Where There’s Smoke…

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Smoke from the 2009 Tumblebug Complex Fire in Oregon (Credit: USDA Forest Service)

You don’t have to be a genius to know that wildfires can be very harmful. But we usually think of that damage as being contained to the forest or other areas physically touched by the fires. In reality, the consequences of a wildfire spread far beyond the reach of the flames. Effects of wildfires can be found in the soil, the watershed, the populations of flora and fauna, and more. A new study is helping to quantify that damage in a different, rather more disturbing way.

Led by Fay Johnston of the University of Tasmania, a global team of researchers presented a new study at the 2012 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Their research concludes that the smoke from “landscape fires” — which include wildfires, controlled burns and peat fires — contributed to an average of 339,000 deaths per year from 1997 to 2006. Smoke carries many types of pollutants and makes them easy for people to inhale. This study focused on the impacts of fine particulate matter: tiny particles (2.5 micrometers) that can be inhaled and make their way into sinuses, throats, lungs and bloodstreams. Particulate matter can cause heart attacks, decreased lung function, asthma attacks and a number of other serious problems. It is especially dangerous to the elderly, young children and those with lung or heart conditions.

According to the study, the highest losses were in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, with both regions reaching well more than 100,000 smoke-related deaths per year. The team reached these conclusions by analyzing data from a variety of sources, including satellite data of regions prone to such fires and statistics from the World Health Organization. This study is said to be the first of its kind; while others have studied the effects of fires and smoke, none have focused on estimating the resulting death toll. As climate change continues, scientists agree that the world is likely to see more wildfires, which will mean greater risk to forests and to people.

There is some encouraging news, however. At the same meeting of the AAAS, researcher Michael Brauer of the University of British Columbia presented his own findings: Satellite images, methods of measuring air quality and certain computer models can help keep people, governments and public health officials aware of what areas are most at risk for smoke and what they can do to keep safe. Along with the BC Centre for Disease Control, Brauer is working to find a method of forecasting smoke — predicting where the fires will occur, where the smoke from those fires will drift and what impact it is likely to have on local populations.

As sobering as these new statistics are, it’s reassuring to know that as we continue to learn more about the full impact of fires, scientists are already adapting to the new information to develop ways to preserve life.

Sharing Is Caring

by Amanda Tai

Credit: Wayne National Forest/Flickr

Children are taught that sharing is a good thing, but what if the thing you’re sharing is really complex and you’re trying to share it with a lot of people? That’s what the federal budget feels like to me. Since President Obama released the fiscal year 2013 budget last week, Capitol Hill has been abuzz with hearing after hearing to examine the proposed figures. With anticipated cuts across the board, agencies are preparing to operate under even tighter budgets. Running a government agency with fewer dollars sounds like a daunting task, but leave it to the folks at the USDA Forest Service to come up with a solution.

The Forest Service is using collaboration as the key to using their funds most efficiently. The agency plans to rearrange funding proposed in the budget to create more integrated agency efforts. By opening up Forest Service funds so that they can be applied to more programs within the agency, it will help streamline large-scale efforts such as reducing wildfire risk and integrating climate-change strategies. One example, says Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell, is to create a timber sales program alongside stewardship contracts for forest thinning. The pilot for this agency-wide cohesive strategy is called the Integrated Resource Restoration (IRR) program, and it’s already being used in three of the nine Forest Service regions.

The IRR program is also listed in a Forest Service report, released earlier this month, which outlines strategies to increase the pace of restoration work and create more jobs. It seems like a great strategy to reduce wildfire risk and provide important ecosystem services, but it may take a little longer before IRR becomes the agency norm. Congress and environmental groups are asking that more analysis be done to measure the success of the program before it goes national.

Forests Create Vibrant Cities

by Melinda Housholder, Urban Forests Program Director

“At the root of every vibrant city is an urban forest.” This simple statement from the Vibrant Cities & Urban Forests National Call to Action speaks volumes to the importance of urban forests. Especially as urbanization continues to expand throughout our country, it will become increasingly important to understand just how crucial urban forests are to creating and maintaining vibrant cities.

Chicago, Illinois

Chicago, Illinois. Credit: John Picken/Flickr

I find it fascinating that while only about three percent of the contiguous U.S. is considered urban, it is estimated that about 80 percent of our population (roughly 220 million Americans) lives in this urban area! And, over the next several years, that percentage is expected to rise. In fact, it is predicted that by 2025, urban areas in the U.S. will cover eight percent of our land — an increase to an area greater than the size of Montana.

So, what does that mean for urban forests?

For starters, urban forests will benefit more people and become increasinglyessential as our landscape changes. To fully understand the role urban forests play, we must recognize that urban areas are ecosystems, and as a part of that ecosystem, urban forests are more than just the trees. Urban forests can include the urban parks, landscaped boulevards, public gardens, river corridors, greenways (such as green spaces with bike paths or trails) and more. They play a crucial role in the city ecosystem, including storing carbon, improving water quality and flow, decreasing air pollution and enhancing the overall well-being of the human population. Urban forests can help reduce noise, contribute to economic vitality and the character of a city and, of course, make a city a more aesthetically and emotionally satisfying place to live.

The Vibrant Cities & Urban Forests National Call to Action report, which was released in fall 2011, recognizes that while past societies have often considered cities and nature distinct from one another, we are now starting to better realize and understand the inter-dependent, dynamic relationships that exist within the urban environment. Providing 12 recommendations for the future of urban forestry, the Vibrant Cities National Call to Action seeks collaborative efforts to address some of the challenges facing environmental, economic and social trends affecting the health and sustainability of our urban forests.

Who will answer the call? Here at American Forests, we’re committed to helping build support and funding for urban forests, and we hope others around the country will join in this effort to embrace our urban forests and vibrant cities. Which vibrant city has your love and support?

Remembering Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

On Monday, America celebrates Presidents Day, a holiday that is specifically meant to honor our nation’s first president, George Washington, who was born on February 22, 1732. But it’s also a good time to remember many of the other men who held our nation’s office. I particularly like to celebrate the man who is an icon for environment lovers everywhere: Theodore Roosevelt, aka TR and Teddy.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota. Credit: Vicki Watkins (jakesmome)/Flickr

When schoolchildren visit Mt. Rushmore, I’m guessing many of them have the same reaction I did: Who is that fourth guy? Which is a crying shame. Growing up, textbooks regal us with tales of our founding by Washington, Adams and Jefferson; mourn the loss of men like Lincoln and Kennedy; and remember the infamous like Jackson and Nixon, but often, everyone else gets lost in the shuffle with no major scandals, wars or conflicts to define them. Luckily, though, their legacies quietly live on and Teddy’s shines brightly.

Our 26th president took office upon President McKinley’s assassination in 1901, and he used his almost eight years in office for some major conservation activities, including designating:

  • 150 national forests
  • Five national parks
  • the first 51 federal bird reservations
  • the first 18 national monuments
  • the first four national game preserves
  • the first 21 reclamation projects

Put them all together and Roosevelt gave federal protection to almost 230 million acres across America. And he enabled dozens of presidents with the ability to follow in his footsteps with 1906’s Antiquities Act, which allowed presidents to proclaim historic landmarks and other objects of historic or scientific interest as national monuments — TR used this act to protect a large portion of the Grand Canyon before it became a national park. And these actions barely scratch the surface of the man’s impact: He was considered a leading expert on large mammals and small birds, teddy bears are named after him for his refusal to shoot a bear cub on a hunting trip, he authored dozens of books, and we haven’t even begun to touch his non-conservation activities.

Needless to say, there is a reason that a century after his presidency, he was able to garner a TIME magazine cover story, “The Making of America – Theodore Roosevelt.” So, on Monday, I’m offering a toast to the Rough Rider who led a strenuous life and saved so many of our beautiful spaces and creatures.

Curious about other environment-loving, and not so much, presidents? Check out The Daily Green’s lists of the 10 Greenest Presidents and the 10 Presidents With the Worst Environmental Records.

To Track A Killer

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

The Princess Tree, introduced to the US as an ornamental, muscles out other plant species. (Credit: James Allison,Georgia Department of Natural Resources)

Species, that is. Invasive species are a big problem. They wreak havoc in our native ecosystems, result in massive losses of biodiversity and cost the U.S. billions of dollars every year. Some species are fairly obvious, such as the recently-publicized pythons in the Everglades, while others can be so subtle that you may not even notice them — only the effects they have on the ecosystem. Because some of these species can hide out so well, scientists have long been working on new ways to detect them and track them back to their source to stop the outbreak.

With today’s variety of invasive plants, insects and animals — from kudzu and zebra mussels to the emerald ash borer and the princess tree — the sheer number of invading species seems overwhelming, and it becomes harder and harder to track an outbreak back to its source where scientists can begin to fight back. But researchers at the UK’s Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences have found that we can track invasive species the same way we track certain types of criminals: with geographic profiling (GP).

You may not have heard its official name before, but you probably already know what GP is, particularly if you’ve seen a few episodes of “CSI” or “Law and Order.” This type of profiling uses the locations of crimes committed, combined with knowledge of the crimes themselves, to predict where the criminal may live or operate from. The team from Queen Mary’s, whose research is published in the journal Ecology, shows that the same method can be used to find the source population of an invasive species. Not only that, but GP actually works better than other mathematical models that researchers currently use.

The Emerald Ash Borer, introduced from Asia, has killed millions of trees in the US. (Credit: Debbie Miller, USDA Forest Service)

The established methods of tracing invasive species tend to take longer to find the sources, especially in cases where there are multiple source populations, giving the species more time to establish a foothold in the ecosystem. The more source populations there are, the longer it takes the traditional methods to track them all down. Geographic profiling, on the other hand, works much faster when applied to cases of multiple source populations. In the study’s computer simulations and in working with real-life data sets on invasive species from Britain’s Biological Records Centre, the GP method traced the invaders back to their sources faster and more accurately than the other methods.

I’d never have thought that criminology and biology could have much to do with each other, but in this case, crossing two unrelated fields led to an incredibly valuable tool in  worldwide efforts to protect native ecosystems. Watch out, invasive species: We’re on to you.

Want to learn more about invasive species and how they affect native ecosystems? Or what you can do about it? Check out these articles from past issues of American Forests magazine:

“Alien Invasion!” By Carrie Madren

“Backyard Biodiversity” by Douglas Tallamy

Budgeting for the Environment

by Amanda Tai

Credit: CNN/Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Obama released the Fiscal Year 2013 budget on Monday. American Forests has been working on budget recommendations as part of a Green Budget coalition. The Green Budget is a report that highlights the environmental and conservation communities’ Fiscal Year 2013 national funding priorities, such as: wildlife habitat restoration, clean energy investment. It’s prepared annually by a coalition of national environmental and conservation organizations like Defenders of Wildlife, the Trust for Public Land, and the Wilderness Society. The report illustrates how federal investments can help meet the environmental challenges of a changing climate, develop our clean energy resources and sustain our nation’s natural resources. This week, American Forests also helped the coalition effort distribute the Green Budget report to offices on the Hill for Congressional staffers to read.

Over the next year, Congress will hold hearings to examine the proposed budget, working to achieve a final version. Coming up first, the House will hold hearings to examine the Fiscal Year 2013 budgets for departments, agencies and programs under its authority. Budget House hearings this week include a Natural Resources Committee hearing on the Department of Interior budget and an Appropriations Committee hearing on the USDA Forest Service budget. The Senate will most likely hold off on the bulk of their hearings until later in the year, but this week they will hold budget hearings for the Department of Transportation (which has implications for trails and outdoor recreation funding) and the Department of Energy (which affects investment in clean energy). Stay tuned for more updates on the budget process and Congressional hearings.

Upcoming hearings by committee:

Roses Are Red, But Not Green

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Happy February 14th! So much to celebrate on this day: love, statehoods and a certain blogger’s birthday. Let’s start with the most ubiquitous of today’s celebrations.

Valentine’s Day


Credit: Liz West (muffet)/Flickr

This heart-covered holiday’s history is shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. Is it honoring St. Valentine … and which one? Is it related to Lupercalia, the pagan celebration of fertility? While we let scholars debate such topics, I am sure of one thing: Valentine’s Day to many means chocolate and flowers. But while those chocolates and flowers might make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, they aren’t doing warm and fuzzy things to the environment.

As reported by The Huffington Post, cut flowers tell a sordid tale — from poor work conditions abroad and nasty chemicals used to grow and preserve the flowers to transportation and storage energy use and emissions and finishing with decomposition nightmares due to the cellophane and other factors. And flowers aren’t the only environmental harmers: chocolate, cards, balloons, jewelry … all have their own un-nature-friendly foibles. So what’s an eco-friendly guy or gal to do? Be cognizant about what you’re buying and from where. To get started, check out UK’s The Guardian‘s handy guide of the environmental impacts of Valentine’s staples and ways to show both your loved one and the environment that you care. My favorite, simple change: give plants instead of bouquets. This way, your loved one will feel loved every day of the year!

State Anniversaries

Arizona was the last of the lower 48 states to join the U.S., which it did on February 14, 1912. While famously known for a certain big canyon, the Copper State is also home to six national forests: Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Coronado, Kaibab, Prescott and Tonto National Forests.

Coconino National Forest, Arizona

Coconino National Forest, Arizona. Credit: Adam Baker (AlphaTangoBravo)/Flickr

Joining America on February 14, 1859, our 33rd state, Oregon, brought with it oodles of ideal terrain for outdoor adventures — from camping to fishing to rock climbing to skiing — which isn’t surprising considering it’s home to more than a dozen national forests and a national park.

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon. Credit: Glenn Scofield Williams (glenwilliamspdx)/Flickr

Okay, I think that about covers the celebrations for today — or at least it will once I fulfill my hankering for a piece of chocolate birthday cake.

Transforming Forests

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Thousands of years ago, central Africa’s Congo rainforest was much larger than it is today. Eventually, large sections of the forests were replaced by savannah and grassland. For a long time, scientists attributed this change entirely to the era’s climate growing warmer and drier, but a recent paper asserts that humans may have had a hand in the transformation as well.

The somewhat controversial study, published in the journal Science, had simply intended to examine the role that precipitation played in weathering the region (breaking down its soils and rocks). While studying the area’s minerals for the elements that indicate this type of erosion, researchers found that the geochemical record matched the precipitation levels, but only for a while. About 3,000 years ago, the pattern changed; instead of following the same trends, the soil and rocks showed a distinct spike in chemical weathering — something that the climate could not account for.

Africa's Gabon Rainforest (Credit: Mongabay)

It was about this time in history that groups of humans moved further into Africa’s rainforests and began to practice agriculture. They planted crops, which meant clearing large plots of land. This, the new study asserts, would explain the spike in erosion that their research found. With so much more of it exposed to the elements, the soil would have fallen subject to much higher levels of erosion. This means that while a changing climate may have started the transition of Africa’s land from forest to savannah and grassland, humans gave it quite a push in that direction — though exactly how large that push was has yet to be determined.

Although this study addresses changes that occurred millennia ago, the implications for our present-day forests are pretty significant. Today we are seeing forests fall to agricultural development in large swaths — ecologists are already concerned about the adverse effects on the Amazon. If simple farmers could have a hand in such a large-scale change to the landscape so long ago, what will today’s development on a much larger scale mean for the future of our forests?

The Frozen Forest

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Sometimes amidst all of the worrisome environmental news, it’s nice to be able to step back and just revel in beauty every once and awhile. So revel we shall in this time-lapse video showcasing the frozen winter forestland of Burleigh Falls and Fenelon Falls, Ontario, which was shot last month by Ben Lean.

Sounding It Out

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

You’re watching a movie. The leading characters are out in the woods, hiding from some monster or another, and all of a sudden everything goes silent. No birds chirping, leaves rustling or twigs snapping — all of it stops, and you know something bad is about to happen. Turns out, this isn’t just a cinematic trick, the sounds of nature can be as important as any other factors in predicting trouble in an ecosystem. This science of analyzing nature’s sounds — called soundscape ecology — is a fairly new idea, and a fascinating one.

Bryan Pijanowski (Credit: Purdue University)

Ecologist Bryan Pijanowski of Purdue University is working at the forefront of this new field, and is passionate about its implications. “Natural sound could be the canary in the coal mine,” he says in a recent press release. “Sound might be the critical first indicator of changes in climate and weather patterns, or the presence of pollution.” Pijanowski and his colleagues will be getting a chance to study these soundscapes and their meanings further, thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems Program.

So far, Pijanowski’s team has mapped soundscapes in a variety of ecosystems, from wetlands in Indiana to California’ Sequoia National Park. He and his team set up recorders and use the resulting data to create a plot of acoustics, turning sound into a three dimensional map of the area. Changes on the maps over time reflect changes in the ecosystem, whether as natural as the changing of seasons, or as abrupt as a human disturbance. You can view his research and listen to the project’s many recorded soundscapes here.

In addition to the ecological significance that the soundscape of an area can hold, Pijanowski is quick to point out that the sounds themselves hold great value, as they create a link between humans and our environment in a society where that connection seems to be waning. It’s true that we often tune out the sounds of our environment, and this means that we miss the opportunity to hear a song that may never be played again. Each region’s soundscape is a snapshot; it can change every year or every day. With the various natural and man-made threats facing the environment today, many species are being quietly silenced. It may be more important than ever to take some time to simply listen.