Noisy Neighbors

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

(Credit: Brian Robert Marshall)

Mankind is a noisy animal. Far beyond the sounds we can physically make ourselves, if you consider the noise produced by all the machinery and industry around the world, humans are by far the loudest creatures on Earth. And like that obnoxious college roommate that always played their music too loud, we are driving our quieter natural neighbors a bit crazy.

It makes sense that industrial noise could have a negative effect on local wildlife, but new research suggests the problem may run deeper than that. A research team led by Clinton Francis of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) has found that industrial noise can literally transform a landscape. It all comes back to how everything in nature is interconnected. Industrial noise causes changes in behavior for all animals in an area, including birds and insects, many of which play significant roles in dispersing seeds for trees and other plants. When industrial noise causes them to change their usual patterns, over time, it can actually change the distribution of plant species throughout the area.

western scrub jay

Western scrub jay (Credit: BTGW/Flickr)

Francis’ team studied wildlife in New Mexico’s Rattlesnake Canyon Habitat Management Area, which also happens to be home to a number of natural gas wells. The team’s series of experiments found that some species actually prefer the noisier areas, while others stay far away. Hummingbirds, for instance, don’t seem to mind noisier areas at all. The team saw increased hummingbird activity in the noisier sites, which means that plants pollinated by hummingbirds, such as flowers, may do better in those areas. Western scrub jays, on the other hand, do not like noise. This is bad news for the piñon pine trees in noisier areas because they rely on western scrub jays to reproduce. The birds take seeds from the cones and hide them in the ground to eat later. These seed stores don’t always get eaten, and the ones that are spared often sprout new trees.

At the end of their study, Francis’ team found that there were four times as many new tree seedlings in quiet areas than there were in noisy ones. The implications are enough to make me a little uneasy. Sure, every site is a bit different, and the plant, bird and insect species will vary, but there will always be a ripple effect for forests that border industrial sites or other noisy places. How different will these forests look 10 years from now? 50? The treeline could be pushed back little by little with each decade, just by simple noise.

It’s Electric!

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Lightning near trees

Credit: Larry Johnson/Flickr

Lightning likes trees. No surprise, right? It’s something we’re taught as kids: Lightning seeks the path of least resistance to the ground, and tall objects, like trees, help it get to the ground faster. Well, as it turns out, there might be more at play here than just a tree’s magnificent height.

According to new research published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, scientists in Australia have discovered that the air around trees is electric. Literally. In the study, measurements were taken at six locations around Brisbane of the ion concentrations — the atom or molecule that gives off positive or negative electrical charges — in the air. They found that ion concentrations in heavily wooded areas were double those in areas of grassy fields. Why is this the case?

Natural ions enter the atmosphere in two primary ways: from cosmic radiation and from radon gas. And, it’s posited that the trees factor big time into getting radon into the atmosphere. Time for a chemistry/geology/biology lesson: Radon comes from the radioactive decay of radium, which is found in rocks. As the radium in rocks is converted into radon underground, the water in the soil absorbs the radon. The trees suck up this water, which then evaporates through their leaves. In one day, one large tree can lift up to 100 gallons of water out of the ground and discharge it into the air. Voila, more radon with its ions in the air.

The authors of this study also believe that trees with the deepest roots are also the ones that bring the most radon into the atmosphere. They suggest that a eucalyptus forest might produce up to 37 percent of the surrounding area’s radon at times. That’s a lot of electricity!

Celebrating World Water Day

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

I think that we can all agree that water is pretty important. We use it in everything from manufacturing to agriculture, and then, of course, there’s that other small detail: Water is essential to life on this planet. There’s not a single living thing on Earth that doesn’t need water.

Credit: Horia Varlan

Today is World Water Day. Starting back in 1993, the United Nations General Assembly has designated every March 22nd as a day to recognize the importance of protecting freshwater and managing it properly for everyone’s benefit. Forests and water are more connected than just about anything, so here at American Forests, World Water Day gives us a lot to think about. Here are just a few things that forests do to keep water clean and flowing:

Manage water in cities

Where there are cities, there are a lot of impervious surfaces, like streets and sidewalks. This means that when it rains, the water washes over those surfaces — picking up all kinds of nasty things along the way — then collects in the city’s water-management system, which usually isn’t designed to handle a much higher volume. This is why, when it rains in the city, you sometimes see what looks like a very dirty river running down the street — there’s nowhere else for it to go. Trees intercept the water as it falls and can even filter it, which means less (and cleaner) water hitting the city’s stormwater-management systems all at once. This also saves a lot of money in stormwater management, which many cities like Portland are finding out.

Filter and regulate water

The USDA Forest Service estimates that 180 million people across the nation depend on forests for the water they drink, so it’s pretty clear that you can’t talk about clean, drinkable water without mentioning forests. As trees absorb water, they filter out pollutants. Trees are so good at this natural process that forests actually provide natural filtration for about half the water supply in the U.S. Many sources of water in the U.S. are also from forested areas, especially mountain snowpack and rivers. Trees are vital to those locations, keeping the water clean and flowing at a steady rate so that it moves from forest to faucet throughout the year, instead of all at once.

Shade water

Unless you’re cooking something, you usually like your water cool, right? So do the many species of plants and animals that live in it. Trees play a big part in regulating the temperature of the water in rivers, streams and other ecosystems where the forest meets water. Their shade keeps the water cool, which helps regulate the oxygen levels — very important, especially to fish like salmon, who are particularly sensitive to changes in water temperature and composition.

What can you do for World Water Day? One of the most important things you can do is educate yourself on the many aspects of the issue. Keep up with new information by joining our online community, and following us on Facebook or Twitter for even more environmental news.

Then, help to educate other people. Share the things you’ve learned with friends and family. Share these resources on your blogs, Facebook pages and other social networks. Email them. Get the word out there about how vital a role forests play in providing and protecting the water that we all depend on.

Spring: An Appropriate Time to Be in D.C.

by Amanda Tai

Yesterday marked the first day of spring, a time of new life and new beginnings. In D.C., spring means the city comes back to life. I’ve witnessed it for the past two years, and it happens like clockwork. The warm weather arrives, and people become more pleasant (it’s true) and start spending more time outside. And when the cherry blossoms start to bloom, D.C. evolves into a tourist-opia.

Cherry blossoms outside the Capitol. Credit: Kyle Taylor/Flickr

But there’s another reason why spring is a busy time in D.C. You won’t see it at a museum or on the National Mall. It’s happening in the halls of Congress; it’s the appropriations process. And it’s important because its results have an impact on everyone. Let’s start off with a little Appropriations 101:

  • Step 1: Budget Request – The President submits a budget request to Congress in February. This request includes figures for federal spending in the next fiscal year, which begins October 1st and ends September 30th.
  • Step 2: Hearings – Congressional committees hold several meetings, known as hearings, to discuss the proposed budget. Outside experts and specialists are often brought into these hearings to testify — or provide their opinions and insight — on specific budget areas. American Forests has given testimony in the past and will be providing testimony on the fiscal year 2013 budget. This is also the time when advocacy groups meet with Congressional staffers. American Forests has participated in several meetings on the Hill with groups like the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition and the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition.
  • Step 3: Budget Resolutions – The House and Senate Budget Committees draft budget resolutions. Information gathered from the hearings helps inform these documents, which serve as a blueprint for the appropriations bills.
  • Step 4: Authorization and Appropriation –  Actually, it’s two steps. Each House and Senate Committee (excluding the Appropriations Committees) has the power to establish, continue or modify an agency or program under their jurisdiction, and give the okay to continue onto the appropriations process. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees are then able to assign a final funding amount for the authorized agency or program, such as the USDA Forest Service.
  • Step 5: Final Report and Floor Votes – Differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget are reconciled in a final report, which is then sent for a full Congress vote. If the report passes in both chambers of Congress, it’s sent to the president to sign. And once it’s signed, it becomes law.

Now, this might seem like a long and complicated process because it is, but final appropriations bills are important because they determine about a third of government spending. The other two thirds is mandatory spending, which is enacted by law, but not dependent on an annual appropriations bill. Considering how many programs the government funds, it’s very important to have more than one step in the appropriations review process before the bill becomes law. It’s easy to see the changes happening outside in the springtime, but remember, there are a lot of changes going on inside Congress, too.

Urban Forests Go to the Hill

by Melinda Housholder, Urban Forests Program Director

Credit: Yuichi Kosio (Kossy@FINEDAYS)/Flickr

Earlier this month, American Forests joined forces with other members of the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition (SUFC) and took to Capitol Hill to speak up for urban forests across the country.

As part of the SUFC annual “fly-in,” constituents from all over the country met up in D.C. to talk with their political representatives about their urban forests. Together, we held more than 40 meetings on the Hill, having discussions with staffers and sometimes even the congressional members themselves.

Throughout the fly-in, I went with a constituent from Minnesota to visit four different Minnesota offices. We met with staff from the offices of Congresswoman Bachmann, Congresswoman McCollum, Senator Franken and Senator Klobuchar. While each office provided a slightly different experience, it was encouraging that everyone we met with seemed supportive of urban forests.

So what exactly did we discuss?

As members of SUFC, we went to the Hill to talk about a few key areas of concern for the future of our urban forests.

U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.

Credit: Sankar Govind/Flickr

1)  The Vibrant Cities initiative – This initiative provides 12 recommendations as a “roadmap for action” to creating and sustaining healthy, sustainable, urban forests and building vibrant cities. For more on Vibrant Cities, see my previous blog post.

2)  FY 2013 Interior Appropriations – Since the president’s FY 13 budget was released last month, we took this opportunity to comment on and discuss the funding levels for programs that are extremely important to the future of urban forests. These programs include:

  1. The USDA Forest Service’s Urban & Community Forestry Program, which provides financial and technical assistance to cities and towns as they develop their urban forests.
  2. The Forest Service’s Forest Health Management Program, which is crucial for surveying and monitoring the condition of urban-forest health, including early detection and rapid response to harmful insects and diseases.
  3. The Forest Service’s Research and Development Program, which provides funding for urban-forest research, such as forest structure and effects modeling, urban-watershed conservation and ecosystem service assessment tools (such as i-Tree).
  4. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Urban Waters Federal Partnership, which brings together 11 agencies to support the stewardship and local restoration efforts of urban watersheds.

3)  The 2012 Farm Bill – The Farm Bill is reauthorized every five years and is up for reauthorization this year, so we took this opportunity to highlight the urban forests in the Farm Bill. Did you know that Forest Service programs that are critical for maintaining and developing urban forests are authorized by the Farm Bill?

I was proud to be a part of such an important effort to help raise the awareness of our policy makers about the benefits of urban forests and the importance of funding the programs that are crucial to creating and maintaining sustainable urban forests across the country. I am hopeful that our fly-in day will lead to productive outcomes and furthered support for our urban forests.

Signs of Spring

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C.

Cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. Credit: American Forests

Tomorrow’s Spring Equinox officially marks the beginning of a new season, but for many parts of the country, it felt like spring arrived weeks ago. The tree outside my window is already in full bloom, and the gorgeous magnolia I pass on my way to work each morning is already losing its blooms — that’s how warm it’s been in the D.C. area this month. And according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual Spring Outlook report, the warm weather is here to stay. Above average temperatures are expected in the Southwest, Great Plains, Great Lakes and East. In a double-edged sword, these warmer temperatures will combine with drier-than-average conditions for many parts of the U.S., which reduces the risk of flooding, but also will extend many areas’ long-running drought conditions.

Here in D.C., the earlier, warmer spring has also had another consequence: It’s messing with the peak bloom of our iconic cherry blossoms — and on their 100th birthday no less! Being highly susceptible to weather patterns that determine when they bloom, this month’s unseasonably warm weather means that the cherry blossoms are already blooming, weeks ahead of schedule. In fact, the National Park Service has amended the forecast for the peak-bloom period multiple times, and now, this week is when the blooms will be at their best — the first week in a six-week festival. With the early bloom, any travelers hoping to see the iconic trees in all their glory in mid-April will be out of luck. And this year’s early bloom might just be an indicator of things to come.

Last fall, the University of Washington published a report stating that the Tidal Basin cherry blossoms were “ideal indicators of the impacts of climate change.” According to their models and research, they estimate that in 40 years, the average bloom period for the blossoms will be two weeks earlier than it is now; in 70 years, it’ll be a full month. So while the calendar may claim that spring begins in mid-March, it looks like climate change might have other plans in store for Mother Nature.

A Biological Clock

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

biological clockHave you ever pulled an all-nighter? If you have, you know that they are nearly always followed by a terrible, dragging fatigue. For the next day, or even several days, you just don’t feel right. That is nature catching up with you. You see, the human body is only meant to function on a 24-hour cycle; some of it active (awake), and some of it dormant (asleep). This is called a circadian rhythm: a biological process that works on a roughly 24-hour cycle. Just about every living thing on Earth shares this cycle, from animals to plants, fungi and even bacteria.

Now, scientists at the University of Edinburgh have pinpointed the genes in plants that regulate their circadian rhythms. They have found that a set of 12 genes and one particular protein work together to help the plant go dormant at night, saving its energy for growth, processing food and other actions that it can only perform during the day when the sun and other conditions are right. Beyond telling the plant when to wake up and when to sleep, the genes and protein make adjustments to the cycle to help the plant change with the seasons, determining when the plant blooms and when it grows.

This discovery is a big step forward in scientists’ ongoing effort to better understand the mechanisms behind plant activity, and what role the circadian rhythm and other functions play in how plants adapt to a changing environment. The knowledge has possible applications in a number of fields, but perhaps most important is helping scientists understand — and possibly even predict — how plants respond to interruptions in their natural cycles. If you have experienced, as many of us have, particularly strange weather patterns lately — here in Washington, D.C., we’ve had 80-degree days in March and our blooms have been out for weeks — it’s easy to see how significant knowledge like that could be.

Pine Tree State Turns 192

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

The Pine Tree State joined the Union on this day 192 years ago, bringing with it 17 million acres of forestland, 32,000 miles of rivers and streams, and 3,500 miles of coastline. Once part of Massachusetts, in 1820, Maine became America’s 23rd state, but its northeast border would be in dispute for another 22 years — war almost broke out between Britain and Canada over the boundary until the Webster-Ashburton Treaty resolved the issue in 1842.

Sunrise on Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park, Maine

Sunrise on Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park, Maine. Credit: H.I.L.T./Flickr

Known for its rugged cold and equally rugged landscape, Maine’s landscape was shaped by the ice age, with the last glacial retreat leaving behind a picturesque terrain and 2,000 islands along its coast. It’s home to the only national park in New England, Acadia National Park, and one national forest, White Mountain National Forest. Acadia actually means “heaven on Earth” in French, and those standing atop its Cadillac Mountain at sunrise are the first people in the U.S. to usher in each new day.

Speaking of names, when 83 percent of a state’s land is forestland — the highest percentage of any state in the U.S. — can it really be nicknamed anything but the Pine Tree State? During colonial times, its forestland and coast location made Maine a prime shipbuilding locale; its white pines were particularly popular as masts. Today, timber is still an important part of the state’s economy, but it also still relies on the sea, but now, for the food: A record 100 million-plus pounds of lobster were harvested in 2011.

Maine isn’t all business, though as it’s home to recreation activities galore — from beaches and sailing to camping, hunting and fishing to action sports like rock climbing and surfing. The Pine Tree State has a little something to offer everyone, so “Happy Birthday, Maine.” So glad you officially joined us on March 15, 1820.

Moosehead Lake region, Maine

Moosehead Lake region, Maine. Credit: Dana Moos/Flickr

Somesville, Maine

Somesville, Maine. Credit: Lee Coursey/Flickr

Getting to the Root of Water Quality

by Amanda Tai

Participants at the 2012 RVCC annual policy meeting in Vancouver, WA. (Credit: Sustainable Northwest)

Did you know that more than 50 percent of our freshwater supply originates from forests? Trees act as a natural filter as rain lands and passes through the ground into underground aquifers. Last week, I learned a lot about watershed health at the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition (RVCC) annual policy meeting in Vancouver, Washington. While there were a lot of topics to cover over the span of the three-day meeting, one of the top issues that kept coming up was watershed health and restoration. So what is being done to make sure our water is clean?

For the first time ever, the USDA Forest Service is developing a National Water Strategy comprised of several watershed restoration programs. The biggest component to the new strategy is called the Watershed Condition Framework (WCF), which provides a “comprehensive, long-term program to restore watershed health, riparian ecosystems, fish habitats and soil productivity” (Ziemer 1997). At the RVCC meeting, I learned about the six-step WCF process to restore watershed health from Forest Service experts:

  • Step A: Classify the condition of all 6th-level watersheds (a smaller sub-section of a watershed) in the national forest by using existing data layers, local knowledge, and professional judgment.
  • Step B: Prioritize watersheds for restoration: establish a small set of selected watersheds for targeted improvement equivalent to a 5-year program of work.
  • Step C: Develop watershed restoration action plans that identify comprehensive project-level improvement activities.
  • Step D: Implement integrated suites of projects in select watersheds.
  • Step E: Track restoration accomplishments for performance accountability.
  • Step F: Verify accomplishment of project activities and monitor improvement of watershed and stream conditions.

Other groups are working on water quality issues as well. Organizations like Charity: Water, and the Clean Water America Alliance are working to get safe drinking water to communities in need. Here at American Forests, we work on watershed health and protection through our Global ReLeaf tree planting projects and as a member of the Clean Water Network (CWN), a national coalition that advocates for the restoration of our clean-water sources: forests, wetlands and watersheds.

Water has an impact on every aspect of our lives. Watershed and water-quality issues are something that everyone, whether you live in a city, town or the country, has a stake in. We depend on clean water to live, and it is an essential element for both environmental and human health. That’s why when we work to improve water quality, it’s important to look at the root of the issue.

Working for Wildlife

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Yesterday, Michelle wrote about the challenges in defining exactly what makes an animal officially endangered. It’s an important issue because that language can determine whether or not the government invests its resources in trying to save a species by taking conservation action across public lands. Here’s the problem, though: Endangered species are not found exclusively on public lands. They can’t see property lines, and they have no way of knowing that the thousands of people and millions of dollars working to protect them can only do so in certain places. So when they make their homes elsewhere — say on a farm or in a private forest — they put themselves in danger.

A baby bog turtle (Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior are joining forces to address this gap in protection through a partnership called Working Lands for Wildlife. It’s a tag-team sort of program. First, the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) will determine which at-risk species need the most protection on private land. Then, using $33 million set aside from the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will provide the landowners with resources to protect those species or improve their habitats.

To kick the program off, they are starting with seven species in particular need of protection on private land: New England cottontail, bog turtle, golden-winged warbler, gopher tortoise, greater sage-grouse, lesser prairie-chicken and Southwestern willow flycatcher. Never heard of any of them? Neither had I. But after reading more about them, it seems that they’re in no less danger than the whooping crane or polar bear; you just don’t often see them publicized because so many hide out on private land, not in zoos or national parks.

Greater Sage-Grouse (Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

The goal is to help these species as the program works through its inaugural year and add more species as time goes on. It’s understandable that a farmer, forester or anyone who has to manage acres upon acres of land might not be able to set a lot of time and resources aside for protecting one species, but the Working Lands for Wildlife partnership aims to make it easier. All a landowner has to do is enroll in WHIP through their local NRCS office to get the ball rolling. Hopefully, the program will not only be able to stabilize these species and others, but also take an important step towards helping private landowners realize that they can play an important role in preserving the natural biodiversity of their region.

To learn more about what happens when endangered species make their homes on private land, check out the article “Endangered Forest Species” from our most recent issue of American Forests magazine.