The Fungus Eating the West

by Susan Laszewski

It’s National Invasive Species Awareness Week, and here at American Forests, we’re all-too-aware of the havoc that invasive species can wreak on our native ecosystems.


Kudzu, the plant that ate the South. Credit: SoftCore Studios/Flickr

Some invasive species really make a name for themselves. Kudzu, a vine native to Japan and China, grew over trees in parts of America so quickly that it’s been called “the plant that ate the South” and has became a poster child for invasive species.

Other invasives may lack catchy nicknames, but are no less harmful. American Forests has been working to spread awareness of one invasive with a lower profile: the fungus Cronartium ribicola — cause of the deadly white pine blister rust affecting the American West. Mountain pine beetles often take all the credit for the devastation in Western high-elevation forests in recent years, but they haven’t done it alone. Could blister rust one day be known as the fungus that ate the West?

white pine blister rust

White pine blister rust, the fungus that’s eating the West. Credit: Grav Skeldon/U.S. Forest Service

The rust, which arrived from Asia at the turn of the 20th century, moves from its alternate host — usually a plant of the Ribes genus like gooseberry — to a white pine. While the alternate host will shed its leaves in the fall, and the rust along with them, the pine will be facing a slow death. Although it may take years for the tree to die, in the meantime, the disease prevents the tree from dispersing nutrients and water, limiting its production of cones and, consequently, its ability to reproduce.

One of the white pine species susceptible to blister rust is whitebark pine, the sometimes-scraggly, other-worldly, high-elevation pines that are a keystone species in the Mountain West. The death of these pines has cascading effects throughout the ecosystem, from the biggest grizzly bear to the smallest Clark’s nutcracker, both of whom rely on the pine seeds for food. What’s more, without whitebark pine to shade snowpack, snow melts faster and sooner, causing flooding at lower elevations and even affecting the winter outdoor recreation industry.

whitebark pine seedlings

Blister rust-resistant whitebark pine seedlings planted by American Forests and the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee.

But there’s hope. About 27 percent of all whitebark pine is naturally resistant to blister rust. American Forests has been working with the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee to plant seedlings of these resistant plants. Generous donations from our supporters enabled the planting of seedlings like those shown at right, as well as our activities testing adult trees for resistance and protecting the cones of resistant trees. But we’re not done yet. Please help us continue to increase our native whitebark pines’ resistance to this ambitious invasive before it devours our Mountain West.

Urban Trees on the Hill

by Amanda Tai

It’s been a busy week for those in the urban forest community. To start the week, the National Academy of Sciences held a workshop on urban forestry. Experts from around the country gathered to discuss the benefits of urban forests and how to best leverage them to move research and policies forward.

On Wednesday, the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition (SUFC), of which American Forests is a member of the steering committee, held its annual Advocacy Day where participants from across the country met with their members of Congress to talk about urban forests. Once gathered, we got a quick rundown of the political environment on the Hill and what to expect meeting with staffers. With sequestration and budget cuts on everyone’s mind, the coalition’s objective was to make sure that Congress got the connection between federal funding for urban forest programs and the benefits to their local communities.

The U.S. Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program and Forest Health Management Program are essential for technical and financial assistance to more than 7,000 communities in all 50 states. Other programs like Urban Natural Resources Research and Early Plant Pest Detection and Surveillance found in the Farm Bill help urban forest management by making sure communities have the most up-to-date information to best care for trees in their areas.

I was the team lead for a group of folks from the Midwest, accompanying them to their various meetings on the Hill. They were quite knowledgeable about these programs. Not in the same way I learned about them in D.C., but because they received federal funding to do urban forest work in their local communities. One of my team members, Lydia Scott from Lisle, Ill., works at the Morton Arboretum. The Morton Arboretum is one of the best tree research centers in the country that helps inform everyone from landscape architects to public officials. Lydia brought brochures that were created through U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) funding to inform citizens and communities in the greater Chicago area about emerald ash borer (EAB), which is a huge problem in the Midwest. (For more on emerald ash borer, see the American Forests magazine feature “Will We Kiss Our Ash Goodbye?”) With the help of USDA funding, these brochures help people identify affected trees and provide them with information and options for how to treat their trees.

Daniella Pereira from Openlands was also part of my group. I learned that the Openlands TreeKeeper program (partly funded by the U.S. Forest Service) helps train volunteers in the Chicago area to take care of trees, especially those affected by EAB. Not only does this program help trees, but it also gives citizens knowledge and skills that they can use later in life. It also provides them the opportunity to engage with their community while building a sense of land stewardship.

It was amazing to see how federal funding really does trickle down to local communities, and I felt appreciative and humbled to actually meet folks doing this great work on the ground.

My Midwest SUFC group in front of the Capitol Building before their first meeting.

My Midwest group took a quick photo op in front of the Capitol Building before their first meeting. From left to right: David Forsell from Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, Scott Jamieson from Bartlett Tree Experts, Daniella Pereira from Openlands, and Lydia Scott from Morton Arboretum.

The Green Budget and Advocacy

by American Forests

By Josh DeLacey

The Green Budget — a document published every year to illustrate the effect of federal conservation funding and programs on our public lands and ecosystems — debuts today, and I’m out getting it in senators’ and representatives’ hands. Well, to be more accurate, I get to help put it into their staffers’ hands. Still, this will be my first time advocating on my own, and I’m excited.

Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C.

Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. Credit: Michael Colburn

I started interning at American Forests less than a month ago, and through a whirlwind of meetings, research, writing and assisted advocating, I’m getting a handle on the conservation world. Today, I get to find out if I’ve learned enough to avoid embarrassing myself on the Hill.

The Green Budget that I’ll be distributing is the product of more than 30 environmental organizations, including American Forests, National Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society. American Forests’ senior director of programs and policy, Rebecca Turner, Esq., penned a majority of the Green Budget section related to U.S. Forest Service programs. It serves as a guide to the conservation programs that exist throughout the federal government and is meant for members of Congress, as well as for any organization or individual interested in environmental issues. The Green Budget shows the impacts of federal conservation funding on the nation’s lands, waters, natural resources and clean energy resources. It showcases the programs those of us in conservation care about, and it reveals how much those programs depend upon their already reduced, federal funding.

With the threat of sequestration looming, the Green Budget is more important than ever. And that’s why, although I’m excited for today’s advocating, I’m also nervous. There’s something about talking with a guy who reports directly to a representative who votes in the U.S. Congress that makes your work feel important. I mean, policy is (or isn’t) happening here — and either way, that has some significant effects. I expect to leave Capitol Hill exhausted and satisfied at the end of today. With a full schedule, a stack of Green Budgets and rampant excitement and nervousness, I am ready for a day of advocating.

Appreciating Our Western National Parks

by American Forests

By Tacy Lambiase

Grand Teton National Park. Credit: Florin Chelaru/Flickr.

Grand Teton National Park. Credit: Florin Chelaru/Flickr.

This week, we’re celebrating some of the most important anniversaries in the history of the National Park Service. Grand Teton National Park, founded on February 26, 1929, and Yellowstone National Park, founded on March 1, 1872, are two of the most iconic and beloved national parks in the United States. Every year, thousands of people visit these parks to experience the beauty and majesty of our natural environment. The establishment of these two protected areas continues to be a testament to our country’s recognition of how important national parks are to preserving wilderness habitats.

Stretching across Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, Yellowstone National Park draws millions of visitors every year to see its impressive mountain ranges, canyons and wildlife. But while Yellowstone has become famous for its plethora of geysers and bubbly hot springs, this national park is also known for beginning a worldwide effort to protect and preserve natural environments. Founded by Congress through the Act of March 1,1872, Yellowstone became the world’s first national park. According to the National Park Service, the creation of Yellowstone sparked a “worldwide national park movement” that has so far led to the establishment of 1,200 national parks and preserves in more than 100 countries. Since 1872, the United States alone has protected enough land to warrant the creation of 59 national parks to preserve beautiful landscapes and natural resources for future generations.

Upper Yellowstone Falls in Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Daniel Mayer/Wikimedia Commons.

Upper Yellowstone Falls in Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Daniel Mayer/Wikimedia Commons.

The next-door neighbor of Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park was established in 1929 through an executive order signed by President Calvin Coolidge. Almost an extension of Yellowstone (the parks are only 10 miles apart from each other), Grand Teton National Park encompasses the Teton Range and several lakes at its base. Home to hundreds of plant and animal species, Grand Teton provides visitors and residents of Wyoming with a pristine environment perfect for outdoor recreation and exploration.

Although more than 84 million acres of land are protected in national parks across the country, Americans must continue advocating for the well-being of their public lands. While Grand Teton and Yellowstone remain protected under federal law, the health of their forests remains in jeopardy. In recent years, the forests in these iconic parks have become threatened by mountain pine beetles, white pine blister rust and a warming climate. Through our Endangered Western Forests program, American Forests has developed a six-point plan to protect and restore forests in the Greater Yellowstone Area. With initiatives to plant blister rust-resistant seedlings and partner with local organizations, American Forests hopes to ensure that these national parks can continue celebrating their anniversaries for many years to come. Join us in protecting these treasured national parks.

The Sequester and Our National Parks

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

That didn’t take too long. Last month, I wrote about the renewed, and concerning, focus on both the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Antiquities Act by the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation and its chairman, Rep. Rob Bishop. Well folks, action has come quickly.

Boating down the Colorado River below Havasu Creek in Grand Canyon National Park

Boating down the Colorado River below Havasu Creek in Grand Canyon National Park. Credit: Mark Lellouch/NPS

On February 5, Rep. Bishop sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) requesting a study on the financial and time costs, associated litigation and delays due to NEPA that the Departments of Defense, Interior, Transportation and Energy and the U.S. Forest Service incurred over the last five years. The GAO request was co-signed by the chairmen of the House Committees on Natural Resources, Energy and Commerce, Armed Services, and Transportation and Infrastructure. And while the natural reaction might be “it’s only a study,” remember that in the world of politics, very rarely is anything as simple as it may seem. My instincts are telling me this study is just the tip of a long-smoldering volcano (yes, I mixed my metaphors) and is merely the lead-in to a strong push for a reformed or scaled-back NEPA process. We shall see.

The push for potential NEPA reform, however, is far from the front burner of policy news this week. That dubious honor goes to the sequester. You have no doubt been inundated with all manner of news about the effects of this crisis. As the deadline draws closer for Congress to act before the $85 billion in cuts goes into effect, more details emerge as to what this means for us all.

Looking westward from a part of Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road called Big Bend, just west of Logan Pass

Looking westward from a part of Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road called Big Bend, just west of Logan Pass. Credit: David Restivo/NPS

The National Park Service issued a memo at the end of January outlining the “priority” of cuts that it needs to make if the sequester takes place. The Park Service is responsible for about $110 million in cuts. While nominally, this is a five percent cut, due to its timing, the effect would be more along the lines of an eight or nine percent cut. For better or worse, it appears that personnel costs, including hiring and furloughs, are first in line to be cut by the Park Service. These cuts will, in turn, impact the operation of the parks themselves.

According to the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, the personnel cuts required under the sequester, along with additional budgetary cuts that must be made, will delay the openings of the entrance roads to Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Parks by up to a month. Grand Teton National Park will see the closure of visitor centers and a nature preserve for the entire season while Great Smoky Mountains National Park will suffer the shutdown of five campgrounds and picnic areas. The opening of Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road will be delayed two weeks while Grand Canyon National Park will delay opening the East and West Rim drives. Yet, these are perhaps just the most tangible impacts. Reduced numbers of park personnel means limited operating hours for visitor centers; less maintenance on roads, buildings and trails; and other limitations that may not yet be known.

Whatever your personal feelings on the sequester, these are real cuts to access to America’s most beautiful spaces. While Congress sits idle, this sad and preventable outcome for the millions of visitors to our national parks will resonate for the seasons to come.

One Generation’s Trash, Another’s Treasure

by Susan Laszewski
City trees in Samara, Russia

City trees in Samara, Russia. Credit: abrigenn/Flickr

Through our multi-year Partnership for Trees collaboration with Alcoa Foundation, hundreds of thousands of trees are being planted on damaged and degraded sites throughout the world, but one project in particular represents the epitome of “degraded”: a garbage dump.

In Samara, Russia, American Forests and Alcoa employees are working with the Training Center for Ecology and Safety on Trees in the City — planting 180 trees in the city’s Kirovskiy District, including the spot that has served as the area’s household waste dump for a decade.

It may sound like a stinky job, but around 60 local students and Alcoa volunteers are willing to get their hands dirty to reclaim this site as greenspace for future recreation. In all, the project will plant about 180 ashberry, linden, maple, pine and birch, whose leaves are said to shimmer in the wind.

But the real shimmering stars of this project are the students. In addition to volunteering their time for the planting, they also kicked the project off with an educational seminar, “The Environmental Characteristics of Urban Trees,” to gain a better understanding of the importance of their work. Urban trees not only provide wildlife habitat and help clean air and water, they also bring residents closer to nature, reducing stress and imparting a sense of well-being. So, what was one generation’s trash will become the next generation’s treasure as the local students continue to monitor and maintain the site in the future.

Samara is a city with a record of investing in trees for youth. Last year, American Forests and Alcoa Foundation partnered with the Training Center on a schoolyard landscaping project called “On a Visit to the Forest.” We’re delighted to continue our partnership with them, helping to educate the next generation of urban tree huggers.

Taking Baths in the Forest

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Remember when yoga was just a craze? Now, it’s just a normal part of many people’s workout routines. Might another mind, body, spirit experience from Asia be on its way?

Credit: apparena/Flickr

Credit: apparena/Flickr

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been noticing the buzz in the environmental world over the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, translated as forest bathing. We first explored the idea of forest bathing back in 2011 through our magazine article, “A Tree-lined Path to Good Health.” The gist of the practice is to simply go out into a forested area (park, backyard, etc.) and commune with nature. The idea is to absorb the peace and tranquility of your forested surrounding, taking in the smells, the textures and the general environment. If you do this, your body will thank you.

Scientists in Japan, such as Yoshifumi Miyazaki and Qing Li, have discovered myriad physiological benefits to shinrin-yoku:

  • Decreases in cortisol (stress hormone) levels, sympathetic nervous activity, blood pressure and heart rate.
  • Increases in levels of white blood cells that release anticancer proteins to attack tumors and cells infected by viruses — a benefit that stays with you for a month after the activity.

The practice of forest bathing is so popular in Japan that the country has designated 48 official Forest Therapy trails, which are used by more than 2.5 million people each year, according to Outside magazine.

With our often stress-filled lives, I’m thinking some daily relaxation in a rural or urban forest sounds like just what the doctor, or scientist, ordered. I mean, a glass of wine can be consumed just as easily sitting on a boulder in the forest as in a bathtub, right?

Hummingbirds’ Early Arrival

by American Forests

By Tacy Lambiase

Last month, we discussed the possibility that certain tree species may start budding earlier in the springtime in response to warmer winter temperatures. Well, animals are going to have to adapt, too, and some animal species, like the ruby-throated hummingbird, are already altering their behavior to accommodate climatic shifts.

Ruby-throated hummingbird

Some ruby-throated hummingbirds are starting to migrate earlier. Is this a cause for concern? Credit: hart_curt/Flickr

According to a recent article published in The Auk, the journal of The American Ornithologists’ Union, ruby-throated hummingbirds are migrating from their winter habitats in Central America to their North American homes earlier than in the past — 12 to 18 days earlier, in fact. This shift in the hummingbirds’ migration pattern is probably due to warmer temperatures in Central America during the winter months and carries implications for the survival of the species.

As Dr. Ron Johnson, a scientist and one of the study’s authors, told the Associated Press, “With any bird that migrates over long distances, it’s good to show up at the nesting grounds at a good time when you can set up a territory and build your nest and when the young come along there will be a lot of food available.”

But if these hummingbirds migrate to North America early, there is a possibility that there may not be enough food available for them when they arrive. The ruby-throated hummingbird’s diet consists of small insects and nectar from flowers and flowering trees, and the existence of both also depends on the changing seasons.

While the full implications of earlier migrations for hummingbirds and other bird species are not yet understood, it is important to keep them in mind. In 2011, we conducted a habitat restoration project in Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest to aid the ruby-throated hummingbird and other species because hummingbirds are not just a popular species among birdwatchers; they also benefit ecosystems across North America by helping to pollinate plants and trees. Just as they depend on a balanced ecosystem to thrive, the health of our forests and even our backyard environments may depend on them.

Animals Gone Urban

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

One of the many benefits that urban forests provide is habitat for wildlife. But in keeping true to the stereotype of overcrowded cities, it appears that a few communities around the country are experiencing wildlife overpopulation — to somewhat detrimental results.

Red-winged blackbirds

Red-winged blackbirds. Credit: Bob Webster/Flickr

In Kentucky, the residents of Hopkinsville are suffering a bird invasion. Millions of blackbirds and European starlings have set up roost in the Kentucky community of 35,000, creating a literal black cloud in the sky throughout the day. Local experts tell Reuters that the inundation is most likely due to the unseasonably warm winter in Kentucky, where the ground hasn’t really frozen this year. When the ground freezes, the birds’ preferred diet of leftover crops and insects isn’t available, and they move further south.

Beyond the annoyance factor of sharing their community with millions of birds, there is a health concern as well, as blackbird droppings can carry a fungal disease called histoplasmosis. This disease can lead to lung infections, lethargy and other health issues.

The city has resorted to air cannons to try to scare the birds southward.

A thousand miles away, Denver International Airport is experiencing a different kind of wildlife invasion: It’s hunting wabbits. The Associated Press reports that federal wildlife workers are removing 100 rabbits from the airport area each month. Why? The rabbits are eating the spark plug cables and other wiring in parked cars.

The airport reports that in 2012 only three claims were submitted for car damage due to rodents or rabbits, but parking companies in the area are still investing in better fencing and roosts for hawks and eagles to help with their bunny problem.

Both of these stories help illustrate how delicate the balance is when humans, nature and animals intersect. Trees, shrubs, flowers and the like make us healthy and happier in our urban environs, but they are also prime homes for our wildlife friends. While urban forests can provide critical habitat for wildlife, it is important to continue planning and managing for a healthy environment for all its inhabitants through effective wildlife and urban forests management plans.

EAB Goes Global

by Susan Laszewski
An adult emerald ash borer feeding on a leaf.

An adult emerald ash borer feeding on a leaf. Credit: David Cappaert.

The beautiful, but deadly, emerald ash borer (EAB) doesn’t look to be slowing down. In fact, this army of tree pests is taking its attack on ash trees global.

Last month, four Russian scientists — three from Moscow and one from Siberia — paid a visit to the U.S. to learn more about a pest that has recently become all-too-familiar to them. Yury Ivanovich Gninenko and Yulia Anatolievna Sergeeva, researchers in forest protection against invasive insects from the Russian Research Institute for Silviculture and Mechanization of Forestry (VNIILM) in Moscow were joined by forester Aleksandr Evgenievich Droskov and head of the V.N. Sukachev Institute of Forest’s Department of Forest Zoology in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, Yuri Baranchikov, for a two-week trip to the U.S. that was less about seeing the sights and more about delving into information about the emerald ash borer. After attending a conference on invasive forest pests in Maryland and stopping by some East Coast laboratories, they headed to Michigan State University (MSU), where American Forests Science Advisory Board member and forest entomologist Dr. Deborah McCullough and her colleagues have been devoting a lot of energy to studying these critters.

MSU is a logical choice for a trip revolving around EAB. Since EAB was first identified in Detroit, Mich., in 2002, the state has been one of the hardest hit by EAB. Now, it looks as if the Moscow area is heading down a similar path.

According to the researchers, EAB is now killing ash trees in Moscow at an alarming rate. While EAB is native to far eastern parts of Russia, the insect had to travel 11 time zones across the largest country in the world to get to Moscow, likely by way of the Trans-Siberian Railroad or Highway. That’s quite a journey for a little bug, and it means that Moscow’s trees are totally unfamiliar with this new threat.

Even more foreboding is that Moscow lies just 280 miles from western Europe, whose ash species have all been determined to be vulnerable to EAB. At this rate, says McCullough, it “won’t be long until EAB has circumnavigated the whole northern hemisphere.” Yikes!

The future of ash trees may look grim, but for those that want to do more than despair, there are ways you can help. Learn what you can do in the fight against EAB.