Urban Trees For Carbon Offsets

by Melinda Housholder, Urban Forests Program Director

Earlier this month, I attended a workshop in Davis, California, called “Urban Forests & Carbon Markets” that American Forests participated in and co-sponsored through a grant with the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban & Community Forestry Program. As California takes the lead to develop a cap-and-trade model to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions statewide, American Forests is excited to be involved in efforts to advance urban forest projects for use in this cap-and-trade model. But before we get into my experience at the workshop, a little background:

California power plant

A California power plant. Photo credit: John Watson

What’s going on in California?
In 2006, California committed to reduce GHG emissions and passed Assembly Bill 32: Global Warming Solutions Act, often known as “AB 32.” This act directs the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to reduce GHG emissions throughout the state by 2020 to the levels of emissions in 1990. To accomplish this goal, CARB has played an integral role in developing California’s Greenhouse Gas Cap-and-Trade Program.

With this Cap- and-Trade Program,  California state sets an absolute limit, or cap, on the amount of GHG emissions allowed throughout the state. Allowances to discharge a certain amount of pollution are auctioned off to emitters such as industries, buildings, manufacturers. To comply with the cap, the emitter then has the choice to either 1) reduce their emissions on site; 2) buy allowances to emit; or, 3) buy offsets.

How do offsets work and where do urban forests fit in?

If an entity is emitting more than their allowed amounts of GHG, they have the option to buy a certain amount of offset credits issued through approved sources. In California’s case, these projects are approved under The Climate Action Reserve. Urban forest projects all over the country can apply under the Climate Action Reserve’s Urban Forest Project Protocol to receive offset credits that they can then sell to firms in California that are emitting more than their allowed amounts of GHGs.

However, as I learned at the workshop at UC-Davis, urban forest projects have not yet been successful at registering under this protocol to serve as offset projects. Some of the main challenges that we discussed were about the protocol’s requirement of a 100-year, lifetime guarantee of project, the high costs of urban trees and monitoring/reporting costs, and the limited eligibility for applicants (e.g. non-governmental organizations and developers are not allowed to apply). Without being able to register under this protocol, urban forest projects cannot be credited as carbon offsets to be used in the California cap-and-trade market.

Tree-lined street

Tree-lined city street Photo credit: Randy Levine

However, there is great potential for urban trees to help reduce GHG emissions throughout the state. According to an article from the non-profit California ReLeaf, researchers estimate that “if 50 million urban trees were planted strategically, then they could offset emissions of an estimated 6.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually — around 3.6 percent of the statewide goal.”  Currently, the urban forestry project closest to registering under the Urban Forest Protocol for carbon offset credits is a Greenhouse Gas Tree-Planting Project in Santa Monica that is designed to plant 1,000 new trees in parkways along boulevards.

One of American Forests’ main roles at the “Urban Forests & Carbon Markets” workshop was to advance the next steps to help give urban forests the credit they deserve and highlight their potential for helping meet GHG goals. We are planning on creating a national network around these issues to help advance the role of urban forests in the carbon market. Stay tuned, as I’ll provide more information as we continue to develop this program.

Endangered in Hawaii

by American Forests

Making it on the endangered species list is becoming a harder feat every day, as the number of threatened species rises along with climate change. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is proposing new ways to protect the high number of threatened species.

The hāhā plant, one of many Hawaiian species proposed for the endangered species list

The hāhā plant, one of many Hawaiian species proposed for the endangered species list. Credit: David Eickhoff/Flickr

Last week, FWS announced a proposal to protect 38 Hawaiian species (35 plants and three snails) under the Endangered Species Act, making Hawaii the U.S. state with the highest number of federally listed and candidate species. These plants and animals — some of which have populations in single and double digits — are all native to the Hawaiian islands of Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe and Maui, collectively known as the Maui Nui island cluster. This new FWS proposal, known as the Maui Nui listing and critical habit package, advocates not only for getting the 38 species on the endangered list, but also proposes name and spelling changes for 13 listed species, delisting one plant and designating 271,062 acres on the islands as critical habitat.

Newcomb’s tree snail, found only on the island of Maui

Newcomb’s tree snail, found only on the island of Maui. Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Almost all of the proposed species are threatened by habitat loss and competition from non-native species like pigs, goats and deer. Other threats include natural disasters, agricultural developments and climate change. Because habitat loss is such a pressing issue for many of the species, the FWS is focusing its efforts on preserving total ecosystems instead of small habitats for individual species. This idea of designating large areas as critical habitat for a range of species is a new one for the FWS — this proposal is only the third of its kind. Many of these native Hawaiian species live in similar ecosystems, so instead of dividing and conquering, which would diminish the effect of already stretched funds, the FWS is identifying and preserving large sections of habitat that can then benefit each individual species. This is an approach that American Forests greatly supports, as every element in an ecosystem — from individual plant species and animals to soil, water and air — affects another element. Therefore, we should be managing for ecosystem survival as much as individual species.

However, there is still the issue of funding. Because of the increasing number of species being threatened in recent years, many proposed animals and plants often get placed on the Endangered Species waiting list. Twenty of the species in the Maui Nui proposal are currently candidate species for the list, meaning the FWS has enough information to propose them for the Endangered Species Act, but higher priority issues and species are keeping them from being considered for addition. The problem with candidate species is that while they are recognized as being in trouble, they do not receive protection or funding from the government.

With the Maui Nui proposal public, but still no funding, there is not much to do but wait and see if these threatened species and their habitat make the list under this new ecosystem approach.

The Smokies

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

History is complicated — probably because life is complicated. Great Smoky Mountains National Park celebrates its 78th anniversary today, but the story of the founding of America’s most visited national park — more than eight million people visit each year — is much more complex than a simple anniversary suggests.

View from Mount Sterling in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

View from Mount Sterling in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Credit: Miguel Vieira/Flickr

The idea of creating a national park in the famous eastern mountains first cropped up in the late 1800s, but it would really take flight in the 1920s. A number of individuals were influential in sparking the movement, including two friends who gave the park a voice and a vision: Horace Kephart and George Masa. In 1913, Kephart published Our Southern Highlands, a book about people who live in the Smokies. He would become a key voice for the creation of a park through his journalistic writings for magazines and newspapers. In 1915, photographer Masa came to the Smokies and connected with Kephart, providing stunning images to accompany Kephart’s writings.

Through the effort of Kephart, Masa and other influential Tennesseans and North Carolinians, in 1926, President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill for the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There was a catch, though: The government couldn’t buy the land for the park — that had to be done with outside funds. The park’s supporters began a major fundraising drive and eventually secured enough funds to buy hundreds of thousands of acres. Then, there was a second catch: People and businesses owned that land. Unlike the western parks, whose acreage could easily be set aside because no one lived there yet, the Smokies were filled with homesteads, timber and lumber companies and other development. Those people had to be compensated for their losses — some individuals were actually given lifetime leases to keep their homesteads within park lands. Finally, on June 15, 1934, land in hand, Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established, and six years later, it would be officially dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Baxter Creek Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Baxter Creek Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Credit: Miguel Vieira/Flickr

And what a park it is:

  • Its 800 square miles are home to 17,000 known species of plants and animals, although scientists estimate that 100,000 different species probably call the park home.
  • Its 200-million-year-old mountains can reach up to 6,643 feet.
  • Its land is 95 percent forest and houses more than 100 native tree species, which is more than any other national park.
  • It hosts the largest protected bear habitat in the East, protecting its iconic American black bears, which number around 1,500.
  • Its 700 miles of waterways are home to more than 50 native fish species.
  • It’s called the Salamander Capital of the World, according to its website, because of the 30 salamander species that can be found there.
  • Its 800-plus miles of trails offer visitors a myriad of ways to see the mountains, old-growth forests, dozens of preserved historic buildings, waterfalls and more.

So while the park may have been tricky to get founded, aren’t we glad its supporters persevered?

Forney Ridge Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Forney Ridge Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Credit: Miguel Vieira/Flickr

P.S. For more beautiful photos of Great Smoky Mountains (like those in this post) and other national and state parks, check out Miguel Vieira’s Flickr stream. Spectacular.

Climate Change Plays Dirty

by American Forests

By Katrina Marland

Soil on the forest floor (Photo credit: Ari Moore)

Back in February, I wrote about how there is a part of every forest ecosystem that is important for us not to overlook: soil. As active as trees are in absorbing and storing carbon, the soil they’re rooted in can play a similar role, storing CO2-loaded debris like leaves and branches that litter the forest floor. Microbes in the soil consume the carbon, which is then released back into the atmosphere. As long as the microbes work at a normal rate, the amount of carbon stored in the soil far outpaces the carbon that is released. I bring this up because this week, forest soils have been making headlines again.

A team of scientists at UC Irvine has put together a study, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, on the role that soil could play in climate change — and vice versa. They wanted to know what effect an increase in temperature would have on the rate of activity in forest soils, so they set up a series of experiments in forests in Wisconsin and North Carolina. They found that heating the soil in these forests by 10 or 20 degrees significantly sped up the natural process and caused the soil to release carbon dioxide up to eight times faster than normal. Even carbon that had been locked in the soil for decades, which scientists thought would be less susceptible to warmer temperatures, was released during the experiments. These findings indicate a potential feedback loop between forest soils and climate change. As global temperatures increase, the soils could release more CO2 into the atmosphere, further contributing to warmer temperatures, and on and on in a vicious cycle. The forests of the northeastern United States — many of which were once farmland and are thought to contain nearly 26 billion tons of carbon — could be a particularly dangerous addition to this cycle of warming soil.

Photo credit: Mirjana Chamberlain Vucic

Now, I’ll grant you that a 10-degree increase in global temperatures seems like a heck of a lot, much less a 20-degree increase. But if recent weather hasn’t been enough of a sign — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently stated this spring was the warmest on record — what about the last 100 years’ worth of weather info? Just yesterday, the group Climate Central released a new interactive map showing the average temperatures in each state over the past century using data from the National Climatic Data Center. The numbers gets particularly interesting after the 1970 mark, and some of the information on individual states may surprise you. Minnesota, for instance, has seen the third-fastest increase of its average temperatures. Some states show average temperatures increasing much faster than the rest, while others seem to be experiencing only a slow increase. But no matter where you are, you don’t have to look at the map very long to see that the mercury is rising.



A Balancing Act

by Amanda Tai

Talladega National Forest. Credit: USDAgov/Flickr

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

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

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

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

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


Meet the Street View Trekker

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

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

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

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

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

An Environmental Upbringing

by American Forests

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

Wild Horses in Corolla, North Carolina

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

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

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

Poás Volcano National Park, San José, Costa Rica

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

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

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

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

Trees of the Sea

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Mangroves in Koh Hong, Thailand

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

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

Meet the mangroves.

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

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

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

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


Credit: Senorhorst Jahnsen (rabanito)/Flickr

An Unfair Trade

by American Forests

By Katrina Marland

shipping containers

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Many Sides of Wildfire

by Amanda Tai

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

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

Credit: Forest Service - Northern Region/Flickr

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

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

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