Say it Ain’t So, Smokey!

by Amanda Tai

Credit: Washington Post

I remember watching TV as a kid and seeing USDA Forest Service ads with Smokey Bear and his famous catchphrase, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” I also just learned that Smokey’s fire-safety campaign is the longest-running PSA campaign in U.S. history! Last week, House Republicans considered cutting Forest Service educational programs, including the famous Smokey campaign.

But this isn’t just about Smokey the Bear and PSAs. It’s about all environmental education programs. House Majority leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) led the charge in an online voting program called YouCut, which allowed people to vote on programs that the House should cut spending on. Environmental literacy programs run by the Forest Service were up for voting on last week’s YouCut ballot. The site stated that while students may benefit from environmental education, using taxpayer dollars to generate advocacy is inappropriate.

Inappropriate? As a taxpayer, I feel good knowing that children are being taught about sustainability and conservation with my tax money. These programs promote going outdoors and being active. Children need to learn to develop healthy habits and a sense of environmental responsibility. Online voters felt the same way and were able to spare the Forest Service education programs. The House GOP’s reasoning to cut environmental education is that it would reduce federal spending and save taxpayers $50 million over the next 10 years. While that may seem like a large number, it’s actually a tiny amount by federal government spending figures. Also, by cutting these programs, costs could increase in other areas like wildfire relief. Many communities rely on Forest Service education programs to increase public awareness about wildfire prevention. Without widespread public awareness, more fires could occur, and the cost of fighting these fires could increase.

Right now, with Congress scrambling to put together a budget for next year, I’m glad to see the government actually reaching out to see what people think is important. But it’s not going to be solved with just a one-time vote. This YouCut ballot is a victory for environmental education, but be sure to watch out for what other environmental programs may be up next.


Mountain Majesty

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Grand Teton National Park (Credit: Flickr/JeffGunn)

You may not have realized it, but Sunday was an important day. December 11 was International Mountain Day. Yes, I know, just about everything from waffles to pirate lingo seems to have its own day, but this is actually one to take note of.

I’ve always been exceptionally fond of mountains. I grew up in the Sierra Nevada, and today I’m lucky enough to have a fantastic view of the Rockies out my window. Part of why I like them so much is that they are so intertwined with forests — you rarely see one without the other, and so you end up with these incredibly massive formations that are literally teeming with life; you just can’t help but be impressed. And since this year’s theme for International Mountain Day was mountain forests, it seems I’m not the only one who thinks so.

All forests are important, but few have the potential to affect so many people as mountain forests. These ecosystems are directly responsible for the health of innumerable watersheds. The rivers and streams that we pull from to supply our cities and towns with water — they all start in the mountains. As the water flows from mountaintop to faucet, mountain forests protect rivers from runoff, erosion and pollution. Most of us owe the water we drink to mountains and forests we’ve never seen, and natural processes we’ve never even heard of.

This year, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations released a new report entitled Mountain Forests In A Changing World, which explains why mountain forests are so vital to populations around the globe, and how we can work to protect them. The report is detailed, and goes into many benefits in addition to watersheds, but here are just a few key points worth knowing:

  • Although mountains cover only 24 percent of the planet’s surface, they provide 60 percent of the world’s freshwater.
  • The entire state of California (that’s more than 37 million people) relies on mountain ecosystems for its water supply.
  • About half the population of New York State, including New York City, gets its water from the Catskill Mountains — more than 1 billion gallons every day.

A changing climate is affecting mountain forests around the world, leading to floods and droughts, allowing once-manageable pests to become dangerous, and causing some tree species to shift or die out. Here in the U.S. alone we have lost millions of acres of forest over the last decade, much of it in mountain ecosystems, particularly out west.

If you don’t live near mountains, it’s easy to dismiss them as something far off and unimportant. But as climate change continues to interfere with the natural processes in those ecosystems, we may not need reports to tell us that something is going wrong. We may see more clearly than ever that mountains, and mountain forests in particular, are vitally important to all of us, no matter where we live.


Storms Are A-Brewing

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

It’s fitting that in a week when climate change talks were heating up and concluding in Durban, NOAA (the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) announced that 2011 set a record for weather disasters in the U.S.

Strewn debris, pictured on June 14, 2011, from the EF-5 tornado that struck the Joplin, Missouri, area on May 22, 2011. Credit: U.S. Army photo/John Daves

2011 bore witness to 12 weather disasters that cost more than $1 billion in damage each for a total of $52 billion for the year thus far. Even worse than this economic toll was the loss of more than 1,000 lives due to weather catastrophes this year. These disasters ranged from the cold (January’s Midwest blizzard) to the hot (the Southern Plains and Southwest’s drought and heatwave and the Texas/New Mexico/Arizona wildfires) and from the windy (destructive tornadoes across tornado alley) to the wet (flooding along the Mississippi and a little storm known as Irene). To say that 2011 was a little rough is an understatement. And the scary thing is that this might not be as bad as it gets.

NOAA’s chief, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, says that this year’s weather disasters are not outliers, but rather “a harbinger of things to come.” Yikes!

And if you thought Mother Nature wasn’t happy before, how do you think she’ll react to even dirtier air and water?

A battle is going on in Congress over environmental riders that would regulate — or fail to regulate — our air and water, among other concerns, on the 2012 appropriations omnibus. For those not following the appropriations work closely, more than 50 riders — basically new rules and regulations — have been added to the fiscal omnibus — a single legislative document containing many laws and amendments — that pose to seriously cripple the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of the Interior’s regulations and operating budgets. In fact, according to The Hill,one of the most contentious funding items in the omnibus centers around the EPA. Some of the hotly contested issues include regulations and rules on cross-state air pollution, toxic emissions from power plants and mining operations’ water pollution.

The final text of the 2012 omnibus is scheduled to be released today so that the House and Senate can vote on it by the end of the week, which is when current government funding is expected to expire. The environmental community is waiting with baited breath to see which environmentally harmful riders have remained intact in the final text or if environmental funding has been cut completely from the package, which would necessitate a continuing resolution to keep certain programs operating.

Storms are on the horizon, both figuratively and literally, so we’re shoring up and battening down the hatches to settle in for the long haul because as NOAA’s report indicates, Mother Nature will not and should not be ignored.


Here We Go Again

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Satellite images of deforestation in Brazil's Amazon (Credit: NASA)

It has been an odd week of ups and downs. For instance, NASA released new satellite images showing that coal pollution has been drastically reduced in recent years; but then an international research team showed us that global carbon emissions have gone up 49 percent since 1990. It’s not uncommon to find such highs and lows in the realm of environmental news lately and, hold on tight, because the roller coaster continues — in the Amazon.

On Tuesday, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) finished its estimate of Amazon deforestation from 2010 through 2011 — like NASA, they use satellite images to determine this — and announced that the iconic rainforest is enjoying its lowest deforestation rate in decades. Granted, the Amazon still lost about 2,400 square miles of rainforest between August 2010 and June 2011, but even that amount is 11 percent lower than the previous year. In fact, it is the lowest amount recorded since 1988, when INPE first began these annual estimates. The deforestation rate in the Amazon has been on a steady decline since a spike in 2004 — an encouraging trend that many attribute to Brazil’s longstanding Forest Code, which requires landowners to keep a certain percentage of their land as natural rainforest.

That’s the slow, fun climb to the top of the ride. Ready for the stomach-turning plunge? On the very same day that INPE announced their findings, Brazil’s Senate passed some very controversial (and highly ironic) changes to its Forest Code. Unfortunately, the new revisions also make a number of less-than-desireable changes. If the revisions are approved by Brazil’s lower house and the president and become law, the following will take effect:

  • The amount of forest that private landowners are required to protect will be reduced from 80 percent to 50 percent.
  • Landowners who violated the law before July 2008 will be granted amnesty and not be required to replant their land to bring it into compliance.
  • The margin of required protection along waterways (particularly important for watershed health throughout the Amazon ecosystem) will be reduced from 100 feet to 50 feet.

It’s worth noting that, before these revisions were proposed, Brazil was on track to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent by the year 2020, a commitment the nation made in 2009. What impact the new Forest Code will have on that goal, as well as the recently declining deforestation rate, we can only guess at this point, but I think it’s safe to say that it can’t be anything good.


’Tis the Season for Giving

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

What does December bring to mind? For me, it’s a chill in the air — any day now would be nice, D.C. (this Midwest girl needs her snow) — baking, shopping and family, although not necessarily in that order. For many, December is also synonymous with Salvation Army Santas, Toys for Tots and other worthy charities. Magazines provide lists of nonprofits to support — thanks Outside magazine for naming us as one of 30 organizations and innovators who are “truly making a difference.” And we all spread goodwill toward our fellow men and women when we can, making December the busiest time of year for charitable giving.

But, are you, like me, a little unclear about what these donations mean come tax time? Well, my friends, I’ve decided to do some research to figure out exactly how yuletide charitable gifts can give back come April 15th.

Credit: Aaron Patterson/Flickr

Let’s start with the most basic information: a gift to American Forests this December can mean much more than just cleaner air, cleaner water, and a healthier planet — it may mean you pay less in taxes! How’s that now? When you give to a charity, like American Forests, you are potentially lowering your taxable income because you can subtract the combined total of your gifts from your adjusted gross income. And a lower taxable income may mean you pay lower taxes! But there are key tips to remember and to take advantage of to make this happen:

  • The more the merrier: Remember those old clothes and furniture you donated earlier this year? That monthly donation you sent to your favorite charity? That one-time donation to your local firemen? You want to remember them all, dig out the receipts and thank you letters, and add the totals. The higher the total of your charitable gifts, the better chance you have of lowering your taxable income.
  • Check, please: Want to count that $20 you dropped in Santa’s bucket for your taxes? Easier said than done because the IRS needs proof of your donation — and Santa sees a lot of faces during December. Therefore, always get a receipt for that donation or better yet write a check or use your credit card on a secure website or via telephone. The IRS needs documentation of the name of the organization you donated to, the date you made the donation and the amount you donated.
  • Happy New Year: Happy that is if you remembered to make your donations prior to December 31st. Remember that merely dating the check December 31st isn’t enough — your envelope has to be postmarked on the last day of the year to qualify for your 2011 taxes!
  • The sky’s the limit … up to 50 percent: You can only deduct 50 percent of your income in one year. So, if you made $40,000 this year, the maximum you can deduct in charitable gifts is $20,000. But, unlike income which has to be counted in the year it’s earned, any unclaimed generosity from one year can be rolled to the next.

From here, things get a bit more complicated and specific, such as having to itemize your deductions (meaning use the Schedule A form), the fact that most charitable gifts need to be given to a 501 (c)(3) organization to count, etc., so let’s stop why we’re ahead and before my head begins to hurt too much. I hope this information was as useful for you as it was for me. Now, go out, shop green and give the gift of trees!

Disclaimer: I am not now nor will I ever be a tax professional. While I have done my best to provide you with the basics, make sure to consult with a tax professional for advice on your specific tax situation.


Success Is Sweet for Rural Communities

by Amanda Tai

Credit: barry.pousman/flickr

I love Vermont and maple syrup. None of that fake sugary “pancake syrup” for me. I grew up in New England, where I was surrounded by a culture that embraced small farmers and local businesses like maple syrup producers. Thanks to a new grant program from the USDA, my Sunday brunches will now be a whole lot greener. The Rural Energy for America Program (or REAP), which is administered by USDA Rural Development, is awarding grants to six maple syrup producers to reduce their energy use. Five of the producers are located in the state of Vermont.

Did you know that maple tree sap is almost completely water? Only about two percent of it is sugar. That means it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup! The delicious end product is certainly worth the effort, but it’s important to remember that there’s a lot of energy that goes into removing all that water.

One of the main methods producers can adopt to become more energy efficient is reverse osmosis. Traditionally, maple syrup is made by boiling sap over an open fire to reduce the liquid by ninety-eight percent. Reverse osmosis, on the other hand, removes about half of the liquid from the sap by running it through a semi-permeable membrane before it is boiled down into syrup. That means shorter boiling time and less energy needed afterwards to boil the sap. Not only will this make the production process more environmentally friendly, it will save producers time and money. And as all small businesses in this economy can attest, every penny counts.

But it doesn’t stop there. The USDA has other programs to support the sugar industry. In addition to REAP, the USDA also helps maple syrup producers through programs like EQIP (the Environmental Quality Incentives Program). Two years ago, the Maple Guys in New Hampshire were awarded a $10,000 Conservation Innovation Grant, a component of EQIP. With the help of the grant, they were able install a wood-fired evaporator for their business, the first of its kind in the state. This machine uses renewable energy because it actually combusts the resultant gas from the burning wood to provide even more energy, rather than letting the gas escape. The Maple Guys hope they can serve as an example for the rest of the industry in making the switch to more sustainable and domestic fuel sources. Success never tasted so good!


O Christmas Tree!

by Scott Steen, CEO

During the holidays, trees in every community do double duty as harbingers of the season. In the town where I live, many street trees are ablaze with lights, transforming the shopping district into a cheerful and magical destination.

The U.S. National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C., December 2010. Credit: National Park Service

Here in Washington, our headquarters is only a few blocks from the National Christmas Tree, which President Obama and his family lit just last week. The tree, which is on the Ellipse just south of the White House, is visited by thousands of people from all over the country every year. We at American Forests have a special relationship with the tree, as it is a part of our history.

The first “Community Christmas Tree” was lit by President Calvin Coolidge on the Ellipse in 1923, but the president was concerned about the number of live trees that were being cut from forests for holiday decorations — this was, of course, before the advent of the Christmas tree farm. So, in 1924, the American Forestry Association (our name prior to 1990) donated the first live National Christmas Tree to President Coolidge and the American people and planted it on the Ellipse. Since then, the National Christmas Tree has played an important role in our nation’s celebration of the holiday season.

The tree was originally a balsam fir, but several tree species have had the honor since then, as over the years the trees have become damaged by weather and other factors. These include a Norway spruce, blue spruce, Fraser fir, red cedar, oriental spruce and Colorado blue spruce. The current National Christmas Tree is a 26.5-foot Colorado blue spruce that was planted last March after a severe storm felled the previous Colorado blue spruce that had served as the National Christmas Tree since 1978.

The National Park Service suggested replacing the live national tree with an artificial one in 1946, but that idea received significant opposition. From 1954 to 1972, the Park Service switched to a cut National Christmas Tree. Fortunately, a spontaneous, grassroots letter-writing campaign by American citizens began pressing for a live tree in 1965 and intensified by 1969. After a much larger letter-writing campaign in 1972, the National Park Service finally bowed to public pressure and planted a live tree again.

If you celebrate Christmas, chances are you have a tree of your own. While typically our work at American Forests involves protecting and restoring forests, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Christmas tree farms and real Christmas trees, which can have a number of environmental benefits in their own right. According to the National Christmas Tree Association:

  • There are approximately 25-30 million real Christmas trees sold in the U.S. every year.
  • There are close to 350 million real Christmas trees currently growing on Christmas tree farms, all planted by farmers, in the U.S. alone. These trees are planted and grown as a crop for the explicit reason of providing Christmas trees.
  • There are more than 4,000 local Christmas tree recycling programs throughout the United States.
  • For every real Christmas tree harvested, one to three seedlings are planted the following spring.
  • There are about 350,000 acres in production for growing Christmas trees in the U.S., much of which is preserving green space.

No matter what holidays you may be celebrating during the weeks ahead, may your days be merry and bright. Happy holidays from all of us at American Forests!


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.