Forests are a vital part of the climate solution

by Scott Steen, President & CEO

Last week, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Dr. Nadine Unger. Provocatively titled “To Save the Planet, Don’t Plant Trees,” the column draws on one area of preliminary research from the vast realm of climate change research and asserts broad conclusions about the contributions of forests to climate change, which are likely to confuse more than help.

Clearly forests alone cannot solve the climate change issue. However, Dr. Unger labels the wisdom behind efforts to reduce tropical deforestation as wrong while also pointing out that deforestation produces a whopping 20 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions — yet conceding that living forests “generously mop up about a quarter of the world’s fossil-fuel carbon emissions each year.”

Tropical rainforests (left) and northern boreal forests should play a major part in our planet's climate changes solution.

Tropical rainforests (left) and northern boreal forests should play a major part in our planet’s climate changes solution.
Photo credits: Miguel Vieira (left) and Timothy Boscarino (right).

The overwhelming scientific consensus is that tropical deforestation leads to warming and the resulting soil degradation increases carbon emissions while lowering the land’s productivity. Northern boreal forests (like those in the snow-covered regions of Canada) may, over the long term, contribute to atmospheric warming by absorbing the sun’s energy. However, substantial research shows that during the next century, boreal forest growth will result in net cooling. Timing is everything with this issue, as we urgently address the many tipping points of climate change likely to have major near-term impacts on human life.

Dr. Unger also exaggerates the scientific consensus around volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that trees emit, which vary greatly depending on tree species, and questions the benefits of a hypothetical large-scale expansion of forests. There is no possibility of such an expansion on a global scale, as most forested regions remain at best, stable, or more likely, in decline because of such factors as logging, insects, disease, development and wildfires.

Finally, she significantly underplays the co-benefits of healthy forests — cleaner air, cleaner water, wildlife habitat and biodiversity among them. While the research of Dr. Unger and her colleagues deserves further exploration and scrutiny, it is misleading and harmful to present broad generalizations based on relatively new research as conclusive science.

Scott Steen
President & CEO

Want to do more?

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Shipping containers: Importing insect pests, too

by Loose Leaf Contributor
The Asian longhorned beetle (above) and the emerald ash borer are wreaking havoc on American forests.

The Asian longhorned beetle (above) and the emerald ash borer are wreaking havoc on American forests.

By Faith Campbell, Emeritus environmental advocate and tree-pest expert

Several of the most damaging tree-killing insects came to America as larvae riding in crates, pallets, or other forms of wood packaging material (WPM).

These include the Asian longhorned beetle (ALB), emerald ash borer, and redbay ambrosia beetle. All entered the country since trade opened with China in the late 1980s. The ALB and EAB entered before our government had adopted effective measures to prevent pests from being transported in WPM.

Responding to discovery of the ALB, U.S. and Canadian officials worked with European and other counterparts to adopt an “international standard” that requires that WPM used in international trade be treated to reduce the likelihood that live insects will be inside. Since 2006, the U.S. and Canada have required that WPM from overseas comply with this standard.

How much has relying on the international standard reduced the risk of a new pest being introduced? Analysis of USDA data suggests that applying the standard has reduced the rates at which live insects are intercepted at U.S. borders by about half. This is important progress.

Each day, 35 shipping containers bring a pest to the U.S.

Each day, 35 shipping containers bring a pest to the U.S.
Photo credit: Greg Bishop.

Still, as of 2009, one shipment out of each thousand that contain wood packaging harbors a live insect that threatens plant resources in the U.S. This sounds like a very small risk. However, an estimated 13 million shipping containers carrying wood packaging entered the U.S. in 2013. At the suggested approach rate, this means 13,000 containers harboring pests would enter the country each year – 35 per day.1 Continuing what we are doing now could result in more than 100 additional wood-boring insects being introduced over the next 40 years.2

We can do more!

U.S. and Canadian governments work with their counterparts in Asia and around the world to improve compliance with the standard’s treatment and other requirements.

Meanwhile, businesses that import goods packaged in wood can also step forward to protect the urban and wildland forests from which all Americans benefit. These businesses can help stop the spread of pests by:

  • Negotiating contracts with their foreign suppliers that hold the supplier responsible for any costs arising from failures to comply with the international standard.
  • Emphasizing to employees and contractors who manage the company’s transportation and supply chain their personal responsibility for ensuring compliance.
  • Evaluating alternatives to wood packaging – avoiding hassles at the border might make up for the higher cost of alternative types of packaging.
  • Instituting active pest surveillance at warehouses and distribution centers; reporting evidence of pests to appropriate federal and state’s authorities.

1Haack RA, Britton KO, Brockerhoff EG, Cavey JF, Garrett LJ, et al. (2014) Effectiveness of the International Phytosanitary Standard ISPM No. 15 on Reducing Wood Borer Infestation Rates in Wood Packaging Material Entering the United States. PLoS ONE 9(5): e96611. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0096611.
2Leung, B., M.R. Springborn, J.A. Turner, E.G. Brockerhoff. 2014. Pathway-level risk analysis: the net present value of an invasive species policy in the US. The Ecological Society of America. Frontiers of

Forest Digest — Week of September 15

by Loose Leaf Team

The impacts of climate change are being felt in forests across the world. Read about new climate-change-related studies and other forestry news in this week’s Forest Digest:

  • “Climate Change Is Making Trees Grow Rapidly”Discovery News
    Scientists from Germany’s Technische Universität München have found that the two dominant European tree species — European beech and Norway spruce — are growing at more rapid rates compared to the species’ rates in 1960. Researchers believe the faster rate of growth is caused by rising temperatures, longer growing seasons and increased amounts of carbon dioxide and nitrogren — all of which are related to climate change. Though faster growth could be viewed as a good thing, researchers noted that the faster-growing trees seem to age faster, as well.
  • “Climate change may add billions to wildfire costs, study says”Los Angeles Times
    Wildfires in the United States cost as much as $125 billion annually, and a new study released by a group of environmental organizations found that climate change and its effects could increase that total by $60 billion by 2050. Also by that year, the area in which fires burn is estimated to rise between 50 and 100 percent, a statistic that attributed to the wildfire cost projection increase.
  • “Letting the forest burn”Arizona Daily Sun
    Forests across the nation, like the Kaibab National Forest in this article, are in various states of revising their forest management plans. Across the West, many plan revisions are emphasizing the important of more frequent, lower intensity fires as a key tool to promote greater health of the ecosystem.
  • “The Meteor That Wiped Out the Dinosaurs Changed Earth’s Plant Life, Too”Newsweek
    According to a new study, the meteor that hit Earth millions of years ago and is believed to have caused the extinction of dinosaurs also had a profound impact — pun intended — on the planet’s flora, especially forests. Prior to the meteor, forests consisted of slow-growing evergreens, but these plants were overtaken by deciduous plants — fast-growing and flowering — which now reign over the vast majority of the world’s modern forests.

Up-close with Yellowstone’s whitebark pine

by Christopher Horn

Brad Bauer knows a thing or two about his backyard.

Bauer lives in Montana and works at Montana State University’s Gallatin County Extension, where he directs the Natural Resource Program and assists the communities and individuals in Gallatin, Meagher, and Park Counties in Montana in understanding natural resources. Bauer is helping American Forests and National Park Service staff to raise awareness in the parks by coordinating a myriad of outreach and communications activities. With the help of Bauer and our partners, American Forests will:

  • Create information trailhead signs for hikers and visitors.
  • Collect and distribute information provided by trail users.
  • Send informational materials to private landowners.
  • Install packets of Verbenone, the chemical that repels the mountain pine beetle that poses a great threat to whitebark pine forests.

We spoke with him to learn more about efforts to educate locals on the whitebark park and its future in the region:

Q: What was the goal for the educational trailhead signs? How many hikers would you estimate use the trails annually?
A: The goal of the signs was to catch visitors attention as they begin their trail use and provide a bit of ecological perspective to their forest visit. The sign targets whitebark pine’s ecological importance, challenges, and solutions to these challenges. Several signs will be place on the Gallatin National Forest, which receives nearly 2 million visits per year. Additionally, trailhead signs placed in the Yellowstone Club and Big Sky Resort will reach an additional population using high elevation habitat.

Q: Have any of the outreach activities (trailhead signs, informational mailings, etc.) that you coordinated been widely successful?
A: We have already received several inquiries regarding the postcards, which has led to several property visits allowing the opportunity to further discuss with the landowner the importance of whitebark pine.

Q: What do you hope citizens of the GYE learn from the outreach?
A: I hope the signs and postcards will provide an improved understanding of the landscape. Additionally, the postcards provide an opportunity for landowners to be engaged in the management and ecology of their forest through Extension.

Tree-killing pests: Who? Where? How?

by Loose Leaf Contributor

By Faith Campbell, Emeritus environmental advocate and tree-pest expert

Nearly 500 non-native insects and disease-causing pathogens have been introduced to the United States in the 400 years since European settlement began. Here are some examples:

A map showing an area of the Northeast affected by hemlock woolly adelgid.

A map showing an area of the Northeast affected by hemlock woolly adelgid. Click to zoom in.

  • Chestnut blight has virtually eliminated mature American chestnuts across the species’ range, which is most of the eastern deciduous forest.
  • European gypsy moth periodically causes severe defoliation of several hardwood species, especially oaks. The gypsy moth now occupies forests from New England to a line reaching from Virginia to Wisconsin.
  • Hemlock woolly adelgid has killed 90 percent of hemlocks in groves spanning from Maine to Georgia. These hemlock groves form unique ecosystems that shelter specific bird, fish, salamander, and plant species.
  • Emerald ash borer (EAB) has spread over 25 years to more than 100,000 square miles across 23 states and two Canadian provinces. EAB is likely to kill most trees belonging to two dozen species of ash in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
  • White pine blister rust has reduced populations of several western white pines. The greatest threat is to high-elevation pines — whitebark, limber and bristlecone — which are the base of food webs and protect snow cover that is the foundation for water supplies in the West.
  • Sudden oak death has killed more than 1 million tanoak and oak trees in the coastal mountains of California and southern Oregon. Many tree and shrub species vulnerable to this disease grow in eastern forests, so scientists worry that the pathogen might become established there.

The U.S. Forest Service offers a database of tree pests and diseases that have been documented across the country. [Simply select your state and/or county from the drop-down menus to see which pests are damaging trees in your region or city.]

The Northeast and Pacific coasts contain the most number of tree pests and pathogens.

The Northeast and Pacific coasts contain the most number of tree pests and pathogens.

Northeastern states have traded with Europe and Asia for about 400 years, which explains why the region has the most established non-native tree-killing pests: 62 in New York; 58 in Pennsylvania; 57 in Connecticut; 55 in New Jersey. Pacific coast states have been trading for only about 150 years, but they are catching up: There are now 42 pests in California; 41 in Washington and 36 in Oregon. In California alone, non-native forest pests now make up one-third of the damaging pests in the state — up from only 10 percent just 50 years ago.

How did these insects and disease-causing pathogens invade the U.S.? Most arrived on imports of plants or in the crates, pallets, and other types of packaging made from wood. In my follow-up posts, I’ll go into more detail about these pest-ridden pathways and what governments, importers and private citizens can do to help prevent additional introductions and spread of established pests to other vulnerable areas.

Forest Digest — Week of September 8

by Loose Leaf Team

Another week and another Forest Digest. See what’s happening in the world of trees:

  • “Climate change accelerating death of Western forests”USA Today
    A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization shows that drought, insect pests and wildfire — forest threats exacerbated by climate change — are killing off millions of acres of the Rocky Mountain range’s pine and aspen forests.
American Forests is working to protect high-elevation forests in the Rocky Mountain range through our Endangered Western Forests initiative.

American Forests is working to protect high-elevation forests in the Rocky Mountain range through our Endangered Western Forests initiative.

  • “Consumer Goods and Deforestation”Forest Trends
    A recent study by Forest Trends found that 49 percent of all recent tropical deforestation is the result of illegal clearing for commercial agriculture.

Whitebark pine: Strategy in the Greater Yellowstone Area

by Christopher Horn

Whitebark pine ecosystems face pest, disease and climatic threats that have — and could further — wreak havoc on stands of this keystone species. Fortunately for the trees, and the plants and wildlife that rely on them to survive, American Forests and our partners in the Greater Yellowstone Area are working towards solutions that can save the species.

One of those partners is Nancy Bockino, who is leading an effort with the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee Whitebark Pine Subcommittee to update the GYCC’s Whitebark Pine Strategy, an all-encompassing outline of priority projects, including defining new management tools and revising high-priority restoration sites.

Forest Digest — Week of September 1

by Loose Leaf Team

Another week and another Forest Digest. See what’s happening in the world of trees:

  • “Fires and drought have transformed New Mexico forests”Las Cruces Sun-News
    New Mexico is also dealing with forestry setbacks because of drought, as well as extensive wildfire damage. Up to 18 percent of the Southwest’s forests were lost to wildfire and bark beetle outbreaks — both issues related to a warming climate — between 1984 and 2006.
  • “Native forests need proper preservation from urban sprawl”The Miami Hurricane
    Dozens of acres of pine forest on the campus of the University of Miami in Florida could potentially be lost to urban sprawl. Students and members of the surrounding community are working to ensure the preservation of these trees.

Water supply and the whitebark pine

by Christopher Horn

American Forests helped leverage National Park Service (NPS) funding in the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA) to estimate the Available Water Supply (AWS) for the 176 long-term whitebark pine monitoring sites. NPS personnel had previously started gathering data in 2013, but limited funding paused the project.

Many people — including project lead David Thoma, an hydrologist with the National Park Service — were enlisted by American Forests to coordinate the new AWS estimate project. The team also included Dr. Henry Shovic has proven local experience and expertise in soils, soil interpretations, soil survey, scientific analysis and documentation, remote sensing, and geo-spatial analysis. He has recently completed preliminary work on AWHC and AWS for Yellowstone National Park and the GYA, and has already compiled large amounts of necessary soils data, as well as having completed this work for 60 whitebark pine long-term monitoring sites.

We asked Thoma some questions about the project:

Q: What were some of the major goals for soil testing in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem?
A: We use information about soil properties to help understand how much water is available to trees and for how long. This property of soil, called water holding capacity, is especially important in dry years. The goal of this project was to obtain estimates of water holding capacity at the stand level in remote areas. This in turn helps us understand how trees respond to forest disease agents like mountain pine beetle, which are more lethal to trees when trees are drought stressed.

Q: Were there any startling or hopeful discoveries?
A: Our preliminary results suggest that the water supply for trees, which is affected by soil properties, is important for determining the probability of tree mortality if the tree was attacked by mountain pine beetle.

Q: How do you see this information being used? How is it most beneficial?
A: This information can be used by managers to select planting sites in the Greater Yellowstone Area according to soil properties that will increase the probability of tree survival, even when trees are attacked by mountain pine beetle.

Thoma, D., K. Irvine, H. Shovic, E. Shanahan, K. Legg 2014. Climatic controls on mountain pine beetle mediated mortality in whitebark pine in the GYE. Oral presentation at the Yellowstone Biennial Science Conference, Oct 6-8 Mammoth, WY.

How large does the blue spruce grow?

by Loose Leaf Contributor

By Robert T. Leverett, Native Tree Society

Blue spruce

The 324-point blue spruce spotted by Will Blozan. Credit: Will Blozan

How tall do blue spruces grow? Ornamental yard trees often reach 60 to 80 feet and 1.5 to three feet in diameter. Ostensibly reliable internet sources vary greatly on listed maximum heights. Some say more than 100 feet. Others cap the species off at 80, while one source lists 50 meters, or 164 feet. There’s little agreement, but the species pays no attention to such nonsense. Blue spruces know what they’re genetically programmed to do, and in southwestern Colorado, the blues achieve their best growth. The Western Native Tree Society (WNTS), supporting the American Forests National Big Tree program, discovered a blue to break all records in the La Plata Mountains this August.

Near Hermosa Creek, the team of Will Blozan, Matt Markworth, Larry Tucei, Chris Morris and Mark Rowe measured a huge blue at 165.5 feet tall, 12.5 feet in girth and 32.5 feet average crown spread. It was eagle-eye Will’s discovery and totals 324 points via the American Forests champion tree formula. The current national champion in Utah totals 331 points, making the Colorado tree a contender for co-champion under the large-tree rule — that a tree that measures within five percent of the champion’s points is eligible to become co-champion. The intrepid team also measured another blue at 164 feet tall and 10.1 feet around. But that was hardly the end of the discoveries.

blue spruce

The team at the base of the 324-point blue spruce. Credit: Will Blozan

Later, going solo, Matt confirmed a 155-foot blue with a 12.9-foot girth and 33.5-foot crown spread, earning the specimen 319 points and making it eligible for co-champion. Then it happened: Matt measured a pencil-straight giant at an astounding 178.8 feet, the tallest we know of — anywhere. The tree measures 10.9 feet in circumference. Its narrow crown averages only 23.5 feet for a total of 309 points. It may not be eligible for co-champion this year, but it’s height has blown records out of the water. It seems to be part of a trend; Matt measured other blues between 162 and 158 feet high. The number of blues measuring more than 150 feet is growing.

Champion trees show us the full potential of their species and these Colorado blue spruces are a prime example of that. In October, the world will find out whether any of the trees had their co-champion status confirmed and made it onto the National Register of Big Trees. But, whether they end up wearing that crown, they have shown us not to underestimate the blue spruce.

An engineer by education, Robert T. Leverett is the co-founder and executive director of the Native Tree Society. He writes from Florence, Mass.

Note that these trees were all measured with LTI TruPulses (200s and 360s) using the sine method, accurate to +/- 0.5 feet. (See the American Forests webinar on measuring tree height.)