A Biological Clock

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

biological clockHave you ever pulled an all-nighter? If you have, you know that they are nearly always followed by a terrible, dragging fatigue. For the next day, or even several days, you just don’t feel right. That is nature catching up with you. You see, the human body is only meant to function on a 24-hour cycle; some of it active (awake), and some of it dormant (asleep). This is called a circadian rhythm: a biological process that works on a roughly 24-hour cycle. Just about every living thing on Earth shares this cycle, from animals to plants, fungi and even bacteria.

Now, scientists at the University of Edinburgh have pinpointed the genes in plants that regulate their circadian rhythms. They have found that a set of 12 genes and one particular protein work together to help the plant go dormant at night, saving its energy for growth, processing food and other actions that it can only perform during the day when the sun and other conditions are right. Beyond telling the plant when to wake up and when to sleep, the genes and protein make adjustments to the cycle to help the plant change with the seasons, determining when the plant blooms and when it grows.

This discovery is a big step forward in scientists’ ongoing effort to better understand the mechanisms behind plant activity, and what role the circadian rhythm and other functions play in how plants adapt to a changing environment. The knowledge has possible applications in a number of fields, but perhaps most important is helping scientists understand — and possibly even predict — how plants respond to interruptions in their natural cycles. If you have experienced, as many of us have, particularly strange weather patterns lately — here in Washington, D.C., we’ve had 80-degree days in March and our blooms have been out for weeks — it’s easy to see how significant knowledge like that could be.

Pine Tree State Turns 192

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

The Pine Tree State joined the Union on this day 192 years ago, bringing with it 17 million acres of forestland, 32,000 miles of rivers and streams, and 3,500 miles of coastline. Once part of Massachusetts, in 1820, Maine became America’s 23rd state, but its northeast border would be in dispute for another 22 years — war almost broke out between Britain and Canada over the boundary until the Webster-Ashburton Treaty resolved the issue in 1842.

Sunrise on Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park, Maine

Sunrise on Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park, Maine. Credit: H.I.L.T./Flickr

Known for its rugged cold and equally rugged landscape, Maine’s landscape was shaped by the ice age, with the last glacial retreat leaving behind a picturesque terrain and 2,000 islands along its coast. It’s home to the only national park in New England, Acadia National Park, and one national forest, White Mountain National Forest. Acadia actually means “heaven on Earth” in French, and those standing atop its Cadillac Mountain at sunrise are the first people in the U.S. to usher in each new day.

Speaking of names, when 83 percent of a state’s land is forestland — the highest percentage of any state in the U.S. — can it really be nicknamed anything but the Pine Tree State? During colonial times, its forestland and coast location made Maine a prime shipbuilding locale; its white pines were particularly popular as masts. Today, timber is still an important part of the state’s economy, but it also still relies on the sea, but now, for the food: A record 100 million-plus pounds of lobster were harvested in 2011.

Maine isn’t all business, though as it’s home to recreation activities galore — from beaches and sailing to camping, hunting and fishing to action sports like rock climbing and surfing. The Pine Tree State has a little something to offer everyone, so “Happy Birthday, Maine.” So glad you officially joined us on March 15, 1820.

Moosehead Lake region, Maine

Moosehead Lake region, Maine. Credit: Dana Moos/Flickr

Somesville, Maine

Somesville, Maine. Credit: Lee Coursey/Flickr

Getting to the Root of Water Quality

by Amanda Tai

Participants at the 2012 RVCC annual policy meeting in Vancouver, WA. (Credit: Sustainable Northwest)

Did you know that more than 50 percent of our freshwater supply originates from forests? Trees act as a natural filter as rain lands and passes through the ground into underground aquifers. Last week, I learned a lot about watershed health at the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition (RVCC) annual policy meeting in Vancouver, Washington. While there were a lot of topics to cover over the span of the three-day meeting, one of the top issues that kept coming up was watershed health and restoration. So what is being done to make sure our water is clean?

For the first time ever, the USDA Forest Service is developing a National Water Strategy comprised of several watershed restoration programs. The biggest component to the new strategy is called the Watershed Condition Framework (WCF), which provides a “comprehensive, long-term program to restore watershed health, riparian ecosystems, fish habitats and soil productivity” (Ziemer 1997). At the RVCC meeting, I learned about the six-step WCF process to restore watershed health from Forest Service experts:

  • Step A: Classify the condition of all 6th-level watersheds (a smaller sub-section of a watershed) in the national forest by using existing data layers, local knowledge, and professional judgment.
  • Step B: Prioritize watersheds for restoration: establish a small set of selected watersheds for targeted improvement equivalent to a 5-year program of work.
  • Step C: Develop watershed restoration action plans that identify comprehensive project-level improvement activities.
  • Step D: Implement integrated suites of projects in select watersheds.
  • Step E: Track restoration accomplishments for performance accountability.
  • Step F: Verify accomplishment of project activities and monitor improvement of watershed and stream conditions.

Other groups are working on water quality issues as well. Organizations like Charity: Water, Water.org and the Clean Water America Alliance are working to get safe drinking water to communities in need. Here at American Forests, we work on watershed health and protection through our Global ReLeaf tree planting projects and as a member of the Clean Water Network (CWN), a national coalition that advocates for the restoration of our clean-water sources: forests, wetlands and watersheds.

Water has an impact on every aspect of our lives. Watershed and water-quality issues are something that everyone, whether you live in a city, town or the country, has a stake in. We depend on clean water to live, and it is an essential element for both environmental and human health. That’s why when we work to improve water quality, it’s important to look at the root of the issue.

Working for Wildlife

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Yesterday, Michelle wrote about the challenges in defining exactly what makes an animal officially endangered. It’s an important issue because that language can determine whether or not the government invests its resources in trying to save a species by taking conservation action across public lands. Here’s the problem, though: Endangered species are not found exclusively on public lands. They can’t see property lines, and they have no way of knowing that the thousands of people and millions of dollars working to protect them can only do so in certain places. So when they make their homes elsewhere — say on a farm or in a private forest — they put themselves in danger.

A baby bog turtle (Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior are joining forces to address this gap in protection through a partnership called Working Lands for Wildlife. It’s a tag-team sort of program. First, the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) will determine which at-risk species need the most protection on private land. Then, using $33 million set aside from the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will provide the landowners with resources to protect those species or improve their habitats.

To kick the program off, they are starting with seven species in particular need of protection on private land: New England cottontail, bog turtle, golden-winged warbler, gopher tortoise, greater sage-grouse, lesser prairie-chicken and Southwestern willow flycatcher. Never heard of any of them? Neither had I. But after reading more about them, it seems that they’re in no less danger than the whooping crane or polar bear; you just don’t often see them publicized because so many hide out on private land, not in zoos or national parks.

Greater Sage-Grouse (Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

The goal is to help these species as the program works through its inaugural year and add more species as time goes on. It’s understandable that a farmer, forester or anyone who has to manage acres upon acres of land might not be able to set a lot of time and resources aside for protecting one species, but the Working Lands for Wildlife partnership aims to make it easier. All a landowner has to do is enroll in WHIP through their local NRCS office to get the ball rolling. Hopefully, the program will not only be able to stabilize these species and others, but also take an important step towards helping private landowners realize that they can play an important role in preserving the natural biodiversity of their region.

To learn more about what happens when endangered species make their homes on private land, check out the article “Endangered Forest Species” from our most recent issue of American Forests magazine.



A Significant Dilemma

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Canada lynx kitten

A Canada lynx kitten, which is a threatened species, has its measurements documented by a wildlife biologist. Credit: James Weliver/USFWS

How do you legally protect something when some of the legal language that is supposed to provide protection is unclear? This is a dilemma that’s been facing the Endangered Species Act in recent years.

As many people are aware, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 provides for the classification, or listing, and protection of endangered and threatened plant and animal species. Currently, 1,200 animal species and 797 plant species are listed. These species are afforded protection under the act from being hunted, captured, collected, etc. Also, under the act, most listed species have recovery plans designed to aid the species’ populations with the goal being that they will eventually be strong enough to be removed from the list. But how does one determine if a species is “endangered” or “threatened”?

For decades, the act has used the following definitions to determine just that:

  • Endangered species: any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range
  • Threatened species: any species which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range

Significant portion of its range: Such a short phrase, but a hotly contested one. What qualifies as significant — is it determined by the size of the population in proportion to the rest of the range? Does it mean important, as in the species could not survive without the population in this range regardless of the geographical size? No one knows. Hence, the need for further definition.

Green sea turtle hatchling

An endangered green sea turtle hatchling at Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Credit: Keenan Adams/USFWS

After years of litigation around this tiny phrase, in 2007, the solicitor of the Department of the Interior gave a formal opinion on the definition of this phrase, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), who administers the Endangered Species Act, began using this definition in its listing determinations. Until, two courts rejected aspects of that formal opinion, and it was officially withdrawn in 2011.

So, we still don’t know what significant means. Hopefully, that will soon change. Last week, public comments were due on FWS’ and NOAA’s Draft Policy on Interpretation of the Phrase “Significant Portion of its Range” in the Endangered Species Act’s Definitions of “Endangered Species” and “Threatened Species.Because the Endangered Species List contains many trees and many wildlife species that call our forests home, American Forests weighed in on the interpretation of this difficult phrase by submitting comments, which you can read on our Forests & Wildlife Public Policy page.

Now, FWS and NOAA will review all submitted comments and make changes to their draft policy. Hopefully, in the near future, everyone will know exactly what significant portion of its range means and can use that knowledge to ensure that all of our plants and animals that need protection are getting it.

Interested on reading more about at-risk species? Check out the Winter 2012 Issue of American Forests feature on endangered species in America’s private forests.

Whooping cranes

Endangered juvenile whooping cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. Credit: Bill Gates/USFWS

A Belated Birthday

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

We’ve been a little extra busy this month, what with new legislation, policy conferences, fascinating scientific discoveries and just keeping up with the world of environmental news overall. But being busy is no good reason to overlook a birthday, so we’re taking a minute today to recognize some states that are another year older.

First up is Nebraska, which claimed its statehood on March 1, 1867. Among the many cool things the Cornhusker State can lay claim to — including being the birthplace of Kool Aid — is Nebraska National Forests and Grasslands, unique because its forests have been hand-planted over the last century or so. In fact, it’s the largest hand-planted forest in the western hemisphere.

Nebraska National Forest, Bessey Ranger District

Next on the list is Ohio, which became a state on March 1, 1803. Ohio’s only national forest is Wayne National Forest, which sprawls over a quarter of a million acres of Appalachian foothills.

Then, we have Florida, a state that for me is synonymous with our National Register of Big Trees because for the last 10 years (with one exception), it has been the home to more champion trees than any other state. The Sunshine State celebrated its statehood on March 3rd. Florida has three national forests — Apalachicola, Osceola and Ocala — all of which merit a visit at any time of year, whether for swimming in summer, hiking in autumn or viewing a variety of rare ecosystems year-round.

Osceola National Forest (Credit: Geoff Gallice)

And lastly, we have Vermont, which entered the Union March 4, 1791. Famous for more than maple syrup, this state his home to Green Mountain National Forest, which boasts many great hiking trails, including the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and the Robert Frost National Recreation Trail, as well as some of the most incredible autumn foliage one could ever hope to see.

Green Mountain National Forest (Credit: Rich Moffitt)

Lions and Lambs

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

U.S. Capitol

Credit: ttarasiuk/Flickr

According to the old English proverb, “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” While this phrase is normally used with the weather, here in D.C., “like a lion” applies to something else: lawmaking. Congress is in session, and this month is chockfull of hearings, meetings and advocacy days, which are keeping my policy colleagues very busy.

Last week, American Forests submitted comments on the International Trade Administration’s National Travel and Tourism Strategy, but that was just the start.

This week:

  • Amanda’s in Vancouver, Washington, at the annual Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition policy meeting.
  • As Scott discussed in his post, the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition is having meetings on Capitol Hill, which our urban forests director Melinda will recap later this month in her regular blog post.
  • American Forests is submitting more comments on strategies and policies.
  • And all of this in the midst of one of our regular board meetings! Busy, busy, busy.

What are these new comments we’re submitting?

In 2009, Congress asked the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) to develop a national climate adaptation strategy that would address climate impacts on fish, wildlife, plants and ecosystems. To develop the strategy, the CEQ and DOI assembled a wide range of federal, state and tribal partners, as well as other interested organizations and parties. Under the lead of the co-chairs — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the New York Division of Fish, Wildlife & Marine Resources — the National Fish, Wildlife & Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy was drafted and opened for public comments.

Nez Perce National Historic Trail in Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Montana

Along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail in Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Montana. Credit: Roger Peterson/USDA Forest Service

Because forests’ position in the climate-change debate is unique — they are both impacted by and lessen the impacts of climate change — American Forests reviewed the proposed strategy and in our public comments addressed six specific issues, including recommending a more comprehensive approach to habitat conservation and a consideration of how different ecosystems work together and are interconnected. To read our complete comments on the Climate Adaptation Strategy, visit our Forests & Climate Public Policy page.

Later today, we’ll be submitting comments on FWS and NOAA’s Draft Policy on Interpretation of the Phrase “Significant Portion of its Range” in the Endangered Species Act’s Definitions of “Endangered Species” and “Threatened Species.” What a mouthful, right? Curious what it’s about? Come back Monday for the lowdown.

So, if all of this policy work is our lion for the month of March, what’s our lamb? Cherry blossoms, of course. One of the true joys of a D.C. spring, peak bloom is just weeks away!

Going Rural

by Amanda Tai

This week, I’ve travelled across the country to Vancouver, Washington, to attend the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition (RVCC) annual policy meeting. This will be my third year attending this meeting, and I always seem to leave feeling more connected to the work that I do.

RVCC attendees

2010 RVCC annual meeting attendees Lynn Jungwirth, Shanna Ratner and Jack Shipley. Credit: Sustainable Northwest/Flickr

Working in Washington, D.C., I don’t often get the chance to talk with people who are doing actual on-the-ground work with forests, water and land. That’s what this meeting is about. These people own land and work on ranches. They are out in the woods and watersheds. You can always tell who’s an out-of-towner at this meeting, and I know I stick out like a sore thumb. After all, I am a city gal taking a trip to the woods. I should have packed my flannel shirt.

Monday was a long day of travelling and changing time zones, so when I arrived at the lodge, I found myself going straight to bed. But the next morning, I woke up feeling refreshed. I don’t know if it was being in a new location or that I’m seeing familiar faces from meetings past. Even though I’m still a D.C. outsider, I feel like I belong. That’s what I like about this group. Even though we’re all coming from different backgrounds, we all care about the same things.

That’s the same message I took away from the meeting’s first panel which was comprised of regional foresters from the Northwest. They stressed the importance of RVCC’s conservation work and continuing to look for innovative ideas. Moving forward, they urged us to continue talking about conservation and frame it in a way that makes it as relevant and as important to all Americans as it is to those of us who work directly with the land, water and natural resources. These things matter — and not just in the present or for people that live in rural communities. They’re important for everyone for the unforeseeable future.

I often find myself doing a lot of reflection when I travel. This trip is no different. I find myself thinking about my connection to the land and the people that work to keep that land thriving. It’s certainly a humbling experience to be around people doing such incredible work for rural communities and economies, and I’m looking forward to continuing my conversations with them in the days, weeks and months to come.

Protecting Urban Forests

by Scott Steen, President & CEO

It is barely March, and throughout Washington, trees are budding. If you are not from here you may not realize it, but our nation’s capital is a city filled with trees of tremendous variety, and spring here bursts forth in a riot of colors and sweet smells (and major tree pollen!).

City trees, of course, have enormous benefits beyond their physical beauty. They clean the air, cool the climate, control stormwater runoff, prevent soil erosion and lower energy costs. Studies show that they also reduce stress in city dwellers, lower crime, increase property values and reduce illness.

The National Mall and U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.

The National Mall and U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. Credit: rjones0856/Flickr

This week, more than 40 members of the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition are gathering in Washington, D.C., to advocate for urban forests. They will convene meetings on Capitol Hill to call attention to the important environmental, social and economic values of urban forests; to discuss the threats to urban forests in cities across the nation; and to urge Congress to provide strong funding for the USDA Forest Service’s Urban & Community Forestry Program and urban-forestry research.

The SUFC is a broad and diverse coalition of individuals and organizations — city mayors, national and community nonprofits, nursery and landscape professionals, scientists, arborists, city managers and planners — who have been working together since 2004 to monitor and advocate for urban forests and green infrastructure across the nation. American Forests is a founding member of the SUFC and our senior vice president, Gerry Gray, is the chair of its SUFC Policy Working Group.

While our nation’s cities expand with our growing population, there are significant threats to urban forests due to the conversion of forests to grass, other ground covers and impervious surfaces. A new study by researchers David Nowak and Eric Greenfield of the Forest Service found that urban-forest cover declined in 17 of the 20 cities examined over a recent five-year period, and that the nation is losing four million urban trees per year. Atlanta had the highest tree cover at 53.9 percent and Denver the lowest at 9.6 percent. New York City was found to have most impervious surface at 61.1 percent, while Nashville had the least at 17.7 percent. Only one of the 20 cities — Syracuse, New York — showed an overall increase in tree cover. However, most of the increase was due to an invasive tree or shrub that regenerates naturally.

Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Georgia

Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Georgia. Credit: Clinton Steeds/Flickr

Dr. Nowak, who is a member of American Forests’ Science Advisory Board, points out that the loss of urban-forest cover would have been even higher if not for recent tree-planting efforts by local agencies and nonprofit organizations in many cities across the country. To reverse the decline, Nowak says that we need more widespread, comprehensive and integrated programs that focus on restoring and maintaining urban tree canopy.

American Forests is currently engaged in several projects to get the word out about the importance of urban forests and trees. We are in the process of spotlighting success stories from across the country of cities that have come together to save and expand their urban forests. We are also creating a process to identify the top 10 urban-forest cities in the nation and will be producing videos and engaging the media to promote the benefits of urban forests.

We often think of forests as being in the wild spaces that still exist far from our nation’s cities. But the truth is that many of our cities and towns are situated in forest ecosystems, which provide significant and often not widely understood benefits to our communities and to the planet. These forests must be protected and expanded every bit as much as the rural variety.

With timely information from urban-forest research on broad conditions and trends, new tools for local analysis and planning, and increased advocacy through broad and diverse groups such as the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition, it is possible to reverse the decline, restore and maintain urban forests across the country for their many contributions to more livable and sustainable cities. Urban-forest restoration is a top priority for American Forests.

A Forest of Fossils

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

In the world of environmental news, forests are frequent stars. They’re just too important, tied to too many wide-reaching issues to stay out of the headlines for long. Lately, however, the spotlight has been on a different type of forests: ancient ones. We’re not talking about old-growth forests or living trees that happen to be thousands of years old — the forests that have been racking up the headlines in recent weeks are those that covered this planet millions of years ago.

An artist's recreation of the fossilized forest in China (Credit: Ren Yugao)

First, American and Chinese researchers discovered a 298-million-year-old forest in northern China. The tropical forest was preserved by volcanic ash in much the same way as the city of Pompeii, giving scientists a unique opportunity to study exceptionally well-fossilized remains of plants that were wiped out long before humanity set foot on the global stage. Another exciting aspect of the find is the sheer scale of the area preserved: more than 10,000 square feet. Scientists often find only fragments of a fossilized ecosystem and use them to form an impression of the whole thing. With such a large area to work with, researchers can get a real picture of the entire forest, from the exact species that make up the understory to how high the canopy reached.

Then, just a few days later, scientists from the University of London shared that they had created maps of the world’s forests from the Cretaceous period — the time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. The maps were formed using data from thousands of sites of fossilized forests around the world. Among other things, the maps show that at that time, when the climate was a great deal warmer and more humid than it is today, forests reached further north, even into the North Pole, and had an unfamiliar composition. As part of the study, the researchers also analyzed fossilized tree rings, which showed that trees in the Cretaceous period grew twice as fast as today’s trees do.

Then — again just days later — there was more: Scientists have uncovered the world’s oldest fossilized forest. And this one is right here in the U.S.: The Gilboa fossilized forest, which sits in New York’s Catskill Mountains, is estimated to be 385 million years old. I’m not even sure I can wrap my head around something being that old — predating even the dinosaurs! — but the find is astounding. This forest lived at a time when forests were still a new concept; fish were the most common type of animal on the planet, and plants were just beginning to spread onto dry land. The detail in which we can see this long-dead forest is unprecedented: We know that it was composed of enormous, palm-like trees, covered in large, creeping vines and that was likely crawling with ancient insects.

Check out this video from Dr. Chris Berry of Cardiff University, part of the research team working on the Gilboa forest:

To me, it is amazing to be able to look back into history as these discoveries and developments allow us to do. And at the same time, I think it reminds us to look forward as well. Even today, forests are changing; species shift, evolve and die out. Not millions, but even a couple hundred years from now, will things be so different that people will be studying photos instead of fossils to see what our forests look like today?