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:

New Year’s Resolutions

by Scott Steen, President & CEO

(Credit: USFS Region 5)

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

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

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

Those Wacky Trees: A 2011 Retrospective

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

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

  • Portland, Oregon. Credit: Derrick Coetzee/Flickr

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

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

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

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

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

Treecycling: More Than Mulch

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

(Credit: Flickr/GeraldEngland)

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

Each area has different programs, so if you have a real tree, be sure to find out what options your town has for recycling it. One great resource is the database of programs listed at earth911.com. Here are just a few of the many ways used Christmas trees are getting a second life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Policy Year in Review

by Amanda Tai

Credit: Stacie/commentsyard.com

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

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

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

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

Greening the Silver Screen

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

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

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

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

Credit: Susan Brand (susanbrandstudio)/Flickr

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

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

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

Happy Holidays!

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland & Michelle Werts


Happy holidays from the American Forests family to yours!

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

(Credit: USFS-NorthernRegion)