Trail Trees

by American Forests

By Katrina Marland

When I’m driving in a new area, I am one of those people who become entirely reliant on a GPS. I find it hard to imagine how people found their way around before this nifty invention — or worse, before even paper maps were available. But it turns out that trees played quite the part in keeping early American travelers on the right path.

Native American tree marker

Credit: FlipC/Flickr

Across the U.S., you can find trees that are oddly shaped. Their trunks have odd kinks in them, or bend at strange angles. While some of them may indeed be simple quirks of nature, most of these trees are actually landmarks that helped guide indigenous people on their way. Native Americans would bend young trees to create permanent trail markers, designating safe paths through rough country and pointing travelers toward water, food or other important landmarks. Over the years, the trees have grown, keeping their original shape, but with their purpose all but forgotten as modern life sprang up around them. Today, we may not need these “trail trees” to navigate, but their place in history makes them invaluable. Imagine the stories these trees could tell.

Native American trail marker tree

Credit: Janet Powell

Visitors to Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument can see examples of this practice in the many bent ponderosa pines to be found at the site. These trail trees point towards Pikes Peak, which the local Ute Indians believed to be a sacred site. But not every marker tree is so easily spotted. And in fact, looking for a strangely shaped tree isn’t quite enough, since each tribe created slightly different markers. Because most people don’t realize what these trees truly are, they are easily overlooked and can fall victim to development, disaster or disease with no one caring for them. Because trail trees are roughly 150 to 200 years old, many of them won’t be with us for very much longer. We may still be able to see this original roadmap of our country, but the window to do so is closing.

Many groups today are working together to make sure that trail trees are identified and protected for the history they represent. The organizations, like the trees, range across the U.S., from the Dallas Historic Tree Coalition and the Great Lakes Trail Marker Tree Society to the Georgia-based Mountain Stewards, who have created a database of well more than a thousand of these remarkable trees across 39 different states.

These trees can be hiding out in parks, on mountain trails or in any number of places, so in addition to their research, these groups work off of tips from locals who report strange-looking trees. So next time you see a tree that looks just a little bit odd, check and see if it’s possible for it to be a trail tree — you may just find that you’ve stumbled upon a piece of living history.

A Threatening Insect Infestation

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Every day, our forests and trees are under assault: from droughts, tornadoes and hurricanes to fires and climate change. One particular brand of threat, though, is often sneaky, small and numbers in the thousands: insects.

Emerald ash borer

Emerald ash borer. Credit: David Cappaert, Michigan State University/

Trees and insects can often have a symbiotic relationship, with the insect providing pollination and other services to the trees, while the trees provide the insects with food and protection. Sometimes, though, those insects become unwanted houseguests and deadly serial killers.

Last week, the Chicago suburbs Batavia and Deerfield each announced that they would be removing hundreds of ash trees due to damage and death caused by the emerald ash borer (EAB). With its iridescent green body, EAB may look pretty, but it leaves nothing beautiful in its wake.

First found in the U.S. in Detroit, Michigan, in 2002 — when it likely arrived via wood in cargo bays on ships from Russia, China, Japan or Korea — this non-native pest has been destroying ash canopies throughout the Midwest and Canada and continues to spread. And they’re likely to be on the move again soon.

Injecting an ash tree to protect against EAB

Injecting an ash tree to protect against EAB — mauget capsules are used to inject nutrients or pesticides into cambium layer for uptake by the tree. Credit: David Cappaert, Michigan State University/

Like many insects, EAB larvae spend the winter growing, protected in their host tree. Come spring, they emerge and find new ash trees on which to feed and ultimately destroy. With this year’s early spring, forest officials are already preparing for the re-emergence of this killer. Last week, a handful of states, including Georgia, Virginia, Wisconsin and Minnesota, announced plans to hang thousands of traps on their trees in hopes of staving off the spread of EAB to their forests. The traps are designed to attract EAB through their color and scent, which mimics that of a stressed ash tree. Foresters hope that these traps will be able to capture the elusive insect and provide early warnings for areas at risk, allowing officials to possibly invest in expensive injections and other chemical treatments to the trees to prevent infection.

The best treatment option currently available, though, is removal of the infested trees in hopes of preventing the spread of EAB to the healthy ones. As a result, some communities are at risk of losing a large percentage of their canopy — Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin’s canopy is almost 50 percent ash — which will diminish the overall well-being of the community’s ecosystem. As a result, the USDA Forest Service is actively issuing grants to communities to replace trees in affected areas, and our Global ReLeaf work to restore forest areas — both urban and rural — in the Midwest is more important than ever.

And, unfortunately, EAB isn’t the only threat our forests are facing. So this Earth Month, head over to our Forest Threats page to learn about more of the issues facing America’s forests and how you can help.

We Are the Champions

by American Forests

By Katrina Marland

general sherman giant sequoia

General Sherman (Credit: Kimon Berlin)

Later this month, we have something special in store for you: The spring edition of our National Register of Big Trees will be released on April 27th! In anticipation, we’ll be talking about big trees every Friday until the release of the new register. It showcases each of the biggest trees — we call them champions — of native and naturalized species in the U.S. People from all walks of life — foresters, hikers, arborists, teachers, gardeners and more — contribute to this list through our National Big Tree Program, which has been celebrating trees of all sizes since 1940. Since that first year when the call came to find and protect the biggest trees in America, the program has grown to include coordinators, hunters and champions in all 50 states.

We are proud of our program’s 72 years of history, but some of our champions go back a great deal further than that. Just to give you an idea of how impressive our champion trees really are, let’s take a look at those who have held the crown since the very beginning.

Giant Sequoia
This champion tree goes by the name General Sherman, after the famous Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman. It is estimated to be one of the largest living trees in the world by volume, and scientists put its age between 2,300 and 2,700 years, making it one of the oldest known trees as well. Its astonishing size — more than 100 feet around and about 275 feet tall — makes it the prime attraction in its home at California’s Sequoia National Park. It should be no surprise that when we started seeking the biggest trees in 1940, General Sherman made the list, and he hasn’t left it since — although some competitors have sure given him a run for his money.


bennett western juniper

The Bennett Juniper, national champion western juniper (Credit: OutdoorPDK)

Rocky Mountain Juniper
At first glance, it might be hard to tell if this champion tree is still among the living. It is twisted and gnarled and has only a small patch of green at its crown to hint at life. But for being about 1,500 years old, Jardine Juniper — named for U.S. Secretary of Agriculture William Marion Jardine — looks pretty good to us. You can find it at the top of a peak in the Logan Canyon area of Utah’s Cache National Forest. It’s quite a hike to see this Rocky Mountain juniper, but once you make it up the trail to the viewing platform, you can tell that the tree you’re looking at is one heck of a survivor — and a national champion to boot.

Western Juniper
This tree is another Californian, located in Stanislaus National Forest, and at more than 40 feet around and 78 feet tall, it is the largest western juniper in the United States. It has gnarled branches, shrubby leaves and beautiful red bark and goes by the name of Bennett Juniper, after naturalist Clarence Bennett. Estimates of its age vary from as old as 6,000 years to as “young” as 1,000 years. Either way, we’re pretty sure this champion tree has more birthday candles to its credit than most trees you’ll see in a lifetime.

These are just three of hundreds of remarkable national champion trees that will be featured in the National Register later this month. Check back every Friday in April for more updates and cool facts about the National Big Tree Program.

Speaking Plants and More

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Every time I turned around this week, there seemed to be some new study, research or news related to forests, trees and flora that made me go, “That’s really interesting.” This made selecting a topic for today’s blog excessively difficult, so instead of selecting one, I selected four. Hope you find each of them as intriguing as I did. 

Corn stalks

Corn stalks. Credit: davef3138/Flickr

Speaking Plants
According to a new study released this week by the University of Western Australia, it appears that plants, at least corn, use a series of clicking noises from their roots to communicate with one another. The research team recorded clicking noises in the 220Hz range (a range that humans can hear, too) made by the roots of young corn plants and then played similar sounds to corn plants whose roots were suspended in water. And the plants reacted, leaning toward the source of the sound. The implications of this information aren’t really known at this point, but the research team behind this study hopes to delve deeper into the connection between plants and sound.

They’re Alive!
Two trees that were thought to be extinct have been rediscovered in Africa. Erythrina Schliebenii and Karomia gigas were both feared extinct since the Erythrina’s last known habitat was cleared for a biofuel plantation in 2008 and the Karomia hadn’t been seen in recent years. However, in an expedition last year to try to discover if either of these species could still be found, botanists from the University of Dar es Salaam found both trees in a coastal forest in southeastern Tanzania. Of course, with such small populations, both trees are still under threat of extinction, but they’re alive and well for now.

Augusta National Golf Club, Georgia, the home of the Masters Tournament

Augusta National Golf Club, Georgia, the home of the Masters Tournament. Credit: John Trainor/Flickr

The Coveted Green Jacket
The most famous golf event in the world tees off today in Augusta, Georgia, but while the golfers are aiming for the iconic green jacket bestowed upon the tournament’s winner, spectators on the grounds and viewers at home will be treated to one of the most picturesque sporting venues in the world:

  • First, there’s Magnolia Lane, which leads into the course’s main clubhouse. It derives its name from the 60-plus magnolia trees that line the roadway. The magnolias were first planted back in the 1850s when the land was a plantation home.
  • Then, there’s the Big Oak Tree, also planted in the 1850s. This large tree sits alongside Augusta’s clubhouse and provides a luxurious, shaded gathering place for spectators and golfers alike.
  • Missing this year, though, will be the famed azaleas. An estimated 1,600 azalea bushes surround the course’s 13th hole, which is known as “Azalea.” But this year, thanks to the early spring, the bushes have already lost their bloom. So instead of witnessing the cacophony of brilliant colors during this year’s tournament, viewers will have to enjoy the greenery of the course’s Georgia pines.

I Scream!
Oh no! Vanilla production was way down in the last year thanks to bad crop yields, which means the price of vanilla is going up. This equals bad news for the pocketbooks of ice cream lovers everywhere.

What to Expect in an Election Year

by Amanda Tai

Conventional D.C. wisdom suggests that not much lawmaking gets done during an election year. Congressional actions leading up to the November election are being viewed through a highly politicized lens, which makes reaching agreement on legislation practically impossible. While Congress may be too cautious to move forward on any legislative pieces, we’ll still see some action on the Hill this year.

Credit: League of Women Voters California/Flickr

As I mentioned last week, congressional committees are knee-deep in the appropriations process for the Fiscal Year 2013 budget. Last Wednesday, American Forests submitted written appropriations testimony to encourage lawmakers to prioritize the funding of forest and water programs. With last December’s averted government shutdown still fresh in my memory, I can only hope that Congress will reach some kind of agreement on the budget before the November election. Aside from the onerous task of appropriations, the temporary legislative halt will allow Congress to focus more on field hearings and agency programs.

Field hearings give members of Congress the opportunity to travel around the country to hear directly from local community stakeholders. Field hearings on the Farm Bill have already started and will continue through this month. Next week, the House Natural Resources Committee will hold field hearings in Alaska to discuss the effect of energy prices on rural communities.

For the Forest Service, it’s the perfect time to talk  with Congress about the new Planning Rule and how it will improve land management in this country. The agency says the new rule will work to address forest threats like insect infestation, wildfire and climate change. The agency’s work around the Planning Rule has certainly grabbed Congress’ attention. Yesterday, a House Agriculture Committee forestry panel met to review a recent Forest Service report that talks about increasing the pace of restoration in our national forests. The report outlines several actions that will allow the agency to increase restoration efforts, such as expanding collaborative landscape partnerships, implementing a bark-beetle-reduction strategy and utilizing the new Planning Rule on several national forests.

So while it may seem that D.C. is too caught up with the election to budge on legislation, there are plenty of other channels for moving forward.

Lasting Legacies

by Scott Steen, President & CEO

Happy Earth Month! The first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970 and was conceived as a national day of education and awareness at a time when our waterways, air and wilderness were being despoiled at an alarming rate. As people began to realize the topic was too big to be addressed within 24 short hours, what began as a day gradually became an entire month of education and awareness.

For me, Earth Month is a good time to think about the legacy that has been left to us and the legacy we are leaving to future generations. On the wall above my desk, I have a row of photos of some of my personal heroes from the conservation and environmental movements — visionaries and activists who have left a legacy of stewardship that calls to all of us.

Wangari Maathai, John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and Mardy Murie

Wangari Maathai, John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and Mardy Murie. Credit: American Forests

There is John Muir, the Scottish-born, American naturalist and preservationist, who lived a life of adventure in his quest to better understand the workings of nature. He was a tireless advocate for the protection of the Yosemite Valley and other wild places and is widely recognized as the father of our national park system. Muir spent most of his later years advocating for the preservation of western forests.
“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.” –John Muir

There is Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican war hero, outdoorsman and naturalist, who as president created 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reservations, 18 national monuments, five national parks and four national game preserves. During his presidency, he protected an astounding 230,000,000 acres.
A people without children would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as helpless.” –Theodore Roosevelt

There is Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the USDA Forest Service, close friend of Teddy Roosevelt and later governor of Pennsylvania, who is seen as the “father” of American conservation because of his unrelenting efforts to protect America’s forests. Pinchot was frequently seen as an adversary to John Muir because he saw conservation in terms of managing the nation’s natural resources for long-term use, while Muir saw wilderness protection as an end in itself. While my heart is often with Muir, my head is with Pinchot, and they both share space on my wall (although not next to each other).
“The purpose of conservation: the greatest good to the greatest number of people for the longest time.” –Gifford Pinchot

Denali National Park, Alaska

Denali National Park, Alaska. Credit: Michelle Werts/American Forests

There is Mardy Murie, a naturalist, conservationist and author, who was instrumental in the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the passage of the Wilderness Act. Murie spent her honeymoon with her husband, naturalist Olaus Murie, travelling by boat and dogsled in the wilderness of Northern Alaska, conducting research on the caribou. It was the beginning of a journey that would take her again and again into some of the most beautiful and wild places on Earth. In 1998, Murie received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S. Her work continued until her death at age 101.
“I hope the United States of America is not so rich that she can afford to let these wildernesses pass by or so poor she cannot afford to keep them.” –Margaret “Mardy” Murie

And there is Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan professor of veterinary anatomy and leader of the National Council of Women of Kenya, who went on to found the African Greenbelt Movement, which focused on the nexus of tree planting, environmental conservation and women’s rights. Maathai introduced the idea of community-based tree planting as a means of empowerment, conservation and poverty reduction. She and the movement she created have assisted African women in the planting of more than 40 million trees. In 2004, Maathai became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
“It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.” –Wangari Maathai  

As we celebrate Earth Month, I invite you to think about two questions (and share your answers if you are willing!). First, who are your heroes and what is the legacy they have left us? And second, what are the little things you are doing to make a difference and leave a legacy of your own?

An Old-Growth Fortress

by American Forests

By Katrina Marland

This marks our first blog post in the month of April, a time known around here (and hopefully where you are, too) as Earth Month. Since this is supposed a time when everyone is more aware of the challenges facing our environment, we are going to use our Monday posts this month, plus Melinda’s regular guest blog, to highlight what we think are some of the most significant ways forests affect our lives: water, wildlife, recreation, urban forests, invasive pests and today’s topic of choice, climate.

Climate and forests are two things you really can’t separate. There are a number of ways in which forests dictate and stabilize a region’s climate. And there are countless ways in which the destruction of forests contributes to global climate change. I choose, however, to focus on the fact that forests may yet be one of the major players in saving us from this mess of our own making.

Old-growth forest (Credit: Miguel Vieira)

A recent study of Oregon’s Klamath-Siskiyou region by the Geos Institute shows that large, old-growth stands will likely stand against the planet’s warming climate longer than other areas and offset its effects better than most. The forests’ size, closed canopy and well-established location mean that they can provide a greater cooling effect for the surrounding area, preventing the warmer climate from turning snowpack into floods or burning off the fog that is vital to some coastal forests. The extra stability that these forests provide means that they can also act as refuges for species that are fleeing changes to their own native habitat.

That these forests can, in a warming climate, function both as air conditioners and oases for the local ecosystem is of great value to humans as well, both those who live nearby and those who don’t. As we continue to see in the environmental news world, each time one part of a system starts to fail, it causes a ripple effect that spreads far beyond its original range. This is why, for example, an increase in temperature atop a mountain in Wyoming can mean less water for crop irrigation in southern California. Everything is connected, and these old-growth forests may be our best bet to hold it all together while our climate is in flux.

To learn more about how climate and forests are connect, visit our Forests & Climate Change page.

Championship Wood

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

This weekend, college hoops fans will be treated to the final dance. The end of a more than three weeks of madness will culminate in New Orleans on a shining, squeaking maple court, and that maple court had just as long a journey to the Final Four as each of the basketball teams playing on it.

2006 NCAA Final Four basketball game

Pre-game routines before a 2006 NCAA Final Four basketball game. Credit: Stepshep/Wikimedia Commons

The floor began as all wood does: as seedlings. These particular seedlings found life in Wisconsin’s Menominee Forest. For more than 150 years, the Menominee people have been managing this forest sustainably. What does this mean? It means that the Menominee keep an inventory of every tree in their forest and work to ensure that the forest maintains its diversity, quality and quantity year after year as trees are removed for harvesting. In fact, the Menominee are so good at maintaining their forest that there are more trees in the forest today than there were 150 years ago. American Forests magazine will actually be featuring the Menominee in our Spring issue that will be coming out next month, so be on the lookout for that, but let’s get back to the story of one very special floor.

Since basketball floors are known for their pale, flawless appearance, the wood has to be harvested in the fall and winter when the trees are sapless, making the wood whiter. The Menominee harvested the highest grade of maple last fall for the Final Four floor, cut it into planks and shipped the planks to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Connor Sports Flooring.

Connor — a Forest Stewardship Council member, along with the Menominee, which means it adheres to the council’s strict environmental standards for the logging industry — then inspected the wood for nicks or defects (any wood deemed unfit for the sporting floor will be used for parquet residential floor or other purposes at Connor’s plant), dried it, treated it with steam and heat, and fitted the planks with grooves for “easy” assembly. Then, the 240 pieces were sent to the next stop in their journey: The Ohio Floor Co.’s Ohio facility where the floor is laid out, sanded, sealed and painted. This process took about five weeks to complete and made a nifty time-lapse video.

Finally, the floor made its way to New Orleans last weekend and was treated in high, New Orleans style with a welcoming parade, complete with beads and a marching band. Now, it awaits the glory of the Final Four and championship games. And, while it may be painted with the phrase “The Journey Ends Here,” that’s not true for this floor. Where will it go when the teams leave the Big Easy behind? Most likely with the national champion, as it will be offered, for a price, to the winning team. The teams often use the floor as souvenirs of their victory, but the Florida Gators’ winning floor actually became the team’s home floor after their 2006 championship according to USA Today (check out its photo gallery of the floor-making process).

So, this weekend, if you’re watching some Final Four action, make sure to check out the floor. Lots of hard work went into it, too.

Birds on the Move

by American Forests

By Katrina Marland

Black vulture

Black vulture (Credit: Mauricholas)

Every year around the holidays, the Audubon Society organizes the annual Christmas Bird Count, an event in which volunteers across the U.S. help take a census on the birds that appear in their regions. A new study published in the Journal of Animal Ecology has used the data from 35 years of this Christmas Bird Count to find the rate at which certain bird species are adjusting to rising temperatures. What it found was both good and bad.

For the most part, all signs point to birds moving north. Not just moving south for the winter and north for the summer, but generally shifting their ranges north to compensate for the changing climate. It doesn’t happen quickly, of course. It takes several years for an entire species to change their preferred range. Since birds fly, often for long distances, they are among the most mobile of all animals, and a good baseline to measure against. If birds can make it to cooler climates in time, maybe other species can too, if they move fast enough. But that’s the problem. It seems even some birds aren’t moving quite fast enough.

The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker

The endangered-cockaded woodpecker (Credit: U.S. Marine Corps)

The study found that many birds take roughly 35 years to adjust to a change in climate. The research covered a total of 59 different bird species, one of them being the black vulture. This bird’s range has shifted north quite a bit in the last 35 years. Now, they spend their winters as far north as Massachusetts, where today’s winter temperatures are about the same as Maryland’s were back in 1975.

Sadly, that’s where the good news ends because many species aren’t keeping up with the rate of change. Some species, despite severe changes in their native range’s climate, aren’t moving at all. Or if they are, they’re going far too slow. The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker hasn’t moved its range at all in the last 35 years. That is because the bird only makes its home in longleaf pine forests, which are found only in select locations and aren’t moving north with the warming climate.

There are many birds like this that depend on certain species to survive — usually trees. Whether they require a specific species to live in or seeds to eat, their fate is tied to that of the trees, and unlike the birds that rely on them, the forests can’t migrate to a spot hundreds of miles away over the course of one winter. Which leaves birds with an unpleasant choice: make their way in a new type of habitat that they aren’t familiar with — you can imagine how happy the birds native to that ecosystem will be about their new neighbors — or struggle with increasing temperatures at home.

The Future of the Forest Service

by Amanda Tai

The Wayne National Forest along with partners from the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Sunday Creek Restoration Project. Credit: Wayne National Forest/Flickr

You may have noticed that I bring up the USDA Forest Service Planning Rule in quite a few of my blog posts. The reason it comes up so often is that this single piece of legislation has a significant impact on every forest managed by the agency. Following last month’s publication of the Planning Rule’s Environmental Impact Statement, the Forest Service released a final rule last week, which replaces the 1982 planning rule. The recently published rule will increase requirements for forest plans to focus on a number of new priorities, including habitat and species diversity, watershed restoration.

While this new planning rule underwent years of formation and review, Congress still wants to know if the new rule will result in real and measurable improvements concerning species, natural resources, jobs and communities. The House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy and Forestry held a hearing yesterday to discuss the opportunities and challenges facing the Forest Service and how to improve the process of land-management planning. During the hearing, members of the subcommittee commented that some forests were not meeting their sustainable-yield goals (the amount of forest product that can be harvested sustainably to maximize profit) or viability standards (maintaining a healthy population of native species) under the 1982 rule. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell responded that this was part of the reason for establishing the new and improved rule. Under the old rule, forests were subject to management plans that were 15 years old, meaning they couldn’t adapt to new and current forest-management practices, like focusing on qualitative outcomes rather than quantitative outputs and using best-available science to inform decisions. Tidwell also reassured the subcommittee that the agency is working to improve wildfire-management strategies, continue bark beetle-suppression efforts, restore wildlife habitat and create jobs that support local economies.

The agency hopes that the new Planning Rule will increase the time and cost efficiency of the plan-implementation process  by revising more plans with the same amount of money. The less time and money spent on plan revision, the more time and money that can be spent on restoration efforts, increasing recreational opportunities and maintaining good-paying jobs on forest lands.