In the dry heat of July 2002, lightning sparked hundreds of wildfires in the Siskiyou National Forest in southwest Oregon. The four largest blazes, collectively known as the Biscuit Fire, eventually raged across a 500,000-acre swath of forest, including part of California’s Six Rivers National Forest, and turned out to be Oregon’s largest in more than a century. Soon afterward the Bush administration rolled out its Healthy Forests Initiative, which promotes salvage logging as a means to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires and as a tool for overall forest regeneration.
A new study of the Biscuit burn, published in the journal Science, confirms previous research showing that salvage logging actually hinders—rather than helps—recovery in burned forests by killing off seedling trees. Scientists from Oregon State University found that in 2004, two years after the fire, unlogged sites showed an abundance of conifer seedlings. Logging, in contrast, reduced tree regeneration by 71 percent. “Surprisingly, it appears that after even the most severe fires, the forest is naturally very resilient, more than it’s often given credit for,” says Dan Donato, a graduate student in forest science at Oregon State and the study’s lead author.
Under the Healthy Forests Initiative, the Biscuit burn became the scene of one of the biggest—and most contentious—salvage-logging projects ever. Live old-growth trees, some dating back centuries, were cut under a new U.S. Forest Service rule that allowed logging projects under appeal to proceed immediately in cases of “emergency” economic loss.
From the start environmentalists have viewed the administration’s forest policy as a subterfuge for revving up the chainsaws. “The focus is on promoting rapid logging rather than restoring forests or protecting communities from wildfire,” says Sean Cosgrove, national forest policy specialist for the Sierra Club.
The Oregon State researchers also discovered that salvage logging—which is often cited by industry advocates as a way to reduce materials that could feed future fires— instead made fires more likely. Logging left heaps of dead, easily ignited branches lying on the ground, explains John Campbell, a research forester and coauthor of the study. These “fine fuels” are more likely than standing trees to spark an early reburn.
Even so, politics may continue to trump science if new legislation introduced by U.S. Representative Greg Walden (R-OR) is enacted. The Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act would bypass normal protections under the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act in order to expedite logging projects on lands affected by fire, storms, or insect outbreaks deemed ‘catastrophic.’ The act would also authorize agencies to take money appropriated for wildland fire management and spend it on salvage logging. The bill, despite opposition from the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, will likely pass through the House Resources Committee, according to Cosgrove.
“This is very egregious legislation based on the theory that salvage logging will not only produce lumber but will bring the forest back more green and healthy than ever,” he says. “That idea lacks any scientific support.”
— Sharon Levy
Before 2005 the United States had never been hit by 27 major storms in a single year. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita seemed to confirm the findings of researchers from Georgia Tech and the National Center for Atmospheric Research that the number of severe hurricanes—Categories 4 and 5—has nearly doubled worldwide since the 1970s. The rise of sea-surface temperatures of up to one degree is a likely culprit. Hurricanes increase in power when these exceed 78.8 degrees Fahrenheit. As Katrina became a Category 5 over the Gulf of Mexico, sea-surface temperature was an unusually warm 86 degrees. “I have no doubt sea-surface temperatures are rising because of CO2 greenhouse effects,” says professor Peter Webster, lead author of the Georgia Tech study. “We have a lot of models that show hurricane intensity increasing, and modeling results all point in the same direction.”
— Sydney Horton
Since joining The New York Times in 1995, Andrew Revkin, the paper’s veteran science correspondent, has journeyed to the ends of the earth to report on the effects of global warming. In 2004 he camped out with scientists on Arctic sea ice. Revkin spoke with Audubon about this adventure and about the challenges of reporting on global warming, both of which he chronicles in a new book entitled The North Pole Was Here.
Audubon: Why did you go to one of the most frigid and forbidding landscapes on earth?
Q. Still, you camped out on giant, floating ice caps to learn about global warming. That seems counterintuitive.
Q. What does the title of the book mean?
Q. Does your book help convey a sense of urgency? Some scientists are now saying we have 10 years to act before the effects are irreversible.
Q. That may be so, but it doesn’t seem like the masses are rising up to demand action on global warming. Many environmentalists blame the media for this, for 1) not conveying the dire urgency of global warming in stories, and 2) giving equal attention to a tiny minority of climate skeptics in many of these same news stories, when, in fact, a majority of the world’s scientists believe the planet is heating up because of greenhouse gases.
And then there’s the “balance” thing. There has been an industrialized effort to exploit both the apparent uncertainties in science and the shorthand of journalism, which is: “Something happened today; he says this, she says that.” And this has been long recognized by people who don’t want anything to change. It started with the tobacco lobby, injecting just enough uncertainty into the debate over cancer and cigarettes to perpetuate the idea that we don’t really know about a link. Some of the same people are actually working in the climate realm now.
Quite frankly, the media have been fooled on both sides of this equation for years. Some environmental groups and some scientists are very quick to focus on the definitive, so the media tend to either overcover the wrong thing or ignore the slow drip and wait for the Exxon Valdez. But when the National Academy of Sciences came out with a study a few years ago saying that every year there’s 1.5 Exxon Valdez’s worth of oil getting into coastal ecosystems through the drip of the gas station, that’s not a page one story. To me it is. I wrote it as if it were a page one story, but it got on page A-17 or something, so the newsroom is set up to glaze over issues like this.
Q. The Bush administration seems be part of that organized industry in exploiting the uncertainties in the science and the way journalism works. You’ve broken several stories in recent years about top administration officials fudging data in government reports to make it sound as if the jury was still out on global warming.
Q. We hear a lot about melting glaciers and rising seas as a consequence of global warming. But what are scientists worrying about ecologically?
Q. Back to your new book and your trip to the North Pole. You look like a mummy in the pictures. What was it like there?
Q. Any close calls?
Q. What, related to global warming, are the scientists studying in the North Pole?
Q. Are you worried that this stuff is so complicated that people won’t get it?
Q. I understand you play in a blues band?
Q. Country blues?
— Keith Kloor
Last December Sandy Reed slogged through the muddy streets of Jourdan River Estates, a residential neighborhood on the Gulf Coast in southwestern Mississippi. As a participant in Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC), she was searching for birds in an area of Hancock County just three miles from the path of Hurricane Katrina’s eye. A few giant live oaks and some shrubs survived, but most of the vegetation had either been torn down by the winds or killed by the flood of salt water. Four months after the storm, few houses were still standing, and the landscape was littered with debris—roofs, washing machines, sheds. “We didn’t realize how bad it was,” says Reed, a science teacher and president of the Mississippi Coast Audubon Society (MCAS).
The CBC results confirmed her worst fears. Counters in Hancock County saw just 10,649 birds from 132 species, the lowest total in 22 years. “The numbers are down substantially, especially for what we consider the local yard birds, like Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and downy woodpeckers,” says Jerry Bird, an MCAS board member who compiled the county’s results. Most distressing, he says, is “how quiet everything is in the woods.”
The morning after Katrina passed, Judy Toups, a founding member of the MCAS, noticed an unusually high number of migrating ruby-throated hummingbirds in her yard. Realizing there would be few flowering plants or feeders available for the hummingbirds, she started Operation Backyard Recovery. Besides scattering hummingbird feeders in hurricane-ravaged areas, the operation also holds free birdhouse-building clinics to supply temporary shelters to birds that nest in the hollows of trees.
“We’re most concerned with the cavity nesters that overwinter here, because they’ve lost the trees they depend on,” says Mark LaSalle, Audubon Mississippi’s coastal project director. The simple, boxlike birdhouses are made from fence boards and other lumber left strewn about after the hurricane. “We’re up to our armpits in fence boards,” LaSalle says. “We’ve got to pick up the pieces and make something good out of it.”
People of all ages showed up at the clinics, hammering birdhouses together to take home, which for many, including LaSalle, is a FEMA trailer. About 400 birdhouses have been built thus far, Reed says. (Additionally, Audubon Vermont donated 40 birdhouse kits made from a white pine that fell in a storm at the Green Mountain Audubon Center.) Local children are eager to help shelter birds, even as repairs continue on their own homes. “A lot of the trees got knocked down by Katrina, and that’s where the birds live,” says Lindsay Parker, one of Reed’s seventh graders at Pass Christian Middle School. “Now they have no place to go, or a nice warm place to stay.”
Besides building birdhouses, Audubon Mississippi has teamed up with the National Arbor Day Foundation to replant native trees and restore much-needed bird habitat. For each dollar donated to the Katrina Tree Recovery Campaign (www.arborday.org/Katrina), a tree will be sent to Mississippi from the foundation’s nursery in Tennessee and distributed by Audubon along the Gulf Coast. For additional information, go to www.msaudubon.org/katrina/restoration.php.
— Todd Neale
Nobody was concerned the first time an airplane hit a bird. Orville Wright didn’t even note the species he struck over an Ohio cornfield in 1905. Today, though, such collisions, known as “bird strikes,” are a major worry. Bird strikes have increased in 13 of the past 15 years, says a Federal Aviation Administration/USDA Wildlife Services report. In 2004 civilian pilots reported 6,360 bird strikes, and military pilots recorded more than 4,600, says report coauthor Richard Dolbeer. The actual tally was much higher, he adds, since only “between 10.7 and 21 percent” of civil aircraft–bird strikes are reported.
Why the increase? “There’s a lot more aircraft in the air, a lot more birds, and aircraft today are quieter,” says Dolbeer, a USDA biologist. From 1990 to 2004, he estimates, bird strikes killed 500,000 birds. Gulls, doves, geese, and starlings were common victims.
When struck at high speeds, large birds act like cannonballs and small birds like bullets; together they cause $600 million in damage annually to U.S. aircraft. The impact can force emergency landings, even crashes. In 1995, for example, a flock of geese, sucked into an engine, downed an Air Force radar plane, killing 24. “Everyone knows it’s a matter of time before we lose a loaded passenger craft,” says retired Lieutenant Colonel Russell DeFusco, longtime leader of the U.S. Air Force’s anti-bird-strike efforts. Which is why the industry is hustling to find collision-limiting strategies.
One measure was announced in May 2005, when the FAA, the Air Force, and Transport Canada unveiled a five-year, $16 million plan for the North American Bird Strike Advisory System (NABSAS), which would integrate weather, airport surveillance, and national defense radar resources to detect, track, and warn of avian hazards near flight paths and airports. The system would issue bird-strike alerts like those the National Weather Service makes for storms. “A pilot would never take off in a major lightning storm, but they routinely take off into a flock of birds,” says DeFusco.
Meanwhile, at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the FAA is testing short-range radar that detects the movement of bird flocks that might endanger planes. Biologists at the USDA’s National Wildlife Research Center are studying pulsing aircraft-mounted lights to alert birds to approaching planes.
Elsewhere, ground-based tactics are being considered, especially after another recent Dolbeer study showed three-quarters of bird strikes occur at less than 500 feet—probably as aircraft take off, land, or enter traffic patterns. In response, managers are using dogs and sweeping runways with lasers to repel birds.
Will such measures make bird strikes rare? No, says Dolbeer, adding, “but it would be a whole lot worse if we didn’t try. We’d like to manage this problem to acceptable levels.”
— Joe Bower
© 2006 National Audubon Society
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