Protecting Urban Forests

by Scott Steen, President & CEO

It is barely March, and throughout Washington, trees are budding. If you are not from here you may not realize it, but our nation’s capital is a city filled with trees of tremendous variety, and spring here bursts forth in a riot of colors and sweet smells (and major tree pollen!).

City trees, of course, have enormous benefits beyond their physical beauty. They clean the air, cool the climate, control stormwater runoff, prevent soil erosion and lower energy costs. Studies show that they also reduce stress in city dwellers, lower crime, increase property values and reduce illness.

The National Mall and U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.

The National Mall and U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. Credit: rjones0856/Flickr

This week, more than 40 members of the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition are gathering in Washington, D.C., to advocate for urban forests. They will convene meetings on Capitol Hill to call attention to the important environmental, social and economic values of urban forests; to discuss the threats to urban forests in cities across the nation; and to urge Congress to provide strong funding for the USDA Forest Service’s Urban & Community Forestry Program and urban-forestry research.

The SUFC is a broad and diverse coalition of individuals and organizations — city mayors, national and community nonprofits, nursery and landscape professionals, scientists, arborists, city managers and planners — who have been working together since 2004 to monitor and advocate for urban forests and green infrastructure across the nation. American Forests is a founding member of the SUFC and our senior vice president, Gerry Gray, is the chair of its SUFC Policy Working Group.

While our nation’s cities expand with our growing population, there are significant threats to urban forests due to the conversion of forests to grass, other ground covers and impervious surfaces. A new study by researchers David Nowak and Eric Greenfield of the Forest Service found that urban-forest cover declined in 17 of the 20 cities examined over a recent five-year period, and that the nation is losing four million urban trees per year. Atlanta had the highest tree cover at 53.9 percent and Denver the lowest at 9.6 percent. New York City was found to have most impervious surface at 61.1 percent, while Nashville had the least at 17.7 percent. Only one of the 20 cities — Syracuse, New York — showed an overall increase in tree cover. However, most of the increase was due to an invasive tree or shrub that regenerates naturally.

Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Georgia

Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Georgia. Credit: Clinton Steeds/Flickr

Dr. Nowak, who is a member of American Forests’ Science Advisory Board, points out that the loss of urban-forest cover would have been even higher if not for recent tree-planting efforts by local agencies and nonprofit organizations in many cities across the country. To reverse the decline, Nowak says that we need more widespread, comprehensive and integrated programs that focus on restoring and maintaining urban tree canopy.

American Forests is currently engaged in several projects to get the word out about the importance of urban forests and trees. We are in the process of spotlighting success stories from across the country of cities that have come together to save and expand their urban forests. We are also creating a process to identify the top 10 urban-forest cities in the nation and will be producing videos and engaging the media to promote the benefits of urban forests.

We often think of forests as being in the wild spaces that still exist far from our nation’s cities. But the truth is that many of our cities and towns are situated in forest ecosystems, which provide significant and often not widely understood benefits to our communities and to the planet. These forests must be protected and expanded every bit as much as the rural variety.

With timely information from urban-forest research on broad conditions and trends, new tools for local analysis and planning, and increased advocacy through broad and diverse groups such as the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition, it is possible to reverse the decline, restore and maintain urban forests across the country for their many contributions to more livable and sustainable cities. Urban-forest restoration is a top priority for American Forests.

A Forest of Fossils

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

In the world of environmental news, forests are frequent stars. They’re just too important, tied to too many wide-reaching issues to stay out of the headlines for long. Lately, however, the spotlight has been on a different type of forests: ancient ones. We’re not talking about old-growth forests or living trees that happen to be thousands of years old — the forests that have been racking up the headlines in recent weeks are those that covered this planet millions of years ago.

An artist's recreation of the fossilized forest in China (Credit: Ren Yugao)

First, American and Chinese researchers discovered a 298-million-year-old forest in northern China. The tropical forest was preserved by volcanic ash in much the same way as the city of Pompeii, giving scientists a unique opportunity to study exceptionally well-fossilized remains of plants that were wiped out long before humanity set foot on the global stage. Another exciting aspect of the find is the sheer scale of the area preserved: more than 10,000 square feet. Scientists often find only fragments of a fossilized ecosystem and use them to form an impression of the whole thing. With such a large area to work with, researchers can get a real picture of the entire forest, from the exact species that make up the understory to how high the canopy reached.

Then, just a few days later, scientists from the University of London shared that they had created maps of the world’s forests from the Cretaceous period — the time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. The maps were formed using data from thousands of sites of fossilized forests around the world. Among other things, the maps show that at that time, when the climate was a great deal warmer and more humid than it is today, forests reached further north, even into the North Pole, and had an unfamiliar composition. As part of the study, the researchers also analyzed fossilized tree rings, which showed that trees in the Cretaceous period grew twice as fast as today’s trees do.

Then — again just days later — there was more: Scientists have uncovered the world’s oldest fossilized forest. And this one is right here in the U.S.: The Gilboa fossilized forest, which sits in New York’s Catskill Mountains, is estimated to be 385 million years old. I’m not even sure I can wrap my head around something being that old — predating even the dinosaurs! — but the find is astounding. This forest lived at a time when forests were still a new concept; fish were the most common type of animal on the planet, and plants were just beginning to spread onto dry land. The detail in which we can see this long-dead forest is unprecedented: We know that it was composed of enormous, palm-like trees, covered in large, creeping vines and that was likely crawling with ancient insects.

Check out this video from Dr. Chris Berry of Cardiff University, part of the research team working on the Gilboa forest:

To me, it is amazing to be able to look back into history as these discoveries and developments allow us to do. And at the same time, I think it reminds us to look forward as well. Even today, forests are changing; species shift, evolve and die out. Not millions, but even a couple hundred years from now, will things be so different that people will be studying photos instead of fossils to see what our forests look like today?

Going in Circles

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

A lodgepole pine displaying pitch tubes

A lodgepole pine displaying pitch tubes, where mountain pine beetles begin their tunneling. Credit: Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service,

You know when you have an itch, but scratching it only seems to make it worse, and you’re stuck in a perpetual cycle of misery? Well, nature experiences similar phenomena: feedback loops. In technical terms, a feedback loop is when an output from a past event influences the same event, creating a cyclical pattern that’s difficult to break. And in a new book, a biologist claims that one of these vicious cycles is currently at play in our western forests thanks to those pesky mountain pine beetles.

Mountain pine beetles have been coexisting, relatively peaceably, with our pine forests for centuries. They can be found from Canada to Mexico and from sea level to 11,000 feet. Adult mountain pine beetles emerge each July and feast on our forests through September when the species then overwinters as eggs and young larvae before emerging again. Hard winters with cold temperatures used to kill many of the eggs and larvae, but with warmer winters over the last decade or so, more beetles are surviving, which means more mouths are feasting and more trees are being damaged.

As biologist Reese Halter discusses in The Insatiable Bark Beetle, warming temperatures and more frequent droughts have allowed beetles to occupy new climate zones and, thus, destroy huge expanses of pines. This destruction is systematically eliminating thousands of acres of natural carbon sinks, as trees absorb much more carbon than they emit — except when they die. According to Halter’s book, “Over the next decade, the beetle-killed [British Columbia] forests will emit 250 million metric tons of CO2 — the equivalent of five years of car and light-truck emissions in Canada.” So, climate change causes beetles to spread, allowing them to kill our pine forests, which in turn causes more carbon to be released into the atmosphere than before. Which means more climate change. Which means more beetles survive each winter and can climb to now-milder, higher elevations. And kill more trees. Feedback loop indeed.

Happy Birthday, Yellowstone!

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

The Old Faithful geyser (Credit: Flicka)

Here in the U.S., we are lucky to have some truly outstanding natural places protected for our enjoyment and education. We have no fewer than 155 national forests that encompass millions of acres and 58 national parks. But one place in particular set things in motion and created a precedent for the wealth of protected wild places that we enjoy today. That place is Yellowstone National Park, officially established on this day exactly 140 years ago.

At the time — it was 1872, for those who haven’t done the math — not everyone thought it was a good idea to close off such a large area to any type of development, no matter what remarkable natural features it possessed. Thanks to testimony from explorers, researchers, photographers, painters and yes, one or two suggestions that tourism could help the local economy, Congress formed the Act of Dedication, which set the park aside exclusively “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” When then-President Ulysses S. Grant signed the act into law, he created the world’s very first national park. And what a remarkable place one signature has managed to preserve.

Yellowstone's Grand Canyon (Credit: Mila Zinkova)

Yellowstone’s geography, long history and multiple ecosystems have provided it with more variety than most modern-day theme parks. It has mountains, subalpine forests, petrified forests, lakes, geysers, historic sites, canyons, hot springs, archeological digs and even a supervolcano — the largest one in North America. Just a couple of the highlights include:

Yellowstone Lake: This 132-square-mile lake sits at 7,733 feet above sea level, making it the largest high-elevation lake on the continent. It is a beautiful place for boating and angling and is a hotspot for researchers attempting to learn more about the park’s formation. It also sits atop a technically still-active supervolcano.

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone: Not quite the size of its southern counterpart, this chasm is nonetheless impressive, at roughly 20 miles long, 1,500-4,000 feet wide and 800-1,200 feet deep.

Wildlife: The park’s varied ecosystems and its protected status make it a haven for wildlife species of all kinds. The park is home to grizzly bears, grey wolves, elk, lynx, 330 species of birds and the largest public herd of American bison in the U.S.

Yellowstone Lake (Credit: Acroterion)

Old Faithful: Yellowstone actually holds almost 60 percent of all the geysers in the world, and this one is arguably the most famous. As its name suggests, it shoots thousands of gallons of boiling water more than 100 feet into the air at regular intervals. You can even see this phenomenon yourself on the park’s live webcam.

Of course, the park is also one of the best places in the country to hike, bike, camp, fish, boat, picnic and just about anything else you could hope to do to enjoy the outdoors. It seems fitting that, 140 years later, the first place in the U.S. to be granted such unprecedented protection is still one of the most beloved — and has paved the way for hundreds more like it.

Up to the Task

by Amanda Tai

Credit: Garden State Hiker/Flickr

March is just around the corner, and for many college students, that means spring break. The first thing that may come to mind is a beach in the Caribbean or backpacking in Europe, but there are plenty of domestic, outdoor vacation destinations that can be just as exciting. Why not go hiking in one of our nation’s great forests or check out a wildlife refuge?

The president and the administration encourage you to do so. Outdoor recreation remains a top priority for them, from instilling healthy habits in kids to boosting spending figures from international tourism. America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, for example, has set a recreational and conservation agenda to reconnect Americans with the outdoors.

Last month, the Obama Administration released an Executive Order to accomplish two objectives that will improve travel and tourism in the U.S. The first objective is to improve visa and foreign visitor processing. The second objective is to form a task force to promote domestic and international travel opportunities in the U.S. and to boost the U.S. position in the global tourism market. The International Trade Administration (ITA) has been put in charge of forming the Task Force on Travel and Competitiveness to establish a National Travel and Tourism Strategy.

The ITA recently had a public comment period to accept suggestions for the National Travel and Tourism Strategy. American Forests submitted comments, advising that the strategy promote outdoor recreation opportunities and support federal programs that fund outdoor recreation opportunities; like the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program and the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The U.S. has a vast array of outdoor recreation opportunities that could be a great benefit to the travel and tourism market, and it’s important that they get the funding they need.

So the next time you think about taking a vacation, consider the numerous opportunities that outdoor recreation has to offer. You’ll be having fun while you also support local communities and recreation programs.

Take a Leap

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts


Credit: psyberartist/Flickr

Time is a fickle mistress. It’s supposed to be the one constant in life, right? It just ticks on second after second … except twice a year when we lose or gain an hour … and every four years when we all of sudden get an extra 24 hours in the form of Leap Day.

Of course, there’s an easy scientific explanation behind the appearance of February 29th on calendars every four years: It takes Earth 365 and a quarter days to make its way around the sun. To help our poor brains, instead of celebrating that quarter day each year, we celebrate a full day every four years. Hence, Leap Day. Easy peasy.

In honor of our extra 24 hours tomorrow, I thought it might be interesting to see what all will happen in that 24 hours:

On Leap Day, you can make a difference by making a tax-deductible contribution to American Forests in support of our work protecting and restoring our forests, which clean our air and water and provide safe habitat for millions of animals. What better way to give back on your bonus day this year?

Getting the Dirt on Forests

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

The forest floor (Credit: Jan Vanaverbeke)

There’s a lot we still don’t know about climate change, but one thing we do know is that forests are a vital piece of the puzzle. Forests are so intertwined with carbon, and carbon with climate, that there is no denying the role forests play in slowing climate change and addressing its effects. Despite the complexities of that relationship, in my mind, it always comes back to the simple fact that trees absorb CO2 and store carbon. Now, a researcher is suggesting that one of the most important pieces of the puzzle is found in a forest, but it isn’t the trees: It’s the soil.

Justin Whisenant, a senior student researcher at Texas A&M University, says that while so many focus on the role of carbon in the air and the trees, its role in the soil is often overlooked. Yet, much of the carbon cycle does not take place over our heads, but under our feet. In fact, his research states that a forest ecosystem stores twice as much carbon in the soil as is it does in “aboveground biomass,” meaning trees and other plants.

If you think about it, a forest floor is covered with carbon-based matter, from tree roots to dead leaves and fallen tree limbs. It decomposes, and the carbon remains in the soil. Then, microbes in the soil continue to decompose the matter, and in the process, they release the stored carbon back into the atmosphere — a process known as microbial respiration. Whisenant’s research explores ways to influence that process and perhaps expand a forest’s ability to store carbon.

His research involved two months of testing soil samples from different stands of a loblolly pine forest in Florida. Each testing area was treated with differing levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, both common ingredients in fertilizers. Whisenant’s tests showed that both substances, particularly nitrogen, slow the rate of microbial respiration, which leaves more carbon stored in the soil.

Nitrogen, testing, microbes: What does it all mean? The findings suggest that certain common methods of forest management — such as using fertilizer — could help increase a forest’s carbon-storage capacity. And since many forests that border urban areas already receive larger levels of nitrogen due to various emissions, they may already be storing increased levels of carbon — a natural reaction that could prove important as CO2 levels in the atmosphere continue to grow.

Freezing for Maple Syrup

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Have you loved this year’s unseasonable warm winter? Yes? Well, I have another question for you: Is that happiness worth the loss of maple syrup on your pancakes and waffles?

Trees being tapped for maple sap in New York

Trees being tapped for maple sap, Beaver Meadow Audobon Center, New York. Credit: Dave Pape (dpape)/Flickr

While snow and freezing temperatures are cumbersome for us humanoids, they’re essential for maple-syrup producers across the country. In fact, without freezes, we’d be out of luck when it comes to maple syrup. You see, maple-tree sap only flows during a short window each winter and spring, a window in which temperatures drop below freezing overnight and rise above it during the day. When temperatures rise above freezing, the flow of sap begins, and for eight to 15 hours, it will continue until eventually drying up. This is when the freeze is needed: Overnight, the sap freezes and the tree rejuvenates, so come morning’s thaw, it’s ready to flow again. Without this delicate dance, there would be no sap, and with no sap, there is no maple syrup. And once the first spring bud appears on the maple trees, the jig is up, as any sap collected then will not produce the tasty syrup we all know and love.

Tapping for sap in Michigan

Tapping for sap in Michigan. Credit: Jim Sorbie (jsorbieus)/Flickr

As reported by the Associated Press, some maple-syrup farmers began tapping their trees in early February, nearly a month earlier than normal. And, so far, so good. But one really warm day could ruin it all, especially with hardly any snow cover to insulate the ground and keep temperatures lower in our tree-tapping forests. Therefore, let’s all hope for another month of freezing nights for our maple-syrup farmers who need to tap 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. Without those nightly freezes, the maple-industry across the country might suffer losses. For an industry that generates tens of millions of dollars each year (make that thousands of millions when you factor in associated business like retailers, packaging, equipment producers, etc.) and supplies about 20 percent of the world’s maple syrup, that wouldn’t be a good thing.

Where There’s Smoke…

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Smoke from the 2009 Tumblebug Complex Fire in Oregon (Credit: USDA Forest Service)

You don’t have to be a genius to know that wildfires can be very harmful. But we usually think of that damage as being contained to the forest or other areas physically touched by the fires. In reality, the consequences of a wildfire spread far beyond the reach of the flames. Effects of wildfires can be found in the soil, the watershed, the populations of flora and fauna, and more. A new study is helping to quantify that damage in a different, rather more disturbing way.

Led by Fay Johnston of the University of Tasmania, a global team of researchers presented a new study at the 2012 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Their research concludes that the smoke from “landscape fires” — which include wildfires, controlled burns and peat fires — contributed to an average of 339,000 deaths per year from 1997 to 2006. Smoke carries many types of pollutants and makes them easy for people to inhale. This study focused on the impacts of fine particulate matter: tiny particles (2.5 micrometers) that can be inhaled and make their way into sinuses, throats, lungs and bloodstreams. Particulate matter can cause heart attacks, decreased lung function, asthma attacks and a number of other serious problems. It is especially dangerous to the elderly, young children and those with lung or heart conditions.

According to the study, the highest losses were in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, with both regions reaching well more than 100,000 smoke-related deaths per year. The team reached these conclusions by analyzing data from a variety of sources, including satellite data of regions prone to such fires and statistics from the World Health Organization. This study is said to be the first of its kind; while others have studied the effects of fires and smoke, none have focused on estimating the resulting death toll. As climate change continues, scientists agree that the world is likely to see more wildfires, which will mean greater risk to forests and to people.

There is some encouraging news, however. At the same meeting of the AAAS, researcher Michael Brauer of the University of British Columbia presented his own findings: Satellite images, methods of measuring air quality and certain computer models can help keep people, governments and public health officials aware of what areas are most at risk for smoke and what they can do to keep safe. Along with the BC Centre for Disease Control, Brauer is working to find a method of forecasting smoke — predicting where the fires will occur, where the smoke from those fires will drift and what impact it is likely to have on local populations.

As sobering as these new statistics are, it’s reassuring to know that as we continue to learn more about the full impact of fires, scientists are already adapting to the new information to develop ways to preserve life.

Sharing Is Caring

by Amanda Tai

Credit: Wayne National Forest/Flickr

Children are taught that sharing is a good thing, but what if the thing you’re sharing is really complex and you’re trying to share it with a lot of people? That’s what the federal budget feels like to me. Since President Obama released the fiscal year 2013 budget last week, Capitol Hill has been abuzz with hearing after hearing to examine the proposed figures. With anticipated cuts across the board, agencies are preparing to operate under even tighter budgets. Running a government agency with fewer dollars sounds like a daunting task, but leave it to the folks at the USDA Forest Service to come up with a solution.

The Forest Service is using collaboration as the key to using their funds most efficiently. The agency plans to rearrange funding proposed in the budget to create more integrated agency efforts. By opening up Forest Service funds so that they can be applied to more programs within the agency, it will help streamline large-scale efforts such as reducing wildfire risk and integrating climate-change strategies. One example, says Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell, is to create a timber sales program alongside stewardship contracts for forest thinning. The pilot for this agency-wide cohesive strategy is called the Integrated Resource Restoration (IRR) program, and it’s already being used in three of the nine Forest Service regions.

The IRR program is also listed in a Forest Service report, released earlier this month, which outlines strategies to increase the pace of restoration work and create more jobs. It seems like a great strategy to reduce wildfire risk and provide important ecosystem services, but it may take a little longer before IRR becomes the agency norm. Congress and environmental groups are asking that more analysis be done to measure the success of the program before it goes national.