Policy Year in Review

by Amanda Tai

Credit: Stacie/commentsyard.com

2012 is just a few days away. That means all the 2011 year-in-review lists are coming out. I usually check out the lists for top news stories or top songs, but what about environmental policies?

This was certainly a year for environmental dispute with “the most anti-environment House in history” (as stated by Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA)) and several anti-environment bills and riders. In a year that was full of environmental debate, these are the stories that made the top of my list:

  •  Forest Service Planning RuleThe USDA Forest Service is revising a 30-year-old rule that oversees how the majority of forests in this country are managed. With the help of an advisory committee, the Forest Service hopes to create a more efficient Planning Rule in 2012.
  • Everglades – The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service has developed a proposal to restore and protect the Everglades ecosystem. The plan will address issues like habitat fragmentation and development that have had a negative impact on the areas wildlife.
  • Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) – As part of the CFRL Coalition steering committee, American Forests worked on a report laying out the successes of the program in its first year. The program is already making an impact: 1,550 jobs have been created, 66,000 acres of wildlife habitat have been improved, and 90,000 acres have been cleared of fuels that contribute to destructive wildfires.
  • Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) – Energy is a hot topic for the 2012 presidential campaign, and the search for domestic energy sources continues. One controversial site is the 10-02 coastal plain area of ANWR. The Alaskan Energy for Americans Job Act that would establish a drilling program in the coastal plain area was introduced in the House on November 14th, but has not made any movement since.
  • Keystone Pipeline XL – President Obama passed a bill containing a measure to postpone the pipeline decision until late February. With elections coming up in 2012, the project may be delayed even further, as the pipeline is an important issue for many Obama supporters. The State Department also announced in November that the decision would be delayed until after the presidential election.
  • COP 17 in Durban – With some provisions of the Kyoto Protocol set to expire next year, the participants of the COP 17 conference were determined to make plans to keep international climate change policy alive. The push for action, and the resulting agreement to reduce emissions, came from developing nations and those most affected by climate change. While not legally binding yet, all countries agreed to work towards a legally binding deal by 2015.

For more details on all of these topics, check out the policy reports and comments page on our website. Also, be sure to stay tuned as I share more policy perspectives with you in 2012. Happy New Year!


Greening the Silver Screen

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Every family has their own holiday traditions. In my family, we go to the movies — this year, Aunt Missy took some wee ones to a family friendly film to get them out from under busy, cooking feet. But while going to the movies might be a favorite holiday pastime — or year round one—the business of making movies isn’t the most environmentally friendly industry out there. When you’re talking about hundreds of crew members, dozens of sets and locations, transportation needs, prop and costume production, you’re starting to look at a pretty big carbon footprint. That’s why this holiday season I was heartened to see that potential blockbusters were not only aware of this fact, but took active steps to minimize their environmental impacts.

First up is a certain 19th-century, super sleuth. According to Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows co-producer Lauren Meeks, two key focuses for reducing the film’s carbon footprint were construction set waste and food waste. Meeks claims that 756 tons of the film’s waste was diverted from landfills by conscious efforts to divide waste between recyclable, compostable and trash-bound products.

The rom-com New Year’s Eve took a similar approach with on-set activities geared to recognize recycling and composting and the elimination of plastic water bottles. In fact, the Environmental Media Association awarded the film with its Green Seal (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo also earned the Green Seal) for the crews’ efforts, which also included honoring an individual crew member each week for exhibiting Earth-friendly practices.

Credit: Susan Brand (susanbrandstudio)/Flickr

Not surprisingly after learning about these similar activities, both of the above films come from the same producer, Warner Bros., which launched an Environmental Initiatives Department back in 1992 and promotes sustainability as part of its corporate responsibility. Warner Bros. also partnered with Disney, Fox, NBC Universal and Sony Pictures Entertainment to support the creation of a Green Production Guide and website by the Producers Guild of America.

Another film had environmental concerns in mind, albeit of a different kind: Steven Spielberg’s War Horse. With up to 100 horses on the set of his World War I-era film (an estimated five million horses were used in WWI with many being fatally wounded or seriously injured), the award-winning filmmaker’s top concern was protecting the animals. An American Humane Society representative supervised activities on the set, making sure that the horses were being treated humanely and were not being put in harm’s way. In fact, the Humane Society started working with the filmmakers before the camera’s started rolling, participating in training sessions with the horses, and by end of shooting were happy to award the film with its highest certification honor: Monitored: Outstanding – “No Animals Were Harmed.”®

In a world in which its easy and often justified to beat up on large corporate entities for their environmental practices — or lack of — I’m pleased to see these large productions taking positive steps toward protecting nature and its creatures.


Happy Holidays!

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland & Michelle Werts

 

Happy holidays from the American Forests family to yours!

May they be filled with peace, love and joy — and green living.

(Credit: USFS-NorthernRegion)


A Wise Man’s Gift No More

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

This golden resin from Boswellia sacra trees is better known as frankincense. (Credit: Peter Presslein)

Gold, frankincense and myrrh. I’ve heard the story since I was a child, and frankly, other than gold, I never had any idea what those three wise men were carrying as they trekked across the desert. Recently, I’ve learned a bit more: apparently myrrh and frankincense are oil and perfume, respectively; each are made from tree resin; and both are still in use today. Yet, in a modern retelling of the tale, one of the wise men could be arriving empty handed.

Frankincense is a resin from trees in the Boswellia genus, particularly Boswellia sacra. It is used in perfumes, incense, Eastern medicine and even aromatherapy, and it has been harvested for literally thousands of years. But the tree, which lives mainly in Ethiopia, hasn’t been doing so well in recent years. A two-year study by Dutch and Ethiopian scientists found that about seven percent of the tree population dies off each year, and new seedlings aren’t surviving long enough to become trees at all, much less trees that produce frankincense. If their projections are correct, the rate at which the trees are failing could cut frankincense production in half in the next 15 years. More importantly, the trees themselves will be in danger of dying out entirely, with a prediction of a 90 percent decline over the next 50 years.

What’s causing this? The harvesting process doesn’t damage the trees — in fact it’s pretty similar to the process for collecting sap for maple syrup. Instead, the culprit is a combination of factors. The lowlands in Ethiopia have been seeing an influx of new people relocating there from the highlands, placing more stress on the ecosystem. Some trees can also be over-tapped in an effort to increase the harvest, and these are left more vulnerable to natural threats, particularly fires and longhorn beetles, both of which have increased.

That’s the adult tree side of the story, but why aren’t any new trees growing? The highlanders brought cows with them — a lot of cows. And little green seedlings are apparently quite tasty to the average bovine, so none of them survive long enough to grow into saplings, much less trees.

It is interesting to note that the plight of Boswellia would probably go unnoticed by most if not for the species’ ties to such a longstanding industry. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists 10 species of Boswellia as vulnerable to extinction. So is there any hope for this tree and the traditions that it has supported for millennia? More careful forest management is really the only route, according to the recent study, so we can only hope that these startling findings have some effect.


Messing With Texas

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Matt Bonham, Texas AgriLife Extension Service assistant, checks out a red oak tree whose leaves are browning and dropping off early due to the drought. Credit: Robert Burns/Texas AgriLife Extension Service

Apparently, someone forgot to tell Mother Nature that you “Don’t mess with Texas.” First, there were the fires: 27,411 of them in 2011 through November 21 that destroyed almost four million acres. That’s 47 percent of the acreage burned by fire in the entire country for 2011. Almost 3,000 homes were ravaged along with nearly 3,000 other structures, and the damage from the Bastrop Fire alone equals $750 million, which made fire one of NOAA’s billion-dollar weather disasters in 2011. What a mess! And, sadly, Texas’ woes don’t end there.

Texas’ year-long drought is another one of those billion-dollar weather disasters — make that $10 billion so far. And no end is in sight, as climatologists reported last month that the drought will stretch into next summer. This is bad, bad news for living things in Texas: two-legged, four-legged, winged, rooted and more.

Between 100 and 500 million trees in Texas fell victim to the drought. That’s up to 10 percent of the state’s tree total! And as Katrina covered last week, this may just be a prelude to years of die-offs from the drought, as the damage to trees inflicted by droughts can have lasting consequences. In the immediate future, there is another concern: fire. That’s right, we’ve come full circle. Dead trees make good fuel for fire. Also, deeply affected is an area of trees known as Piney Woods, which is also one of the largest producers of wood and paper products. The extent of damage of the drought on that major employer isn’t known yet.

One industry that’s already feeling the heat is the ranchers. Last week, experts revealed that Texas’ cowherd has decreased by 12 percent since January. Many livestock owners have had to prematurely sell or slaughter their herd or send them out of state to try to survive. All of this equals millions, possibly billions, of dollars lost to the Lone Star State’s hardworking residents.

From fewer cows to dead trees to more dry-conditions to come, it’s a bit dismal for nature in Texas these days — and I haven’t even touched on the possible effects of the drought on the migrating monarch butterflies that traverse the state twice a year. While I wish X-Men’s Storm were real and could go conjure some rainstorms for Texas, alas she is not, so I’m going to go wish upon a star, send a letter to Santa, fight for the wishbone at my upcoming holiday dinner and use every other trick I know to ask for some rain to head Texas’ way because all of the creatures great and small down there need a break.

For those you living through the drought and trying to save your trees, check out this helpful video from the Texas Forest Service:

 


Treks and the City

by Amanda Tai

Credit: Bex Walton/Flickr

Recently, there’s been a huge push in this country to get people to be more active and maintain a healthier lifestyle. A major part of that effort is encouraging people to go outside. When we go outside, there’s a whole world of activities to explore: hiking, skiing, biking, kayaking and camping – just to name a few. There are also a lot of great things to see outside like trees, rivers and wildlife. But with a lot of us living in cities and suburbs, it’s not always easy to find the time and opportunity to really connect with nature.

President Obama is well aware of the issue and has made it a top priority. Last year, he launched America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) initiative, with the goal of reconnecting Americans to the natural environment and making outdoor recreation opportunities more accessible for the public. The First Lady also has her own campaign targeted towards kids called Let’s Move Outside. Together, these initiatives work with federal agencies to promote outdoor recreation, health, conservation, urban green spaces and youth engagement. People are starting to realize the importance and necessity of spending time outside. Nancy Sutley, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, stated it best:

“The quality and accessibility of our outdoor spaces have a significant impact on the economic and physical health of American communities … actions under the America’s Great Outdoors initiative are reinvigorating a national discussion about the value of conservation, resulting in smart, innovative strategies and investments that respond to the priorities of American communities.”

Outdoor recreation has been shown to improve so many parts of our lives, from early childhood development to physical health to jobs and economic growth. But you don’t have to get all the way to the woods to recreate outside. Green spaces, like parks and trails in urban environments, can be just as beneficial to your health and well-being. I was encouraged to see this article from the Forest Service that draws the connection between city trees and better overall health. And it’s not just researchers saying it; I can tell you from my own experience. I’ve always been a pretty active person. I remember going camping and hiking as a kid with my family and going for runs around the lake on my college campus. But living in Washington, D.C. has been a real adjustment for me. In the city, I’ve learned how important it is to find green escapes (as I like to call them). They really are escapes because they transport you to another more peaceful world, even though you haven’t set foot outside the city. It just goes to show that you’re never too far from an outdoor adventure.


Raindrops Keep Falling

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

When was the last time you heard anything about acid rain? It’s been awhile, right? Though the issue had a good deal more coverage back in the 90s, it certainly hasn’t gone away. And now, scientists have discovered a new and unexpected effect it will have on some forests here in the U.S.

Maple leaves (Credit: Flickr/LizWest)

Acid rain occurs when the pollution in the atmosphere — especially sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide — mixes with precipitation and falls back down to earth as water with higher levels of nitric and sulfuric acids. Soil, especially in forests, has to maintain a careful balance of acidity and nutrients for it to support the local flora. So when acid rain enters the picture, it throws everything out of whack. That’s what has been happening to sugar maples in the Northeast. The species is especially vulnerable to nutrient imbalances and soil acidification, and much of its range is in areas with calcium-poor soil. Without this natural buffer to neutralize the acid, the trees absorb it through the groundwater and are poisoned. Over the past few decades as the sugar maples in the Northeast started to decline, one consolation has been that the sugar maple forests of the Great Lakes region would be safe because of the high calcium content in the area’s soil. And while that soil has protected the forests from absorbing too much acid, a recent study has found that those forests may soon have a whole new problem to worry about.

By simulating the effects of increased levels of acid rain on sugar maple forests, scientists found that as the acid falls on the layer of dead leaves and other waste that litters the forest floor, it slows the decomposition process. In a healthy ecosystem, this process breaks down the leaves and other organic matter, clearing them away to make room for new trees. When the acid slows this process, the dead leaves pile up, creating a much thicker layer than the forest understory is used to — in some places increasing it by 50 percent — which prevents new trees from taking root. This means that as current generations of sugar maples die off, there will be fewer and fewer trees to take their place.

These findings, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, are the result of a 17-year study by ecologists at the University of Michigan, the Michogan Technological University and the University of Idaho. Although the research reveals a new, negative effect of acid rain, its discovery could prove extremely important, influencing the management of sugar maple forests to give seedlings a fighting chance and giving foresters and scientists a push to look more closely at the ecology that takes place on the forest floor. Because of the continued burning of fossil fuels, nitrogen deposits from acid rain are expected to double in the next 100 years worldwide, so it is crucial that we fully understand the consequences they can have on our forests.


Brazilian Insects to the Rescue

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Guava. It’s a juice-bar staple because of its abundant amount of fiber, vitamins A and C, folic acid and other dietary minerals. In the wild, it’s a small tree, only three to 16 feet in height, with colored berries. It’s native to Brazil — and the Hawaiian forests wish it had stayed there.

Brought to the tropical islands in 1825, strawberry guava has become one of the most damaging invasive species in Hawaii. Spreading rapidly across the landscape by shoots and seeds, strawberry guava crowds out native plant species, disrupts animal communities and causes adverse effects on Hawaii’s water. According to a study by the University of Hawaii, forests infested with strawberry guava evapotranspire — or release water into the air — 27 percent more than forests without. This means that 27 percent less water is entering Hawaii’s streams and groundwater, which means that a quarter less water is available for drinking or for feeding agriculture crops. And don’t forget about the oriental fruit flies, which love strawberry guava as much as those juice-bar aficionados, but cost Hawaii millions of dollars each year due to the damage they cause to the state’s agricultural crops.

The Brazilian scale causes strawberry guava to form growths on its leaves, which cause the tree to have less energy to grow and spread. Credit: USDA Forest Service

But hope is on its way — fittingly, from Brazil. For six years, researchers with the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry have been seeking permission to release Tectococcus ovatus, aka an insect more commonly known as the Brazilian scale, into Hawaii’s forests as a biocontrol to counter the growth and spread of strawberry guava. You see, the scale loves strawberry guava. It loves it so much that it doesn’t eat anything else. And last month, the final step in securing permission to allow the scale to gorge itself on Hawaii’s wild strawberry guava was taken when the final environmental assessment was submitted to the Department of Health’s Office of Environmental Quality Control. Per that filing, insect release will begin this month at a site on the island of Hawaii, pending any last-minute delays spurred by farmers worried that the scale will affect their strawberry guava crops.

Hold on a second: isn’t Hawaii in this mess because of the introduction of a non-native species? True. Then, won’t the introduction of another non-native species as a solution create a bigger problem? Not necessarily.

Scientists studied the Brazilian scale’s potential as a biocontrol for 15 years before proposing its release in Hawaii. During that time, it was determined that it does not and would not pose a threat to other tree and plant species in Hawaiian forests because, as already mentioned, it loves strawberry guava and strawberry guava alone. The very definition of modern biocontrol science revolves around the specification that the biocontrol be host specific — in other words, it only wants to eat the plant or tree which it’s being sought as a biocontrol against. Furthermore, in the case of the Brazilian scale, it also won’t eradicate the strawberry guava from Hawaii entirely. It will just check its growth and spread, allowing native species to have a fighting chance of growing big and strong. So strawberry guava survives, as does Hawaii’s native flora. And the tropical islands are once again a happy place for forests.


Dying of Thirst

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Aspen trees (Credit: Flickr/jcookfisher)

Aspens are particularly striking trees. Their pale bark and bright fall colors have made them the subject of nature photographers, painters and even poets. But for the last 10 years, aspens have been disappearing.

Sudden Aspen Decline — or the aptly acronym-ed SAD — has been a thorn in the side of foresters, arborists and nature enthusiasts for the better part of a decade. The phenomenon is exactly what it sounds like: otherwise healthy aspen trees suddenly and quickly sicken and die, leaving swaths of forest decimated. SAD has killed hundreds of thousands of acres of trees across much of their native range in the high elevations of our western mountains.

Was it a disease? A fungus? An insect? Scientists seemed to find each of these and more in the dead stands, but only as symptoms of a deeper, undiscovered problem. Eventually, the phenomenon was determined to be a delayed response to the drought that struck the region in the early 2000s. But even this didn’t solve the problem because though they knew what was killing the trees, they didn’t know how.

So the search was on to discover exactly how a decade-old drought kills a tree. There are two main theories. The first is that drought affects a tree’s ability to photosynthesize, which forces it to use up its stored carbon reserves until there’s nothing left — effectively starving itself. The second theory is that drought interferes with a tree’s ability to conduct water internally, and when the roots are no longer able to provide water throughout the tree, it dies. So which one is it: death by hunger or thirst? No one knew — until this week.

Scientists with the Carnegie Institution for Science believe they may have found the answer. William Anderegg and his team of researchers found that while trees affected by SAD showed some signs of impeded photosynthesis, there was overwhelming evidence of damage to their water conduction systems. Their findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that trees affected by SAD actually lost around 70 percent of their ability to conduct water, suffering crippling losses to their root system. Thirst, not hunger, was the culprit.

It may sound like depressing news, but this one detail could help scientists and foresters predict future areas at risk of SAD, an important step in restoring our aspen forests to health. And since the bulk of the damage caused by SAD has been in the Rocky Mountains, a region where forests are already decimated by the mountain pine beetle, even a little hope goes a long way.


Going to Pot

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Credit: Anthony Tenorio (kurei18)/Flickr

On a trek through many of Southern California’s national forests, you might stumble upon an unexpected invasive species: cannabis. Yes, the same cannabis that is more commonly referred to as marijuana.

The illegal production of marijuana in our national forests was first detected in 1995, and since then, the problem has spread to 20 states and 67 national forests, according to the USDA Forest Service. And it’s turning out to be a big problem with far-reaching consequences.

While debates continue across the country about marijuana’s medicinal qualities and legalization, there is no question that these clandestine growing operations are not beneficial to the health of our national forests:

  • First, forestland is cleared to make way for the new crop. During a hearing on marijuana cultivation on U.S. public lands last week, the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control co-chair, Senator Dianne Feinstein, revealed that more than 100-multi-acre sites on farmlands were discovered in Fresno County, California, this year. It’s estimated that the average plot size on public lands is 10-20 acres.
  • Next, thousands of feet of tubing are used to irrigate the site, taking water away from the native streams, lakes and watershed. Around 5,000 gallons of water per day are needed to care for an average marijuana plot. That’s water that we cannot afford to be diverted: in the last 10 years, the Colorado River’s water levels have dropped 35 percent. Since the Colorado supplies the water to many southwestern states, including the rich agricultural fields of California, having water diverted puts a big strain on water supplies.
  • Then, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, these illegal growing operations use highly toxic insecticides and other chemicals to protect the crop from insects and wildlife. And the chemicals are also entering our groundwater, spreading their toxic elements throughout the forest and beyond.
  • And as if all of that wasn’t enough, there’s the trash (130 tons of it from 335 sites) and the weapons and violence (six California homicides were related to marijuana on public lands in 2011).

How is all of this happening? Well, our national forest system consists of about 191.6 million acres. The number of employees nationwide? Around 35,000, with less than 1,000 accounting for law enforcement personnel. That’s one person per 5,500 acres, leaving a lot of unmonitored land ripe for the picking. Drug operations are taking advantage of this weakness and damaging sections of our forests in the process. The USDA Forest Service is working closely with the Office of National Drug Control Policy to improve the situation, but considering the daily fights over budget appropriations, I’m worried about funding for a slew of environmental initiatives and programs, which causes the goal of adequate funding to address issues like this to slip farther and farther away.