By T.J. Fraser
The great John Muir once said, “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world,” which eloquently encapsulates the hiking experience for many of us. However, in vast areas throughout the nation, the “new world” Muir spoke of is undergoing drastic changes. Climate change, insect infestation, invasive species, disease and deforestation are threatening our natural environments at alarming rates.
Thankfully, there are powerful organizations committed to the notion that the health of our forests contributes directly to the health of the planet and our quality of life.
Scott Steen is the CEO of American Forests, the oldest, non-profit conservation organization in the United States.
Since 1875, American Forests has been on the front lines of forest preservation through a wide variety of advocacy, protection and restoration programs. Since his tenure began in 2010, Scott has overseen the planting of nearly 10 million trees, introduced the Endangered Western Forest initiative and created a Science Advisory Board which has brought together many of the leading scientific researchers working in the field of forest conservation.
We caught up with Scott who shares his thoughts on the dangers facing our forests, the battles being waged to protect them and some ways we can all get involved.
T.J. Fraser: Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts with Mountain Hiking, Scott.
Scott Steen: Very glad to do it. Thanks.
T.J.: As the oldest, non-profit conservation organization in the United States, could you give us a brief overview of American Forests and your mission?
SS: We were founded in 1875 by a group of citizens who saw that we were clear-cutting our way across the country and that if someone didn’t do something to stop it, we would one day have no forests left. In a lot of ways, this is still our role in the conservation movement, but it was a pretty radical position at the time.
Our mission at American Forests is to protect and restore forests, helping to preserve the health of our planet for the benefit of its inhabitants. We are probably best known as an organization that is responsible for planting millions of trees through our Global ReLeaf program and other forest restoration efforts. Over the past few decades, we have planted nearly 45 million trees, mostly here in the U.S., but also in countries around the world. I am pretty sure we are responsible for planting more trees in the United States that any other national conservation organization.
We also advocate for sound forest policy, create tools and public awareness around the incredible benefits of urban forests, help protect and restore threatened ecosystems and forest habitat, and work with communities to assess their tree needs, and provide assistance in planting and maintaining trees in cities and towns.
T.J.: In visiting your excellent website some of the stats were shocking, particularly surrounding the decimation of the higher elevation Western Forests. 41 million acres of forest in 10 states dead or dying? Beetles killing 10,000 trees daily in North Colorado and South Wyoming alone? Those numbers are staggering. How can such an enormous problem be addressed from the ground up?
SS: There is no doubt this is a really tough problem. Our focus, for our Endangered Western Forests program, is the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and particularly high elevation whitebark pine, which is a keystone species for the region. Many of the lower elevation pines have natural defenses against the beetle, or will be able to regenerate in time. Whitebark is being attacked by both the beetles and a disease called blister rust, and have far fewer defenses. This is a big problem, because these trees are a major food source for several animals, help facilitate the growth of other trees, and is the first species to come back after wildfire. They are critical to the health of these forests.
Our goal is to help the government agencies that work on these lands develop more disease resistant trees, protect trees in key areas that are in danger, and, of course, to help fund replanting efforts. We are also trying to raise public awareness, because the scope of the problem requires federal intervention.
T.J.: How has climate change impacted your efforts?
SS: Climate change is a huge factor, in the Mountain West, in forests across America and around the world. Pine bark beetles are native to the region and have been part of this ecosystem for a very long time. But the explosion in beetle population is generally seen as the result of higher winter temperatures with fewer significant freezes. The reason whitebark pine has not evolved defenses against the beetle is because they typically grow in climates that were once too cold for the beetles to survive. But a change of just a few degrees in the winter has altered the ecosystem.
This is playing out in forests across the country and around the world. Trees evolve slowly, but climate change is happening very quickly, making much of our work a race against time.
T.J.: Those of us who spend a lot of time hiking and backpacking come to understand the interconnectedness that exists in nature and the importance of its protection. But for those who don’t, making that connection is a little harder. How are you going about spreading the word that what happens in the forests has a direct impact on us all?
SS: Hikers, backpackers and other outdoor enthusiasts are a really important part of the equation for helping us spread the word about the important relationship between the health of our forests and the health of the planet. With more than 80 percent of all Americans living in urban areas and with more people having little connection to the natural world, making this connection can be a bit tougher. But the fact is that forests have a profound effect on our quality of life, no matter where we live. More than half of the water we drink in the U.S. comes from forests. Forests are also the biggest terrestrial carbon sink, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change and are also key to removing pollution from the air we breathe.
T.J.: When most people think of forests they think of the mountains but you put a big emphasis on the importance of urban forests. What are some of the benefits to cities and their citizens by increasing the number of trees in our urban areas?
SS: By urban and community forests, we are referring to all of the street trees, parks, yard trees, and other vegetation in a city. Taken together, urban forests have incredible environmental, social and economic benefits and the investment it takes to maintain and expand these forests pays great dividends. The environment benefits are probably the most obvious – things like cleaner air, cleaner water, and habitat for birds and other wildlife. But there are also great social benefits. Studies have shown that street trees lower things like stress levels, crime and domestic violence, while access to parks and other natural places decrease levels of obesity. Urban forests also have great economic benefits, raising property values, increasing the time and money spent in urban shopping districts, reducing energy costs and providing cost effective stormwater control.
T.J.: What is Global ReLeaf?
SS: American Forests Global ReLeaf program is our primary restoration tree planting initiative. Through the program, we have been able to plant tens of millions of trees in more than 600 forest restoration projects, in all 50 states and in 40 countries.
T.J.: American Forests also advocates for public policy on behalf of our natural resources. With so many challenges facing the country, do you find it harder to have your voice heard or are policy makers recognizing the need for action?
SS: Given this economy, it is a very difficult time to be heard on Capitol Hill. Policymakers and legislators follow public opinion. While there are certainly sympathetic voices in Congress, I can’t think of a single person who is seen as a true champion of conservation issues. I think policymakers and legislators follow public opinion. If they sense that there is strong support for an issue among their constituents, they will follow. But the public needs to be engaged and people who care about the environment really need to make their voices heard.
T.J.: How can the readers of Mountain Hiking get involved in American Forests?
SS: There are a number of ways that readers of Mountain Hiking can get engaged. First, become a member of American Forests. There really is strength in numbers, and an organization’s ability to get in the door is often determined by the size of its community.
Like us on Facebook. Increasingly, this number is also seen as a measure of an organization’s strength and it is free.
Sign onto our public policy letters and send them to your member of Congress.
If your resources allow, support our work financially. Give what you can. The forest health issues we need to address are growing exponentially and federal funding is decreasing. Come out to our volunteer events when they are in your area.
And finally, talk to your friends and family about the importance of forests for everyone. Invite them to come with you on a hike. Help them to understand the connection between forest health and the overall environment. We have a lot of work to do and the challenges are mounting. We need everyone to get engaged.
Another huge thanks to T.J. Fraser, who continues collect and share these interviews with people actively involved with protecting and enhancing our hiking experience.