The American Jobs Act – Rebuilding Confidence in America’s Heartland

by Amanda Tai


In September, President Obama released the American Jobs Act. The measure is the latest piece in a string of efforts to put people back into the workforce and money back into the economy. More jobs sounds like a good plan, but as we’ve learned over the past few years, economic recovery isn’t a quick fix.

Rebuilding the economy takes more than just tax cuts and job creation. According to Secretary Tom Vilsack (of the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA]), the root of the solution is about rebuilding confidence in the American people. In order to get our economy up and running again, consumers need to feel confident about their spending. This confidence starts in America’s rural communities.

The majority of us live in and around big cities, which are usually considered economic hubs of the country. But, where would people in the city be without food that is produced on farms and in rural communities? Rebuilding the economy is a lot like constructing a house: you’ve got to start by making a strong foundation, and our economy’s foundation is made up of rural communities. These small business folks, farmers and ranchers are the ones providing essential goods and services to the rest of the country, like produce and wood products. However, these small towns took a hit in the economic downturn and continue to struggle. Addressing basic needs will strengthen these local economies. People in these communities need better access to career and educational opportunities, affordable healthcare, broadband internet and other infrastructure elements. Thankfully, the government has started to recognize these needs. Secretary Vilsack says that progress is being made in the agriculture industry.

Despite economic struggles, things appear to be looking brighter for rural America. For example, President Obama has taken significant steps towards supporting rural communities. He signed an Executive Order to establish the first White House Rural Council earlier this year. On behalf of the White House Rural Council, USDA Rural Development is holding a series of roundtable discussions to hear concerns from local business leaders in rural economies. USDA then plans to work with these local leaders to figure out the best loan and grant programs to help small businesses get the help they need. We now have local leaders collaborating with government agencies to help create jobs and build a greener economy. Now that sounds like a confidence-building plan to me.

The Eco-Friendly Industry

by Katrina Marland

Credit: Flickr/

Last week, Newsweek released its green rankings for 2011, identifying the world’s top 500 eco-friendly companies. Such a massive undertaking requires a bit of help, so the rankings are created in cooperation with two major environmental research organizations. As someone who tries to be environmentally conscious when shopping, I wanted to learn more.

Each company is ranked according to their overall Green Score, which is determined by a combination of individual scores. First is the Environmental Impact Score, which reflects the company’s comprehensive environmental footprint, including everything from carbon emissions to water use to waste disposal. Next comes the Environmental Management Score, which determines the quality of the company’s practices, such as the contractors they hire or the goals of their environmental policies. Last in line is the Disclosure Score, which assesses how accurately and completely the companies report their environmental impacts and practices.

Though the rankings feature the top 500 global companies, I was more intrigued to see the top U.S. companies and how they got to the top of that list. So here are some highlights from the top 15 green companies in the U.S. that surprised me a bit.

Not only is IBM #1 among U.S. companies, but it also holds the #2 spot on the entire list and is the only U.S. company in the top 10. Apparently IBM has been working towards greener goals since 1971, and some of its environmental practices have been so cutting edge that they were put into practice before even the EPA caught on to their importance.

Johnson & Johnson
Most of us know this company (which holds the #6 U.S. spot) for baby shampoo, but they’re also extremely proactive in the realm of alternative energy. They’ve reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 23 percent in the past decade and are one of the nation’s biggest consumers of solar power. The EPA even named them the seventh largest producer of renewable energy in the U.S.

This well-known company holds the #14 U.S. slot for taking a variety of steps towards sustainability over the last few years, including reducing its electricity usage by 35 percent and its natural gas usage by 41 percent.

Take a look at the rest of the nation’s top 15 greenest companies here.

You can also see the listings of the least green companies in the U.S. so you know which ones to avoid.


Saving Energy

by Michelle Werts

Oh the irony of writing a blog post about energy conservation in buildings while sweltering in my office on a 60-degree day while wearing short sleeves — a month ago I was shivering on an 80-degree day while wearing a long-sleeve cardigan (you cannot imagine the pains we’ve gone to trying to stop this awful phenomenon). But writing about energy conservation I am.

Akihabara, Tokyo, Japan. Credit: OiMax

Everyone and anyone knows the simple ways to be environmentally conscious when it comes to home and the office: turn off the lights when you leave a room, turn the air up or down when you’re not at home, don’t leave the water running while brushing your teeth. However, it becomes trickier when one wants to determine the energy efficiency of their abode. Did your energy bill go up because you’re leaking air somewhere or just because it was hotter outside this month? Is your showerhead not conserving the water it claims to or are you just taking more showers? Now, imagine trying to make this determination for a whole skyline of buildings.

Well, one man and his company are trying to help business owners with this very dilemma (thanks, E&E ClimateWire, for telling me about this story). Steve Heinz established EnergyCAP Inc. in 1980 and for years the company has been compiling data and developing software to help monitor and analyze the utility bills of major complexes like universities and retail chains.

EnergyCAP’s software eliminates the tricky weather factor, allowing companies to directly compare utility bills from month to month to notice any drastic changes in their energy usage that would indicate a need for more efficient systems. Because of its work, the company was named a 2011 Energy Star Partner of the Year by the EPA. Pretty nifty, huh?

Speaking of nifty energy efficiency, did you know that by properly placing trees around a building, air conditioning can be reduced by 30 percent and heat by 20-50 percent? That’s right. Trees help you be energy efficient, which is just one of the reasons why urban forests are so vital, but that’s a post for another day.

In the meantime, tell me how you save energy at home. My favorite: unplugging appliances that I’m not using because even if they’re not on, they’re still drawing electricity. What’s yours?

Boxed In

by Katrina Marland

I’m often surprised and amused by what does and doesn’t get attention in today’s media. Some stories are latched onto and hyped up; others are almost entirely ignored. Sometimes it seems like the only way to bring the proper attention to an issue is to pull some kind of crazy stunt that will bring the media running, even if they only want to find out why on earth you would ever do such a thing. But when I read that a man in England spent 48 hours locked in an airtight box with a bunch of plants, I have to admit, stunt or not, I was intrigued.

Dr. Stewart was sealed inside the plant-filled box for 48 hours. (Credit: The Eden Project)

The man was Dr. Iain Stewart, a professor of geosciences at England’s Plymouth University. He constructed an airtight, 130-square-foot box inside the Eden Project’s Rainforest Biome — a botanical garden in Cornwall. He filled it with 150 houseplants, added a hammock, a portable toilet, an exercise bike and a laptop; then walked on in; and sealed the door. For 48 hours straight, the only oxygen he had available to him was the oxygen produced by those plants. They were also the only things keeping his air clean — removing the carbon dioxide that his own breathing produced.

To me, this was one of those odd moments of clarity in which you realize something you thought you already knew. Kind of like when you know that 10 miles is a long distance, but you don’t realize how long until you try to run it. Objectively, we know that plants produce oxygen, absorb CO2 and generally clean and maintain the air we breathe. But that relationship becomes a lot more real when you’re locked in a box knowing that your life depends on a handful of those natural air filters.

Overall, the plants did their thing. They photosynthesized away while Stewart read, slept, worked and exercised. Other than some headaches from the difference in oxygen levels (essentially the same as altitude sickness — without the altitude), he fared just fine.

But why put yourself through the rigors of such an experiment, not to mention doing it in a clear box in the middle of a public place? As Stewart told The Independent, “That box, this experiment, is the planet.”

It is a disturbingly accurate analogy, if you think about it. The box and the air in it being our atmosphere, the houseplants being the forests and plants (yes, I’m counting algae) that provide our oxygen and Dr. Stewart being all of us … well, what’s the difference? It’s hard to grasp because the world just looks so darn big, but we live in the same conditions, with limited air and a finite number of oxygen producers. Our box is just much, much bigger.

An Apple a Day

by Michelle Werts

Red Delicious apples at Hartland Farm and Orchard in Markham, Virginia

One of my all-time favorite fall activities is apple picking. I just love going out to the orchards, filling up my basket, drinking hot cider and then using the freshly picked apples to make lots of sinful desserts — my waistline is not as big of a fan. This year’s extravaganza was extra special because I was able to introduce my cousins, apple-picking newbies that they are, to the joys of fall in Virginia. We picked more apples than we could hope to eat and found pumpkins bigger than our heads — and almost bigger entirely than my one-year-old cousin! Good times were had by all, but because I never do anything without over-thinking it, I realized that not only is apple picking a good time, it’s good blogging fodder.

So with that, I present some fun apple facts … at least I think they’re fun!

Apply History Stateside From the U.S. Apple Association

  • The only apple native to the United States is the sour crab apple.
  • The first apple orchard was planted in Boston by William Blackstone in the 1620s.
  • More than 100 apple varieties are grown commercially in the U.S., but more than 2,500 varieties grow wildly and 7,500 varieties grow around the world.
  • Golden Delicious apples, my personal favorite, were discovered in Clay County, West Virginia, in 1890. Their genealogy is unknown, but experts think the Golden Reinette and Grimes Golden are the proud parents of these yummy apples.

Apple Production in the U.S. According to the USDA (

  • Almost 9.29 billion pounds or more than 4.6 million tons of apples were produced in the U.S. in 2010. In a non-citrus comparison, grape production equaled 7.26 million tons, whereas peaches equaled 1.15 million tons and pears equaled 0.8 million tons.
  • Washington has the most apple-bearing acres at 153,000 and, therefore, produces the most apples at 5.5 billion pounds.
  • Acres producing apples have decreased steadily over the last decade from almost 410,000 to 2010’s 345,000 acres.

You’re welcome in advance for being the hero of your trivia team the next time an apple question comes up — because that could so happen. Here’s an apple pie to you! What’s your favorite apple treat?

P.S. Want more on apples and other fall harvests from trees? Check out the October issue of our e-newsletter, Forestbytes.

What is Forest Policy?

by Amanda Tai

Credit: Adriano Aurelio Araujo

Good question, but allow me to first introduce myself. I’m Amanda, and I’ve been a member of the American Forests team for two years. As an avid outdoor enthusiast, working in environmental policy has built my appreciation for the hard work that goes into restoring and protecting the land we enjoy. I’ll be providing policy blog posts and discussions every Wednesday.

Even though I’ve been working with environmental policy for the past few years, I don’t know everything there is to know about it. It’s easy to get lost in D.C. politics with all the bills, acronyms and political jargon being thrown around. Let’s face it; most people couldn’t be bothered with reading a 200-page bill. People want to know how something is going to directly affect them. So what is forest policy, and how does it affect us?

Forest policy is the relationship between people and the natural world. It’s a delicate balancing act. If you’ve ever gone on a hike in the woods, you know that forests are beautiful places, but they offer us a whole lot more than just good looks. They also provide wildlife habitat, wood products, medicine, carbon storage, clean drinking water and a host of other benefits. The environment gives to us, but we also need to give back to the environment. In order to continue getting those benefits, we need to be good stewards and responsibly manage our forests. This is what forest policy is all about.

Forest policy consists of the laws and regulations that guide the protection and management of our nation’s forests. Forest policies help maintain healthy forest ecosystems, which are essential for working towards a sustainable future and improving our quality of life.

It may not be something that we think about every day, but policies that manage forests and our environment do have an effect on us. Did you know that all of the natural resources we use have forest origins? For example, as part of the Clean Water Act, cities use tree coverage to improve water quality and help with storm water runoff management.

I’m not expecting everyone to go out and read through the conservation title of the Farm Bill, but perhaps the next time you take a sip of water or write on a piece of paper, you’ll stop to think about the forest that it came from and the policies protecting that forest.


Green Halloween

by Katrina Marland

(Credit: Wwarby)

I confess: I love Halloween. Who doesn’t enjoy a good excuse to eat junk food, dress up as something ridiculous and have a great time with friends?

Of course, it isn’t always an easy holiday to keep very eco-friendly. In fact, with all the crepe-paper decorations and individually wrapped candies, Halloween has the potential to be truly scary from an environmental standpoint. So here are some pointers for a spooktacular Halloween that is both fun and eco-friendly.

#1: Say Boo to Plastic Bags

Forego the plastic grocery bags and cheap plastic pumpkins this year, and collect your treats in something a little more eco-friendly. Grab yourself a reusable bag from any number of companies, like ChicoBag, which has designed some fun Halloween bags that even glow in the dark.

Better yet, if you don’t feel like buying a bag, make one! Grab an old pillowcase and decorate it however you like. Then, you can enjoy a one-of-a-kind spooky tote and save yourself a little cash.

#2: Dress for Spooky Success

A lot of people buy new Halloween costumes from retail stores every year. Not just because they want to dress as something different, but because these mass-produced getups are often so shoddily made that they rarely make it through the night in one piece, much less until next year. Save your money, spare the planet the resources involved in the production of yet another flimsy costume and dress yourself this year! The internet is your best friend when it comes to ideas for costumes. Check out these offerings from The Daily Green as a start!

#3: Reuse and Recycle in Decorating

Many Halloween decorations are much like the store-bought costumes: cheaply made and rarely reusable. A lot of resources are used to produce them, and since they don’t last, more are produced every year and then thrown away again. Use natural elements to decorate instead: pumpkins, gourds, leaves and other fall flourishes, all of which can be composted afterwards.

You can also reuse items you already have around the house. Clothes stuffed with leaves or crumpled newspaper make great scarecrows. Old sheets or pillowcases can be shredded to make spooky hangings. Milk gallons can make some creepy skulls. Get creative!

If you do prefer to buy your decorations, shop for quality. Choose items that will last, and can be reused multiple times to cut down on waste and save yourself from having to buy new ones each year.

#4: Natural Treats

Don’t get me wrong; candy is great. But the usual variety pack of candy bars isn’t particularly healthy for you or the environment. If you’re looking for something a little more eco-friendly, try organic treats. They’re produced using less chemicals, pesticides, synthetic ingredients and over-processed sugar, making them healthier and greener at the same time. Check out sites like The Natural Candy Store to order, or look in your grocery store’s organic aisle.

You can also try local produce — apples, mini pumpkins and other produce may not be traditional, but using them in place of candy for giveaways or your own party is healthy, eliminates plastic wrappers and supports local farmers.

#5: Turn Out the Lights

Halloween is the perfect holiday for conserving energy. There are all kinds of lighting options that don’t require much electricity and can also provide the perfect eerie atmosphere.

Candles are the obvious choice. They give off a flickering glow perfect for any Halloween event and, of course, require zero energy. And open flames aren’t your only option — old cans with patterns punched into the sides make great lanterns that can throw any number of creepy patterns onto your walls. Painted jars can also give off a nice, eerie glow.

If you prefer string lights (which seem to come in every shape, size, color and holiday-appropriate design known to man), be sure to get LEDs, which last 100 times longer than incandescents, use MUCH less energy and don’t produce heat like the traditional bulbs.

Have more suggestions? Share them in the comments!


Is That Wood Legal?

by Michelle Werts

It might not be if it comes from Indonesia, which has one of the rapidest deforestation rates in the world.

So I learned earlier this month thanks to Greenpeace and Mattel. Mattel, under pressure from Greenpeace, recently announced that they would be following a new set of sustainable sourcing principles while packaging their products, specifically their marquee Barbie line. Kudos to Mattel for stepping up, although it’s too bad it only occurred because of outside influence and not simply because the company wanted to help save the planet. Another positive to this decision is that hopefully it will add some economic incentive for Indonesia to curtail its illegal deforestation activities.

For geographically challenged individuals like me out there, Indonesia is a Southeast Asian country (it lies north/northwest of Australia) comprised of more than 17,500 islands and dozens of provinces, and it has the world’s fourth largest population. What it also has is a big ole mess of a deforestation problem.

Logging in Indonesia

Certified timber in logs pond in PT. Sumalindo Lestari Jaya 2, West Kutai district, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Timber certification is one mechanism for ensuring sustainable forest management. Credit: Michael Padmanaba/CIFOR

A few decades ago, 82 percent of the country was covered by forests. Today, that number has plummeted to less than 50 percent thanks in large part to illegal logging — by everyone from communities just trying to survive to corporate giants who also have permits for legal logging. It’s estimated that at least 50 percent of Indonesia’s $10 billion a year timber-products export industry is from illegal logging. Earlier this year, Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry claimed that more than 1,200 mining firms and more than 500 oil palm plantation companies are operating illegally in the country. That’s a lot of corruption and economic incentive to overcome to halt this devastation to the world’s tropical forests and our climate (Indonesia’s carbon emissions from deforestation make it the world’s third largest producer of greenhouse gases).

However, the United Nations is trying to do just that. In a report issued earlier this month by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), Indonesia could potentially triple the economic benefits of its forests through the UN’s Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) initiative. Under REDD, the UN — with the fiscal support of its member nations — provides financial incentives to developing nations to keep their forests standing. Under REDD, orangutan habitats in Sumatra, Indonesia, could earn more than $22,000 per hectare compared to the $7,800 they would earn through palm oil production. That’s a pretty good incentive to save some forests, if you ask me.

What do you think about Mattel’s decision? REDD’s objective? Share!

P.S. Speaking of the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan, American Forests’ Global ReLeaf program is planting more than 30,000 trees in Sumatra this year to help aid reforestation efforts to help rebuild and protect these endangered simians. Beyond just trees, though, this program is also working with the local community, training them in agroforestry to bolster community support for legal, sustainable forestry practices.


Running on the Sun

by Katrina Marland

A remarkable event took place in Washington, D.C. earlier this month. Teams came from around the world to compete for the glory and prestige that come with victory. No, we’re not talking about the Olympics. It’s the Solar Decathlon.

The 2011 Solar Decathlon on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Credit: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Every other year, the U.S. Department of Energy challenges teams from U.S. and international colleges and universities to design and create solar-powered houses. Simply creating a house that can run on the sun doesn’t cut it — the decathlon looks for a house so well-designed, so cost-effective, so energy efficient, and so gosh-darn cool that even those solar skeptics out there could take a look and decide that maybe there is something to this whole “powered by the sun” idea.

As the name suggests, the decathlon consists of several contests, including architecture, appliances (yes, even your refrigerator and dishwasher can run on solar energy), market appeal and more. There’s even a home entertainment contest — after all, what fun is having a great solar-powered home if you can’t throw the occasional dinner party?

Some highlights from this year’s many impressive entries:

The University of Maryland team designed a house they’ve dubbed WaterShed. In true Maryland fashion, the team got its inspiration from the Chesapeake Bay and included features that help the home filter and recycle water from the appliances, as well as manage rainwater runoff.

Florida International University’s entry is called perFORM[D]ance House, but don’t let its admittedly confusing name deter you. This home actually monitors the weather so that its energy settings can change as needed. Its louvered panels that can be brought down to cover the windows even make it more hurricane-resistant — a big plus in Florida.

The team from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign designed the Re_home to be used by families displaced by natural disaster. Considering the floods, tornadoes, wildfires and hurricanes we’ve seen this year, I’m really impressed by the team’s desire to address not just solar design, but also this humanitarian issue.

Did I mention that all of these are more than just science fair projects? Many of the homes actually get put into use, often by families in need.

Some amazing ideas come out of this contest every time it happens, which is all the more impressive because they don’t come from the world’s foremost energy companies — they come from students. It’s great that a simple collegiate competition can put us that much closer to a brighter (oh yes, I went there) energy future in the U.S.

Take a look all the teams and their unique designs, and see which ones took home the gold! I think I like the University of Maryland’s WaterShed the best, but I may be a bit biased. What’s your favorite?

Welcome to Loose Leaf!

by Katrina Marland & Michelle Werts

Welcome to Loose Leaf!

We’re glad you’re here, although you might be wondering exactly what you’ve stumbled upon.

Here, we plan to share unique perspectives on environmental news, issues and lifestyles. Make connections between forest news and your life. Discuss, defend and promote happenings in the green world. Last, but definitely not least, talk directly with you, supporters of the environment and of American Forests.

Wondering what tree planting has to do with the health of the Chesapeake Bay? We can help with that. Want to know why your bug spray doesn’t always work? Stay tuned. From scientific studies that show the medicinal benefits of trees to great places to hike or camp, from views on gas drilling in forests to tips on how to have an eco-friendly Halloween, this is your place for all things eco-centric.

Hopefully, at this point, you’re saying, “That sounds really interesting, and I can’t wait to read more.” However, you probably still have one major question: who is this “we”?

We are Katrina and Michelle.

Katrina hails from Maryland, but currently finds herself enjoying the high altitudes of Colorado. A member of the American Forests’ team for four years and having lived in five different states (including both coasts and the Midwest), she is fascinated by the variety of nature she has seen across the country and the environmental issues unique to each area. She loves reading, hiking and sci-fi TV shows.

Michelle is Midwesterner who does her best to cope with the swampy D.C. summers. Relatively new to American Forests, but not new to caring about the environment, Michelle is also an avid pop culture lover and recycler and is doing her best to acquire a green thumb within the confines of condo living.

Next week, we’ll be introducing the third member of our team, who will be joining us every Wednesday to bring the scoop straight from Capitol Hill. But we’ll let her introduce herself then.

We’ll also be welcoming special guests on an ongoing basis, including American Forests CEO Scott Steen, so keep an eye out for them.

Alright, that about covers it for now. We can’t wait to start discussing all things environment with you, so please don’t be shy: chat with us in the comments. Also, check back later today for Katrina’s take on this year’s Solar Decathalon.