Tiny Beetles, Huge Consequences

by Susan Laszewski

Whitebark pine cone.

Whitebark pine cone. Credit: Bryant Olsen

A group of researchers from 12 universities has recently published a paper that takes a look at the influence animals have on carbon storage and exchange — an influence they say is often overlooked despite the prevalence of discussion on how plants impact carbon storage. Among the examples discussed in “Animating the Carbon Cycle,” published in Ecosystems, is an issue that American Forests has been working to combat.

We’ve written before (here and here, for example) about the effect that mountain pine beetles have had on carbon storage — and, consequently, on climate change — in the western United States. As winters become warmer, these beetles are able to thrive later into the year and at higher elevations. Populations have exploded and that’s been bad news for pine trees, including the whitebark pine, an important foundation species upon which many other species in the ecosystem depend. As the trees die, their carbon storage potential is also lost and carbon released into the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse effects, in a continuing feedback loop.

Mountain pine beetle.

Mountain pine beetle. Credit: WBUR

The new paper touches upon the effect the beetles have had on the carbon cycle, and puts it in some new perspective: The authors say that the loss of trees triggered by the beetle outbreak in the West has “decreased net carbon balance on a scale comparable to British Columbia’s current fossil fuel emissions.”

“We’re not saying that managing animals will offset these carbon emissions,” lead author Oswald Schmitz says in a Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies press release. “What we’re trying to say is the numbers are of a scale where it is worthwhile to start thinking about how animals could be managed to accomplish that.”

At American Forests, we’re doing what we can to keep the beetle epidemic from completely decimating whitebark pine. That includes the patches we’re putting on healthy trees to mimic the beetles’ own natural signal to other beetles that a tree is full. By saving as many healthy whitebark pines as we can — with your help — we are working to restore this important ecosystem.

Forest Emergence Feeds Climate Concerns

by Marcelene Sutter
Hidden for centuries underneath a 5-foot-high layer of gravel and the 37-square-mile glacier that sits on top of it, a preserved forest is beginning to see the light of day again in Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier region.

Hidden for centuries underneath a 5-foot-high layer of gravel and the 37-square-mile glacier that sits on top of it, a preserved forest is beginning to see the light of day again in Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier region. Credit: pdx2535/Flickr

The melting of the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska is allowing a 1,000-year-old forest to see the light of day again — and raising concerns for residents. For the last 50 years, hints of the ancient forest have poked through the receding ice, however, scientists from the University of Alaska Southeast have noted more and more visible stumps in recent months. The gravel layer found covering these trees was vital to the forest’s preservation because of the protection it afforded the stumps from the surrounding layers of ice.

Mendenhall Glacier.

Mendenhall Glacier. Credit: Andrei Taranchenko

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the reemergence of this forest is that upright trees were found at the site. Dr. Cathy Connor, a professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, told LiveScience’s OurAmazingPlanet that the discovery of these trees “in a growth position is exciting because we can see the outermost part of the tree and count back to see how old the tree was.” Dr. Connor adds that finding these upright trees is rare; most are dislodged from their roots, making the type and age of the tree harder to definitively discern. Analysis of contemporary vegetation in the region, together with data on the size and shape of the tree trunks, suggests that the recently uncovered trees are either spruce or hemlock.

Despite the excitement that this discovery creates, the rapidly receding glacier cover that made it possible raises serious concerns, especially among local residents who worry about dwindling sources of fresh drinking water and the negative impacts of rising sea levels. At American Forests, we recognize the varied challenges presented by climate change, and work to combat them by ensuring the protection of our forests. Protecting and restoring forests to increase carbon storage potential will help mitigate the effects of global climate change.

Help us protect and restore forests.

Here, But Functionally Gone

by Susan Laszewski

Sea otters play at Moss Landing Harbor, California.

Sea otters play at Moss Landing Harbor, California. Credit: Chuq Von Rospach

Extinction. The end of a species; no coming back. Many conservation efforts strive to save species from this fate, and a species’ risk of extinction can also be a major factor in determining its listing as endangered.

A recent study published in Nature suggests, though, that we may want to pay a bit more attention to something called “functional extinction” — the point at which a species has too few members to continue filling its ecological role, even though it may still have a way to go until traditional “numerical extinction.”

Researchers at Linköping University in Sweden ran a number of analytical models to determine how often and in what circumstances functional extinctions occur. They found that larger animals are more likely to become functionally extinct, often driving smaller animals in a food web to numerical distinction. What’s more, this functional extinction can occur following a population decline of as little as 30 percent, meaning that a species only has to lose a third of its members before other plants and animals in the same food web may start to disappear.


A decline in cougars in Zion National Park in the first part of the 20th century led to an increase in the mule deer population and subsequent threat to cottonwoods and other vegetation. Credit: Wayne Dumbleton.

The study is theoretical, relying on models rather than data and observation of any particular species. However, the authors note that this phenomenon has already been observed by other researchers in cases such as that of the sea otter. The health of the sea otter population correlates to the health of kelp forests, as sea otters keep the populations of sea urchins and others that feed on kelp in check. Since kelp forests can be an important carbon sink, declines in sea otter population can have wide ranging effects, indeed.

The study’s authors suggest that their results “lend strong support to arguments advocating a more community-oriented approach in conservation biology.” At American Forests, we strive to protect and restore ecosystems for the benefit of all of their inhabitants and maintain awareness of the state of keystone species upon whom the rest of an ecosystem depends. The whitebark pine in high elevations of the Greater Yellowstone Area, for example, is threatened by explosive populations of mountain pine beetle and other threats. Consequently, its ability to fulfill its ecological role is also compromised. As fewer whitebark pine seeds are produced, animals like grizzly bears and Clark’s nutcracker are feeling the loss. You can help us protect and restore ecosystems like these, for all of their inhabitants.

Fighting Fire with Fire

by Marcelene Sutter
The Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest

The Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest in California, which killed patches of forests thousands of acres in size. Many trees destroyed in this fire were the types of big trees that this study has discovered are vital for wildfire management. Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

In a recent paper published in Science, leading fire scientists in the West propose a solution to address the sweeping and highly destructive wildfires that have ravaged the region in recent years: more fire. The authors, including top scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Washington, Colorado State University and the University of Arizona, stated that “fire policy that focuses on suppression only delays the inevitable, promising more dangerous and destructive future forest fires.” In the past, conventional wisdom in wildfire prevention tactics held that suppression of fire is the most effective tool in fighting fires, but this paper states that the effect that climate change has on forests should be reflected in new fire policy. The proposed changes to fire policy in this paper include the use of more controlled burns as a method of reducing fuel levels in forests.

A prescribed burn at Fort A.P. Hill, Va.

A prescribed burn at Fort A.P. Hill, which has one of the largest prescribed burn programs in Virginia. Prescribed burning is conducted to increase maneuverability, reduce fuel loads, improve wildlife habitat, and maintain fire-dependent vegetation communities. Credit: U.S. Army Environmental Command

Previous  fire suppression policies  have contributed to more destructive fires in the region. The regrowth and fuel buildup resulting from these campaigns, coupled with the timber harvesting that removed many larger and more fire-resistant trees, has changed the forested landscape in the West. As rising temperatures lead to a longer fire season, these forests are more vulnerable. A chief concern expressed by the authors of the paper is that severe fires will disturb large enough areas of the conifers that have adapted to frequent forest fires, causing the loss of the seed bank, thereby thwarting forest regeneration. This would lead to more permanent changes to forest makeup as these areas would become shrub fields as opposed to robust forests.

The prescribed burn method has been used at several national forests with remote wilderness areas across the country, but has been hindered in California, where air quality regulations and threat posed to neighboring communities has many concerned with this method. In this case, the authors concede that, with the careful preservation of bigger trees, mechanical thinning to weed out the smaller, denser tree growth in the region could have a similar effect as burning.

At American Forests, we recognize that large, intense, destructive wildfires pose a serious threat to forests, which is why we have several Global ReLeaf campaigns focused on the restoration of areas affected by such wildfires, including Alpine County, California, which was affected by the 2011 Airport Fire. To learn more about the Airport Fire Planting or any of our Global ReLeaf campaigns, visit the Global ReLeaf section of the American Forests website.

Walk to School and Walk for Health

by Susan Laszewski

Walking to school

Walking to school. Credit: pawpaw67/Flickr

Did you or your little ones miss International Walk to School Day yesterday? Not to worry. As the occasion has gained popularity in recent years, the International Walk to School Committee expanded it in 2010 to make the entire month of October Walk to School Month.

Of course, there are many reasons why it’s not feasible for everyone to let their child walk to school. But, if you do live in an area where your kids might be able to skip the school bus, just think about some of the many benefits they, the rest of your family and your community stand to gain: exercise, a sense of community, reduced air pollution and expense by saving the car trip to school. And, of course, a topic dear to our hearts here at American Forests — the many benefits to children of being outside in nature, including the nature that grows along the streets and sidewalks on the way to school. Research has shown that:

Walking to school.

Walking to school. Credit: Lynn Friedman

  1. Trees and other greenery help reduce symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, in children.
  2. Children who can easily reach a green space have lower stress levels and lower body mass.
  3. A positive dose-response relationship exists between exercise in nature and mental health, particularly for young people.
  4. Access to nature can improve creative problem-solving abilities.

But these benefits don’t have to stop once the walk to school is over. Having trees around at recess — or even just being able to see some nature from the classroom window — can have positive effects. That’s why our Community ReLeaf project in Atlanta has been looking at the city’s urban forest around schools to calculate the benefits they provide to students and schools. On October 24, we’ll begin the restoration phase of the project, planting trees near schools for healthier environments for youth and the larger community.

For more ideas about how to participate in International Walk to School Month, visit them on the web.

European Ash to Ashes?

by Marcelene Sutter

European ash, which faces serious threats from fungal infections and emerald ash borers. Credit: Alois Staudacher

Eurpoean ash, which faces serious threats from fungal infections and emerald ash borers. Credit: Alois Staudacher

European ash trees cannot seem to catch a break. Currently, an ash dieback fungus caused by Chalara faxinea has been plaguing Europe, requiring research funds and the efforts and attention of scientists. Now, another threat to these trees looms on the horizon. As readers of American Forests magazine know from the Winter 2013 issue, the emerald ash borer has been monumentally destructive to ash trees in North America. The beetle, native to Asia and eastern Russia, killed almost all of the North American ash trees that it has infested since it entered the country in 2002, but scientists recently discovered that the voracious insect is not finished yet. Emerald ash borers were recently found in Moscow, and scientists believe that they are spreading to Europe.

The current focus of ash tree research in Europe is on finding ash trees that are tolerant or resistant to the fungus outbreak, but Dr. Steve Woodward, a tree pathologist from the University of Aberdeen, says that this approach may not be wholly effective, stating that “the problem with then jumping on [resistance to Chalara] as though it’s a great solution to the problem of ash and the loss of ash is that … it’s highly, highly likely that they will still remain highly susceptible to the emerald ash borer.” Between fungal infection and the imminent threat of the emerald ash borer, the ash trees commonly growing across Europe are seriously threatened.


Emerald ash borer. Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

The health of ash trees in North America and Europe contrasts sharply with that of Manchurian ash trees throughout Asia, where both of these threats originated. Scientists believe that this peaceful co-existence is due to co-evolution. Because both the Chalara fungus and the beetles are imported threats to American and European ashes, the trees have not had the chance to evolve the same defenses as Asian Manchurian ash trees. For this reason, scientists feel that the Manchurian ash could provide clues in the quest to develop resistance to both of these threats.

To learn more about the destructive effects of the emerald ash borer in Dr. Deborah G. McCullough’s article featured in American Forests or learn how to take action against the emerald ash borer.

The Rise and Fall of Champions

by Susan Laszewski

Relative to humans, most tree species live a long time. Many of the trees we have personal connections to have been around long before us; some of the oldest trees have been here longer than the pyramids of Giza, perhaps even longer than Stonehenge.

champion red hickory

Champion red hickory in Summit, Ohio. Credit: Ohio Big Tree Program

It might seem like we couldn’t possibly watch these giants rise and fall during our puny lifetimes, but that’s exactly what the National Register of Big Trees does. And you may be surprised how much the pot is stirred twice each year when the register is released. New champions are crowned, others are dethroned and ties are broken.

That’s why this is one of our favorite times of year here at American Forests, where October means not just cooler weather, crisp apples and changing colors, but also the release of the fall edition of the National Register of Big Trees.

The latest edition of the register recognizes more than 780 national champions, and more than 40 of them are wearing their crown for the first time, including 11 in New York, five in Oregon and one in the District of Columbia, where the trees continue to grow even as parks are shuttered.

The latest release of the register even includes a new mega-tree — a tree with 650 points or more, the largest of the large. With 724 points, Oregon’s California-laurel joins just 14 other trees in this elite group.

Where is the champion of your favorite tree species? What national champions call your state home? You can find the answers to these questions and more by searching the register. And, if these champions inspire you to get more involved in the effort to find, document and protect big trees, you might consider hunting for big trees yourself. There are still 200 species without any representation on the register. Visit our Big Tree section to learn more about how you can nominate trees.

The Serious Business of Leaf Peeping

by Marcelene Sutter
Fall foliage in different stages of the color change cycle in Wilmington, Vermont.

Fall foliage in different stages of the color change cycle in Wilmington, Vermont. Credit: Kimberly Vardeman

At some point in your life, someone has probably informed you that money does not grow on trees, and while this oft-stated truism does make a lot of sense, Megan Smith, Vermont’s commissioner of Tourism and Marketing, heartily disagrees. “I’d like to say that money falls from trees at this time of year,” Smith stated last week in an interview with NPR. What she is referring to is the lucrative business of “leaf peeping” in her state, which draws crowds of more than five times Vermont’s population every year.  These tourists come to Vermont for two purposes: to photograph leaves and to spend money, to the tune of $460 million annually.

These expenditures have made foliage tourism a booming and very competitive business, as Vermont must compete with other states to draw tourists to its trees. This has resulted in the creation of an interesting new job for Michael Snyder, Vermont’s commissioner of Forests, Parks and Recreation: leaf forecaster. Although the title is unofficial, the work is serious business. Snyder is responsible for scouting missions conducted on the back roads of Vermont’s densest forests looking for signs of color change in the foliage. Snyder describes his work as “part science, part guesswork,” as these kinds of predictions come from knowledge of the trees and the conditions that they are exposed to along with examination of early color-turning.

The Hapgood Pond Recreation Area on the Green Mountain National Forest displays its fall foliage.

The Hapgood Pond Recreation Area on the Green Mountain National Forest displays its fall foliage. Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As beautiful as these trees are, they are also extremely important to the ecosystems of the forests they inhabit. When Hurricane Irene hit in 2011, the riparian tree population in the White River area of the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont was decimated. This was a severe detriment to the health of the watershed and the aquatic species in the region because, without trees to provide shade, water temperatures rose to levels too high to be healthy living conditions for fish. For this reason, American Forests has made tree planting in the Green Mountain region a part of the Global ReLeaf campaign. To read more about the riparian tree planting project, check out this article, which appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of American Forests magazine.

Divided and Disappearing

by Susan Laszewski

It’s well known that when habitat becomes fragmented, wildlife suffers. But now, a study more than two decades in the making has published its findings in Science demonstrating just how rapidly mammals species disappear in fragmented patches of forest.

The study found that mammal species whose habitat becomes fragmented can disappear in as little as 25 years.

Chiew Larn resevoir in Thailand

Chiew Larn resevoir in Thailand. Credit: kandyjaxx/Flickr

When the Chiew Larn reservoir was created in 1987 by damming the Khlong Saeng in Thailand, it flooded the forest valley, creating multiple small islands of fragmented habitat where there had once been a large expanse of continuous forest. A team of researchers led by David Woodruff of the University of California at San Diego recognized the perfect opportunity to study the effects of habitat fragmentation on species. In the early 1990s, they trapped, tagged and released a diversity of animals on 12 of the islands. They did the same in the intact forest surrounding the reservoir. On the smallest islands — those less than 24 acres — they observed extinctions in as little as five years.

Last year, biologist Dr. Luke Gibson of the National University of Singapore returned to the very spot where Woodruff and the team had gathered their data decades earlier. The decline in biodiversity in that short time was stunning. Where Woodruff’s team had tagged between 7 and 12 species of mammal on most of the small islands, Gibson could find only one or two remaining. In contrast, he found no change in the mainland forest.

Chiew Larn resevoir

Patches of fragmented forest scattered in the Chiew Larn resevoir. Credit: stoleng/Flickr

Complicating matters further, is that one of the mammal species found on the islands — on some islands, the only mammal left — is the Malayan field rat, an invasive species. According to the study, “such biotic invasions are becoming increasingly common in human-modified landscapes.”

Forest habitats are becoming more and more fragmented around the world. Around 90 percent of South America’s Atlantic forest, home to the golden lion tamarin covered in Loose Leaf earlier this week, is destroyed, with the remainder mostly in fragmented patches of less than 200 acres.

And it’s not only tropical forests that are suffering from fragmentation. American Forests Global ReLeaf has worked to create wildlife corridors to connect fragmented habitat for Mexican spotted owls in Angeles National Forest, ocelot in the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge and a variety of native species in Exeter, England, among many other projects.

A Golden Design

by Marcelene Sutter
Golden Lion Tamarin

Golden lion tamarin, which is native to the Atlantic Forest in Brazil. Credit: Kevin Walsh

Who could say no to a face like that? Meet the golden lion tamarin, native to Brazil and so beloved by citizens there that it appears on the country’s currency. Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, or Mata Atlantica to locals, is the only place where these tiny primates can be found in the wild. Unfortunately, the rise of deforestation in the region poses a serious threat to the safety of this species. What was once an expansive ecosystem has shrunk from 500,000 square miles to less than 10,000 — and with it shrunk the tamarin population.

A concentrated effort to preserve this lion-maned tamarin began in the 1970s and focused mainly on breeding in captivity. By that point, there were fewer than 200 golden lion tamarins living in the wild. Through zoo breeding programs and other conservation programs, today, more than 1,700 golden lion tamarins live in patches of remaining forest, an improvement, but the problem is, if something doesn’t change in regard to habitat for these beloved monkeys, the entire conservation effort may still be for naught. There is no way to sustain this comeback without more available forests to facilitate population growth.

The Atlantic Forest in Brazil, home to the golden lion tamarin. Deforestation in this region has drastically reduced tamarin habitat, posing a great threat to the species. Credit: Barbara Eckstein

The Atlantic Forest in Brazil, home to the golden lion tamarin. Deforestation in this region has drastically reduced tamarin habitat, posing a great threat to the species. Credit: Barbara Eckstein

As it stands, deforestation in the region is not slowing, especially with the recent discovery of oil reserves north of the Atlantic Forest and the addition of two more lanes to the highway that cuts through the area. This has created another problem: On top of shrinking forest areas, what is left for the monkeys has become extremely fragmented. The still-recovering tamarin population is now separated into isolated remaining forest areas, a detriment to their genetic diversity.

One conservationist’s proposed solution to this problem of fragmentation is a bit unorthodox: Luis Paulo Ferraz, leader of the Golden Lion Tamarin Association, aims to construct a bridge over the highway for the tamarins. This bridge would need to be structurally sound enough not to be disrupted by the trucks below and would also need to be covered to provide the crossing tamarin with protection from predatory birds. Ferraz’s group, along with its American partner, Save the Golden Lion Tamarin, have been working together on ground-level models of this project within a golden lion tamarin reserve for years. In fact, as of December 2012, more than 68,000 acres of forest are connected by these planted corridors.

American Forests recognizes the importance of protecting endangered species in Brazil, which is why we’ve participated in tree plantings at three separate sites in the Atlantic Forest, for a total of 24,860 trees. This and a multitude of other projects for endangered species have been accomplished over the years through our Global ReLeaf program. For instance, currently, the orangutan population in the Dolok Sibual Buali Nature Reserve in Indonesia faces challenges similar to those of the golden lion tamarin, which is why American Forests and the Sumatra Rainforest Institute (SRI) are reforesting 140 acres of degraded Sumatran orangutan habitat in the Batang Toru forest. To learn more about orangutan habitat resoration or any of our 2013 Global ReLeaf projects, visit the Global ReLeaf area of our website.