Forest Thinning: Too Much of a Good Thing?

by Amanda Tai

Credit: U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region/Flickr

2011 was a record year for wildfires. Extreme drought conditions plagued the southwestern U.S. across Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona. The heat and dryness not only interfered with crops and livestock, but also caused one of the longest and most intense wildfire seasons ever. Texas, Arizona and New Mexico saw their biggest wildfires on record this past year. Over the years, forest managers have used various methods to reduce the risk of wildfire, and researchers continue to look for more effective management methods.

A group of researchers at Oregon State and Duke University just released a report that examines wildfire reduction efforts, making a connection between thinning and carbon emissions (a contributing factor to climate change). To reduce the risk of wildfire, forest managers use a process called “thinning,” in which small trees, branches and leaves that are most likely to burn are cut down. Previous research has suggested that thinning helps keep carbon sequestered, or trapped, in trees by helping prevent wildfires. However, this study reveals that thinning might actually contribute to more carbon emissions. For thinning, trees that would normally store carbon are being cut down. In fact, the study found that “for every unit of carbon that is saved by not burning in a fire, as many as 20 units will be removed and potentially not stored when trees are harvested.” David Cleaves, climate change advisor at the USDA Forest Service, states that thinning has been used to reduce the risk of wildfire, but carbon has not been considered as a factor in the use of thinning until recently.

Is this a case of having too much of a good thing? Dr. Mark Harmon, one of the study’s authors and professor of forest ecosystems at Oregon State University, seems to think so. Fire has always been a part of the forest life cycle, and Harmon notes that when trees survive fires, they become less prone to burning and actually store more carbon than those that are highly flammable. Since flammable trees are the first to set fire, this means wildfires release less carbon than we think. Harmon also suggests that the probability of severe fires, like the ones in the Southwest this year, is very unlikely.

Protecting forests and communities from fire is still very important, and thinning remains a critical part of that, but it doesn’t help reduce carbon emissions. In an effort to reduce emissions, we have to be careful with the amount of thinning done and incorporate other prevention measures.

For more information, check out the following links:

New Year’s Resolutions

by Scott Steen, President & CEO

(Credit: USFS Region 5)

Happy New Year! In the spirit of the season, I thought I would share some resolutions that you (and we) might make to help care for the environment by protecting and restoring forest ecosystems (including the one in your neighborhood). Here are four to get you started:

  • Plant some trees. Whether you plant a tree in your yard, work with a local group to plant in your neighborhood or make a donation to plant trees in a major forest restoration project, you are contributing to a healthier planet in important ways. If you would like to plant in your yard, you can find native species for your area at the Lady Bird Johnson Wild Flower Center (they do trees as well). Depending on where you live, you can find a volunteer tree-planting group for your city from our partner, the Alliance for Community Trees. Or if you would like to donate to a major forest restoration tree-planting project, you can contribute to one of our Global ReLeaf projects.
  • Take care of your trees. Just as important as planting new trees (and in many ways more important because of the environmental benefits of mature trees) is taking care of the trees we have. If you have a question about the health of a tree on your property, ask American Forests’ Tree Doctor for some free advice. For bigger problems, you might want to consult with an arborist. Or if you would like to help take care of the trees in your community, consult the Alliance for Community Trees.
  • Educate yourself. Learning more about forests and trees is not only interesting, it helps you to be a better steward of the environment. Audubon Guides has a very helpful site to help you identify tree species (requires a free registration) and the USDA Forest Service also has several free resources. Virginia Tech has a fun site to help you learn tree identification. It will also help to learn about invasive species so you don’t plant or transport them by mistake. The Invasive Plant Atlas is a good source for this information. Finally, you might want to learn more about the diseases and pests attacking trees in your yard, neighborhood or region. This website is a good place to start.
  • Get outdoors! Forests not only provide innumerable environmental benefits, they are also beautiful and provide wonderful recreational opportunities. Bring your family, some friends or your dog and hit a trail near you! Here are some of our favorite hikes. If you want to find others that are close by, you might try Local Hikes or the American Hiking Association.

So, what resolutions do you have to make 2012 a greener year?

Those Wacky Trees: A 2011 Retrospective

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Earlier this month, while helping research and recall some of 2011’s top environmental stories for our year-in-review article, I came across some headlines and stories that represent what I like to refer to as “Who’d have thunk?” And in the few remaining hours of 2011, I thought it would be fun to look back at 11 of those stories and reminisce about the interesting tidbits that are bound to be surefire, New Year’s Eve party, small-talk successes.

  • Portland, Oregon. Credit: Derrick Coetzee/Flickr

    More trees equal bigger newborns. According to a study in Portland, Oregon, which was released in January 2011, pregnant women who lived in houses with more trees on the property were less likely to have undersized newborns.

  • Israelis and Palestinians plant trees together. In March, people from both nations met in Salem, a village in Israel, and planted olive trees. Participants hope that the joint effort will help inspire peace in a land often engulfed in conflict.
  • Trees stop traffic. To be more precise, a UK Department for Transport study found that avenues of trees and hedges were as effective as speed cameras in slowing down motorists.
  • Black trees grow in space. Or scientists think they do. In a study released in April, scientists hypothesized that planets with multiple suns might contain trees and plants that are gray and black instead of green and brown.
  • Two men map almost 20,000 trees in New York City’s Central Park. And they didn’t get paid to do it! Two tree enthusiasts spent the last two-and-a-half years identifying and mapping 19,933 trees in Central Park. They’ve identified 174 species across the park’s 843 acres. They estimate that they have about 15 percent of the vegetation to go.
  • Treehenge takes root. A nonprofit in Condamine, Australia, is planting a mosaic of trees that will be equivalent in size to the Pyramids of Giza and will be able to be seen from aboard the International Space Station.
  • Semiahmoo Public Library's living wall. Credit: Woolbrain Knitter/Flickr

    Library overrun by plants. More than 10,000 plants create a “living wall” for Canada’s Semiahmoo Public Library in British Columbia.

  • Estonia provides a view from the canopy. In October, an architectural firm unveiled its “A Path in the Forest” in Estonia’s Kadriorg Park. The limited-time, 300-foot, floating trail winded its way up and among the old-growth forest, allowing visitors to experience the forest in a whole new way.
  • Scientists attempt to explain Leonardo da Vinci’s tree rule. da Vinci once wrote that if you combine all of the branches in tree, they will equal the thickness of the trunk. Now, scientists are testing this rule to figure out how and why this is the case. There appear to be two conflicting branches of thought: those that think it relates to hydrology and those supporting structural considerations.

Okay, now that you’re equipped with your party trivia, go out and have a safe and happy New Year celebration. We’ll see you back here in 2012.

Treecycling: More Than Mulch

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

(Credit: Flickr/GeraldEngland)

If you had a real Christmas tree this year, you probably enjoyed the fresh pine scent and gorgeous foliage throughout your holiday. With Christmas over, and the decorations coming down any day, you’re probably trying to figure out what to do with that tree. Which means you need to know more about one important word: treecycling.

Each area has different programs, so if you have a real tree, be sure to find out what options your town has for recycling it. One great resource is the database of programs listed at Here are just a few of the many ways used Christmas trees are getting a second life.

First, there’s the traditional route — countless trees (Christmas and otherwise) get recycled into mulch each year. Since that mulch is used to help other plants and trees grow, there’s a nice poetic justice to that method. But there are a lot of other uses for your Christmas tree, and some of them may surprise you.

It’s fairly common knowledge that living trees help to stabilize riverbanks, but did you know recycled Christmas trees can do the same? In England, old Christmas trees are being used to stabilize riverbanks along several rivers throughout Cumbria and Cheshire Counties. Far more affordable and environmentally friendly than the traditional steel, the recycled trees shore up the sandy riverbanks and create a buffer to protect the shores from flooding and erosion.

Around the Gulf, recycled trees are being used to restore a different type of ecosystem: they’re protecting the region’s sand dunes from erosion. And in Louisiana, Christmas trees are being used to create new marsh habitat and prevent shoreline erosion in ecologically sensitive areas, including National Wildlife Refuges.

The holidays are a time when most of us enjoy some great food, so it’s only fitting that Christmas trees can get in on the fun — as the main course, that is. For farmers raising goats, feeding hungry mouths can get expensive. But in some areas, a mutual deal has been struck: the town diverts dozens of Christmas trees from the curb to local farms to become a tasty treat for goats. It’s a win-win because the city doesn’t have to put the trees in a landfill, and farmers save a bundle on feed for their animals.

When they’re still standing, trees provide habitat to many species, and it turns out even recycled trees are for the birds. Wildlife rehab centers can place the trees in aviaries for the birds to perch on or in other enclosures for animals to eat, climb on, or play with.

Recycled Christmas trees can also take on new life providing habitat for fish. What would fish be doing in trees? Fallen trees make up an important part of aquatic habitats, giving fish a place to hide from predators and to lay their eggs. The trees also provide a rich habitat for aquatic insects, which the fish can feed on. These aquatic habitat restoration programs like this are popping up all over the country, from restoring perch habitat in Montana to salmon habitat in Washington and just about everything in between.

Policy Year in Review

by Amanda Tai

Credit: Stacie/

2012 is just a few days away. That means all the 2011 year-in-review lists are coming out. I usually check out the lists for top news stories or top songs, but what about environmental policies?

This was certainly a year for environmental dispute with “the most anti-environment House in history” (as stated by Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA)) and several anti-environment bills and riders. In a year that was full of environmental debate, these are the stories that made the top of my list:

  •  Forest Service Planning RuleThe USDA Forest Service is revising a 30-year-old rule that oversees how the majority of forests in this country are managed. With the help of an advisory committee, the Forest Service hopes to create a more efficient Planning Rule in 2012.
  • Everglades – The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service has developed a proposal to restore and protect the Everglades ecosystem. The plan will address issues like habitat fragmentation and development that have had a negative impact on the areas wildlife.
  • Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) – As part of the CFRL Coalition steering committee, American Forests worked on a report laying out the successes of the program in its first year. The program is already making an impact: 1,550 jobs have been created, 66,000 acres of wildlife habitat have been improved, and 90,000 acres have been cleared of fuels that contribute to destructive wildfires.
  • Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) – Energy is a hot topic for the 2012 presidential campaign, and the search for domestic energy sources continues. One controversial site is the 10-02 coastal plain area of ANWR. The Alaskan Energy for Americans Job Act that would establish a drilling program in the coastal plain area was introduced in the House on November 14th, but has not made any movement since.
  • Keystone Pipeline XL – President Obama passed a bill containing a measure to postpone the pipeline decision until late February. With elections coming up in 2012, the project may be delayed even further, as the pipeline is an important issue for many Obama supporters. The State Department also announced in November that the decision would be delayed until after the presidential election.
  • COP 17 in Durban – With some provisions of the Kyoto Protocol set to expire next year, the participants of the COP 17 conference were determined to make plans to keep international climate change policy alive. The push for action, and the resulting agreement to reduce emissions, came from developing nations and those most affected by climate change. While not legally binding yet, all countries agreed to work towards a legally binding deal by 2015.

For more details on all of these topics, check out the policy reports and comments page on our website. Also, be sure to stay tuned as I share more policy perspectives with you in 2012. Happy New Year!

Greening the Silver Screen

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Every family has their own holiday traditions. In my family, we go to the movies — this year, Aunt Missy took some wee ones to a family friendly film to get them out from under busy, cooking feet. But while going to the movies might be a favorite holiday pastime — or year round one—the business of making movies isn’t the most environmentally friendly industry out there. When you’re talking about hundreds of crew members, dozens of sets and locations, transportation needs, prop and costume production, you’re starting to look at a pretty big carbon footprint. That’s why this holiday season I was heartened to see that potential blockbusters were not only aware of this fact, but took active steps to minimize their environmental impacts.

First up is a certain 19th-century, super sleuth. According to Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows co-producer Lauren Meeks, two key focuses for reducing the film’s carbon footprint were construction set waste and food waste. Meeks claims that 756 tons of the film’s waste was diverted from landfills by conscious efforts to divide waste between recyclable, compostable and trash-bound products.

The rom-com New Year’s Eve took a similar approach with on-set activities geared to recognize recycling and composting and the elimination of plastic water bottles. In fact, the Environmental Media Association awarded the film with its Green Seal (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo also earned the Green Seal) for the crews’ efforts, which also included honoring an individual crew member each week for exhibiting Earth-friendly practices.

Credit: Susan Brand (susanbrandstudio)/Flickr

Not surprisingly after learning about these similar activities, both of the above films come from the same producer, Warner Bros., which launched an Environmental Initiatives Department back in 1992 and promotes sustainability as part of its corporate responsibility. Warner Bros. also partnered with Disney, Fox, NBC Universal and Sony Pictures Entertainment to support the creation of a Green Production Guide and website by the Producers Guild of America.

Another film had environmental concerns in mind, albeit of a different kind: Steven Spielberg’s War Horse. With up to 100 horses on the set of his World War I-era film (an estimated five million horses were used in WWI with many being fatally wounded or seriously injured), the award-winning filmmaker’s top concern was protecting the animals. An American Humane Society representative supervised activities on the set, making sure that the horses were being treated humanely and were not being put in harm’s way. In fact, the Humane Society started working with the filmmakers before the camera’s started rolling, participating in training sessions with the horses, and by end of shooting were happy to award the film with its highest certification honor: Monitored: Outstanding – “No Animals Were Harmed.”®

In a world in which its easy and often justified to beat up on large corporate entities for their environmental practices — or lack of — I’m pleased to see these large productions taking positive steps toward protecting nature and its creatures.

Happy Holidays!

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland & Michelle Werts


Happy holidays from the American Forests family to yours!

May they be filled with peace, love and joy — and green living.

(Credit: USFS-NorthernRegion)

A Wise Man’s Gift No More

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

This golden resin from Boswellia sacra trees is better known as frankincense. (Credit: Peter Presslein)

Gold, frankincense and myrrh. I’ve heard the story since I was a child, and frankly, other than gold, I never had any idea what those three wise men were carrying as they trekked across the desert. Recently, I’ve learned a bit more: apparently myrrh and frankincense are oil and perfume, respectively; each are made from tree resin; and both are still in use today. Yet, in a modern retelling of the tale, one of the wise men could be arriving empty handed.

Frankincense is a resin from trees in the Boswellia genus, particularly Boswellia sacra. It is used in perfumes, incense, Eastern medicine and even aromatherapy, and it has been harvested for literally thousands of years. But the tree, which lives mainly in Ethiopia, hasn’t been doing so well in recent years. A two-year study by Dutch and Ethiopian scientists found that about seven percent of the tree population dies off each year, and new seedlings aren’t surviving long enough to become trees at all, much less trees that produce frankincense. If their projections are correct, the rate at which the trees are failing could cut frankincense production in half in the next 15 years. More importantly, the trees themselves will be in danger of dying out entirely, with a prediction of a 90 percent decline over the next 50 years.

What’s causing this? The harvesting process doesn’t damage the trees — in fact it’s pretty similar to the process for collecting sap for maple syrup. Instead, the culprit is a combination of factors. The lowlands in Ethiopia have been seeing an influx of new people relocating there from the highlands, placing more stress on the ecosystem. Some trees can also be over-tapped in an effort to increase the harvest, and these are left more vulnerable to natural threats, particularly fires and longhorn beetles, both of which have increased.

That’s the adult tree side of the story, but why aren’t any new trees growing? The highlanders brought cows with them — a lot of cows. And little green seedlings are apparently quite tasty to the average bovine, so none of them survive long enough to grow into saplings, much less trees.

It is interesting to note that the plight of Boswellia would probably go unnoticed by most if not for the species’ ties to such a longstanding industry. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists 10 species of Boswellia as vulnerable to extinction. So is there any hope for this tree and the traditions that it has supported for millennia? More careful forest management is really the only route, according to the recent study, so we can only hope that these startling findings have some effect.

Messing With Texas

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Matt Bonham, Texas AgriLife Extension Service assistant, checks out a red oak tree whose leaves are browning and dropping off early due to the drought. Credit: Robert Burns/Texas AgriLife Extension Service

Apparently, someone forgot to tell Mother Nature that you “Don’t mess with Texas.” First, there were the fires: 27,411 of them in 2011 through November 21 that destroyed almost four million acres. That’s 47 percent of the acreage burned by fire in the entire country for 2011. Almost 3,000 homes were ravaged along with nearly 3,000 other structures, and the damage from the Bastrop Fire alone equals $750 million, which made fire one of NOAA’s billion-dollar weather disasters in 2011. What a mess! And, sadly, Texas’ woes don’t end there.

Texas’ year-long drought is another one of those billion-dollar weather disasters — make that $10 billion so far. And no end is in sight, as climatologists reported last month that the drought will stretch into next summer. This is bad, bad news for living things in Texas: two-legged, four-legged, winged, rooted and more.

Between 100 and 500 million trees in Texas fell victim to the drought. That’s up to 10 percent of the state’s tree total! And as Katrina covered last week, this may just be a prelude to years of die-offs from the drought, as the damage to trees inflicted by droughts can have lasting consequences. In the immediate future, there is another concern: fire. That’s right, we’ve come full circle. Dead trees make good fuel for fire. Also, deeply affected is an area of trees known as Piney Woods, which is also one of the largest producers of wood and paper products. The extent of damage of the drought on that major employer isn’t known yet.

One industry that’s already feeling the heat is the ranchers. Last week, experts revealed that Texas’ cowherd has decreased by 12 percent since January. Many livestock owners have had to prematurely sell or slaughter their herd or send them out of state to try to survive. All of this equals millions, possibly billions, of dollars lost to the Lone Star State’s hardworking residents.

From fewer cows to dead trees to more dry-conditions to come, it’s a bit dismal for nature in Texas these days — and I haven’t even touched on the possible effects of the drought on the migrating monarch butterflies that traverse the state twice a year. While I wish X-Men’s Storm were real and could go conjure some rainstorms for Texas, alas she is not, so I’m going to go wish upon a star, send a letter to Santa, fight for the wishbone at my upcoming holiday dinner and use every other trick I know to ask for some rain to head Texas’ way because all of the creatures great and small down there need a break.

For those you living through the drought and trying to save your trees, check out this helpful video from the Texas Forest Service:


Treks and the City

by Amanda Tai

Credit: Bex Walton/Flickr

Recently, there’s been a huge push in this country to get people to be more active and maintain a healthier lifestyle. A major part of that effort is encouraging people to go outside. When we go outside, there’s a whole world of activities to explore: hiking, skiing, biking, kayaking and camping – just to name a few. There are also a lot of great things to see outside like trees, rivers and wildlife. But with a lot of us living in cities and suburbs, it’s not always easy to find the time and opportunity to really connect with nature.

President Obama is well aware of the issue and has made it a top priority. Last year, he launched America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) initiative, with the goal of reconnecting Americans to the natural environment and making outdoor recreation opportunities more accessible for the public. The First Lady also has her own campaign targeted towards kids called Let’s Move Outside. Together, these initiatives work with federal agencies to promote outdoor recreation, health, conservation, urban green spaces and youth engagement. People are starting to realize the importance and necessity of spending time outside. Nancy Sutley, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, stated it best:

“The quality and accessibility of our outdoor spaces have a significant impact on the economic and physical health of American communities … actions under the America’s Great Outdoors initiative are reinvigorating a national discussion about the value of conservation, resulting in smart, innovative strategies and investments that respond to the priorities of American communities.”

Outdoor recreation has been shown to improve so many parts of our lives, from early childhood development to physical health to jobs and economic growth. But you don’t have to get all the way to the woods to recreate outside. Green spaces, like parks and trails in urban environments, can be just as beneficial to your health and well-being. I was encouraged to see this article from the Forest Service that draws the connection between city trees and better overall health. And it’s not just researchers saying it; I can tell you from my own experience. I’ve always been a pretty active person. I remember going camping and hiking as a kid with my family and going for runs around the lake on my college campus. But living in Washington, D.C. has been a real adjustment for me. In the city, I’ve learned how important it is to find green escapes (as I like to call them). They really are escapes because they transport you to another more peaceful world, even though you haven’t set foot outside the city. It just goes to show that you’re never too far from an outdoor adventure.