — Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

What stories from the forest await us in 2013?

From Tinsel to Mulch

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

From the “most wonderful time of the year” to maybe the most dreaded: holiday clean up.

It’s estimated that each year, more than 25 million live Christmas trees decorate people’s homes, businesses and other establishments during the holiday season. That’s a lot of pine needles! These trees represent just a fraction — seven percent — of the 350 million Christmas trees growing on farms throughout the U.S., and more trees are planted by farmers than are used each year: The University of Illinois reports that one to three seedlings are planted for every tree harvested.

Mulching Christmas trees

Mulching Christmas trees. Credit: Gwydion M. Williams/Flickr

But what happens to the harvested trees once their yuletide job is done? In many communities across the country, they get put to work again — just in a different form.

For instance, in New York City, the Department of Sanitation has already instituted its annual curbside pickup program, which simply requires residents to remove all ornamentation from the tree (tinsel, stands, ornaments, etc.) and place it on the curb for pickup. The non-bagged trees are then collected by the city, chipped and made into compost, which is used to provide nutrients to the Big Apple’s many parks, gardens and sports fields. This is a fairly common practice in municipalities across the country, but some other places get even more creative.

In Gadsden, Alabama, residents can once again drop their live trees at the Aquaculture Center of Gadsden State Community College, which plans to drop the trees in its campus’ ponds to create habitat and spawning grounds for yellow perch. The Missouri Department of Conservation has a similar goal in mind, as it’s collecting trees to create fish habitat in multiple St. Louis-area lakes.

A quick internet search should be able to help you find the tree-cycling program in your area.

And while you’re thinking about trees, think about heading over to our Donate page to help us continue to protect and plant forests and trees. You have a few more days to get those tax-deductible gifts in before we welcome 2013.

Creativity in the Wild

by Susan Laszewski

Have you ever been strolling through the park and suddenly been hit by with a sense of clarity or the solution to a problem you didn’t even know you were thinking about? Or said to yourself, “I need some fresh air,” just as you were on the verge of throwing in the towel on a difficult task?

Yesterday, we shared a video with you about how trees help create a sense of calm and reduce stress. Director of our Urban Forests program Melinda Housholder has also written on the positive effects of urban forests on our health — both mental and physical. Now, a study published earlier this month in PLOS One addresses the effect of time spent in nature on the creative intellect as well.

Thinking and creating in nature

Some of the best thinking and creating takes place in nature. NPS photo by Michael Quinn.

Past research has shown that exposure to nature helps with attention — an effect known as the Attention Restoration Theory — making outdoor playtime important for development. David Strayer, a cognitive scientist at the University of Utah, wanted to test whether exposure to nature had similar effects on higher-level cognitive tasks, specifically creative problem solving. Based on personal experience, he hypothesized an emphatic “yes” answer to his question and teamed up with outdoor leadership program provider Outward Bound to test his theory. Their tool was the Remote Associates Test — an established test of creative problem solving that will seem familiar to anyone who’s played the game Taboo. (Wilderness adventure and Taboo? I’m starting to wish I’d been a participant in this study!) Half of the 56 participants took the test before heading out into the great outdoors and the other half took it four days into their trip, with the wilds of Alaska, Colorado and Maine as the setting.

Not surprisingly, those who took the test four days into the trip did better, but what may surprise you is just how much better they were able to problem solve: Those four days of immersion in the natural environment increased problem-solving success by 50 percent!

While it’s true that such research could have far-reaching implications for our education system, work structure and other institutions, it also suggests a much more easy-to-enact change: get outside more. You don’t have to be heading out on a three-week trek into the wilderness to take time out from your electronic devices and take a walk outdoors — whether outdoors means the Alaskan wilderness or a nearby city park. The science just keeps piling up: Nature is good for you.

Grand canyon

Painting at the Grand Canyon. NPS photo by Michael Quinn.

Video Break: Urban Forests

by Loose Leaf Contributor

For today’s post, we’d like to give our readers a fun three-minute break. If you enjoy these short videos about the benefits of urban forests, please share them with your friends and tell your city council how much your neighborhood trees mean to you!

  1. Urban Forests Cool Our Cities

    Trees and greenspaces in cities cool our cities, reducing heating and cooling costs and making time outdoors more pleasant, but often this benefit is forgotten in the midst of other municipal concerns. Contact your city council or mayor’s office to tell them how important trees are in your city.
  2. Urban Forests Clean Our Air

    Trees and greenspaces in cities clean our air, reducing smog and pollution, but often this benefit is forgotten in the midst of other municipal concerns. Contact your city council or mayor’s office to tell them how important trees are in your city.
  3. Urban Forests Create Happy Cities

    Trees and greenspaces in cities create a sense of calm and community, reducing stress, but often this benefit is forgotten in the midst of other municipal concerns. Contact your city council or mayor’s office to tell them how important trees are in your city.