Analyzing Our Forests

by American Forests

By Gerry Gray, Ph.D., Senior Vice President

On Tuesday, the U.S. Forest Service released its major, long-term assessment of the current conditions, trends and future projections for our nation’s forests and rangelands. Known as the 2010 Resources Planning Act Assessment, or simply the RPA assessment, this document — and the many technical reports on which it is based — contains a wealth of information for anyone interested in our forests and rangelands and the services and benefits they provide to society. In 1974, Congress mandated the preparation of an RPA assessment every 10 years, and each report’s job is to make projections looking out 50 years as an early warning system on emerging issues for managers and policymakers.

Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve, California

Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve, California. Credit: Miguel Vieira/Flickr

The 2010 report is the 5th RPA assessment published by the agency, and it has taken an innovative, technically-sophisticated and, I might say, bold approach to its mandate. While there are many issues and findings that I could discuss, I will focus on three items that caught my attention in my initial review of the report.

  • A new future scenarios approach to the report: The 2010 report takes a fundamentally different approach than earlier reports to help address climate change and provide a coherent framework for assessing future outcomes across various resources, such as forests, water, wildlife and carbon. The report selected a set of comprehensive global scenarios that had been developed and used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide global context and quantitative linkages between American and global trends. The various scenarios include projections for population, economic activity, climate and bioenergy.
  • New tree canopy cover data and analysis in the forest resources section of the report: While I’ve been very aware of tree canopy cover data for urban forest inventories and analysis, I have not been aware of its growing acceptance as a major set of data for discussion within the RPA assessment. The inclusion of this data enriches and expands the discussion about forests and allows the use of new technology tools to develop and present important spatial information, such as how forests in certain places might be affected by heat and drought.
  • Grand Junction, Colorado

    Grand Junction, Colorado. Credit: Ethan Lofton (ELeaf)/Flickr

    A significantly expanded analysis and discussion of urban forests: The 2010 report provides greater information about urban forests, including a thoughtful discussion about the dynamics of urban growth. As urban areas expand into rural forest areas, traditional forests will be diminished, but urban forests — or the potential for establishing and managing urban forests — will increase. The report also highlights a new — or at least quite recent — perspective from the Forest Service on urban forests that reflects their significance for our growing urban populations: “Urban forests will become increasingly important for providing a range of ecosystem service to urban populations.”

This is a perspective American Forests heartily agrees with, which is why we’ve spent the last year studying various cities in the U.S. and how they are using their urban forests to the benefit of the city and its residents — thanks in part to a grant from the U.S. Forest Service. Over the next year, we plan on expanding our Urban Forests program even more and look forward to continuing to discuss the importance that urban forests will play in our lives.


by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Is anyone else feeling a little overwhelmed these days between tragedies in the news and the hustle and bustle of the holiday season? I know I am, so instead of delving into another new report on the direness that climate change could bring, I thought we would take a moment to just appreciate the beauty of forests and nature to the tune of a quote from artist, poet and writer Kahlil Gibran.


Credit: mf.lane/Flickr


Credit: Bill Weaver (g'pa bill)/Flickr


Credit: Tom Check (tombothetominator)/Flickr


Credit: Jodi Womack/Flickr

I hope everyone is able to take a moment this holiday season and appreciate the beauty in the little and big things around us everyday.

Working Together Creates Results

by Scott Steen, President & CEO

A few years ago, American Forests started working on a program that we believed would benefit wildfire-threatened forests and their communities across the country. Along with a number of partners, we fought to make sure this program got the support and funding it deserved. Just a few years into it, we’re already seeing encouraging results, as the threat of mega-fires has been reduced on 612,000 acres.

Ouachita National Forest

Ouachita National Forest, which borders Oklahoma and Arkansas, is the site of a CFLR project. Credit: Abhishek Chinchalkar (jaxx2kde)/Flickr

The U.S. Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration program (CFLR) was created to encourage collaborative, science-based ecosystem restoration of priority forest landscapes. American Forests was a founding member of the CFLR Coalition, which exists for two reasons: first, to ensure that the program is fully funded by Congress and, second, to ensure CFLR’s program goals are successful achieved. With today’s release of the 2012 CFLR report, it’s clear that both of these goals are now being met.

The Kootenai River

The Kootenai River. The Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative is a CFLR project focused on the lower Kootenai River watershed of north Idaho. Credit: Northwest Power and Conservation Council/Flickr

2012 marked the first year that CFLR has been fully funded since its inception in 2010. This means that this important program can support 20 CFLR-designated sites across the country. Plus, three additional collaborative project sites have been deemed as High Priority Restoration Projects.

Beyond the number of acres that have been better protected against mega-fires by the CFLR, the 23 project sites are also having an impact on the local economies. More than 4,500 part and full-time jobs were created or maintained through the program’s work in FY 2012, and the projects have generated nearly $320 million in labor income. There are also the environmental impacts: 537,000 acres of improved wildlife habitat and nearly 400 miles of restored fish habitat. All of these figures put the CFLR projects well on their way to meeting their 10-year goals and provide another prime example of what we can accomplish by working together.

A hallmark of CFLR’s success is the bi-partisan support from Congress that helped get the program created in 2009 and its first funding in 2010. It’s not just Congress that is working together on this program, though. The CFLR Coalition consists of more than 140 members representing 22 states. These members range from nonprofits to private businesses, from community members to county governments, from water suppliers to associations. This diverse collective represents our shared interest in making sure our forestlands are healthy, thriving and safe, which is something we at American Forests fight to create every day.

A New Kind of Cap and Trade

by Susan Laszewski

American Forests has closely followed developments in the carbon trade market. We celebrated when our Cuyamaca Rancho State Park reforestation project was recently accepted by the Climate Action Reserve as a project that can issue Carbon Reduction Tons in California’s carbon market. We’ve also taken a keen interest in the relationship between urban forests and the carbon market. In fact, last summer, we co-sponsored a workshop on “Carbon Offsets & the Urban Forests” at the University of California, Davis.

Aerial view of the Amazon

Aerial view of the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest. Credit: CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture

So, naturally, I was excited to read about how the success of carbon markets has inspired a new environmental assets trading program — one with the potential to incentivize the conservation of the world’s largest rainforest. The Amazon is home to 10 percent of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity and produces 20 percent of Earth’s oxygen. Approximately 25 percent of modern pharmaceuticals are derived from Amazonian plant life, yet it’s estimated that only about one percent of that plant life has even been tested for pharmaceutical potential. In short, this rainforest is an important resource to all people, no matter their proximity to it. And now, it’s just become easier for landowners in Brazil to embrace its conservation.

Last Monday, BVRio — for Bolsa Verde, meaning “Green Stock,” Rio — launched in Brazil. A nonprofit with government input, BVRio facilitates the trade of many environmental assets, but the one that is garnering the most attention is the trade of native vegetation quotas.

Under Brazilian law, landowners must preserve a certain percentage of their land as native vegetation, also known as a “forest reserve.” The percentage varies depending upon the given ecosystem. Previously, a landowner who had cleared too much land was responsible for replanting areas to make sure he hit his forest reserve percentage, even though he may have no expertise in the skills needed to do so effectively. Under the new environmental assets trading program, the same landowner can meet the forest reserve requirement by going online and purchasing a corresponding amount of land of a similar ecosystem from a landowner with more than the required acres.

There are approximately five million private rural properties in Brazil, and it’s estimated that nearly four million of them do not currently meet the forest reserve requirements. It’s easy to see how this new market could soon be worth billions. Under the quota trading system, a tree’s monetary value while it’s standing could be higher than what it would be worth as timber or corresponding agricultural land.

BVRio has only a week of operation under its belt, but with so much potential to serve as a model for endangered forests around the world, I, for one, will be watching with interest to see how things unfold.

Fire on the Horizon

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Earlier this month at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, scientists presented new projections about wildfire activity over the next few decades — and it doesn’t look pretty.

The devastating High Park Wildfire on Colorado’s Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland on Thursday, June 17, 2012.

The devastating High Park Wildfire on Colorado’s Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland on Thursday, June 17, 2012. Credit: USDA

Using NASA satellite data and climate models, scientists estimate that in the next 30-50 years, we will see longer, stronger fire seasons across all regions in the U.S. Why? Because NASA’s climate projection models anticipate drier conditions as the climate changes, and drier conditions mean our grasslands and forests are riper for fire activity.

These more intense, longer fire seasons will most likely result in more carbon dioxide emissions, creating a climate change feedback loop. Scientists report that carbon dioxide emissions from wildfires in the West have more than doubled from what they were in the 1980s.

But what exactly does a “more intense” fire season mean? It means fewer fires, but more acres burned. For instance, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reported that through November 30, 2012, more than 9.1 million acres had burned across the U.S. this year, which is the third highest in their records, which go back to 1960. However, the 55,505 total number of fires this year was on the low end, according to NIFC records. Add the fact that this year’s average fire size was the highest on record, and more intense indeed.

Wildfires are a never-ending concern when it comes to forest and human health and safety. While fire is a necessary part of some forest ecosystems, intense fires can be devastating. That’s why the American Forests policy team works hard to advocate for programs and funding that support not only wildfire fighting itself, but also programs that can help diminish wildfire risk. You can add your voice to the mix by visiting our Action Center and sending a pre-written letter supporting emergency supplements to fight fires or other letters requesting funding for programs that reduce the risk of wildfire.

This NASA visualization depicts fires that burned between January 1 and October 31, 2012.

This NASA visualization depicts fires that burned between January 1 and October 31, 2012, as detected by Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer instruments. Yellow and orange indicates fires that were more intense and had a larger area of active burning. Most of these intense fires occurred in the western United States, where lightning and human activity often sparks blazes that firefighters cannot contain. Many of the lower intensity fires shown in red were prescribed fires, lit for either agricultural or ecosystem management purposes. Credit: NASA images provided by the Science Visualization Studio.

ReLeaf Close to Home

by Susan Laszewski

By working with partners far and wide, American Forests is able to fund restoration projects from Maine to Hawaii, and even in places as far from our Washington, D.C. offices as Kenya. But some projects are a bit closer to home.

Yesterday, Jesse Buff and Megan Higgs, our director and manager of forest restoration programs, took some time off from preparing the 2013 Global ReLeaf projects to visit a 2012 project that’s just a hop, skip and a jump from the American Forests offices.

American Forests volunteer helps Arlington County employee with tree-planting.

An American Forests volunteer helps an Arlington County employee with tree-planting.

We partnered with Arlington Department of Parks and Recreation to plant trees on Arlington County public lands, and some American Forests volunteers came out to help in the planting. It’s not the first time we’ve worked with Arlington; we also partnered with them on the 9/11 Memorial Tree Planting in 2002, planting 184 trees on public land and another 184 on private land, to honor the 184 individuals who lost their lives in the attack on the Pentagon.

Arlington is close to home for us, but a lot of Global ReLeaf projects are close to someone’s home. While American Forests works to put millions of trees in the ground in wilderness areas, we also know the importance of urban forests. There could very well be a tree in your neighborhood that was planted through a Global ReLeaf project!

For example, New Haven is perhaps best known as the home of Yale University, but it’s not just the ivy on the buildings that’s green. We’re partnering with the Urban Resources Initiative, a nonprofit partner of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, on a Global ReLeaf project to help New Haven reach its canopy coverage goals. By 2016, the city hopes to have planted 10,000 additional trees. Seeing as the 40 percent canopy cover they currently have saves the city $4 million a year, it’s easy to see the motivation.

It’s even easier to see in a city like Indianapolis that has lost 25 percent of its trees in the last 10 years. We are partnering with nonprofit Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, Inc. to plant 500 trees in areas of the Fall Creek Watershed, where residents use the Fall Creek Greenway Trail to stay fit and get away from the city’s hustle and bustle. As a city that ranks as one of the 10 cities in the U.S. with the worst air quality, it’s understandable that Indianapolis would want to invest in its urban forest. In addition to their Global ReLeaf partnership with American Forests, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful also created its NeighborWoods program to — in the words of program director Andrew Hart — “create a more positive tree culture in the city.” You can read more about what Keep Indianapolis Beautiful and other organizations and agencies are doing for Indianapolis’ urban forests in our case study book.

As our Global ReLeaf team can attest to, it feels good to see trees being planted close to home. Visit your city’s Urban Forestry or Parks and Recreation website to learn about projects happening close to your home!

A Win for Wetlands

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

By pushing an earthen plug into the ditch, the drainage stops and water backs up, creating a natural wetlands area on Maryland Eastern shore landowner Kirby Wells’ property on June 19, 2012, as part of the WRP

By pushing an earthen plug into the ditch, the drainage stops and water backs up, creating a natural wetlands area on Maryland Eastern shore landowner Kirby Wells’ property on June 19, 2012, as part of the WRP. Credit: USDA/Flickr

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it’s helped restore more than 2.6 million acres of wetlands habitat in the U.S. through its Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP)! The program began 20 years ago as a way to bring people together to protect, restore and enhance wetlands on private and tribal lands. With 75 percent of wetlands located on private land, getting landowners to participate in this voluntary program has been a key part of the program’s success. And more than 11,000 have, helping reduce flood damage and aiding groundwater recharging and carbon sequestration.

As Jason Weller, acting chief of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which administers the WRP, states in a news release on the program, “The Wetlands Reserve Program is a great conservation tool, providing landowners a way to protect and restore wetland areas while making improvements to their properties — it is a win-win for the environment, the landowner and the community.”

In Red River County, Texas, American Forests joined the NRCS’ WRP efforts with a multi-year project designed to restore native hardwood trees to a two-mile section of an alluvial floodplain along the Red River. The Global ReLeaf project helped plant more than 200,000 trees to convert the former agricultural land back to wetland.

A wetland in central Washington that has been restored through NRCS cooperative work

A wetland in central Washington that has been restored through NRCS cooperative work. Credit: USDA/Flickr

The WRP isn’t the only NRCS program, though, that American Forests has helped support over the years. Global ReLeaf conducted a multi-year project in Alaska to restore timber lands across 2,600 acres through NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which is another voluntary program aimed at providing assistance for agricultural landowners. We’ve also conducted multiple projects alongside the NRCS in Maryland to restore wetlands for the benefit of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Then, there are the countless other wetland projects we’ve conducted over the years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help establish healthy wildlife habitat, such as our multi-year project in Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge to create habitat for the black bear and other species. There are also the projects alongside nonprofit partners to restore wetlands and … yeah, we love wetlands.

You know what we love just as much as wetlands? Cooperative efforts to restore and protect the environment. One of the great things about the WRP’s success is that it was not built by one person or one entity alone. It was a collective effort between landowners, government, nonprofits and other partners. That’s what we love to see: People joining together for a common goal.

Global Ambition

by Amanda Tai

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP18) wrapped up last week in Doha, Qatar. Here’s a recap of what happened.

COP18 Conference in Doha, Qatar. Credit: IHA Central Office/Flickr

In the final hours of the conference on Saturday, representatives from nearly 200 countries decided on a final deal called the Doha Climate Gateway, an extension of the Kyoto Protocol until 2020 with the hopes of reaching a new global climate change agreement in 2015. Admittedly not a perfect plan, policymakers see the Doha Climate Gateway as a step in the right direction. Ed Davey, energy and climate change secretary from the United Kingdom, notes to The Guardian that the plan will pave the way for future discussions and the potential for a new global climate change treaty. Based on the talks in Doha, this new treaty would build upon the ground laid by the Kyoto Protocol, but require both developed and developing countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some environmental groups showed concern about plans for an international climate change agreement that requires less economically developed countries to adhere to reductions standards similar to those of developed countries.

On the sidelines of COP18, about 700 forest policymakers, scientists and experts meet for the sixth annual Forest Day. This popular side conference was established to discuss forests’ role in climate change. As urbanization and population growth continue, land scarcity has become a huge concern. This puts strain on forests and agricultural lands. Not only do these lands provide food for our growing population, but they also serve as critical carbon sinks that mitigate the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. Participants at Forest Day discussed the use of more landscape-based management approaches that incorporate forests, agriculture and energy to ensure the best solutions for all sectors can be achieved. They agreed that this type of approach is essential to increasing food production while keeping forests healthy and mitigating climate change.

Another major topic at COP18 was funding, which has been a longtime concern for developing countries feeling the effects of climate change. The issue is that developed countries are dealing with the effects of the global financial crisis, which results in little contribution to climate change. But developing countries received a somewhat unexpected funding assurance at COP18. An agreement was reached to work on funding the “loss and damage” incurred from climate change. While the agreement doesn’t legally bind countries to contribute to the fund, this is still a huge victory for developing countries for a few reasons. First, it means that developed countries are listening. Second, this agreement highlights the shortcomings of developed countries in terms of mitigation efforts. I hope this realization will open the door to establishing a stronger, more ambitious climate change treaty for 2015.

Stressing Out About Drought

by Susan Laszewski

Forests are workaholics. They do a lot for us. They sequester carbon, mitigating climate change, buffer the flow of nasty pollutants into our waterways, prevent flooding by retaining snowpack and so much more.

If forests were people, you might expect this round-the-clock do-gooding to stress them out. But, plant stress is caused not by busy schedules, but by environmental conditions that don’t support good plant health. Plant stressors include extreme temperatures, pollution, drought and many other factors.

The drought of 2012 was one of the Midwest’s worst.

The drought of 2012 was one of the Midwest’s worst. Credit: Theresa Wysocki/Flickr

It so happens that even under stress, plants — in the forest and in the field — continue to help us out. Plant stress was hinting at the approaching drought of last summer — a drought that turned out to be one of America’s worst — a month before the U.S. drought monitor warned us of it.

In a method revealed last Wednesday at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, scientists monitored plant stress using plant surface temperature data captured by NASA and NOAA satellites. Hotter temperatures of the plants’ surfaces indicated that they were not finding enough water in the soil to “sweat” and cool themselves off.

The video below shows this data — called the Evaporative Stress Index (ESI) — for 2010 through 2012. Red areas indicating low soil moisture as early as May 2012 are the first signs of the drought of that summer.

Seeing a drought coming doesn’t mean you can stop it, but it does mean you can better prepare for its consequences. The extra month of warning time that this method could provide would allow farmers to prepare for dry years, by stocking up on alternative sources of livestock feed, for example. It could allow municipalities to put stops on lawn watering or set other water usage limits in time to fend off some of the worst effects of a drought.

Ultimately, though, if too many of our forests and other ecosystems become too stressed, an early warning sign could be more like a bad diagnosis. Without healthy vegetation to perform vital ecosystem functions, busy schedules will be the least of our stressors.

A Petrified Site

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Have you ever had a connection to an object that’s difficult to explain?

Sitting on the mantle in my childhood home is a hunk of rock that on the surface is just a large, heavy, brownish thing. It resembles a trunk; it’s round and tall and polished to a high gloss — and I’ve loved it for as long as I can remember. Why? Because it’s not the simple brownish rock it appears to be. It’s a piece of agatized petrified wood that was collected on private property in the Wind River Range in western Wyoming and has been in my family for generations.

Striped badlands contrast with the colorful petrified wood at Petrified Forest National Park

Striped badlands contrast with the colorful petrified wood at Petrified Forest National Park. Credit: T. Scott Williams/NPS

And while my family’s petrified wood was found in Wyoming, another place with petrified wood — possibly the most famous in the country, if not the world — celebrated two special anniversaries over the weekend. On Dec. 8, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt created Petrified Forest National Monument in Arizona to protect the fossilized remains of an ancient Mesozoic forest. More than 50 years later, on Dec. 9, 1962, the national monument became Petrified Forest National Park.

What is petrified wood exactly? Simply, it’s wood that has turned into a mineral. The complicated answer is that more than 200 million years ago — in the case of Petrified Forest National Park — pieces of ancient trees were rapidly buried under large amounts of sediment and debris by the area’s rivers. This process prevented oxygen from reaching the wood so instead of decaying, the wood’s pores began to absorb dissolved minerals over time, thus turning the wood from wood to mineral.

But Petrified Forest is more than just a paleontological smorgasbord. Located approximately 100 miles to the east of Coconino National Forest, which houses many of our national champion big trees, Petrified Forest is one of the largest areas of grassland in the Southwest, supporting a wide variety of grasses, lichens, wildflowers and even a few tree species and shrubs. It’s also home to a wide variety of animals from owls to snakes and lizards and even a turtle species!

So, happy anniversary to this archeologically rich grassland wonder. May it provide the same kind of fascination to others as a piece of petrified wood has held for me.

In the fall, cottonwood turn golden along the Puerco River in Petrified Forest National Park.

In the fall, cottonwood turn golden along the Puerco River in Petrified Forest National Park. Credit: Hallie Larsen/NPS