Lame Duck Session

by Amanda Tai

U.S. Capitol Building. Credit: geetarchurchy/Flickr

Until the newly-elected members of Congress settle in on Capitol Hill in January, we’re stuck in what’s known as a “lame duck” session of Congress. It’s an interesting period of time. On one hand, members that have not been re-elected have less political clout and may choose to take little or no action for the remainder of their term. On the other hand, these members have the freedom of not having to face the consequences of their actions, which may result in last-minute action and voting. The current Congress still has a lot on their plate over the next few months, from the Bush-era tax cuts that are set to expire on December 31st to the loom of automatic budget cuts effective January 1st. This is also known as the budget sequestration. This possible year-end situation of tax and budget cuts has been coined the “fiscal cliff,” as it would result in a massive double-punch to the economy.

President Obama has met with Congressional leaders to figure out ways to avoid this situation. But given the rest of the 2012 Congressional calendar, this leaves lawmakers only about five weeks to come up with a solution to the fiscal cliff set to take effect in the new year.

While the economy is the first order of business for the lame duck Congress, it certainly isn’t the only item on the agenda. The Farm Bill expired in September and many farmers are struggling without supplemental payments. If this Congress doesn’t act, the effects could include a drastic increase in the price of milk from dairy farmers. The Senate has already passed their version of a bill, but it is still waiting for the House to act.

Representative Collin Peterson (D-MN) on the House Agriculture Committee is urging the House to vote to pass a five-year Farm Bill. The measure already passed the House Agriculture Committee back in July and Peterson suggests voting before the Thanksgiving break, giving the House enough time to work out differences with the Senate bill. Although not ideal, a one-year extension of the Farm Bill is also a possibility during the lame duck session.

With major threats to our economy facing us, I urge the lame duck Congress to look beyond party lines and see the bigger picture. While these may be the last few months for some members of Congress, I urge them to think about the decisions they make. These decisions have the power to steer our economy and our environment in a positive direction heading into the new year.

People of the Forest

by Susan Laszewski

This week, countries around the world are observing Orangutan Caring Week.

Adult male orangutan

Adult male orangutan. Credit: Alexandra MacKenzie/Flickr

I remember my fascination the first time I saw one of these amazing animals as a child at the Philadelphia zoo. It was an adult male and his cheek pads made him stand out from the rest of the apes. A crowd of children gathered to watch him swing from the branches. I thought perhaps he was called an orangutan because of his orange fur. In fact, orangutan comes from the Malay and Indonesian languages, meaning person of the forest.

And they do have a lot in common with people. Like people, the two species of orangutans — the Bornean orangutan and the Sumatran orangutan — are two of a small number of species known to use tools. They use sticks to probe termite mounds for the tasty insects or to deseed the neesia fruit. Also like humans, orangutans have a relatively long infancy. An infant is carried by its mother for two to three years, and even after that will stay by her side for at least another three. Orangutans are the slowest breeding mammal — with an interval of eight years between offspring. This allows the mother to devote as much time to her young as she does, but it’s also part of what makes these apes so vulnerable. Classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, orangutans can’t reproduce fast enough in the face of increasing threats to their survival.

Though they have been an easy target for poachers, the single biggest threat to orangutans is loss of the lowland tropical rainforests and swamps they call home. Fossil evidence shows that orangutans were once widespread throughout Southeast Asia, but today they live only in Borneo and Sumatra. In the last 20 years, a whopping 80 percent of their habitat has been lost due to gold mining, conversion of forest to palm oil plantations and the increase in illegal logging brought about by political instability in the area. The effects are staggering. Between 1992 and 1999, the orangutan population decreased by nearly half. In 2007, after a study found that the forests were disappearing 30 percent faster than had previously been believed, the UN Environmental Program declared the loss of rainforest in Borneo and Sumatra an emergency.

Orangutans are not the only people of the forest. Humans also rely on these lush rainforests for their water quality, climate moderation, erosion control and biodiversity — a diversity that includes the potential for undiscovered medical cures.

You can get involved in orangutan awareness week. Visit the Orang Utan Republik Foundation to find out what events are happening in your city or to learn how you can help.

Living Tributes

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery. Credit: Arvid Bring/Flickr

This Sunday is Veterans Day — a day when Americans take a moment to give thanks to all the brave men and women who have served in our nation’s military. This national day of tribute and thanks is held on November 11th every year because on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, an armistice began, symbolically ending World War I. The first Armistice Day was celebrated the next year on November 11th in recognition of the veterans of WWI. After a number of other devastating wars in the 20thcentury, in 1954, Congress officially changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day in recognition of all the brave souls who served the nation.

Every year, this holiday’s national celebration takes place in Arlington National Cemetery — appropriately at 11 a.m. — at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The event includes a wreath laying and ceremonial processions and color presentations inside the grounds at Memorial Ampitheater. Arlington is a fitting place for such remembrances, as it is not only a place of gravestones and monuments, but also living memorials to those who have served.

The grounds of Arlington National Cemetery contain 8,400 trees of 300 varieties, and some of these beauties are older than the cemetery itself. Beyond creating a peaceful, lovely resting place for our nation’s military, though, 142 of these trees serve an additional purpose — as memorial trees, planted in tribute for specific veterans or groups of veterans.

A Korean pine near the Korean War Contemplative Bench in Arlington National Cemetery commemorates Korean War veterans

A Korean pine near the Korean War Contemplative Bench in Arlington National Cemetery commemorates Korean War veterans. Credit: Wally Gobetz/Flickr

There are the 36 trees planted in remembrance of our nation’s Medal of Honor recipients, and in a neat twist, each one of those trees is also historic in its own right. For instance, the Medal of Honor tree near gravesite 158 is known as the Antietam Sycamore, as it’s descended from a sycamore that bore witness to the bloody Civil War battle of Antietam, which claimed 23,000 lives. Or there’s the Washington Crossing Sycamore Maple near gravesite 1379 whose parent witnessed George Washington’s Delaware River crossing in 1776.

Other memorial trees in Arlington represent specific military groups, such as a red maple in section 27 that remembers U.S. colored troops and freed slaves or a willow oak in section 7A recognizing the Rakkasans 187th Airborne. However, many of the memorial trees also remember those whose lives have been irrevocably affected by a veteran or veterans: trees like the river birch near the Memorial Amphitheater for the mother of the unknown soldier, the willow oak in Section 46 for war correspondents and the blue atlas cedar in Section 35 for American war mothers.

Regardless, though, of whom a tree is planted for, the sentiment remains the same. We plant trees to honor individuals because we know that these trees will outlive us, letting them serve as reminders to those that follow of the men and women who came before them. But if that’s a little macabre for your tastes, remember that trees can also help serve as a thanks and remembrance of the living, too. Especially if one simply ties a yellow ribbon to it — it doesn’t even have to be an old oak.

So from all of us at American Forests, a sincere thanks this Veterans Day to all those who have served and continue to serve. We salute you.

Counting Their Losses

by Alex Cimon

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, assessing the damage has become a priority. After a storm in which millions of people lost power and the streets of New York and New Jersey were shut down, it is clear that much of the East Coast has seen significant destruction. It can be difficult to quantify the losses, as many cities are continuing relief efforts. But arborists and urban foresters are beginning to tally the number of fallen trees and evaluate their respective city’s position.

Pine tree blocking a street in Boston

Pine tree blocking a street in Boston. Credit: massmarrier/Flickr

Falling trees are one of the major dangers facing urban and suburban areas during a natural disaster. You have probably heard stories of trees damaging the infrastructure of cities and towns on the East Coast. After the worst of Sandy’s effects, The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation reported that two-thirds of service requests were related to felled trees. But many experts are concerned with the damage to the tree canopy and urban forests initiatives.

American Forests, and specifically our Urban Forests program, stresses the importance of trees, gardens and other green landscapes in cities. These cities employ a variety of experts in order to maintain a healthy recreation environment for citizens, as well as habitats for urban wildlife. But trees, in particular, provide shade, reduce stormwater runoff and capture rainfall. This makes them essential to sustainable living in cities and important to consider during times of crisis.

In the hardest-hit cities — such as New York — there has been little focus on urban forest plans and setbacks, as is fitting considering officials in these communities are continuing to focus on relief and clean-up. But further south, in cities such as Baltimore and Washington, D.C., officials are already counting their losses and predicting schedule changes in order to accomplish their goals.

Fallen tree in Queens, New York

Fallen tree in Queens, New York. Credit: Rob Boudon/Flickr

According to an article by E&E News, Washington, D.C. — which saw its second major canopy threat in a year after June’s derecho — lost 224 of its 140,000 trees. Sandy did not match the destruction of this summer’s storm, but it did leave notable gaps in the city’s urban forest work. Baltimore is facing a greater setback with 500 felled trees and long-term goals looming. By 2040, this city hopes to reach 40 percent canopy cover. There have been 9,000 trees planted in Baltimore this year, but after Sandy this smaller net gain leaves them struggling to stay on pace with their goal.

Even in cities like New York, where tree experts are primarily concerned with clearing the streets, it is clear that the urban forest canopy was affected. The New York Botanical Garden suffered 100 felled trees, many of which were ancient oaks. Boston, another city where official numbers have not been tallied, is planning to have to play catch-up in order to reach its goal of 100,000 more trees by 2020.

As city employees continue recovery efforts, it is important to appreciate those who are working to stay on track in order to maintain urban forest goals. But natural disasters like this one also provide lessons for the future. American Forests is a strong advocate for trees in cities, but in order for them to be effective and not destructive, it’s imperative to choose the right tree for the right space and to make sure sufficient funding and staff are available for necessary pruning and maintenance. Storms and trees are always going to have a tenuous relationship, but devastation can be minimized with proactive actions and cooperative efforts.

For more on how to help urban forests weather storms, read American Forests’ urban forests director’s previous blog post on the subject.

Priorities for a New Term

by Amanda Tai

Election Night in Washington D.C. Credit: Cosmic Smudge/Flickr

It’s the beginning of a new term for President Obama.

Perhaps you’re like me and stayed up late to watch the election coverage last night. In Washington, D.C., it’s the cause for many a social gathering, including a huge crowd in front of the White House that I got to be smack dab in the middle of! After yesterday’s frenzy, it’s hard to imagine things ramping up even more. But now that we know who we’ll be working with, it’s important to look forward and talk about our priorities for the next four years.

Over the past year, American Forests advocated for several programs and bills that benefit our nation’s forests — both public and private, and urban and rural. These efforts included visits with congressional staffers on the Hill to discuss the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP), rallying with farmers and landowners to pass a new Farm Bill and providing recommendations for fiscal year 2013 appropriations. While there have been plenty of roadblocks in getting Congressional action on many of our priorities, our advocacy efforts are aimed at continuing to keep Congress informed about our priorities. And we made some progress. CFLRP received bipartisan support with Congress ensuring full funding for the program and the addition of 10 new projects. It’s important that we continue to advocate for these programs and ramp up our efforts even more with the new Congress coming in.

There are soon going to be some new faces on Capitol Hill, which means congressional committee memberships may shift around as well. But rather than viewing this as an obstacle, I view it as an opportunity to reach out to new members and get them onboard. Let’s talk with them about how they can help forest ecosystems and, in doing so, help the people in their communities. Let’s educate them about the programs and legislation that will fund forest restoration work, create green jobs and help our environmental future. By starting the conversation, members of Congress will already be aware of the issues and know how to vote as a voice for our nation’s forests in the year to come!

A Birds’-eye View of Birds

by Susan Laszewski

They say birds of a feather flock together, but it’s not always true. Sometimes, birds of a feather — birds of the same species — are separated regionally, may be divided along lines of habitat or migration patterns or display other differences that lead scientists to classify them as distinct subspecies. For example, the greater Canada goose is widespread throughout the continent, but the dusky Canada goose winters only in the Pacific Northwest. Such differences are fairly common, yet most assessments of the conservation needs of birds have been largely species-centric, even though different subspecies may be facing different levels of risk.


Palila. Credit: Caleb Slemmons/Flickr

The American Bird Conservancy has bucked this trend with their recent study and resulting classification of risk levels among birds. It is the first study of its kind to include the full range of bird diversity throughout the entire U.S. and the first to rank subspecies. In addition, the study includes what it calls “habitypes” — birds that are nearly identical, but rely on different types of habitat to nest. For instance, one population of the marbled murrelet nests in old-growth forests, while another nests on the ground.

The resulting 1,826 birds were given a “vulnerability rank” using a methodology based on such factors as population trend, breeding distribution and threats to breeding. A rank of between four and eight qualifies a bird as “secure,” nine to 12 indicates “potential concern,” 13 to 16 categorizes a bird as “vulnerable” and 17 to 20 establishes that a bird is “at risk.”

The good news is that by finally including subspecies in the rankings, conservationists can get a much more complete picture — a birds’-eye view, if you will — of the state of birds’ conservation needs. It also may help future assessments, as today’s subspecies could be tomorrow’s species. By including them in current studies, it helps ensure that they will not be overlooked in the future.

The bad news is that only 15 percent of the 1,826 birds ranked as secure, leaving the majority of birds in U.S. in need of some level of conservation attention. Of the 30 percent that ranked as vulnerable and the nine percent that have been shown to be at risk, most are specialized species, relying on a very particular food or habitat and therefore lacking the flexibility to adapt to habitat loss.

One region’s birds seem to have it particularly tough. Half of the birds that are most in need are endemic to Hawai’i. Sadly, despite the risk they face, these birds — species like the palila and the Maui parrotbill — tend to receive less funding than their mainland counterparts.

American Forests is doing our part to aid in conservation efforts for threatened Hawai’ian birds by helping to restore their dwindling habitat. Through our Global ReLeaf project in Waihou Forest, we’re partnering with the Hawaiian Silversword Foundation and others to plant 6,000 trees in the Pu’u Wa’awa’a area by the end of next year. By restoring their habitat, we hope to see a revival in wildlife populations, including at-risk native bird species.

A Future of Flooding

by Julia Sullivan

Last week’s Hurricane Sandy packed a devastating punch, exposing many areas’ vulnerabilities to storm surge and sea level rise along the East Coast, which could very well bolster the case for much-needed change in the government’s approach to evaluating flood risk.

New York City’s FDR Drive flooded after Hurricane Sandy

New York City’s FDR Drive flooded after Hurricane Sandy. Credit: David Shankbone/Flickr

As reported by The Washington Post, with the increased likelihood of extreme weather due to climate change and the prospect of future sea level rise, experts from diverse fields — environmentalists, community planners, insurers and fiscal conservatives alike — are urging agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to reconsider the way it evaluates the risks of floods.

FEMA draws the flood maps that guide local authorities as they determine where things can be built, and it relies on historical data instead of future projections in its analyses. A FEMA-commissioned study that concluded two years ago indicated that the size of the nation’s flood plains could increase 40 to 45 percent by the end of the century because of rising sea level and more intense precipitation.

Many homeowners and developers have resisted the idea of expanding the definition of flood risk because it raises costs and can restrict development, and policymakers are wary of the potential political backlash. It gets messier still when you take into account the 44-year-old National Flood Insurance Program, which provides Americans in flood-prone areas with federally backed insurance so long as they meet federal standards aimed at minimizing risks. Expanding flood maps would mean broadening the area covered by this program, which was already deep in debt before Sandy made landfall. Proponents of the flood insurance program hold that it provides coverage that would otherwise be unaffordable and saves taxpayers money by encouraging communities to be cautious. Critics, however, say that the program allows Americans to build in risky areas, as 40 percent of the total payout has gone to two percent of properties that were repeatedly flooded.

Flooding in Brooklyn after Hurricane Sandy

Flooding in Brooklyn after Hurricane Sandy. Credit: Inhabitat/Flickr

With several recent studies having concluded that intense precipitation events are worsening due to climate change, FEMA is in the process of updating flood insurance maps from the 1980s and is setting up a “technical mapping advisory council” with the express purpose of studying how the agency might incorporate climate change into its analysis. It remains unclear, however, what shape FEMA’s policies will take in the future.

Climate change presents us with a new reality, and we cannot face it with old infrastructures and old systems. Hopefully, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy will inspire us to move away from dated methods of flood-risk analysis and the all-too-common practice of rebuilding storm-damaged infrastructure exactly the same way, without accounting for the climatic changes underway.

Increased precipitation and major storm events are not the only symptoms of climate change connected to the rising sea level. Our good friend James Balog’s award-winning documentary Chasing Ice documents the alarming rate of glacier loss due to climate change. To produce this film, the filmmakers deployed revolutionary timelapse cameras across the Arctic, capturing a multi-year record of the world’s changing glaciers through a compilation of hauntingly beautiful videos. Chasing Ice opens this Friday in New York City and in other cities throughout the month.

The Problem of Mary Jane

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Cannabis plant

Cannabis plant. Credit: Federacion de Asociaciones Cannabicas (FAC)/Flickr


This fun-to-say little word comes loaded with controversy and strong opinions. And it appears that the longer controversy and debate surround it, the more our forests, streams and natural environs may be in danger.

Last year, I talked about how researchers had discovered illegal marijuana plots in 67 national forests across 20 states, which were having negative consequences on the surrounding forests because of diverse issues from trash and debris to pesticide use and the diversion of stream water. Well, apparently, the problem isn’t limited to illegal marijuana plots.

The Sacramento Bee reveals in a recent article that California is struggling with how to regulate medicinal marijuana cultivation, which could have profound impacts on water usage in the state, as well as pollution from herbicides and pesticides. California’s struggles come from the rub of how does one use federal standards to regulate something that is federally illegal?

A girdled tree in a California national forest due to illegal marijuana crops.

A girdled tree in a California national forest due to illegal marijuana crops. Rather than cutting down trees that leave “tell-tale” stumps that are easily spotted by air, trees are girdled midway up the trunk by machete, killing all future growth and eventually the tree. Credit: U.S. Forest Service Region 5/Flickr

The Bee reports that in 2008, Mendocino County created an ordinance to regulate marijuana cultivation. Growers had to pay fees to cultivate plots, which then could be monitored to make sure the farmers were meeting environmental standards during the farming process. Then, earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice warned Mendocino that the ordinance violated federal law because it approved the growing of a state-allowed, but federally illegal substance. Thus, the ordinance disappeared and put other California regulatory organizations back at square one on how to allow the growth of marijuana while protecting the ecosystem around it.

Then, there’s the clear-cutting of forests to create farms, grading land on erosion-prone hillsides and finding enough water to irrigate the water-hungry crop that come along with marijuana cultivation — illegal or not. California Department of Fish and Game environmental scientist Scott Bauer describes to the Bee how “some growers fell trees, push them over the edge of a hillside, then bulldoze dirt on top of the trees to create flat planting areas. The bulldozed trees eventually rot, and in the next big storm, the piled soil cascades into the creek below, burying fish-spawning habitat.” So not good. And the problem will probably only escalate if unregulated.

So what to do? As evidenced by the examples above, California needs to be able to hold marijuana growers to the same environmental standards as other farmers because unless our federal and state governments reach some kind of consensus over the contentious issue of medical marijuana, our forests will continue to suffer.

Halloween Anniversaries in California

by Alex Cimon

Eighteen years ago, on Halloween, the California Desert Protection Act created two national parks in southern California. Joshua Tree National Park and, the spookily appropriate, Death Valley National Park celebrated their anniversaries yesterday. They are only separated by a little more than 250 miles, but each location has unique and historic features.

Death Valley

Death Valley. Credit: Gunther Hagleitner/Flickr

The National Park Service recognizes Death Valley as a “land of extremes.” With average summer temperatures reaching nearly 120 degrees Fahrenheit and monthly rainfall consistently below one inch, the park is home to the hottest and driest areas in the United States. And Death Valley also boasts the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, with Badwater Basin dipping 282 feet below sea level. These distinctions paint a deadly picture, but the park consists of several different ecosystems supporting hundreds of species.

Only 15 miles from Badwater Basin is the highest point in the park, Telescope Peak, reaching 11,049 feet. Between these drastically different features are sand dunes, salt flats and even springs. One of these springs is Devil’s Hole, a unique and important environment. Tucked within caverns, it protects the desert pupfish and is the only naturally occurring location for this species. Besides this interesting fish, Death Valley is also home to bighorn sheep, frogs and toads, various types of reptiles and hundreds of birds.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park. Credit: total13/Flickr

The counterpart to this “land of extremes” is located at the intersection of three different California ecosystems. The western region of Joshua Tree National Park is home to the Little San Bernardino Mountains. Here, California juniper and pinyon pines distinguish the highest part of Joshua Tree. The southern and eastern territories of the park contain the Sonoran Desert. But in the north, where the Mojave Desert is found, lives the park’s namesake. The Joshua tree is an icon in this region with its heavy branches and spring flowers. This species also provides an important habitat for many birds and other animals surviving in the desert. Most of the mammals in the park are small rodents, but dozens of species of reptiles, as well as more than 250 kinds of birds, thrive in the desert environment.

Anyone reluctant about visiting a place called Death Valley or a park connecting two deserts may be reassured by the hundreds of thousands of people flocking to the parks each year. In fact, both areas offer a variety of recreational activities. Death Valley’s 785 miles of road are perfect for a scenic drive or a day of mountain biking. Joshua Tree provides day-trip opportunities, such as nature trails and rock climbing, as well as camping for extended trips.

Forest Frights

by Susan Laszewski

Each year, when Halloween rolls around, I go hunting for tales of ghosts and the paranormal. This year, I stumbled across a haunt that’s as interesting for its status as an ecological oddity as it is for the spooky legends that surround it.

In the woods just outside of Siler City, North Carolina, lies the Devil’s Tramping Ground. In this bare circle of earth about 20 feet across, nothing but a few strands of grass will grow. More interestingly, it’s said that nothing at all grows in the outer ring of the circle because this is where the devil comes each night to pace as he dreams up new ways of tormenting humankind. Local legend has it that wildlife never enter the circle and that things left in the circle during the day will have been moved from it by morning.

Devil’s Tramping Ground

Devil’s Tramping Ground. Credit: Jason Home/Flickr

Legend even has it that the North Carolina Department of Agriculture studied the soils in the area and was unable to determine why nothing grows there. According to the North Carolina Museum of History, however, that mystery can indeed be solved by science. The patch of earth is unusually high in saline content and may have served as a salt lick for ancient buffalo and other wildlife. Lovers of a good mystery need not be disappointed, though. It’s still unclear, for example, how this land came to be shaped in a nearly perfect geometrical circle. Spooky.

Equally interesting is the question of how this small patch of land inspired such fear and foreboding. Years of spooky tales shared around the campfires and practical jokes played on friends have no doubt contributed to its eerie reputation, but what made the spot fodder for such ghost stories in the first place? I began recalling other tales of haunted forests and what they had in common. Places where no birds sing, where sunlight can’t penetrate and where dry, gnarly branches reach out from dead tree trunks to grab unsuspecting souls? Put bluntly, where vegetation doesn’t thrive, it creeps us out.

Humans have always depended on vegetation for everything from the simple needs of sustenance and shelter to higher needs like mental well-being and artistic inspiration. We already know that healthy forests clean our air, clean our water, provide habitat for wildlife that ecosystems depend on and even help cities save money on energy bills. Maybe we should add “ward off evil spirits” to the list of benefits that our forests provide.

For a spooky camping trip likely to boast some beautiful fall foliage along the way, visit the North Carolina Department of Commerce’s website for directions to the Devil’s Tramping Ground.