Planning (Rule) Ahead

by Amanda Tai

Credit: Sean MacEntee/Flickr

Most of us don’t think about the government every time we walk through a forest. But did you know that behind every forest is a management plan keeping that forest healthy and beautiful? All forests and grasslands managed by the USDA Forest Service are required to have what is called a Land Management Plan. That’s a total of 155 forests and 20 grasslands! In the process of developing a plan, each individual forest and grassland must follow the rules and regulations laid out in what is known as the Forest Service Planning Rule.

Since the Planning Rule oversees how the majority of America’s forests are managed, I’d say it’s a pretty important rule. Then, I thought to myself, “If this is so important, then why don’t I know much about it?” I looked up the history of the rule and was surprised to find out that even though it’s been around since 1982, it hasn’t been updated since then. New versions have been proposed since the rule was established, but these proposals were rejected after receiving too much negative feedback. That is, until now.

The Forest Service is currently putting together an advisory committee to help create a newer, more efficient Planning Rule; the first since 1982. This advisory committee will be established early next year and will advise the secretary of agriculture on how the new rule will be implemented.

American Forests submitted comments on the new Planning Rule earlier in the year, supporting the Forest Service’s shift from an output-based approach to an approach that focuses on desired outcomes. This means quantifying the benefits of ecosystem services like clean air and water. During the Forest Service’s public comment period, the agency received more than 300,000 comments! It’s really cool to see that people all over the country are getting a say in how forests will be managed. These are folks that care about protecting and restoring forests. This high number of public comments on the Planning Rule reminded me that there is still a strong sense of active participation in the government. I’d say that’s good news for both the future of forests and the future of our country.


Let’s Talk Turkey!

by Michelle Werts

I have a confession to make: prior to this moment, I had never contemplated the history of the turkey. Shocking, I know! But, oh, have I learned a myriad of fascinating, charming and downright alarming things about Thanksgiving’s signature bird.

Wild turkey at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum. Credit: John Benson (ibm4381)/Flickr

Wild turkeys are native to North America. Take that, Australia, and your adorable koalas. That’s right, we own the preeminent gobblers. In fact, there are five subspecies of wild turkey in North America — eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Merriam’s and Gould’s — and between them, they range everywhere from the East Coast down to Florida and out to Colorado.

Now, before you start wondering if I’m really going to write a whole post about wild turkeys without talking about forests, fear not. Forests are vital to wild turkeys. Unlike my mental image of domestic turkeys mingling with chickens in the barnyard, wild turkeys make their nests amid woody vegetation to help conceal their locations. Not to mention, the fact that they use the trees to roost in at night and the forests as cover from their predators. Not surprisingly, America’s loss of forest cover over the years has not been welcomed by the turkey population.

When the pilgrims first arrived in America in the early 1600s, it’s estimated that almost half of the land that would become the United States was covered with forestland. Today, only a third of the U.S. is forested. By the early 1900s, habitat loss — and hunting for America’s favorite Thanksgiving treat — almost eradicated our country’s wild turkeys, with a population estimated to be only 30,000. For the last century, conservationists, turkey lovers, government officials — American presidents have been pardoning turkeys every Thanksgiving for the last 64 years — and others have been working to bring the turkey back from the brink, and they have. Seven million wild turkeys roam the countryside (and America’s cities and suburbs) today. And American Forests is working to ensure that these numbers stay strong. Through our partnership with Subaru “Share the Love,” we’ll be reforesting hundreds of acres of wild turkey habitat over the next year.

So give thanks this Thanksgiving season; wild turkeys are here to stay! Now, who wants to take up the campaign to have this majestic bird replace the bald eagle as our national bird? You’d be in good company: Benjamin Franklin supported the selection of the turkey over the eagle more than 200 years ago.

 


The Not-So-Arctic Tundra

by Katrina Marland

The Svalbard Tundra (Credit: Flickr/Billy Lindblom)

If I say the words “Arctic tundra,” what comes to mind? Winds whipping across a cold and barren plain? Though tundra is cold, it’s also home to a number of unique species of flora and fauna specially adapted to its harsh conditions. It only appears barren because of its lack of trees — one of the tundra’s defining characteristics. In fact, the word actually comes from a Finnish term for “treeless plain.” So although the tundra may be a complex and fragile ecosystem in its own right, one thing that it does not have is trees … or does it?

As Michelle wrote a couple weeks ago, climate change is already causing forests to migrate. For the most part, we are only starting to understand what this will mean for our forests. We know that native ranges will change, that some species will be more vulnerable than others, but we are only beginning to piece together a detailed picture of what these changed forests will look like.

In Alaska, nature isn’t making us wait. Researchers at the tree ring lab at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have completed a new study showing that although Arctic warming is affecting much of the world’s forests negatively, some trees are actually benefiting from it. Researchers analyzed the rings from living, dead and fossilized white spruce trees along the border of Alaska’s northern tundra, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (see Amanda’s recent post on this important sanctuary). The patterns of the rings helped them compile a climate record going back nearly 1,000 years, and using this timeline, they found that the trees in this region have been on a steep growth spike for the last century, particularly in the last 50 years.

Temperatures in the far north have been rising at a rate several times faster than those in lower latitudes, giving the trees a longer growing season than they are used to. As the trees grow and the forest expands more rapidly, the treeline is moving slowly north, into the tundra. This might seem like great news for the forests, but for the tundra, the rising number of trees and shrubs are disrupting some of the existing flora in that range, which in turn affects the other plants and animals that depend on those species.

So is this good news or bad news? Some trees are thriving despite the effects of warming temperatures, which is great to hear amidst all the problems that climate change is causing for our forests here in the U.S. But at the same time, we’re talking about drastic warming in a climate so cold that it enjoys an average temperature of just 10 or 20°F, and winter temps of -30°F — and I find that a bit unsettling.


A Matter of Management

by Luo Yang, Guest Blogger

Forest management in China is very different from the U.S. in many aspects, including forest ownership structure, policies and regulations, and taxes.

Personally, I think there are two key differences. One is the managing organization structure. In China, every province has a forest department or bureau, which is responsible for managing the forests in its territory as a branch of the local government. Below the province, districts, counties and towns have their own forest managing organizations as a branch of all levels of local government. In the U.S., as an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the USDA Forest Service manages public lands in national forests and grasslands, and it operates through only nine geographic regions around the country. [Editor's note: Regional divisions of the National Forest System are based on the amount of national forests in the area. There are more national forests in the western U.S. than in the eastern. Therefore, there are more regions out west.] Comparing the two management systems, it seems that forests are managed according to the geographic characteristics and forest distribution in the U.S., while they are managed according to administrative structure in China.

Courtesy of World Resources Institute/Southern Forests for the Future

Another major difference is in the ownership of forestland. In the United States, about 57 percent of forestland is private. There is no private forestland in China; all forests are state owned or collective (or called community) owned. State-owned forests mainly consist of natural areas, reserves and some plantations. Collective forests are generally owned by villages or local governments. People then lease individual plots or trees for harvesting and other purposes. About two thirds of China’s population is in rural areas, and they rely on collectively owned land as a primary source of income and other needs. In fact, most of China’s forests (about 60 percent) are collective owned and are mainly found in southern China.

In 2003, the Chinese government began to carry out Forest Tenure Reforms, which encourage the collective forest owners to reassess and reallocate their forest use rights (not the land itself) based on a majority vote. This allows the forests to be managed under the will of majority and assures that everyone has a vote and voice in how to manage his or her own forest. This allows farmers and other partners to try to benefit most from the forestland. Being called the second revolution in rural areas, the reform will surely increase the enthusiasm of farmers and attract more investment in the forest, which is one of the current crucial problems in China’s forest management.

And with that, my time as a blogger is coming to a close. I had a wonderful time at American Forests.

Just as I expected before coming, I learned a lot. All the people are so warm, helpful and thoughtful. While I have now moved on to exploring America’s West Coast, I believe my time at American Forests was just a beginning. I will keep touch with American Forests and look forward to cooperation in the near future.

Thanks, American Forests!


Fires Beware: The Oceans Have Your Number

by Michelle Werts

Wildfires can be devastating. For people. For businesses. For the environment. And what’s worse is their unpredictable nature, popping up wherever, whenever they please. If only we could figure out a way to anticipate their next move. Well, turns out some scientists from the University of California, Irvine, think they can. Or more specifically, oceans can — just another reason to love those vast, blue wonders.

A charred surface remains in the wake of a fire in Roraima, the northernmost state in Brazil. Credit: NASA/Doug Morton

How do oceans perform this amazing feat? By acting as the world’s biggest mood ring. Basically, if the North Atlantic ocean temperature rises by as little as .45 degrees Fahrenheit or the Central Pacific rises by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, severe fires are on the way — in four to six months — for much of the Amazon region. Researchers claim that such a minute shift in temperature causes regional precipitation patterns in the Amazon to shift, which means that the rainy weather synonymous with the world’s most famous rainforests shifts. Soil becomes drier, and fires are sparked.

Based on this new research, scientists have built a computer model to predict fire activity in the Amazon. So far, it works. 2010’s model accurately reflected that year’s fire pattern. The accuracy of this year’s model will be analyzed in the next few months. The hope is that this model will allow enough advanced warning of wildfire threats to enable prevention activities to go into effect. These warnings can’t come soon enough.

Last year, a report in Science outlined that the rate of forest fires in the Amazon is on the rise and that these fires have the potential to release just as much carbon as manmade deforestation activities. Rainforests are some of nature’s biggest carbon users — the Amazon soaks in 1.5 billion metric tons per year on average — but this means, they also have the potential to be the biggest carbon emitters due to natural occurrences like fire and drought and human activities such as logging. By predicting and preventing fires, we eliminate the risk of more greenhouse gases escaping and contributing to climate change.

Now, if only scientists can figure out how the oceans can help predict the chance of wildfires in the U.S., we could all breathe a little easier. Until then, we need to keep on keeping on in our efforts to fight and prevent forest fires. Check out all of American Forests’ resources on this crucial issue facing our wildlands.


Call of the Wild – Protecting Alaska’s Wilderness

by Amanda Tai

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: reurinkjan/Flickr

I don’t know much about Alaska other than what I’ve learned in school or seen online. I still have this picture in my mind of a pristine landscape, untouched by humans and preserved in a layer of glistening snow. In reality, there’s a lot more going on in Alaska.

The 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska is the largest area of protected wilderness in the United States. That’s a ton of land, and it’s pretty diverse, too. ANWR contains arctic tundra, coastal plains and boreal forests. These forests are home to several wildlife species like caribou, polar bears and wolverines. I can’t imagine Alaska without all the wildlife. So in order to keep these animal species around for the future, someone has to continue protecting their forest habitat.

That’s why it’s important to have rules that protect our environment. But sorting through the political process and figuring out who’s in charge of making the rules can get confusing. Did you know that you can actually be a part of that process? Federal agencies, like the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), want to hear what you think. American Forests recently submitted comments to the FWS on the ANWR Comprehensive Conservation Plan, as well as the Everglades Headwaters Proposal.

Like the Keystone XL issue I wrote about two weeks ago, ANWR is also an important environmental concern in America’s energy future. ANWR’s northern coastal plain area contains natural resources like oil and gas. Drilling proponents see the coastal plain as a new resource for domestic energy, while opponents are concerned about the impacts that drilling could have on plants and wildlife. It’s been a politically charged topic since ANWR was formed, from the 1960s to the present day. It will be interesting to see the roles that energy and environment play as the 2012 presidential campaigns unfold.


Made In America

by Katrina Marland

Mount Ranier National Park (Credit: Flickr/lawdawg1)

Have you ever been to Yellowstone? Gettysburg? How about the Grand Canyon? We know these places so well that we rarely even use their full names. It makes it easy to forget what they all have in common: they are part of the national park system. The National Park Service oversees 84 million acres of land, including parks, historic landmarks and more. It is responsible for places that contain a combination of culture, history and natural resources.

Despite the recession, national parks have seen more visitors in the last two years than they have over the past decade. Unfortunately, they were already underfunded (their budget — only 1/13th of one percent of the federal budget — was cut by $140 million this year), and the influx of visitors is taking a toll on these much-loved and much-traveled locations. The across-the-board cuts that could be enacted next year would remove an additional $200 million from the national parks budget.

Without the funds to properly staff or maintain the national parks, many sites could fall into disrepair, close down trails, programs, even entire sections of the park, with devastating consequences for the local economies based around these attractions.

Last week, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) released a report titled “Made in America: Investing in National Parks for Our Heritage and Our Economy” to raise awareness of how vital these parks are to our nation and to local economies. It also details the effects that the budget cuts could have on the national park system and the locations it cares for. You can see the complete report on the NPCA website, but here are some highlights:

  • National parks support more than $13 billion worth of direct local private sector economic activity and nearly 270,000 private sector jobs.
  • The scenic Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina, which has only 10 permanent rangers staffing its 14 visitor facilities, relies heavily on seasonal staffers. With a 10 percent budget cut, they would have to eliminate all seasonal staffers and some permanent positions and would be forced to close some of the parkway’s facilities.
  • Budget cuts would force the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to cut its two volunteer coordinator positions. In 2008 alone, those positions organized 2,400 volunteers to donate 124,000 hours of service to maintain the park’s 800-mile trail system.

There’s a lot at play here. The Congressional Super Committee has cuts to make, and everyone has different ideas of what is most important. The local economies are of course what is on everyone’s mind. That’s the logical thing to be thinking about. But I confess that I just can’t imagine not being able to visit these remarkable places. I have always found them to be places to reconnect, whether to our history, to nature or to friends and family on an outdoor adventure. I would hate to see us lose that at a time when everything else in the world seems to be getting even more chaotic.


Hit the Green Slopes Next Summer

by Michelle Werts

Raise your hand if you love mountain biking, zip lining or basically any form of forest-based recreation. Guess what — for once both sides of Congress agree that they love forest recreation, too, and are using that love to create jobs and stimulate local economies.

Last week, President Obama signed the bipartisan Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act of 2011 into law. Ummm … great?!? Yes, great for all of the outdoor recreationists out there.

Santa Fe County, New Mexico. Credit: DieselDemon/Flickr

Since 1986, forest land leased from the USDA Forest Service was limited to only Nordic and alpine skiing activities, meaning ski resorts and mountain retreats often sat sad and alone during the summer months. Under the new law, these leased lands are now opened up to year-round recreation activities. So bring on the zip lines, rope courses, mountain bikes and concerts. And bring on the new jobs and revenue.

Ski areas leased from the Forest Service average 27 million visits annually, creating 80,000 jobs and generating $4 billion. This new law is expected to boost those numbers to the tune of 600,000 more visits, 600 new jobs and $40 million in revenue for the local economies.

What about the environment? Not to worry. The new law does not change the environmental parameters of the original 1986 law, meaning no destructive recreational activities are permitted: so no tennis courts, water parks and swimming pools, golf courses or amusement parks allowed. Any new activities on the leased land will still need to go through the same approval process that the building of ski lifts and other activities have to go through.

In a world with daily reports of politicians bickering, depressing unemployment rates, scandals and more, it’s refreshing to see positive, bipartisan news. I’m glad that us nature lovers will have a chance to experience new pieces of nature in the coming summers and that they will still be protected and looked after as they deserve. I’m glad more Americans may be able to eke out a living with new job opportunities. I’m glad that once in awhile we can all come together in support of our forests because as USDA Forest Chief Tom Tidwell says, “The national forests have always been some of America’s greatest playgrounds.”


The First Cut Is Unexpected

by Luo Yang, Guest Blogger

Last week, I mentioned we did four months of classroom work when we arrived in the U.S. We conducted our classroom training in New York, living on Long Island.

Oak tree in West Park, New York. Credit: Randy OHC/Flickr

There are many oak trees in that area, and the house where we were staying had a large backyard, where I witnessed something unexpected. Just two or three days after we moved into the house, the landowner hired some people to cut down the oak trees in the backyard and left several high stumps. The trees they cut down — more than 15 inches in dbh (diameter breast height — the measurement of the tree trunk’s outside bark diameter at breast height) and more than 50 feet tall — were healthy and were not densely distributed. I checked the surfaces of the roots left and found that most of the trees were more than 50 years old and were in a stable growing stage. These trees were big and strong enough to protect the house from hurricanes and keep it cool in hot summers. We didn’t know why the landowner would cut them down.

What’s more, the landowner turned the trees’ trunks into small pieces, ignoring the fact that the trees would have a greater commercial value if they were cut a certain way and sold to a wood buyer. I asked him about this and got a shocking answer, “They are just trash and are usually thrown away.”

In China, old or big trees like the New York oaks are often found where farmers live, especially in the southern rural areas. These trees are well protected because they have helped to form a pleasant habitat for the farmers. Generally speaking, it is a big decision to cut such trees. Even if it is needed, people will try their best to make full use of the tree. For example, with the permission of the local government, the tree owner may cut down a tree leaving a very short stump in the ground, maximizing the cut timber to convert it into sections of certain length to meet the needs of his own utility or the market.

What is behind this difference in tree cutting on private land in the U.S. versus China? The following may be one of the reasons: the United States has abundant forest resources, holding nearly 10 percent of forestland in the world with only 5 percent of the world’s population. The U.S. provides about 25 percent of the timber production for industrial products for the world. China, with almost the same land area as the U.S., has about 20 percent of the world’s population, but holds only 7 percent of the earth’s forestland. China is also one of the main round wood importers in the world.


Don’t Take a Deep Breath

by Katrina Marland

I’m going to let you in on a secret: air pollution is bad for you. Okay, so it isn’t much of a secret at all, but it also isn’t something people often think about. Short of Los Angeles-type clouds of smog, it isn’t something that the average person can always see — or even smell. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak.

Dori@merr.info

What’s becoming harder to ignore is the threat to our health. A new study, recently published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, has come out with a sobering fact: air pollution is the sixth leading cause of cancer in the U.S.

We no longer live in an era where not smoking can mean that you probably won’t get lung cancer; now, one in 10 cases of lung cancer occurs in someone who has never smoked. In fact, a person living in an area with higher pollution is about 20 percent more likely to die from lung cancer than someone breathing cleaner air.

It doesn’t stop there. According to the World Health Organization’s data from 2004-2008, lung cancer accounts for only 20 percent of air-pollution-related deaths in the U.S., with tens of thousands more attributed to other cardiopulmonary diseases. Take a look at the data on their interactive map of air pollution mortality rates.

What’s most disturbing about these findings? To me, it is the fact that, although there are many actions we can take as individuals to minimize the amount of pollution we put into the air, some of it is simply outside of our control. Many companies and corporations are contributing a great deal to these health-threatening levels of pollution, and they may or may not be particularly concerned with my health or yours.

In 2010, it is estimated that the Clean Air Act saved 164,000 lives and prevented thousands of cases of bronchitis, asthma attacks and other related conditions. There’s been a lot of talk about overregulation this year, complaints that the EPA’s guidelines are too much of a burden on businesses and scoffs at the environmental organizations suing the EPA for failing to tighten its regulations. While some thought does need to be given to the economic impact of such regulations, I wonder how much “overregulation” can really be taking place when we’re seeing increasing proof that the air we’re breathing is literally toxic.

What’s the pollution like in your hometown? You can see on NPR’s new Poisoned Places map.