Between a Rock and a Rising Ocean

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Credit: Flickr/uscgpress

On an island in Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough is a town called Kivalina. It’s a small community of just over 400 people, many of them Inupiats. Despite the rural location and a population that keeps mostly to itself, Kivalina is a town that we should all be paying attention to.

The barrier island on which the town sits is disappearing. As I mentioned in my post about the changes in the Arctic tundra, the climate is warming more rapidly in the far north than it is for the rest of the world. Warmer temperatures have meant the ice that usually protects the island during the storm season isn’t freezing in time, and more intense storms are eroding Kivalina’s eight-mile barrier island, all while the sea level is rising. The land is literally vanishing.

In 2006, the Army Corps of Engineers found that the community only has between 10 and 15 years before the island becomes uninhabitable, and that’s only if there was no further erosion. The report also found that it would cost $95-$125 million to relocate the town, and as time would come to tell, no one was willing to foot the bill.

But the town fought back. In 2008, the town sued a number of energy companies — including ExxonMobil, BP America and Chevron Corporation — for $400 million in damages because of their contributions to the climate changes that would doom their little town. The U.S. District Court dismissed the case in 2009, stating that a politically charged topic like climate change could only be addressed by the Obama administration.

I admit, even I would have been skeptical of a good outcome. Not because I doubt that those companies’ actions have contributed to global warming, but because I know that they aren’t singlehandedly responsible for it. For all that we complain (often with good reason) about companies that deal in oil and coal, the truth of the matter is that they only exist because we all use them. In fact, this was part of the defense’s argument (watch the video here).

This year, Kivalina is reviving its lawsuit. If successful, it will set a precedent for the thousands of other coastal communities that will find themselves in danger over the next few decades because of climate change. It will be interesting to see if the legal system determines that corporations are at fault — or we are. Either way, it can be only a hollow verdict for the centuries-old town of Kivalina when, in just a decade, it will have slipped under the sea.


Don’t Take the Trees!

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Yesterday, Katrina talked about working Christmas tree farms, where the farmers work hard to make sure that they are planting as many trees as are being removed from their farm, but what happens when trees are removed in cities and towns to be replaced by new apartments, shops and other developments? That’s the very dilemma facing James Island in South Carolina.

James Island County Park near Charleston, South Carolina. Credit: Reellady/Flickr

A developer has plans to cut down 60 grand trees in the area to make way for adult retirement apartments. What is a grand tree according to Charleston? It’s a tree with a trunk at breast height of 24 inches or more, excluding pine trees. The 60 trees at the heart of this discussion are a mix of live oaks, laurel oaks, magnolias and others. Trees that help purify the city’s air, filter its water and cool the individuals, animals and even machines that lounge beneath them. Not surprisingly, some residents are disheartened by the plans, but the matter is complicated, as the development is proposed as a “gathering place” project.

According to Charleston zoning and land-use information, a gathering place is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a mix of buildings that provides walking and biking opportunities and includes open spaces for community use, such as parks. Basically, it’s the type of development that is generally encouraged by conservation groups, who recognize that developments are important to communities and the economy, but also want to preserve as many trees, parks and natural areas as possible. The James Island project has also designated “tree save areas” (don’t ask me what exactly that means, as I’m not sure) to protect the remaining 47 trees on the property. Trees versus development versus active communities. Which interest should win?

Before you begin think that conflicting interests when it comes to trees in urban environments is unique to South Carolina, think again. Earlier this year, Baltimore found itself in an environmental peccadillo when the Baltimore Grand Prix (BGP) came to town. Approximately 30 trees were removed from the area surrounding the race route to make way for grandstands and other race needs despite an attempt by a local resident for an injunction against the removal. What made this removal okay with the Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability, Downtown Partnership and Waterfront Partnership? The BDG plans to replace many of the trees that will be removed and add more than 100 new ones, as part of its “Green Prix” initiative. But will they?

In a new twist to a story that was originally thought wrapped back in August, the Grand Prix organizers are behind on their bills. Big time. To the tune of at least $1.5 million, leaving the question of whether there will even be funds to plant the new trees as promised. So, 30-plus mature trees were removed, lots of pollution entered the air from some powerful automobiles flying around the city and there may not be any new trees. Big environmental fail.

Why?

  • Urban trees remove approximately 800,000 tons of pollution from the air every year.
  • Urban trees slow flooding and help filter water; they reduce storm water runoff by approximately two percent.
  • Well-placed trees around a residence or business reduce energy needs by 20-50 percent.

That’s why. Urban forests don’t just make our cityscapes beautiful; they make our cities, and us, healthier. That’s why every time a tree might be cut down in a city, everyone should take a step back and figure out the true costs of such a decision.


Deck the Halls

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Credit: Flickr/Joe Buckingham

I’m really looking forward to this weekend. Every year on the first weekend of December, the Christmas tree goes up at my house. Being a holiday nut, I love kicking off the season by picking out and decorating the perfect tree. With this exciting event on the horizon, I thought it a good time to revisit that “evergreen” environmental debate: real trees or artificial? Despite what some may think, the answer is not as simple as choosing a fake tree so that a real one won’t be cut down. Not even close.

Real trees are grown and harvested domestically, often locally, while artificial trees, like most goods that are manufactured half a world away (85 percent of fake trees in the U.S. are made in China), are brought in by carbon-emitting planes, trains, and automobiles. Buying from a local tree farm also supports small business and the local economy, instead of large corporations and economies overseas.

Are artificial trees less of a fire hazard? Nope, that’s just a myth. Most materials used in artificial trees aren’t just flammable, they contain enough chemicals (including lead and PVC) to create a more toxic smoke when burned. While a real tree is flammable, if you care for it properly it won’t present much more of a fire hazard than the rest of your living room. And if you’re worried about fire, buy LED lights for your tree since they don’t heat up as much, and plug them into a surge protector instead of directly into the socket.

When it comes to disposal, there’s a clear winner. Whether a real tree lands in a mulch pile, compost heap or landfill, the waste is 100 percent biodegradable. Most artificial trees are made from metal and plastic, which means your one-time tannenbaum will be decorating a landfill for decades to come.

What about the environmental impact of cutting down a tree? Remember, tree farms are farms, not forests, and their trees are grown as crops. As they grow, they support the local ecosystem, providing the same natural benefits. Because they are cut down at a certain age — between 4 and 15 years, depending on the species and the desired size — the farmers often plant rotating crops, which means that for every tree brought home to deck the halls, another is already being grown back on the farm and more are planted the following spring. Because the farmers rely on a healthy environment to produce their product, they have to be careful not to overuse or mistreat the land, and to keep the local ecosystem healthy and balanced.

So there you have it. If the wonderful smell and the fun of going out to pick your own tree each year aren’t enough to convince you, real trees are also the clear eco-friendly option. And no, a real tree doesn’t mean you have to wait; care for the tree correctly and it should last the full month, if not longer. Now get decorating!

PS – Tonight they light the National Christmas Tree, so don’t forget to stop by if you’re in the D.C. area, or to tune in live on TV or online at www.thenationaltree.org.


Climate Change Is in the Air

by Amanda Tai

Credit: ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

Up until now, I’ve only talked about environmental policy within the U.S. But there’s a lot happening at the international level as well. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been working on climate change issues since 1995.

Under the UNFCCC’s Kyoto Protocol, industrialized countries have committed to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As part of the agreement, these countries are also required to submit an annual report of their emissions.

So far, 191 nations have signed and ratified the protocol. The U.S. is the only country to have signed the protocol, but not ratify it. Why is this distinction important? Signing is a symbolic gesture of support, while ratifying signifies a nation’s formal agreement to cap emissions. This has put the U.S. in a controversial position in the climate change conversation. But, as President Obama recently stated during a press conference, the U.S. has shown support for addressing climate change:

We all have a responsibility to find ways to reduce our carbon emissions [but] advanced economies can’t do this alone … so, ultimately, what we want is a mechanism whereby all countries are making an effort. And it’s going to be a tough slog, particularly at a time when … a lot of economies are still struggling. But I think it’s actually one that, over the long term, can be beneficial.

But the U.S. makes up just a fraction of the UNFCCC. This year’s COP17 conference (that’s the 17th meeting session of the Conference of the Parties) has representatives from 194 countries! That’s one from every single UN member. A COP conference is held every year to discuss international climate change policy and develop strategies for the upcoming year.

This year’s meeting is taking place in Durban, South Africa, which draws attention to the climate change issues that many African countries and other developing nations are facing. Over the past few years, greenhouse gas emission levels have been heading in the right direction, but we’ve still got a ways to go. That’s why South Africa’s Environmental Affairs Minister, Edna Molewa, is urging industrialized and developed countries to agree to a second term of the Kyoto Protocol — first term ends in 2012. COP17  attendees will discuss prospects of a second term, and if not, what the next steps should be.

This meeting will also focus on agreements made during last year’s meeting in Cancun to transfer funds from richer countries to poorer countries. Funding remains a huge barrier for many developing countries. They lack the funding needed to build infrastructure and capacity to work on climate change strategies. To help prioritize funding efforts, the UNFCCC has developed the National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs), a database of climate change projects in developing countries. These projects help educate children about climate change, improve watershed management, better prepare communities for natural disasters and incorporate clean technology for farmers.

How will 194 countries come to an agreement on international climate change policy? It will be interesting to see, since I have a hard time just getting friends to agree on a restaurant for dinner! For the latest on the conference, be sure to follow COP17 online at the UNFCCC website and the host country’s website. You can also follow #COP17 on Twitter.


A Grizzly Win

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Yellowstone National Park has a long, storied history — especially when it comes to its wildlife.

Who can forget the controversial reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone in the mid-90s?

Yellowstone Superintendent Horace Albright with some wild friends in 1922. Credit: George A. Grant/National Park Service

Then, there are the ubiquitous snapshots of tourists and park employees mingling with bears from the early 1900s.

And, wouldn’t you know, those bears are still making headlines today — beyond stealing pic-a-nic baskets, that is. Last week, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling to reinstate grizzly bears to the endangered species list. What was the lynchpin of this victory? Forests, whitebark pine forests.

The U.S. first recognized the grizzlies’ threatened status in 1967, and in 1975, the species was granted protection under the Endangered Species Act. For the next 30-plus years, grizzlies found themselves protected from hunters’ crosshairs, and their population steadily increased. But an increase in population that corresponded with loss of habitat meant a resurgence of interaction with human visitors, and earlier this year, some of those interactions turned deadly.

In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) attempted to remove the grizzly from the endangered species list, indicating that the rejuvenated, steady population meant the bears were no longer at risk. The 9th Circuit Court disagreed. While the grizzlies may be recovering nicely, one of their primary food sources, whitebark pine, is now endangered.

Credit: Chris, MyBullDog/Flickr

This summer, the USFWS declared that whitebark pine’s inclusion on the endangered species list was “warranted,” as the entire species could be extinct in as little as two to three decades.

What’s the big deal about whitebark pine? It just happens to be the keystone species of the high-elevation forests of the Mountain West — and it’s dying at rapid rates from a disease called blister rust and a lot of pesky mountain pine beetles. You know those trees high on the mountaintop that form the treeline or the barrier between forests and the snowtops? If you’re in the West, those are likely to be whitebark pine. And those forests that they anchor help control and filter the water of the Colorado River basin — water that many of the southwestern states and agricultural fields of California rely on.

Grizzlies rely on the pine trees, too. Whitebark pine seeds are high-fat, high-energy morsels. Perfect for bears preparing for long, winter naps. If the whitebark goes, so does the grizzly’s primary autumnal meal. Not to mention the fact that when they’re feeding on trees high in the mountains, they’re not feeding near human populations, keeping both us and them safe. And this is why the 9th Circuit Court doesn’t think the grizzly bear is out of the woods. To save the bears, we have to save the trees.

And here at American Forests, we’re planning on doing everything we can to save the whitebark pine and its forests. Many of our Global ReLeaf projects are focused on reforesting devastated areas of whitebark pine, and as our CEO, Scott Steen, mentioned in the Autumn 2011 issue of American Forests, we’ll be launching a major campaign next year centered around our endangered Western forests. So stay tuned for more on this issue, as the grizzlies are just the tip of the iceberg.


Gifts of Green

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Credit: Flickr/Mulad

So it’s the week after Thanksgiving. The parade was great, the turkey was delicious and the football was fun. Now, it’s time to get down to business: holiday shopping. If you’re like me, you’ve already got a list a mile long that you’ve been determinedly ignoring for the last couple weeks because hey, it wasn’t even Thanksgiving yet. Now, there are no excuses left.

Holiday shopping is usually tough enough — so we’re looking to make it a little easier for you this year. Since today is Cyber Monday (Black Friday’s more convenient cousin), and you’re probably already looking for some spectacular deals online, check out these retailers that will not only give you great deals on gifts, but also give a little back to the environment.

Origins: These skincare products are made from all-natural, organic ingredients and are created using windpower and other forms of renewable energy. Plus, the company’s Plant-A-Tree initiative with us has planted more than 100,000 trees worldwide.

Crushcrush Couture: For every purchase from this online jewelry boutique, 25 percent of the price is donated to one of four charities. Choose American Forests upon checkout, and 25 percent of your purchase will be used to plant trees.

Paul Mitchell: This acclaimed hair product line has planted enough trees over the past five years to offset the emissions generated in the production and distribution of the Tea Tree brand, so this gift is really green all around.

Parducci Wine Cellars: The nation’s first carbon neutral winery uses local produce, practices sustainable farming, runs on 100 percent renewable energy and packages each bottle in eco-friendly materials. Give a bottle as a gift, or serve it at your own holiday festivities.

Uncommongoods: This website offers a wide variety of gifts, including books, games, jewelry and kitchenware. Upon checkout, you can opt to donate $1 to American Forests. You can also check out their line of nature-inspired products.

Reveal: These handbags are all made from recycled material or renewable resources, including bamboo, recycled fabric and vegan leather. On top of that, they plant a tree for every product they sell.

Last, but certainly not least, there’s us! Give a membership to American Forests as a gift this holiday season, and your friend or family member will enjoy exclusive online content, a year’s subscription to American Forests magazine and the knowledge that their gift is helping to restore forests around the world.


Happy Thanksgiving!

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland & Michelle Werts

“The First Thanksgiving,” painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

Did you know that Thanksgiving didn’t become a national holiday until 1863? While the pilgrims celebrated the “first” Thanksgiving way back in 1623, it took almost 250 years for it to become an annual, national tradition. So, remember to thank Honest Abe today for officially recognizing this day of thanks every fourth Thursday in November.

And thank you all for being a part of our community here at American Forests. Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!

P.S. For all of you Black Friday shoppers, don’t forget to take your reusable bags along tomorrow!

 

 


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 Loose Leaf Team

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 Loose Leaf Team

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.