Birds on the Move

by American Forests

By Katrina Marland

Black vulture

Black vulture (Credit: Mauricholas)

Every year around the holidays, the Audubon Society organizes the annual Christmas Bird Count, an event in which volunteers across the U.S. help take a census on the birds that appear in their regions. A new study published in the Journal of Animal Ecology has used the data from 35 years of this Christmas Bird Count to find the rate at which certain bird species are adjusting to rising temperatures. What it found was both good and bad.

For the most part, all signs point to birds moving north. Not just moving south for the winter and north for the summer, but generally shifting their ranges north to compensate for the changing climate. It doesn’t happen quickly, of course. It takes several years for an entire species to change their preferred range. Since birds fly, often for long distances, they are among the most mobile of all animals, and a good baseline to measure against. If birds can make it to cooler climates in time, maybe other species can too, if they move fast enough. But that’s the problem. It seems even some birds aren’t moving quite fast enough.

The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker

The endangered-cockaded woodpecker (Credit: U.S. Marine Corps)

The study found that many birds take roughly 35 years to adjust to a change in climate. The research covered a total of 59 different bird species, one of them being the black vulture. This bird’s range has shifted north quite a bit in the last 35 years. Now, they spend their winters as far north as Massachusetts, where today’s winter temperatures are about the same as Maryland’s were back in 1975.

Sadly, that’s where the good news ends because many species aren’t keeping up with the rate of change. Some species, despite severe changes in their native range’s climate, aren’t moving at all. Or if they are, they’re going far too slow. The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker hasn’t moved its range at all in the last 35 years. That is because the bird only makes its home in longleaf pine forests, which are found only in select locations and aren’t moving north with the warming climate.

There are many birds like this that depend on certain species to survive — usually trees. Whether they require a specific species to live in or seeds to eat, their fate is tied to that of the trees, and unlike the birds that rely on them, the forests can’t migrate to a spot hundreds of miles away over the course of one winter. Which leaves birds with an unpleasant choice: make their way in a new type of habitat that they aren’t familiar with — you can imagine how happy the birds native to that ecosystem will be about their new neighbors — or struggle with increasing temperatures at home.

The Future of the Forest Service

by Amanda Tai

The Wayne National Forest along with partners from the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Sunday Creek Restoration Project. Credit: Wayne National Forest/Flickr

You may have noticed that I bring up the USDA Forest Service Planning Rule in quite a few of my blog posts. The reason it comes up so often is that this single piece of legislation has a significant impact on every forest managed by the agency. Following last month’s publication of the Planning Rule’s Environmental Impact Statement, the Forest Service released a final rule last week, which replaces the 1982 planning rule. The recently published rule will increase requirements for forest plans to focus on a number of new priorities, including habitat and species diversity, watershed restoration.

While this new planning rule underwent years of formation and review, Congress still wants to know if the new rule will result in real and measurable improvements concerning species, natural resources, jobs and communities. The House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy and Forestry held a hearing yesterday to discuss the opportunities and challenges facing the Forest Service and how to improve the process of land-management planning. During the hearing, members of the subcommittee commented that some forests were not meeting their sustainable-yield goals (the amount of forest product that can be harvested sustainably to maximize profit) or viability standards (maintaining a healthy population of native species) under the 1982 rule. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell responded that this was part of the reason for establishing the new and improved rule. Under the old rule, forests were subject to management plans that were 15 years old, meaning they couldn’t adapt to new and current forest-management practices, like focusing on qualitative outcomes rather than quantitative outputs and using best-available science to inform decisions. Tidwell also reassured the subcommittee that the agency is working to improve wildfire-management strategies, continue bark beetle-suppression efforts, restore wildlife habitat and create jobs that support local economies.

The agency hopes that the new Planning Rule will increase the time and cost efficiency of the plan-implementation process  by revising more plans with the same amount of money. The less time and money spent on plan revision, the more time and money that can be spent on restoration efforts, increasing recreational opportunities and maintaining good-paying jobs on forest lands.

Saving Green With a Button?

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

New York City satellite dishes

New York City. Credit: Leila Carioca/Flickr

Raise your hand if you’d love to reduce your carbon footprint, but feel like you lack the information or resources to do so. In 2009, each American spent an average of $3,460 in energy expenditures according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. When this couple thousand dollars’ worth of electricity is consumed is almost impossible for the individual consumer to figure out. And, if you don’t know when you’re using your electricity the most, how can you reduce it? The White House’s Green Button hopes to change that.

Based on the Veterans Administration’s Blue Button, which allows vets to download detailed medical records to share with their doctors, the Green Button allows energy users to download their energy usage by the day, even by the hour. The program launched in January and just last week added nine new utility partners across the country, meaning that 43 million Americans can now track their energy consumption in detail. Green Button is part of the Obama administration’s Policy Framework for a 21st Century Grid, which outlines the White House’s plans to invest in clean-energy technologies and energy-grid modernization.

Los Angeles, California, home

Los Angeles, California. Credit: Laurie Avocado/Flickr

Coinciding with last week’s announcement of new utility partners with Green Button was the Department of Energy’s announcement of a new contest for $8 million in grant funding, called “Apps for Energy.” The idea is to design apps that consumers can use to better understand their energy, take action and save money. Oh, how we love our apps, and if our apps help save us money and save the environment by reducing our energy, even better.

Looking for another way you can help your energy bill and the environment? Plant trees. Properly placed trees around homes and businesses reduce energy expenses by 20-50 percent. That’s almost $700 in savings for the average American’s yearly energy expenditures. Not to mention all of the other benefits of trees, like purifying our air and water and providing homes for birds and animals. So, once you get that report from Green Button about your home’s energy use, consider how a tree could help you save even more green … of the cash and nature varieties.

Noisy Neighbors

by American Forests

By Katrina Marland

(Credit: Brian Robert Marshall)

Mankind is a noisy animal. Far beyond the sounds we can physically make ourselves, if you consider the noise produced by all the machinery and industry around the world, humans are by far the loudest creatures on Earth. And like that obnoxious college roommate that always played their music too loud, we are driving our quieter natural neighbors a bit crazy.

It makes sense that industrial noise could have a negative effect on local wildlife, but new research suggests the problem may run deeper than that. A research team led by Clinton Francis of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) has found that industrial noise can literally transform a landscape. It all comes back to how everything in nature is interconnected. Industrial noise causes changes in behavior for all animals in an area, including birds and insects, many of which play significant roles in dispersing seeds for trees and other plants. When industrial noise causes them to change their usual patterns, over time, it can actually change the distribution of plant species throughout the area.

western scrub jay

Western scrub jay (Credit: BTGW/Flickr)

Francis’ team studied wildlife in New Mexico’s Rattlesnake Canyon Habitat Management Area, which also happens to be home to a number of natural gas wells. The team’s series of experiments found that some species actually prefer the noisier areas, while others stay far away. Hummingbirds, for instance, don’t seem to mind noisier areas at all. The team saw increased hummingbird activity in the noisier sites, which means that plants pollinated by hummingbirds, such as flowers, may do better in those areas. Western scrub jays, on the other hand, do not like noise. This is bad news for the piñon pine trees in noisier areas because they rely on western scrub jays to reproduce. The birds take seeds from the cones and hide them in the ground to eat later. These seed stores don’t always get eaten, and the ones that are spared often sprout new trees.

At the end of their study, Francis’ team found that there were four times as many new tree seedlings in quiet areas than there were in noisy ones. The implications are enough to make me a little uneasy. Sure, every site is a bit different, and the plant, bird and insect species will vary, but there will always be a ripple effect for forests that border industrial sites or other noisy places. How different will these forests look 10 years from now? 50? The treeline could be pushed back little by little with each decade, just by simple noise.

It’s Electric!

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Lightning near trees

Credit: Larry Johnson/Flickr

Lightning likes trees. No surprise, right? It’s something we’re taught as kids: Lightning seeks the path of least resistance to the ground, and tall objects, like trees, help it get to the ground faster. Well, as it turns out, there might be more at play here than just a tree’s magnificent height.

According to new research published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, scientists in Australia have discovered that the air around trees is electric. Literally. In the study, measurements were taken at six locations around Brisbane of the ion concentrations — the atom or molecule that gives off positive or negative electrical charges — in the air. They found that ion concentrations in heavily wooded areas were double those in areas of grassy fields. Why is this the case?

Natural ions enter the atmosphere in two primary ways: from cosmic radiation and from radon gas. And, it’s posited that the trees factor big time into getting radon into the atmosphere. Time for a chemistry/geology/biology lesson: Radon comes from the radioactive decay of radium, which is found in rocks. As the radium in rocks is converted into radon underground, the water in the soil absorbs the radon. The trees suck up this water, which then evaporates through their leaves. In one day, one large tree can lift up to 100 gallons of water out of the ground and discharge it into the air. Voila, more radon with its ions in the air.

The authors of this study also believe that trees with the deepest roots are also the ones that bring the most radon into the atmosphere. They suggest that a eucalyptus forest might produce up to 37 percent of the surrounding area’s radon at times. That’s a lot of electricity!

Celebrating World Water Day

by American Forests

By Katrina Marland

I think that we can all agree that water is pretty important. We use it in everything from manufacturing to agriculture, and then, of course, there’s that other small detail: Water is essential to life on this planet. There’s not a single living thing on Earth that doesn’t need water.

Credit: Horia Varlan

Today is World Water Day. Starting back in 1993, the United Nations General Assembly has designated every March 22nd as a day to recognize the importance of protecting freshwater and managing it properly for everyone’s benefit. Forests and water are more connected than just about anything, so here at American Forests, World Water Day gives us a lot to think about. Here are just a few things that forests do to keep water clean and flowing:

Manage water in cities

Where there are cities, there are a lot of impervious surfaces, like streets and sidewalks. This means that when it rains, the water washes over those surfaces — picking up all kinds of nasty things along the way — then collects in the city’s water-management system, which usually isn’t designed to handle a much higher volume. This is why, when it rains in the city, you sometimes see what looks like a very dirty river running down the street — there’s nowhere else for it to go. Trees intercept the water as it falls and can even filter it, which means less (and cleaner) water hitting the city’s stormwater-management systems all at once. This also saves a lot of money in stormwater management, which many cities like Portland are finding out.

Filter and regulate water

The USDA Forest Service estimates that 180 million people across the nation depend on forests for the water they drink, so it’s pretty clear that you can’t talk about clean, drinkable water without mentioning forests. As trees absorb water, they filter out pollutants. Trees are so good at this natural process that forests actually provide natural filtration for about half the water supply in the U.S. Many sources of water in the U.S. are also from forested areas, especially mountain snowpack and rivers. Trees are vital to those locations, keeping the water clean and flowing at a steady rate so that it moves from forest to faucet throughout the year, instead of all at once.

Shade water

Unless you’re cooking something, you usually like your water cool, right? So do the many species of plants and animals that live in it. Trees play a big part in regulating the temperature of the water in rivers, streams and other ecosystems where the forest meets water. Their shade keeps the water cool, which helps regulate the oxygen levels — very important, especially to fish like salmon, who are particularly sensitive to changes in water temperature and composition.

What can you do for World Water Day? One of the most important things you can do is educate yourself on the many aspects of the issue. Keep up with new information by joining our online community, and following us on Facebook or Twitter for even more environmental news.

Then, help to educate other people. Share the things you’ve learned with friends and family. Share these resources on your blogs, Facebook pages and other social networks. Email them. Get the word out there about how vital a role forests play in providing and protecting the water that we all depend on.

Spring: An Appropriate Time to Be in D.C.

by Amanda Tai

Yesterday marked the first day of spring, a time of new life and new beginnings. In D.C., spring means the city comes back to life. I’ve witnessed it for the past two years, and it happens like clockwork. The warm weather arrives, and people become more pleasant (it’s true) and start spending more time outside. And when the cherry blossoms start to bloom, D.C. evolves into a tourist-opia.

Cherry blossoms outside the Capitol. Credit: Kyle Taylor/Flickr

But there’s another reason why spring is a busy time in D.C. You won’t see it at a museum or on the National Mall. It’s happening in the halls of Congress; it’s the appropriations process. And it’s important because its results have an impact on everyone. Let’s start off with a little Appropriations 101:

  • Step 1: Budget Request – The President submits a budget request to Congress in February. This request includes figures for federal spending in the next fiscal year, which begins October 1st and ends September 30th.
  • Step 2: Hearings – Congressional committees hold several meetings, known as hearings, to discuss the proposed budget. Outside experts and specialists are often brought into these hearings to testify — or provide their opinions and insight — on specific budget areas. American Forests has given testimony in the past and will be providing testimony on the fiscal year 2013 budget. This is also the time when advocacy groups meet with Congressional staffers. American Forests has participated in several meetings on the Hill with groups like the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition and the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition.
  • Step 3: Budget Resolutions – The House and Senate Budget Committees draft budget resolutions. Information gathered from the hearings helps inform these documents, which serve as a blueprint for the appropriations bills.
  • Step 4: Authorization and Appropriation –  Actually, it’s two steps. Each House and Senate Committee (excluding the Appropriations Committees) has the power to establish, continue or modify an agency or program under their jurisdiction, and give the okay to continue onto the appropriations process. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees are then able to assign a final funding amount for the authorized agency or program, such as the USDA Forest Service.
  • Step 5: Final Report and Floor Votes – Differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget are reconciled in a final report, which is then sent for a full Congress vote. If the report passes in both chambers of Congress, it’s sent to the president to sign. And once it’s signed, it becomes law.

Now, this might seem like a long and complicated process because it is, but final appropriations bills are important because they determine about a third of government spending. The other two thirds is mandatory spending, which is enacted by law, but not dependent on an annual appropriations bill. Considering how many programs the government funds, it’s very important to have more than one step in the appropriations review process before the bill becomes law. It’s easy to see the changes happening outside in the springtime, but remember, there are a lot of changes going on inside Congress, too.

Urban Forests Go to the Hill

by Melinda Housholder, Urban Forests Program Director

Credit: Yuichi Kosio (Kossy@FINEDAYS)/Flickr

Earlier this month, American Forests joined forces with other members of the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition (SUFC) and took to Capitol Hill to speak up for urban forests across the country.

As part of the SUFC annual “fly-in,” constituents from all over the country met up in D.C. to talk with their political representatives about their urban forests. Together, we held more than 40 meetings on the Hill, having discussions with staffers and sometimes even the congressional members themselves.

Throughout the fly-in, I went with a constituent from Minnesota to visit four different Minnesota offices. We met with staff from the offices of Congresswoman Bachmann, Congresswoman McCollum, Senator Franken and Senator Klobuchar. While each office provided a slightly different experience, it was encouraging that everyone we met with seemed supportive of urban forests.

So what exactly did we discuss?

As members of SUFC, we went to the Hill to talk about a few key areas of concern for the future of our urban forests.

U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.

Credit: Sankar Govind/Flickr

1)  The Vibrant Cities initiative – This initiative provides 12 recommendations as a “roadmap for action” to creating and sustaining healthy, sustainable, urban forests and building vibrant cities. For more on Vibrant Cities, see my previous blog post.

2)  FY 2013 Interior Appropriations – Since the president’s FY 13 budget was released last month, we took this opportunity to comment on and discuss the funding levels for programs that are extremely important to the future of urban forests. These programs include:

  1. The USDA Forest Service’s Urban & Community Forestry Program, which provides financial and technical assistance to cities and towns as they develop their urban forests.
  2. The Forest Service’s Forest Health Management Program, which is crucial for surveying and monitoring the condition of urban-forest health, including early detection and rapid response to harmful insects and diseases.
  3. The Forest Service’s Research and Development Program, which provides funding for urban-forest research, such as forest structure and effects modeling, urban-watershed conservation and ecosystem service assessment tools (such as i-Tree).
  4. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Urban Waters Federal Partnership, which brings together 11 agencies to support the stewardship and local restoration efforts of urban watersheds.

3)  The 2012 Farm Bill – The Farm Bill is reauthorized every five years and is up for reauthorization this year, so we took this opportunity to highlight the urban forests in the Farm Bill. Did you know that Forest Service programs that are critical for maintaining and developing urban forests are authorized by the Farm Bill?

I was proud to be a part of such an important effort to help raise the awareness of our policy makers about the benefits of urban forests and the importance of funding the programs that are crucial to creating and maintaining sustainable urban forests across the country. I am hopeful that our fly-in day will lead to productive outcomes and furthered support for our urban forests.

Signs of Spring

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C.

Cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. Credit: American Forests

Tomorrow’s Spring Equinox officially marks the beginning of a new season, but for many parts of the country, it felt like spring arrived weeks ago. The tree outside my window is already in full bloom, and the gorgeous magnolia I pass on my way to work each morning is already losing its blooms — that’s how warm it’s been in the D.C. area this month. And according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual Spring Outlook report, the warm weather is here to stay. Above average temperatures are expected in the Southwest, Great Plains, Great Lakes and East. In a double-edged sword, these warmer temperatures will combine with drier-than-average conditions for many parts of the U.S., which reduces the risk of flooding, but also will extend many areas’ long-running drought conditions.

Here in D.C., the earlier, warmer spring has also had another consequence: It’s messing with the peak bloom of our iconic cherry blossoms — and on their 100th birthday no less! Being highly susceptible to weather patterns that determine when they bloom, this month’s unseasonably warm weather means that the cherry blossoms are already blooming, weeks ahead of schedule. In fact, the National Park Service has amended the forecast for the peak-bloom period multiple times, and now, this week is when the blooms will be at their best — the first week in a six-week festival. With the early bloom, any travelers hoping to see the iconic trees in all their glory in mid-April will be out of luck. And this year’s early bloom might just be an indicator of things to come.

Last fall, the University of Washington published a report stating that the Tidal Basin cherry blossoms were “ideal indicators of the impacts of climate change.” According to their models and research, they estimate that in 40 years, the average bloom period for the blossoms will be two weeks earlier than it is now; in 70 years, it’ll be a full month. So while the calendar may claim that spring begins in mid-March, it looks like climate change might have other plans in store for Mother Nature.

A Biological Clock

by American Forests

By Katrina Marland

biological clockHave you ever pulled an all-nighter? If you have, you know that they are nearly always followed by a terrible, dragging fatigue. For the next day, or even several days, you just don’t feel right. That is nature catching up with you. You see, the human body is only meant to function on a 24-hour cycle; some of it active (awake), and some of it dormant (asleep). This is called a circadian rhythm: a biological process that works on a roughly 24-hour cycle. Just about every living thing on Earth shares this cycle, from animals to plants, fungi and even bacteria.

Now, scientists at the University of Edinburgh have pinpointed the genes in plants that regulate their circadian rhythms. They have found that a set of 12 genes and one particular protein work together to help the plant go dormant at night, saving its energy for growth, processing food and other actions that it can only perform during the day when the sun and other conditions are right. Beyond telling the plant when to wake up and when to sleep, the genes and protein make adjustments to the cycle to help the plant change with the seasons, determining when the plant blooms and when it grows.

This discovery is a big step forward in scientists’ ongoing effort to better understand the mechanisms behind plant activity, and what role the circadian rhythm and other functions play in how plants adapt to a changing environment. The knowledge has possible applications in a number of fields, but perhaps most important is helping scientists understand — and possibly even predict — how plants respond to interruptions in their natural cycles. If you have experienced, as many of us have, particularly strange weather patterns lately — here in Washington, D.C., we’ve had 80-degree days in March and our blooms have been out for weeks — it’s easy to see how significant knowledge like that could be.