Thieving Rodents Save Trees

by American Forests

Usually, when we talk about trees and wildlife, we emphasize how important trees are to the animal’s survival. I never knew before working here that the reverse could also be true — that trees would be relying heavily on animals for their survival. New studies are revealing that small rodents known as agoutis are a key to the survival of many trees in Central and South American rainforests.

Colorful seeds of a palm tree in Florida.

Colorful seeds of a palm tree in Florida. Credit: James Albright (greyhound dad)/Flickr

Because plants and trees are fairly stationary, they rely on outside factors for seed dispersal to continue their lines. Some of the methods of transportation include self-projectile mechanisms, wind, water and animals. Some seeds have hooks and burrs to attach to the fur of animals; some hitch a complimentary ride inside the animal, as an enjoyable fruit or snack. The issue with the trees in the American tropics is that the seeds are so large that it is unlikely that animals can swallow them. So how are they being transported from their parent tree and ensuring future generations?

Many years ago, ancient elephant relatives known as gomphotheres roamed these tropical regions, eating the large fruits and passing them as they traveled from place to place. When these mammoth creatures became extinct, the land became inhabited by smaller animals, who have found other ways of spreading the seeds of these trees that rely on seed dispersal for their survival. As scientists recently discovered, the thieving agoutis go around uncovering and stealing each other’s buried seeds and transporting them to areas they would never naturally reach.

An agouti enjoys some fruit in Playa del Carmen.

An agouti enjoys some fruit in Playa del Carmen. Credit: The Sean & Lauren Spectacular/Flickr

In one of the first studies of its kind, researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute led by Patrick Jensen studied the black palm on Panama’s Barro Colorado Island by not only radio tracking the potential seed-dispersing animals, but also the seeds themselves. Jensen’s team followed 589 black palm seeds, which had the fruit already scraped off, and 16 agoutis, while also having remote cameras on 154 of the agoutis’ seed supply locations. What they found out was that many of the original seeds were stolen, buried and then stolen again by another thieving rodent. Over the course of a year, one of the palm seeds was hidden 36 times and traveled more than 2,460 feet, eventually being eaten 920 feet from its parent tree.

How beneficial is this for the trees? Without these large rodents, it is likely that certain tropical tree species could become extinct. In the case of the black palm, the agoutis may be carrying the fate of the trees in their paws. Without the wide-spread dispersion of seeds, only a small percentage of the tree’s fruit will become new trees with little chance of survival or future.

Tales of Snow Leopards and Beetles

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Oftentimes, environmental news follows similar themes and patterns: forests are being lost to industry, development, climate change, insect and pests, disease, etc. Every now and then, though, the news gets flipped on its head, showing that nature is a complex, interrelated web — as was the case with a few stories this week.

Snow leopard

Snow leopard. Credit: Зелёный_hornet/Flickr

Usually, I come across depressing stories of how climate change is causing problems for various forests around the world — like the rapid decline of white pines in the West — so imagine my shock this week when I read about a new study in Biological Conservation that discusses how forests themselves are becoming a problem for snow leopards in the Himalayas. Forests and big cats clashing is not something I expected to come across this week, but below the surface, I discovered a more familiar foe: climate change.

Snow leopards make their homes in Asia’s high-alpine peaks — areas so high that no forest can grow there and not many other predatory species can survive. But according to the study, if greenhouse gases continue to increase, forests will creep up the Himalayas, bringing tigers and other big cats into up to 30 percent of the snow leopard’s current turf — turf that the leopards can’t afford to lose.

Less than 6,500 snow leopards exist in the wild, making the species endangered and making the loss of their habitat a very big cause for concern. To compound matters, snow leopards are an indicator species, which means if they’re in trouble, there’s a good chance the ecosystem as a whole is in trouble. Communities and governments in Nepal, India, Bhutan and China are trying to develop plans for how best to manage the snow leopard population, as no one wants to lose our “queens of the mountains.”

Northern tamarisk beetle sibling the Mediterranean tamarisk beetle

Northern tamarisk beetle sibling the Mediterranean tamarisk beetle. Credit: Robert D. Richard, USDA APHIS PPQ,

And, just when I finished digesting this information about snow leopards and forests, I was struck by another topsy-turvey headline: how beetles destroying plants can be a good thing. Most of the time, we hear about beetles and other insects in a negative light, such as the emerald ash borer decimating millions of ash trees across the East and Midwest, but in the Southwest, the site of a northern tamarisk beetle may actually be a good thing.

Scientists introduced the leaf beetle Diorhabda carinulataI, or northern tamarisk, to the Southwest with the intent of using it as a biocontrol against the region’s invasive tamarisk plants. Tamarisk was imported to this country centuries ago and often outcompetes common species like willow and cottonwood. Plus, it steals copious amounts of precious water supplies, as it is one thirsty plant. The northern tamarisk beetle is a natural predator of tamarisk and, since its introduction a decade ago, has rapidly evolved to the American lifestyle and is getting busy attacking tamarisk plants. Of course, the beetle isn’t without its detractors, as some groups question the use of the beetle as a biocontrol, but for the moment, the beetle seems to be settling in and performing its task well. Only time will tell if the project is ultimately a success or whether the beetle will find itself at the center of a problem of its own.


Giving a Hoot About the Northern Spotted Owl

by Amanda Tai

The Northern Spotted Owl. Credit: USFWS Pacific/Flickr

The Pacific Northwest is well known for its old-growth forests, untouched by humans for centuries. These diverse and resilient ecosystems are home to a host of wildlife, including the northern spotted owl. But unlike perception, not all of the forest has remained untouched.

In the last few centuries, destructive activities such as clear-cut logging have become a threat to old-growth forests and the wildlife that call them home. Much of what’s left of the Pacific Northwest’s old-growth forests lies on public land, managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, which allows for some timber harvesting. Despite their rich history and diverse plants and wildlife species, these forests remain targets for logging activities. This isn’t good news for the northern spotted owl.

Primarily found in the old-growth forests of Oregon, Washington and California, the northern spotted owl is very territorial and sensitive to habitat disturbance. That means human activities like logging, land conversion and forest fragmentation are huge threats to the survival of the species. Due to diminishing old-growth forests, the northern spotted owl has been listed as a threatened species, which is a disturbing sign for the health of the old-growth forests — the northern spotted is an “indicator species,” which means that scientists study them to get a better picture of the health of the overall ecosystem.

Recognizing the urgency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is working on recovering the species and recently sought public comments on revising the critical habitat area for the owl. According to FWS definitions, critical habitat is an area that’s essential to the conservation of a species and is legally protected under special management practices. American Forests submitted comments with several suggestions for the agency. The comments point out the agency needs to incorporate adaptive management strategies that allow for close monitoring of species recovery and making adjustments if necessary. It’s also important for the agency to take an “ecosystem approach” to management, focusing on recovering the overarching ecosystem that the owl relies on for the most effective and lasting recovery. Another suggestion is to incorporate landscape-scale management, which heavily values local knowledge and public participation.

Banding the owls help the FWS track and monitor the species. Credit: USFWS Pacific/ Flickr

While the government works on plans to protect the owl under the Endangered Species Act, American Forests has conducted restoration projects in this area of the country to help protect the northern spotted’s habitat and the Pacific Northwest’s old-growth forests. Examples include restoration in San Bernardino National Forest in 2011 and Angora Fire restoration projects in 2009 and 2010.

It’s tough to restore and protect wildlife habitat with increasing human activity and interference, but my hope is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service incorporates American Forests’ suggested management strategies to ensure that the northern spotted owl will continue to be spotted in old-growth forests for years to come.


Weather and Urban Forests: For Better and Worse

by Melinda Housholder, Urban Forests Program Director
Bike riding in the park

Bike riding in the park. Credit: Paul Davidson/Flickr

In the last few weeks, many folks, especially on the East Coast, have witnessed the realities of urban forests — for better and for worse.

With temperatures across the country exceeding heat records, urban forests have played a critical role in providing a shade refuge for pedestrians, cyclists and anyone stuck out in the heat. For example, in a rather un-canopied area of Baltimore, with the sun beaming down on a 100-degree day, I witnessed several people huddled under a single street tree as they waited for their bus. According to EPA, “shaded surfaces may be 20-45°F cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded materials.“ Trees and vegetation can be used to mitigate higher temperatures in cities — known as the urban heat island effect — and they can be strategically placed around buildings to help decrease the demand for air conditioning. With such intense summer temperatures over the past weeks, many of us have been grateful for urban forests as a way to seek shelter from the sun.

However, there is the other side of urban trees — fallen trees. In the last two weeks, the East Coast experienced one of the most destructive types of thunderstorms, a derecho with wind gusts up to 90 mph. The storm did damage from Indiana to New Jersey, with a good deal of damage in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Driving around D.C., I saw trees uprooted in people’s front yards, huge limbs crushing parked cars and trees ominously leaning on people’s houses. And, unfortunately, there were the trees that knocked out the power lines, removing thousands of people’s access to much-needed electricity and A/C during the record-breaking heat wave.

Although urban forests are a critical natural resource within our urban environment, we can’t ignore the truth: Sometimes, they are a liability. Luckily, an important key to urban forests is that there are ways to manage them to limit the damage they might cause.

Here are a few tidbits from the University of Florida and suggestions from D.C.-based, tree-planting nonprofit Casey Trees on how to create a healthy urban forest that can better weather a storm:

  • Tree pruning

    Tree pruning. Credit: Peter Prehn (Pictoscribe – Home again)/Flickr

    Trees that are preventatively pruned are less likely to fail than neglected trees.

  • Trees in shallow soils are more prone to blow over than trees rooted more deeply.
  • Trees in a group blow down less frequently than single trees.
  • Trees growing in confined soil spaces are prone to blowing over.

In the case that a tree doesn’t survive a storm, remember these tips:

  • Tree damage on private property should be promptly examined by a certified arborist to determine its structural stability, prevent or treat infection and/or provide restoration pruning.
  • If you remove a tree, replace the tree using Right Tree, Right Space principles.

Especially in these days of severe weather events, it is of utmost importance to manage our urban forests so that they can continue to provide the benefits that we all need on hot, summer days and minimize the challenges that might come our way on the windy, rainy days. What have been your recent experiences with urban trees during some of these extreme weather days?

Safe Crossings for Wildlife

by American Forests

When driving down the highway, I usually find myself wincing as I pass under a bridge. The idea of 1,000-pound cars and trucks driving over me in my little car is never something that has made me comfortable. But I am not sure how I would feel looking up to find a bear or a moose casually walking across the bridge above me.

A green bridge over a highway in Boeblingen, Germany.

A green bridge over a highway in Boeblingen, Germany. Credit: Klausfoehl/Wikimedia Commons

In Canada and other countries, wildlife overpasses have been built or are being built to cater to passing wildlife such as bear, elk and lynx. These bridges provide safe and secure pathways for animals to cross over busy highways and freeways. The overpasses, also known as green bridges or ecoducts, are generally covered with soil and vegetation constructed to resemble the forests that lie on either side of the bridge. What do the animals think about these overpasses and do they use them? In Canada’s Banff National Park, there are currently 41 structures for wildlife crossing. Since they started monitoring usage in 1996, 11 species of large mammals like bears, elk and cougars have gone across these green bridges more than 200,000 times. These structures are definitely a step in the right direction when it comes to creating opportunity and safety for wildlife and also serve as a reminder that the construction of roads creates a huge impact on many wildlife species and the environment they live in.

A black bear in Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada.

A black bear in Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada. Credit: Katrina Bowman/Flickr

Every day, animals lose their homes to highway construction, timber harvesting, agriculture conversion and urban and residential developments. And those animals whose habitat is left behind often find themselves dealing with habitat fragmentation, as new roads and highways are being paved right in the middle of many species homes. For most animals, the ability to periodically change location is an important part of life. When forests are cut down to make way for roads, the areas where wildlife were once free to roam are divided into smaller subdivisions of land. When species are confined to these isolated areas, the stability of their population suffers with increased difficulty in finding food and breeding ground, and while many species can create homes and nests in small sections of forests, many need much more area to survive.

American Forests has recognized the threat forest fragmentation poses to ecosystems and wildlife and is working to build back habitat for a variety species. In Louisiana, we are working with the National Wild Turkey Federation to replant 20,000 bottomland hardwoods to reconnect the area’s forest for migrant birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. We are also working in the Lower Rio Grande Valley to connect fragmented ecosystems along the Rio Grande River that were separated by urbanization and farmland. This project will help rebuild habitat for species like the endangered ocelot and jaguarundi, as well as migratory birds.

As the world population continues to grow, it’s likely that forests and other ecosystems will often come face to face with issues around new roads and developments. It is important to be aware that human impact is the cause for much of the habitat loss and habitat fragmentation. Planting trees to reconnect forests and building overpasses as a way for animals to travel across busy highways are both good steps in the right direction.

The Path to Forests

by American Forests

By Katrina Marland

If you had asked me at age 10 what I wanted to do when I grew up, I doubt working at a forestry-focused nonprofit would have been part of my answer. If you asked again at age 18, I would have sworn that I was going to make a name for myself in Hollywood — behind the scenes, that is. Even in college, where I realized that I really wanted to write, it never occurred to me to do so for an environmental organization. So today, on my last day at American Forests, I can’t help but look back and laugh at the many things that shaped my path to bring me here — and the three in particular that made all the difference.


Trees in Redwoods National Park Credit: Brian Garrett

When I was a kid, I lived in what is still one of the smallest towns I’ve ever seen. Penryn, California, is home to only a few hundred people and is rural enough that there was little choice but to be close to nature. Our yard had this gnarled old tree, bent into an arch, with limbs that draped down to form a hollow in the middle. If I wiggled between the veil of branches, I would find myself inside this room of limbs that seemed to have grown just for me. It was big enough to stand in, to bring friends, even to camp out in a sleeping bag. There was a hollow in the trunk big enough to store books or toys. There was one sturdy branch towards the top with a bow in it, where I could sit, peek out from between the branches and watch the world. It was my favorite place and probably the reason that I often look at trees and wonder how the world looks from among their branches.

Penryn may have had some wonderful trees, but with so many farms, orchards and ranches nearby, there wasn’t a real forest to be seen. I just thought that a forest must be a whole bunch of trees like those near my home — interesting, but not particularly impressive. That changed on one summer vacation. I was immersed in a book in the car as we drove for hours, not paying attention to where we were going. The car stopped, we got out and I looked up … and up … and up. We were in Redwood National Park, and I was thunderstruck. I had never even seen buildings as tall as those trees, much less living things capable of such size. But it wasn’t just the trees. There were birds singing that I had never heard, unknown animals crawling across the ground and the air smelled different and alive. Young as I was, I got the distinct impression that these massive trees had created their own world here — and I was in awe of it.

Years later, in high school, I found myself with the choice of several classes to satisfy a science requirement. My dad, an environmental engineer, suggested an environmental science course, and I agreed, thinking that if it was difficult, I could get him to help me. As it turned out, I had never had a class I found so interesting. Learning the science behind things that I had seen my whole life, like forests and rivers and rain, was like learning the secrets behind a magic trick, and I couldn’t get enough of it. It was the first of several classes along the same track, and even though I didn’t make a career out of the science, I continue to be fascinated by environmental news and research — a field I have been lucky enough to immerse myself in for work as well as my own curiosity.

A single tree, a summer vacation and a high school science class — probably more than anything else, these are the things that brought me here. They taught me appreciation for the experiences that the natural world can give us, respect for what it is capable of and an enduring desire to know how and why things work they way they do. These — combined with my own talents — made it all but inevitable for me to end up at American Forests, where I could use my set of skills to help others learn more about the environment and hopefully inspire the same awareness of its value that I have found. If even one post of mine has made someone stop and think, “Wow, I didn’t know that nature could do that,” then I am well satisfied.

Thanks for reading, and I wish you all the best.

More Cuts for Conservation

by Amanda Tai

It’s a really tough political climate for conservation programs right now.

We just saw the House and Senate propose programmatic and funding cuts to conservation programs in the Farm Bill, cuts that would eliminate at least $6 billion in funding and consolidate 23 programs to 13 over the next 10 years. Congress is moving quickly to pass this legislation before the August recess and the current bill’s expiration date in September. The Senate has already passed their version of the bill, and now, it’s onto the House Agriculture Committee to markup their version today. Even deeper cuts are being proposed on the House side — approximately $12 billion more than the Senate bill. And if that isn’t already concerning enough, we’re seeing even more conservation cuts in other pieces of legislation.

Protection of Glacier National Park in Montana is partly funded by LWCF. Credit: jessicafm/Flickr

The House Appropriations Committee recently approved the Interior and Environment Appropriations Budget Bill for fiscal year 2013. This bill authorizes funding levels for the Department of the Interior (DOI), Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other environmental agencies. The most notable cuts were to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (under DOI), the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the EPA. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faces a funding cut of 20 percent or more, affecting endangered species protection, wildlife refuge restoration and wildlife-associated recreation. The LWCF, which was dropped in the Transportation bill and is currently funded at $345 million through Interior Appropriations, could be cut to $66 million in FY 2013. This is a significant loss as this program funds restoration of outdoor recreation areas, national forests, wildlife refuges, and historic sites across the country. As far as the EPA, the bill brings the agency funding back to its 1998 level!  That puts our health at risk as EPA regulates our water and air quality.

So what is there do about these funding cuts? You can contact your members of Congress by writing on their Facebook pages, urging them to support conservation funding — adding your voice to those of the conservation, wildlife and recreation groups that have already spoken out against the Interior and Environment Appropriations Budget Bill and its several anti-environmental riders.

Protection of the Zuni Mountain Landscape in New Mexico is funded by CFLRP. Credit: Ben Burkland/Carolyn Cook/Flickr

There is a bright side to the situation, though. There are still champions in the House, like House Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Norm Dicks (D-WA) and Subcommittee Ranking Member James Moran (D-VA), sticking up for conservation programs. Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) noted that Interior and Environment Appropriations Budget Bill goes against our nation’s long history of bipartisan support for environmental and natural resource protection.

Thankfully, programs like the U.S. Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) and Urban Forest Research were spared in the Interior Appropriations funding cuts. American Forests worked with Representative Moran’s office to advocate for urban and community forestry-related research. Though it seems like there isn’t much to cheer about, there are plenty of people and organizations working hard to find new vehicles to fund conservation work.

Oh, How I Love Forests

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Last Friday marked my one-year anniversary at American Forests.

At times, it seems like I’ve been toiling away on behalf of forests for much, much longer, but at others, it feels like I’ve only just begun. Maybe this dichotomy is due to the fact that crusading for and protecting the environment is a never-ending task, but also one that is constantly evolving as new science and policies are unveiled.

Thus, I enter my second year at American Forests knowing that each day can result in new adventures of some kind. While I anticipate those unknown bright lights and shadows on the horizon, I’m also reveling in how differently I see the world and how much I’ve learned in a mere year:

  • Area burned by the B&B Complex Fire in Deschutes National Forest, Oregon, pictured in June 2012

    Area burned by the B&B Complex Fire in Deschutes National Forest, Oregon, pictured in June 2012. Credit: American Forests

    I’m much more conscience of the trees in my everyday life.
    Thank you, wonderful residents of the Virginia Square neighborhoods for taking care of the large shade trees that line my daily walk to the metro.

  • Fire-ravaged forests look devastating in person.
    It’s been almost 10 years since the B&B Complex Fires burned areas of Deschutes National Forest and Willamette National Forest, but the landscape is still mostly scorched trunks.
  • A concern for nature can intrude in the most unlikely places.
    Superheroes (specifically, members of the Avengers Initiative), if you’re going to beat each other up, do so without destroying the trees — even if they’re only CGI.
  • Seal pup

    Seal pup. Credit: Richard Child (Tuftronic10000)/Flickr

    People who work in various forest communities are some of the most passionate, articulate and intelligent individuals I’ve ever met.
    From those at national forests to those in cities around the country, these people have extremely difficult jobs, as oftentimes they’re trying to help our forests and trees on miniscule budgets.

  • Even a simple outing to a golf tournament with one’s father can lead to many sad exclamations.
    Many of the trees at the beautiful Congressional Country Club were unable to escape the wrath of last months’ derecho.
  • I never grow tired of baby animal pictures.
    See that seal pup to the right? Enough said.
  • It is really difficult to punctuate and spell common names of trees — let alone Latin names.
    Why, oh why, is there a hyphen in Douglas-fir and no space in redcedar?
  • I have so much more to discover.
    It’s a good thing I plan on being here awhile.

So, here’s to year two amidst forests and trees. Do forests and trees amaze you, too? Share how below!

Cute, Cuddly and Endangered

by American Forests
Panda at the Chengdu Panda Base, Sichuan, China

Panda at the Chengdu Panda Base, Sichuan, China. Credit: Stephen Bugno (BohemianTraveler)/Flickr

July 4th marked the beginning of Panda Awareness Week (PAW) when 108 people dressed in panda suits and took London by storm by performing a choreographed tai-chi dance in the middle of Trafalgar Square. PAW was created by the Chengdu Panda Base, a nonprofit organization that currently houses 108 pandas and engages in wildlife research, captive breeding, conservation education and educational tourism in the capital of Southwest China’s Sichuan Province. The purpose of the week is to increase awareness and support for pandas, one of the world’s most endangered species. With the largest captive-breeding panda population in the world, this week, the 25-year-old Chengdu announced a goal to increase its panda total to 150 in the next 10 years.

The importance of bringing awareness to the plight of giant pandas cannot be overemphasized, as the number of giant pandas across the world has diminished at an astounding rate over the years. Fewer than 1,600 giant pandas, which are native to southwest China, remain in the wild. Habitat loss and fragmentation continue to be the biggest factors in the species decline, but a growing Chinese population and land lost to road and railroad construction outside of protected areas are also serious problems.

Giant pandas eating bamboo at the Chengdu Panda Base, Sichuan, China

Giant pandas eating bamboo at the Chengdu Panda Base, Sichuan, China. Credit: Hyjk2000/Wikimedia Commons

In the wild, pandas survive in cold, damp coniferous forests that are best suited for bamboo’s survival, as it makes up 99 percent of giant panda’s diets. Much of a panda’s life in spent in these generally high, mountainous regions, usually from 8,500 to 11,500 meters above sea level. The forests that contain the giant panda’s natural habitat are some of the most biologically rich temperate areas on Earth. Because of development in rapidly growing China, in recent years, pandas have been left confined to narrow belts of bamboo in lower river valleys and mountain slopes, where they are forced to compete with farmers for land. But habitat loss isn’t the only impediment to their survival.

One serious obstacle for repopulating the endangered species is that captive breeding success rates — already quite low — are declining. At Chengdu Panda Base, the staff is engaging in extraordinary efforts to aid panda populations by creating the most natural environment possible for giant pandas to breed and live. This habitat that’s housed on conservation land combines natural scenery and man-made landscapes to provide the endangered pandas with the best home possible. Chengdu is a high ideal in the world of captive panda breeding. Over the 25 years of its existence, the base’s research and expertise have aided in the birth of 124 panda cubs, some of which have been loaned to zoos all over the world. However, the rest of the world isn’t so successful.

Recent studies show that of 160 giant pandas in North American zoos, 83 percent are not meeting breeding targets. Many conservationists are requesting that the money once put into breeding efforts at zoos and other captivities be redirected to preserving the panda’s wild habitats, where breeding is fairly consistent. Researchers today are teetering between the decision to channel money towards preserving natural habitats or keeping the efforts in conservations and zoos. It is a hard decision to make knowing that captive breeding is struggling, while also being aware that human development is gradually stealing away these species’ natural habitats.

There is good news, though. In the spirit of PAW, a baby giant panda was born on Thursday at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo for the first time in 24 years. And, hopefully, PAW will help spread awareness about the plight of the panda and increase efforts to aid these magnificent mammals.

Til the River Runs Dry

by American Forests

By Katrina Marland

Colorado River

The Colorado River Credit: StormeTX/Flickr

In the Colorado River Basin, water is in short supply. Millions of people rely on the Colorado River for domestic water, agricultural irrigation and even electricity. Take the products produced by the agricultural fields fed by the Colorado, factor in where all of them are shipped and consumed and you’d be hard pressed to find many areas in the U.S. that aren’t in some way dependent on the Colorado River.

Recently, this important waterway has been subjected to a number of problems. The whitebark pines that shade its northern snowpack are declining; recent wildfires are interfering with water quality and temperature; and development is diverting the water for a variety of purposes. (For a sobering documentary on the Colorado River, check out Peter McBride’s Chasing Water.)

This is why recent findings in the arid Southwest are particularly troubling. A large-scale study of ecosystems in the American Southwest — supported by scientists from Oregon State University, the Conservation Biology Institute and NASA — has found that the death of millions of acres of trees could have an immense impact on the local ecosystems throughout the region, including the Colorado River itself.

It is a fairly well understood fact that trees need water to live. What we often forget — and what many never learn in the first place — is that to flow properly, water also needs trees. Even a river in dry, rocky, nearly barren land (say, the Southwest) is depending on trees to keep it flowing. Trees along riverbanks stabilize the soil, preventing erosion into the water, which keeps the water cleaner and the river flowing at its current level. The trees also filter out pollutants, regulate the water temperature (which aquatic creatures, like fish, appreciate) and provide additional oxygen. But even trees that don’t border a river can ensure its steady flow. Trees shade snowpack from the glaring sun and prevent it from melting too quickly. This allows the snow to melt at a steadier rate over a longer period of time, which can keep water flowing into rivers long through the summer months — even when rain is scarce.

New Mexico Plains

Pinyon pines in New Mexico Credit: Robyn Gallant

In the Southwest, two particularly hardy trees — pinyon pine and juniper — act as the framework for an ecosystem that has adapted to survive on small amounts of water. Winds in this region can be harsh and kick up a great deal of dust and soil, but pinyon pines and junipers literally hold the dry, dusty land together. They also protect the water supply by shading the seasonal snowpack and prevented sun-warmed dust from blowing onto the snow and causing it to melt. And, don’t forget the wildlife — they provide food and habitat for a variety of species.

Yet, over the past 15 years, more than 2.5 million acres of these trees across the Southwest have fallen victim to a combination of severe drought and mountain pine beetle infestations, leaving the landscape open to what scientists fear could quickly become extreme deterioration. Without the pines and juniper, this windy, arid region could become severely eroded, and the ecosystem’s ability to protect or add to the water supply could disappear. With millions relying on the water it provides, we can’t afford to underestimate the value of trees to this river that acts as a lifeline to the entire Southwest.