Mapping Forest Threats

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Last week, NASA Earth Observatory released as series of maps showing the world’s forests, as mapped from three dimensions: area, density and height. Through the work of researchers, we have one of the largest, highest-resolution forest biomass maps ever.

US Forest Cover

Map by Robert Simmon, based on data from Woods Hole Research Center

Pretty nifty, huh? It is, in terms of the research and technology that went into creating the map. Not so nifty are the stories underlying the pretty green patches.

On first glance, you might think, “Wow, 33 percent of the U.S. is covered by forest. That’s a pretty impressive number.” It might be until you remember that when the first permanent European settlers arrived in America more than 400 years ago, more than half of the U.S. was covered in woodlands. Imagine how green that U.S. map would be.

And while the map gives us a view of where the forests are, it fails to show us in what condition the forests are.

For instance, take a look at the red circled area in this close-up of the Northwest:

Wyoming forest cover

A nice, healthy amount of forest in the northwest corner of Wyoming/southeast Idaho, yes? Not really, because while there is forest there, that forest looks like this:

Caribou-Targhee National Forest

Green spaces intercut with hulking, dead masses of trees. Devastated by beetles and disease. The USDA Forest Service estimates that about 100,000 trees fall to the ground every day in Wyoming and Colorado thanks to beetles.

Or how about this lovely area in Texas:

Texas forest coverLast year, much of it looked like this:

Possum Kingdom Lake Fire in Texas

Possum Kingdom Lake Fire in Texas. Credit: SSG Malcolm McClendon

Wildfires destroyed more than eight million acres of forest across the country in 2011, hitting Texas especially hard. With the drought conditions expected to continue for parts of the South and Southwest into the summer, 2012 may very well follow in 2011’s footsteps.

And these two examples are just tip of the iceberg of threats and difficulties facing America’s forests, which means in order to protect and restore the green on that map, we all need to work extra hard to care for our forests.

What Price for Power?

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Coal power plant in Utah (Credit: Flickr/lowjumpingfrog)

I try to be pretty green in all I do, but I’ll admit that when it comes to power usage, I’m about as guilty as anyone else. I love my TV, sometimes leave lights on and am on my computer for a good chunk of the day. Since I can’t avoid using power, it’s good to know that something is being done to make sure that the places creating the power I use are cleaning up their acts — and the air.

First up, mercury: turns out, it isn’t just something you have to worry about in tuna fish. Factories and power plants produce mercury emissions, just as they produce carbon dioxide and other substances. Despite the dangers that mercury can represent, it wasn’t until very recently — about a month ago — that the EPA created strict regulations for it. The new regulations, dubbed the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), place specific limits on some of the more dangerous pollutants generated by coal or oil-burning power plants, such as mercury, arsenic and cyanide.

Then, there’s carbon dioxide. With this nasty gas, the EPA is taking new steps to keep us informed. The agency recently released its first comprehensive database identifying the nation’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The data shows that power plants were by far the biggest culprits nationwide, and with 45 percent of power plants in the U.S. powered by coal, I can’t say that I’m all that surprised. But you can go a step further and use the tool to find which facilities in your town are serious polluters, exactly how much pollution they emit and what kind. The hope is that once the public is better informed, businesses, individuals and nonprofits will be able to put pressure on the those companies and facilities to clean up their operations.

The pollutants are measured in CO2 equivalents, which takes into account both the amount of the pollutant emitted and its global warming potential. The information for your own hometown will of course be worth looking up, but here are just a few tidbits from the database in general:

  • The three largest stationary sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. are a set of three power plants in Georgia and Alabama. And they are all owned by the same company: Southern Company.
  • The state of Texas has by far the highest rate of emissions with 294 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent pushed into the atmosphere in just one year. Second place goes to Pennsylvania with 129 million metric tons.
  • The states with the lowest levels of greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources are Idaho and Rhode Island (not a surprise for the smallest state in the union), but Alaska can lay claim to the lowest amounts of GHGs from power plants, with only two metric tons produced in 2010.

Go! Fight! Recycle!

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Stadium trash

Credit: Sun Brockie (newyork808)/Flickr

I love sports. All kinds, from the insanely popular — college football and basketball — to the fanatical — hi, MLS and NHL — to the not-for-everyone, but awesome — I’m looking at you tennis and cycling. Basically, if it’s a sporting event, especially live, I’m there. Also, there is lots and lots of waste, hardly shocking considering sports venues hold tens of thousands of people, which is why the EPA decided some incentives were needed to combat the trash.

Enter the third year of the EPA’s Game Day Challenge. Last fall, 78 universities and colleges across the country generated waste reduction plans for one of their 2011 football home games in hopes of winning EPA bragging rights. As announced earlier this week by the EPA, the schools and their combined 2.7 million fans diverted more than 500,000 pounds of waste from landfills in the challenge, preventing nearly 810 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Which schools reigned supreme?

  • Central Connecticut State University (least amount of waste generated per attendee)
  • University of California, Davis (highest combined recycling and composting rate)
  • University of Virginia (greatest greenhouse gas reductions from diverting waste AND highest recycling rate)
  • Marist College (highest organics reduction rate)

Kudos to the winners and all participants because recycling is a big deal and equals a big environmental impact. As reported by the EPA, recycling one ton of paper saves more than three cubic yards of landfill space and reduces energy and water consumption, saving 7,000 gallons of water and enough energy to power an average American home for six months.

And luckily for the environment, many of the participating schools don’t see this as a one-time project: they’re busy with zero-waste plans. In 2006, Colorado University at Boulder voted to become a carbon-neutral campus. The first place for overhaul was the stadium, where they now divert 80 percent of waste on average. A few of the ways that they’ve found success include replacing all trash cans with recycling and composting containers, converting concession food and beverage containers into recyclable and compostable materials and creating a valet bike parking service. The University of California, Davis implemented a zero-waste plan when its stadium opened in 2007 and at a game in 2010 diverted a whopping 89-plus percent of waste. Last year, Big Ten-powerhouse Ohio State joined the zero waste party, with a 2011 goal to divert 75 percent of waste and 90 percent in 2012. Go teams for saving the environment one composting and one recycling bin at a time!

A Forest Hero

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Last year, the United Nations designated 2011 as the International Year of Forests. Now, with the year over, the UN Forum on Forests Secretariat is working to determine the winners of its first-ever Forest Heroes Awards. The UN received 90 nominations for the award from 41 countries around the world. Ultimately, there will be only five winners: one for each geographic region (Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and North America). So far they’ve narrowed the field down to 15 finalists across those regions, and one of them is a friend of ours.

A tree nursery in Nkor Village, Cameroon, funded by a project through American Forests and ANCO.

For each project that American Forests takes on, we partner with a local group. Paul Mzeka is the founder of one of these groups: Apiculture and Nature Conservation Organization (ANCO). In Mzeka’s home country of Cameroon, unsustainable land management has led to deforestation and land degradation. This group promotes conservation and sustainable land management in a way that will also reduce rural poverty. Many of their projects focus particularly on beekeeping as an environmentally sustainable way to generate an income for rural families. They reach out to rural farmers to provide training and equipment and have dozens of successful projects to their name, with more than 6,000 bee farmers trained.

In recent years, ANCO has broadened the scope of its work to include tree planting. These projects help to protect local watersheds, conserve the rural community forests that so many rely on and provide a new area of income through tree nurseries and training in agroforestry. In partnership with ANCO, we have planted thousands of trees to restore forests to several rural communities in Cameroon. Our most recent project with them planted 50,000 trees to reforest almost 250 acres of the community forest for the Nkor Village to improve local watershed health. Before the planting, deforestation had led to severe water shortages. The project also taught local villagers how to create and maintain a nursery, giving them a source of income as well as a self-sufficient way to manage their own forests. Including the projects they have undertaken with us, ANCO, under Mzeka’s guidance, has planted 685,000 trees! Whether the UN awards him the title or not, in my book that achievement makes Mzeka a true forest hero.

Winners of the Forest Heroes Awards will be announced on February 9 at the closing ceremony for the International Year of Forests. Click here to learn more about the other remarkable men and women who have been nominated.

Pay to Play

by Amanda Tai

Trail in Rock Creek Park. Credit: kirybabe/Flickr

One of my favorite places in D.C. is Rock Creek Park. I frequently go there for hikes because I enjoy being outside and staying active. Want to know another reason why it’s so great? It costs absolutely nothing to get in! Washington, D.C. is a great city to find free things to do, and you can find lots of similar outdoor recreational opportunities all across the country. But this isn’t the case everywhere. I recently found out that some places charge people entrance fees to parks and wildlife areas. These places offer so many benefits to people that everyone should be able to visit them, regardless of their income.

Although many national parks never charge an entrance fee, there are still several that do. Effective on January 1st, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has implemented a Georgia Outdoor Recreational Pass (GORP) that is required for adults (age 16-64) to use 32 properties that are managed under its Wildlife Resources Division. While the annual cost of a pass is under $20, and cheaper three-day  and small-group package options exist, it’s less about the dollar amount and more about the principle behind the fee.

What are the costs for GORP  licenses?

  • GORP 3-Day: $3.50
  • GORP Plus 3-Day Fishing: $3.50
  • GORP Annual: $19
  • Small Group (up to eight people), 3-Day: $10 per vehicle
  • Small Group, Annual: $35 per vehicle

Georgia residents used to only need a pass for fishing or hunting. Now, they are required to buy a pass in advance of visiting the state’s 32 wildlife areas. Dan Forster, Director of Wildlife Resources Division, explains that with a tightening budget, the pass will help alleviate maintenance costs. Forster also notes that the 32 properties were chosen based on highest levels of public traffic.

For some, the fee may seem reasonable and affordable. But for many, they simply can’t afford it. While the fee promises to go towards maintenance in wildlife areas, it also places a clear dollar-amount limit as to who can afford to enjoy these areas. Affordability is just one of the many recreational access issues that determines who participates in outdoor recreation. Other issues include a lack of public knowledge and education, increasing demand with limited space and proximity to opportunities. Access issues, closely tied to health and environmental justice, tend to be most prevalent in lower income areas, where people may not be able to afford fees and there is less public awareness about recreational opportunities. It’s true that maintenance work is necessary in order to keep our parks and wildlife areas safe and enjoyable for everyone, but we also need to make sure that everyone can afford to use them.

Missing the Cold

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

As we experience what I’m affectionately dubbing the dog days of winter — aka the unseasonably warm temperatures that much of the country has been experiencing of late — the news that some cold-loving flora may not survive the coming decades because of warming temperatures is hardly surprising, but still mightily depressing.

Austrian Hochschwab Mountains plant research

Researchers collecting samples on the Austrian Hochschwab Mountains. Credit: Harald Pauli

According to researchers at the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the University of Vienna, cold-loving plants across Europe’s mountains are quickly losing ground to their warm-loving brethren. Biologists first took samples in 2001 at 60 summits across Europe. They returned seven years later for comparative samples and were surprised at what awaited them.

In a press release on the study, Dr. Michael Gottfried of the Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments, which coordinated the study, says, “We expected to find a greater number of warm-loving plants at higher altitudes, but we did not expect to find such a significant change in such a short space of time. Many cold-loving species are literally running out of mountain. In some of the lower mountains in Europe, we could see alpine meadows disappearing and dwarf shrubs taking over within the next few decades.” Eep!

Regional studies have been supporting this theory for quite awhile, but this new research purports to be the first to examine the issue on a continental scale. One of the results that I found particularly interesting is that the invasion of warm-loving plants isn’t tied to altitude: plants along the treeline, as well as those along the high mountain peaks, are all being affected. Also, the effects were similar across the continent from the high north of Scotland to the Greek isles. Not good.

Someone needs to go tell the warm-loving plants to stop bullying their cold-loving friends. And if we could work on stopping the warming trend, I’m sure they’d be mighty appreciative. Good thing trees can help the climate by storing carbon, which helps reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the air. So helping protect our forests may help protect our plants. I like it!


Let It Snow!

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

When I learned I would be moving to Colorado, I went out and bought some warmer winter gear — boots, coat and everything in between. Two weeks after I moved here, my hometown in Maryland got a storm so unusually severe it was called the “snowpocalypse” (or “snowmageddon,” depending on who you talked to). Expecting to get a great deal more snow of my own, I didn’t think much about it. But here I am two years later, and the most snow I’ve seen at one time is a whopping five inches. In fact, 2011’s snow accumulation in this town was a measly 24.8 inches — far below the average of 42.4 inches a year. So when I saw the words “snow drought” in the news recently, I paid attention.

1/4/2011 snowpack (top) compared to 1/2/2012 snowpack (bottom) (Credit: NOHRSC/NOAA)

Yes, a snow drought is a real thing. It’s not always as easy to see, and its effects aren’t felt all at once, but its implications — especially out here in the Mountain West — can be just as serious as a severe lack of rain. And it isn’t only out west that the problem exists: recent analysis shows that the entire nation is seeing a record low amount of snow on the ground. From 2004 to 2011, each January 4th resulted in as much as 60 percent of the country covered in snow and rarely less than 33 percent. On January 4, 2012, only 22 percent of the country had snow on the ground.

One obvious effect is that ski slopes are taking a hit — a significant economic blow at what is usually their busiest time of year, not to mention rather disappointing to enthusiastic skiers and boarders. But snow in the mountains is good for more than recreation: it becomes the water reserve for much of the country for the rest of the year, feeding into rivers, lakes, agricultural fields, reservoirs and more. Without sufficient snowpack to sustain them throughout the year, a lot of water sources can run dry. California found its snowpack this week to be at only 19 percent of its yearly average, making it one of the driest years on record. Since the snowpack supplies a full one-third of the state’s water for homes, agricultural fields and industries, the current levels are anything but encouraging. Throughout the Midwest, the lack of snow means a lack of insulation for the dormant wheat crops, leaving them vulnerable to extremely low temperatures that could have serious consequences for those farmers and the local economy.

With a few months left in winter, there is still a chance for Mother Nature to catch up, but as to whether or not that will happen and whether we have more of these drastic fluctuations to look forward to from year to year, we’ll have to wait and see.

Forested Beauty

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

This week in history, five of our states officially joined the United States:

  • Georgia (1/2/1788)
  • Connecticut (1/9/1788)
  • Utah (1/4/1896)
  • New Mexico (1/6/1912)
  • Alaska (1/3/1959).

In celebration, I wanted to share some of the forested beauty that you can experience in each.

Our fourth state contains two national forests: Oconee and Chattahoochee National Forests, which includes the popular Anna Ruby Falls.

Dockery Lake in Chattahoochee National Forest

Dockery Lake in Chattahoochee National Forest. Credit: Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest

Our fifth state isn’t home to any national forests, but the famous Appalachian Trail crosses its boundaries, and dozens of state parks contain breathtaking vistas.

Kent Falls State Park

Kent Falls State Park. Credit: BillAndKent/Flickr

Our 45th state boasts five national forests — Ashley, Dixie, Fishlake, Manti-La Sal and Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forests — in addition to its five national parks, which contrast the stark beauty of the state’s rock formations and desert climate with lush flora.

Manti-La Sal National Forest

Manti-La Sal National Forest. Credit: Dave Merrill (Utah~Dave AA7IZ)/Flickr


New Mexico
Our 47th state finds itself with five national forests — Carson, Cibola, Gila, Lincoln and Santa Fe National Forests — and three national grasslands, representing the state’s diverse landscape.

Santa Fe National Forest

Santa Fe National Forest. Credit: TaylorAndAyumi/Flickr

Our 49th state may only have two national forests in quantity — Chugach and Tongass National Forests — but when it comes to sheer land mass, they’re huge: Tongass National Forest is the largest national forest in the U.S. at 17 million acres.

Aerial view of the Mendenhall Glacier in Tongass National Forest

Aerial view of the Mendenhall Glacier in Tongass National Forest. Credit: Judy Malley (ShootsNikon)/Flickr

What are your favorite forestlands in each of these states?

When Wolves Come to Town

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Gray wolf (Credit: MacNeil Lyons, National Park Service)

There are a lot of animals that come to mind when you think of trees, but wolves aren’t usually one of them. So who would have thought that wolves are actually tree huggers at heart? Well, not exactly tree huggers per se, but lately wolves have done a lot of work to save trees in Yellowstone National Park.

To understand, we have to back up several years. Northern Rocky Mountain wolves, a subspecies of gray wolves, were once the dominant predators in the Yellowstone region and throughout their native range across the Rockies. But humans hunted them for decades until the 1970s, when there was literally no trace of them left in the park. In the 1990s, when the wolves were still nowhere to be found, Yellowstone worked with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to reintroduce the wolves to what was once their native habitat.

Today, more than 100 wolves call Yellowstone home, and according to a recent study by researchers at Oregon State University, the new residents have made quite a few changes. Some changes, such as a dip in the park’s elk population, come as no surprise. Other changes, while indirect, were widespread and unexpected. The wolves have actually helped the ecosystem support more and healthier trees, greater numbers of songbirds and even healthier aquatic life.

Adult elk in Yellowstone National Park (Credit: Flicka/wikimedia)

The key is in the wolves’ favorite meal: elk. These massive foragers have a rather drastic impact on trees. They feed on the leaves, twigs and bark. Younger elk whose antlers are still coming in will also rub them against the trees. If you’ve seen similar damage from backyard deer, you can imagine the effect a 700-pound elk can have on a tree. Since elk are also one of the most common large mammals in the park — it is home to a population of about 20,000 in the winter and 30,000 in the summer — Yellowstone’s trees haven’t been able to catch much of a break. With elk so prevalent (and wolves missing from the picture) for several decades, the ecosystem simply adapted, cutting back on certain species and populations, and we humans got used to seeing it that way.

With the reintroduction of wolves, the elk population is decreasing — not so much as to put them in danger, but enough to make a big difference to Yellowstone’s forests — and the trees are coming back to full strength. Able to keep their leaves and bark longer, the trees are growing larger and healthier and living long enough to produce more trees. So much so that the forests are seeing greater populations of yellow warblers, willow flycatchers and other songbirds. Since the trees aren’t being fed upon as much, they’re also free to provide more food for other animals, like beavers. The beavers in turn create more dams, which help provide habitat for many aquatic species, including fish, frogs and other types of reptiles and amphibians. Even the bison populations increased since there is now more food for foraging. All this just because some wolves moved into the neighborhood. I’ll never cease to be amazed at how each little piece of an ecosystem is so intricately connected to everything else.

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: