Friday, April 22, 2016

A Threatened Old Forest Tells a Story Relevant to Every Urban Forest

250 year-old black oak in Hutcheson Forest (Myla Aronson)
by Myla Aronson, The Nature of Cities:

As I walk through the William L. Hutcheson Memorial Forest in Somerset, New Jersey, on this unseasonably warm March morning, I admire the 250 year-old oaks, towering above, reaching to the sky.

Although small (26 hectares), this forest is one of the only remaining old growth forests in New Jersey and appears on the US National Park Service’s registry of National Natural Landmarks.

Preservation of remnant woodlands without active monitoring and management plans is not enough to preserve biodiversity.

These oaks saw the founding of the United States of America; they were seedlings when the Stamp Act was approved by the British Parliament in 1765, sowing the political seeds of the American Revolution; saplings when the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776; and began to produce acorns around the time the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. They’ve taught thousands of Rutgers University students over the last 70 years.

But as a forest ecologist standing amidst the oaks, I also see an unhealthy forest fragment that’s neither resilient to change nor capable of supporting the biodiversity it did 100 years, or even 50 years, ago. I notice there are no seedlings, no saplings, nothing to take the place of these oaks when they die, and they are dying rapidly; either from old age or windstorms, we are losing these oaks.

What will take their place? Thickets of invasive Multiflora Rose and Wineberry already dominate the light gaps created by the loss of many of the old oaks. In May, one used to be able to see hectares of Mayapple covering the forest floor, all of which are almost entirely gone now; in their place is a depauperate shrub and herb layer, missing native species.

Where are the next generation of oaks, and why have we lost them? What happened to the biodiversity of this forest?

In cities within the northeastern United States, small forest fragment remnants offer unique opportunities for human and non-humans alike. For us, forest fragments offer opportunities to interact with nature, to get away from the city, to learn, to exercise, to be at peace. For plants and animals, forest fragments are important for preserving biodiversity and are integral to the resilience of nature in the face of increasing urbanization and climate change.

Even small forest fragments support important species, such as the Kano palace bats in the city of Kano, Nigeria, recently discussed by Aliyu Barau. In and around urban areas, forest fragments are important habitats for migratory birds, functioning as stopover sites for both long- and short-distance migrants - as recently discussed by Mark Hostetler - and adding to continuity and connectivity of the landscape to support bird populations.

However, often there are assumptions that the preservation of forest remnants alone is sufficient to sustain their biodiversity. This stems from traditional forest successional theory, which holds that closed-canopy forests represent the stable end-point, with changes in species composition that are relatively minor over time.

But in reality, urban forests experience many stressors that decrease the resilience of these forests to both natural and urban disturbances, leading to large changes in plant species composition and, in turn, to degraded forest ecosystems. As land managers of urban forests know all too well, these changes are greater in magnitude and occur faster in human-dominated landscapes.

The capacity of these urban forest fragments to support biodiversity is threatened by the constant and interacting stressors of human use, air and soil pollution, exotic species invasions, and overabundance of white-tailed deer. Without constant management of these stressors, we face the loss of our forests and, with it, the loss of a rich American legacy: our biodiversity heritage.

For the past 13 years, I have studied the ecology of the Hutcheson Memorial Forest. Old growth forest fragments, such as this one, often offer a glimpse into our “biodiversity past” and should function as refugia for biodiversity in the face of human disturbance.

Old growth forests are endangered ecosystems, with less than 1 percent of forests in the eastern United States considered to be old growth. They are often viewed as reserves for genetic material and rare species, and are used as reference sites or “ecological benchmarks” for restoration of forest systems.

Many old growth stands have protected status, such as the Hutcheson Memorial Forest, but the majority of these forests are small parcels surrounded by suburban or urban development, posing special challenges to the management and preservation of these forests.

If these forests are to serve as benchmarks and refugia for species diversity, long-term monitoring is needed to understand how and if these forests function to maintain this diversity. Located in the New York metropolitan region, the most densely populated region in the United States, the Hutcheson Memorial Forest represents a model system within an iconic location to study the problems associated with conserving a significant resource in a suburban setting.

The Hutcheson Memorial Forest, Spring 1968. Mayapples cover the ground and Flowering Dogwoods are flowering in the subcanopy. Photo courtesy of Steward Pickett.
The Hutcheson Memorial Forest, Summer 2005. Few Flowering Dogwoods remain, the Mayapples are gone, and the herb layer is depauperate of other native wildflowers. Photo: Myla F.J. Aronson
This old growth forest is an Oak-Hickory dominated forest, with occasional large White Oak (Quercus alba), Black Oak (Quercus velutina), and Red Oak (Quercus rubra) individuals.

I have found that, since 1950, the Hutcheson Memorial Forest has changed drastically in both structure and composition. One of the markers of a healthy forest is the vertical diversity of vegetation structure. As you walk through a healthy forest, you should see many vegetation layers, from top to bottom: the canopy, with tall, mature trees that shade the forest; followed by the sub-canopy, comprising the trees growing to reach the canopy, which will be the next generation of canopy trees; then the shrub layer; and, finally, the herb layer on the forest floor. The animal diversity of the forest depends on these many layers of the forest.

Today, few native wildflowers survive at the Hutcheson Memorial Forest such as this Jack-in-the-Pulpit surrounded by Japanese Stiltgrass. Photo: Myla F.J. Aronson
At the Hutcheson Memorial Forest, this healthy vertical structure has been lost. Before the 1980s, the forest was dominated by the old oaks and hickories in the canopy and sub-canopy. Flowering Dogwoods (Cornus florida) were also major components of the sub-canopy. The shrub layer covered 56 percent of the forest floor and was dominated by Maple-leaved Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium).

The forest floor was rich in native wildflowers. Today, there is very little sub-canopy, Flowering Dogwood is almost completely extirpated from the forest, shrub cover has been reduced to 11 percent cover, and the wildflowers are patchy at best. Regeneration of the canopy oak and hickory trees is almost non-existent.

Invasive plant species have increased from rare in the forest to dominant components of each layer. Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora), Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), and Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) are now the dominant plant species in the forest, and all of these are invasive, non-native plants that outcompete native plants for space and resources.

Whitebreasted Nuthatch and American Robin are now common bird species found at the Hutcheson Memorial Forest. Photo: Jeff Brown
Whitebreasted Nuthatch and American Robin are now common bird species found at the Hutcheson Memorial Forest. Photo: Jeff Brown
The bird communities have also changed in response to this vegetation change. Jeff Brown, a PhD student at Rutgers with Dr. Julie Lockwood, has been studying the bird community change. He has found, when comparing historical surveys with recent surveys, that the forest has lost approximately 15 bird species since the 1960s. Most of those species lost were species classified as forest birds (those species that are typical of closed-canopy forests) and even include species that have not experienced declines regionally.

The bird community at the Hutcheson Memorial Forest has shifted from being dominated by forest birds (Ovenbird, American Redstart) to dominated by birds typical of open woodlands and edges. This change in the bird community follows the change in vegetation closely.

The forest canopy is much more open now than in the past, with impenetrable thickets of invasive Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) and Multiflora Rose, more typical of open woodlands than a closed-canopy old growth forest. Now, Wood Thrush, Gray Catbirds, Eastern Towhees, Rose Breasted Grosbeaks, White-Breasted Nuthatches, Hairy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, and Northern Cardinals are typical of the forest. The forest also doesn’t appear to provide benefits to regionally declining forest bird species.

White-tailed Deer, along with invasive species invasions, have done the most damage to this suburban forest. Photo: Myla F.J. Aronson
Why is the forest no longer functioning as a reserve for plants and animals? Deer herbivory in the old-growth forest has sharply increased since 1979, and many of the changes in the vegetation structure and composition can be attributed to this intense herbivore pressure. Heavy deer browsing has also left open space in the understory and contributes to the successful invasions of non-native species.

Garlic mustard and Japanese Stiltgrass, the most common invasive plants in the herb layer, outcompete native wildflowers and tree seedlings, causing regeneration failure. Gaps in the canopy, created by windstorms or the death of old trees - which, in a healthy forest, would allow sub-canopy tree species to fill in the gaps - creating a new generation of canopy trees, are instead filled with invasive species such as the Japanese Angelica Tree (Aralia elata; a newcomer to the forest in the last 10 years), Multiflora Rose, and Wineberry.

The change in the plants and birds at the Hutcheson Memorial Forest is an example of what happens to an urban forest when it is not actively monitored or managed over the long-term. This forest, while unique in its old growth character, fell victim to the same stressors all urban and suburban forests fragments share.

The enormous change in biodiversity character here shows us the importance of monitoring and active management to preserve biodiversity in our urban forest fragments.

At the Hutcheson Memorial Forest, no comprehensive vegetation surveys were performed between 1979 and 2003. If monitoring had occurred, it might have been possible to quickly identify and manage ecological and human threats. “Early detection, rapid response” is being adopted as a regional management for our threatened habitats and, if adopted at the Hutcheson Memorial Forest 25 years ago, would have countered these new stressors as they were introduced.

The “no-management” strategy, intended to be benign and to ensure biotic continuity, was based on deed restrictions originally written in 1955 to protect the forest from “builders, lumbermen, firesetters, hunters, and other destructive human influences”.

However, the urbanization of the surrounding area, the introduction of non-native species, and the overabundant white-tailed deer populations have changed the ecological playing field over the last 66 years. The no-management strategy has produced a heavily changed forest dominated by non-native, invasive species with little regeneration of the native tree, shrub, or wildflower species.

Without management of these non-native invasive plants and deer reduction efforts, the flora of the old-growth forest has progressively become composed of invasive, non-native plants and the few native species unpalatable to deer.

While the “no-management” strategy allows researchers to see the profound changes that a forest community undergoes in a suburban landscape, the role of this unique forest remnant, as well as other urban forest remnants, should be as references for regional diversity and refugia of native species diversity in this rapidly urbanizing world. These goals require proactive management of the multiple ecological stressors experienced by urban forest fragments.

The Hutcheson Memorial Forest was originally set aside, according to the property deed adopted when the land was donated to Rutgers University in 1955, for ecological study and for the “purpose of preserving the unspoiled virgin forest, flora, and fauna now existing therein in a state virtually untouched and unaffected by man and his civilization, making these premises a unique surviving example of such a natural environment”. The forest no longer represents this ideal.

However, over the last 10 years new monitoring and management goals have been established. Comprehensive bird and plant surveys have occurred over the last five years and will continue. A deer fence was erected in November 2015, and monitoring will occur frequently to assess how the forest plants and birds will respond to the reduction in deer herbivory.

Some invasive plants with small populations, such as Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii), have been removed from the forest and have not been allowed to become invasive. Will the forest return to a biodiverse state, a refugia in a rapidly urbanizing landscape? Only time, monitoring, and active management will tell.

The Hutcheson Memorial Forest serves as a dramatic example of the need for monitoring and management in urban and suburban forests. Preservation of remnant woodlands without active monitoring and management plans is not enough to preserve biodiversity and is woefully inadequate for conservation goals.

Remnant forests in our cities are the primary greenspaces for preservation of native biodiversity. As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, these remnants will serve an even greater purpose: to conserve global biodiversity. City budgets are tight, but monitoring and management of urban forests should be a priority.

Preservation and clear targets for monitoring, research, and adaptive management activities in natural habitats should be a cornerstone of city master plans. Stressors on the ecological integrity of our diverse forests will continue to increase, but with monitoring and progressive management, we can save our unique biotic heritage.

Myla Aronson, New Brunswick
On The Nature of Cities

For More Information

William L. Hutcheson Memorial Forest:

Aronson, M.F.J. and S. N. Handel. 2011. Deer and invasive plant species suppress forest herbaceous communities and canopy tree regeneration. Natural Areas Journal 31: 400-407.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Investors Warned: Forget Fossil Fuels

by Paul Brown / Climate News Network, Truth Dig:

( via Flickr)
The head of a global philanthropic foundation says that the world turning away from fossil fuels is a critical moment in human history, akin to the abolition of slavery.

Ellen Dorsey, executive director of the US-based Wallace Global Fund, told a packed conference in Oxford, UK, this week: “We are right in the middle of a transition - not to try to curb the burning of the fuels, but to end the fossil fuel industry altogether. The industry will be one for the history books, much like slavery”.

The conference, organised by the Divest Invest movement, was held to assess progress in convincing the financial sector that it will lose its money if it continues to invest in fossil fuels. The movement involves 500 organizations - with a combined wealth of more than $3.4 trillion - that have already pledged to divest from fossil fuels and invest in climate solutions.

Sarah Butler-Sloss, founder director of the Ashden Trust, a leader in the field of green energy and sustainable development, opened the conference and stressed: “We are not making a sacrifice. We have gained money from not investing in fossil fuels.” 

Business decision

The conference was told that charities, trusts and banks that invested in renewables were getting a much higher return on their money than if they kept it in fossil fuels companies, so removing it was not an act of altruism but a sound business decision.

Dorsey said: “The movement has exploded, and those who have committed their finances stand to prosper while coal and oil have tanked. Those who get out will protect their money.”

She said that while fossil fuel company executives had “changed their rhetoric” since the UN climate conference in Paris last December and accepted that climate change was a problem, their actions remained the same - carrying on business as usual, trying to expand the use of fossil fuels, and pushing the planet towards heating up by 3°C to 4°C.

The biggest battle for the movement is to change the minds of the investment bankers who are continuing to put their money into coal-powered plants, mines and other fossil fuel developments. This could not be allowed to happen if the world was to keep below the internationally-agreed 2°C danger threshold, Dorsey said. “It is a financial, ethical and moral imperative that we stop this investment.”

Dorsey, who has a background in the human rights movement, said that one of the issues that must be given priority is to provide electricity for the 1.2 billion people in the world without it. “Energy poverty is a moral issue,” she said. People in the fossil fuel industry claim that they are the only ones who can do this, she said, but renewables can do it faster and must do it in the next 15 years.

The conference discussed the main barriers to getting backers and investment funds to shift up to $100 trillion out of fossil fuels.

One of the problems is that bankers look at the returns for the last 20 years to make investment decisions for the future. On this basis, they regard renewables as high risk because there are only five years of favourable data. 

Overriding duty

One of the avenues to explore to get more divestment decisions is through the courts. For example, charities who see their job as maximising the return on their investments might be failing in their overriding duty if their main purpose is in environment, health, or poverty alleviation. “They must realise that the mission must come before the need to make money,” said Sian Ferguson, trust executive at the Sainsbury Family CharitableTrusts.

One of the issues to address is the Divest Invest movement’s attitude towards fossil fuel companies and their executives, and whether these should be characterised as “evil” or merely misguided. The problem for these company executives, it was suggested, is that it is hard for them to accept that their life’s work is damaging the planet and endangering the human race.

Mark Campanale, founder and director of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, which has demonstrated that most fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground if the planet is to escape dangerous overheating, said that most of the “assets” of fossil fuel companies could not be extracted at a profit unless the oil price rose above $50 to $60 dollars a barrel.

He said that large parts of the reserves should not be counted as assets because they could never be extracted. 

Paul Brown, a founding editor of Climate News Network, is a former environment correspondent of The Guardian newspaper, and still writes columns for the paper.

Friday, April 15, 2016

We are Missing Our Chance to Stop the Sixth Mass Extinction

Opinion sized guian bolisay 9511539458 1d8ac1fb4e oby William Funk, Aeon:

The immense challenge of climate change has caused myopia among a lot of politicians, sending them into a self-destructive state of denial. More quietly, though, that immensity has triggered another kind of myopia, this one among conservationists.

In focusing on the staggering planetary impacts of greenhouse emissions, they are losing sight of the other ways that human beings lay a heavy hand on the planet. In particular, they are paying too little attention to the true causes of (and potential solutions to) the loss of species around the world - a massive die-off often referred to as ‘the sixth extinction’.

Last summer, a team of biologists led by Paul R Ehrlich of Stanford University, the author of The Population Bomb (1968), published an article in the journal Science Advances, setting out the problem in stark terms.

The average rate of vertebrate species loss over the past century has been up to 100 times higher than the average background rate of extinction, and roughly 60% of large animal species (most of them in the developing world) are threatened with extinction. Another recent major study, this one by the ecologist William Ripple of Oregon State University and his colleagues, comes to depressingly similar conclusions.

The Ehrlich and Ripple teams pointedly note that much of the threat comes not from the indirect effects of climate change, but from direct killing by humans - primarily poaching, the trade in bushmeat, wildlife trafficking, and human-wildlife conflict over resources. Their findings are both alarming and oddly promising as we gauge the future of conservation. There is still time to soften the blow of this sixth extinction, but only if we look honestly at the causes of this catastrophe-in-the-making and alter our behaviour in rapid, well-informed ways.

'If the currently elevated extinction pace is allowed to continue,’ the Ehrlich report says, 'humans will soon (in as little as three human lifetimes) be deprived of many biodiversity benefits. On human time scales, this loss would be effectively permanent because in the aftermath of past mass extinctions, the living world took hundreds of thousands to millions of years to rediversify … the evidence is incontrovertible that recent extinction rates are unprecedented in human history and highly unusual in Earth’s history.’ 

The researchers cite a background extinction rate - a conservative estimate of what would be considered normal according to the fossil record - of two species extinctions per 10,000 species per 100 years. At that rate, roughly nine vertebrate extinctions worldwide would have been expected since 1900. In reality, the number of extinctions (including suspected extinctions and species that are now extinct in the wild) was a staggering 477, including 69 species of mammals, 80 birds, 24 reptiles, 146 amphibians, and 158 fish.

The loss of large vertebrate animals is especially visible, and especially significant. Megafauna extinctions catalyse a host of negative cascades throughout their ecosystems, ranging from declines in nutrient cycling to altered soil properties, from altered forest/grassland ratios to disrupted fire regimes. Ripple labels megafaunal herbivores - including rhinos, tapirs, bison and antelope - as 'ecosystem engineers’ because of their sweeping impacts. Those creatures are also, of course, critical to the survival of large carnivores.

Unilateral concentration on global warming among conservationists means that they are losing sight of relatively simple opportunities to intervene on behalf of wildlife. The necessary actions are not mysterious: applied law enforcement, meaningful prosecution of poachers and traffickers, consistent funding, and an insistence on institutional accountability to blunt the effects of governmental corruption. 

In contrast with the enormous economic costs believed necessary to confront climate change, relatively modest investments would go far towards achieving these goals in places like Africa and Amazonia, where poachers financed by international traffickers are often better armed and equipped than the park rangers.

Local governments need straightforward technologies such as drones, camera traps, and satellite mapping to monitor poaching incursions into protected areas and to intercept traffickers at exit and entry points. They also need to provide better training and defensive arms to compete in what has become an open war over the world’s wildlife.

Ehrlich and his colleagues recognise the hierarchy of the solutions. They describe a need for 'rapid, greatly intensified efforts to conserve already threatened species and to alleviate pressures on their populations - notably habitat loss, over-exploitation for economic gain, and climate change’. 

The Ripple study more specifically recommends addressing poaching by increasing the effectiveness of law enforcement and criminal penalties, monetising wildlife for local communities through ecotourism, and reducing demand for trafficked wildlife through market mechanisms, education and cultural shifts. 

The study also endorses focusing conservation efforts on 'hot spots’ of high biodiversity. It, too, does eventually raise the issue of climate change, but given the brutal destruction wreaked by direct take, many of the world’s most recognisable animals - rhinos, elephants, lions and tigers - may not last long enough for changing climate to be a significant factor.

The investments and policy changes required to stave off the sixth extinction won’t come easily, but the contrast with climate change at least gives some potential for hope. Compared with the international bureaucratic interventions and industrial rejiggering necessary for the overthrow of the fossil fuel regimes, dealing with direct take is a relatively simple challenge. Ehrlich and his colleagues see a 'window of opportunity’ if we take assertive action now - and if we learn to see beyond either/or approaches to environmental protection.

Yes, climate change is the ultimate existential enemy, but it is not the only one. Addressing direct take is something we can do right now, in well-defined ways, for an affordable cost. Investing in the measures outlined above will help insure that the Earth of the future - hotter, stormier and less resilient though it may be - will still be home to the marvellous creatures that have brought our world so much beauty and stability.

Monday, April 11, 2016

More EU Countries Are Giving Coal the Boot

© Guerito 2005
© Guerito 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Taylor Hill, Take Part: 

Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife Bio

The final lumps of coal were burned last week at the last remaining coal-fired power plant in Belgium, signaling an end to the coal power era in yet another European country.

Just last month, Scotland’s 115-year-long dependence on the dirty, carbon emission-spewing power source came to an end as the Longannet Power Station - once the largest coal plant in Europe - was switched off on March 24.

With plants idled all over the continent, now more than a quarter of European Union nations have quit coal, with Belgium and Scotland’s shutdowns bringing them in line with coal power-free countries Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. They will be joined by larger EU nations come 2025, when Portugal, Austria, Finland, and the rest of the U.K. have promised to rid their power grids of one of the dirtiest forms of energy production.

While fossil fuels such as natural gas are still part of these nations’ energy equations, clean renewable power from wind and solar farms is meeting record levels of their electricity needs.

“Belgium going coal free is yet another proof that the golden days of the coal industry are over,” Joanna Flisowska, policy coordinator at Climate Action Network Europe, said in a statement. “This is good news for the climate. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, the EU has to ensure that carbon emissions from its coal power plants are cut down much faster than their current rate.”

Now, for the first time, the argument for cutting carbon emissions in favor of the environment - but at the expense of economic growth - isn’t holding up.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

World Bank to Spend 28% of Investments on Climate Change Projects

World Bank climate changeby , Environment correspondent, The Guardian:

The World Bank has made a “fundamental shift” in its role of alleviating global poverty, by refocusing its financing efforts towards tackling climate change, the group said on Thursday.

The world’s biggest provider of public finance to developing countries said it would spend 28% of its investments directly on climate change projects, and that all of its future spending would take account of global warming.

At last year’s landmark conference on climate change in Paris, the World Bank and its fellow development banks were made the linchpins of providing financial assistance to the poor world, to enable countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the effects of global warming.

“Following the Paris climate agreement, we must now take bold action to protect our planet for future generations,” said Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank Group.

“We are moving urgently to help countries make major transitions to increase sources of renewable energy, decrease high-carbon energy sources, develop green transport systems and build sustainable, livable cities for growing urban populations. Developing countries want our help to implement their national climate plans, and we’ll do all we can to help them.”

John Roome, senior director for climate change at the World Bank, told journalists: “This is a fundamental shift for the World Bank. We are putting climate change into our DNA. Climate change will drive 100 million more people into poverty in the next 15 years [unless action is taken].”

At least $16bn a year, from across the World Bank group, which includes other development and finance institutions, will be directed to climate change projects, including renewable energy and energy efficiency. The group will aim to mobilise $13bn in extra funding from the private sector within four years, for instance through joint funding programmes. By 2020, these efforts should amount to about $29bn a year, nearly a third of the $100bn a year in climate finance promised by rich countries to the poor as part of global climate change agreements.

As part of the institution’s new strategy, it will help to fund the construction of enough renewable energy to power 150m homes in developing countries, and build early warning systems of climate-related disasters - such as storms and floods - for 100 million people.

The bank will also target “smart” agriculture systems, which use less water and energy and retain soil fertility, and will help countries develop their transport and urban infrastructure to produce much less carbon. All projects considered for funding - including health, education and other development priorities - will be screened for their vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.

The World Bank has attracted strong criticism in the past for backing the construction of high-emissions infrastructure, chiefly coal-fired power stations, and had already made moves away from such investments. Roome refused to rule out fossil fuel investments in the future, but said they would be subject to strict criteria, to do with their necessity, ensuring the most efficient technology was used, and investigation of alternatives. For instance, he said, gas could provide a “transition” away from high-carbon fuels for countries struggling to build new renewable energy capacity.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Adani and Carmichael: What the Traditional Aboriginal Owners of This Land Say

by Adrian Burragubba, The Fifth Estate: