biodiversity
By Wildlife Conservation SocietyClimate  01:00PM EST
Humans Destroyed 10% of Earth’s Wilderness in Just 20 Years

Researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology show catastrophic declines in wilderness areas around the world over the last 20 years. They demonstrate alarming losses comprising a tenth of global wilderness since the 1990s—an area twice the size of Alaska and half the size of the Amazon. The Amazon and Central Africa have been hardest hit.

The findings underscore an immediate need for international policies to recognize the value of wilderness areas and to address the unprecedented threats they face, the researchers say.

The findings underscore an immediate need for international policies to recognize the value of wilderness areas and to address the unprecedented threats they face, the researchers say. Wildlife Conservation Society

"Globally important wilderness areas—despite being strongholds for endangered biodiversity, for buffering and regulating local climates, and for supporting many of the world's most politically and economically marginalized communities—are completely ignored in environmental policy," said Dr. James Watson of the University of Queensland in Australia and the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York.

"Without any policies to protect these areas, they are falling victim to widespread development. International policy mechanisms must recognize the actions needed to maintain wilderness areas before it is too late. We probably have one to two decades to turn this around."

Watson said much policy attention has been paid to the loss of species, but comparatively little was known about larger-scale losses of entire ecosystems, especially wilderness areas which tend to be relatively understudied. To fill that gap, the researchers mapped wilderness areas around the globe, with "wilderness" being defined as biologically and ecologically intact landscapes free of any significant human disturbance. The researchers then compared their current map of wilderness to one produced by the same methods in the early 1990s.

Wildlife Conservation Society

This comparison showed that a total of 30.1 million km2 (around 20 percent of the world's land area) now remains as wilderness, with the majority being located in North America, North Asia, North Africa and the Australian continent. However, comparisons between the two maps show that an estimated 3.3 million km2 (almost 10 percent) of wilderness area has been lost in the intervening years. Those losses have occurred primarily in South America, which has experienced a 30 percent decline in wilderness, and Africa, which has experienced a 14 percent loss.

Wildlife Conservation Society

"The amount of wilderness loss in just two decades is staggering," Dr. Oscar Venter of the University of Northern British Colombia said.

"We need to recognize that wilderness areas, which we've foolishly considered to be de-facto protected due to their remoteness, is actually being dramatically lost around the world. Without proactive global interventions we could lose the last jewels in nature's crown. You cannot restore wilderness, once it is gone, and the ecological process that underpin these ecosystems are gone, and it never comes back to the state it was. The only option is to proactively protect what is left."

Watson says that the United Nations and others have ignored globally significant wilderness areas in key multilateral environmental agreements and this must change.

"If we don't act soon, there will only be tiny remnants of wilderness around the planet, and this is a disaster for conservation, for climate change and for some of the most vulnerable human communities on the planet," Watson said. "We have a duty to act for our children and their children."

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By EWContributorClimate  08:44AM EST
Don’t Get Burned by Misinformation About Dead Trees and Wildfire

By Douglas Bevington

In California, dead trees are big news. In June, the U.S. Forest Service reported that 66 million trees had died since 2010 as the state has experienced a prolonged drought. Drought stress has weakened trees' natural defenses to native bark beetles, resulting in a pulse of tree mortality. Yet amid all of the media coverage of the tree mortality, there has been little mention of the ecological importance of dead trees.

Black-backed woodpeckers depend on dead trees for food and shelter. Rachel Fazio

Dead Trees are Vital

Dead trees can remain standing for decades or more and a standing dead tree—known as a "snag"—provides great habitat for wildlife. Birds and mammals make their homes in openings carved within snags, while wood-boring insects that feed on snags provide the foundation of the food chain for a larger web of forest life, akin to plankton in the ocean.

With so much life abounding, it doesn't seem right to call a snag "dead." We commonly associate that word with meaning the end of one's useful life and yet when a tree becomes a snag, it actually reaches a pinnacle of its beneficial role in the ecosystem. In other words, snags are a vital and vibrant part of the forest.

When many snags are created together in what is known as a "snag forest," it produces some of the highest levels of native biodiversity of any forest type. Some forest animals, such as black-backed woodpeckers, depend on finding places with large swaths of snags. Unfortunately for them, unlogged snag forests have become quite rare.

The Deficit of Dead Trees

From the perspective of the timber industry, a snag in the forest is a waste, so timber companies and the Forest Service have spent decades cutting down snags as quickly as possible. As a result, there is now a significant lack of snags in our forests and this shortage is harming woodpeckers, owls and other forest wildlife. For them, the recent pulse of snag creation is good news.

At first glance, 66 million dead trees may seem like a very large number, but it is important to remember that there are 33 million acres of forest in California, so the total effect of the recent pulse of tree mortality has been to add an average of only two snags per acre. To put that number in perspective, forest animals that live in snags generally need at least four to eight snags per acre to provide sufficient habitat and some species require even more snags. For example, California spotted owls use forests with eight to twelve snags to nest and rest and they prefer even higher levels of snags in the areas where they gather their food. And black-backed woodpeckers depend on snag forests with at least several dozen dead trees per acre. These points and many others were addressed in a letter from scientists to California Gov. Brown in February.

Recent tree mortality in the Sierra National Forest.Chad Hanson

Even within areas of high tree mortality, there is a mixture of green trees interspersed with snags. Chad Hanson

Cashing in on Fear of Fire

Despite the ecological benefits from the recent pulse of tree mortality, logging advocates have been eager to cut down the snags. In attempting to sway the public to support large-scale logging, they have not highlighted the wildlife habitat created by these snags or the overall snag deficit, but instead they have stoked fears that dead trees will cause severe wildfires. This claim is generally presented by portraying the trees only as "fuel" for fire. Depicting trees solely as "fuel" is a simplistic and misleading approach that reduces the natural complexity of the forest to a single dimension, resulting in erroneous assumptions about what really occurs.

In fact, dozens of published scientific studies of what actually happens when beetle-affected areas burn show that dead trees do not cause severe fires. One recent study even found that areas with tree mortality burn at lower severity than green tree forests. Dr. Dominick DellaSala of the Geos Institute recently published a synthesis of this research and concluded, "There is now substantial field-based evidence showing that beetle outbreaks do not contribute to severe fires nor do outbreak areas burn more severely when a fire does occur."

The results of the field research are inconvenient for those who try to use tree mortality as a justification for more logging. For example, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service, made no mention of these studies in his June press release about the California tree mortality. Instead, he falsely claimed that the tree die-offs "increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires" and then he used that claim to lobby for increased funding for his agency.

The biomass power industry in California is also trying to cash in on this fire scare regarding dead trees. Biomass power facilities generate electricity by burning trees and other vegetation. This process is remarkably inefficient, with biomass burning facilities contributing to global warming by emitting more carbon per unit of energy produced than coal or natural gas facilities. (Moreover, in contrast to biomass power, renewable energy sources that don't burn carbon—such as roof-top solar—have no emissions). Biomass power is also economically inefficient, requiring substantial taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies, as well as regulatory loopholes, to keep biomass facilities in business. Thus, the current use of fear of fire to try to justify subsidized logging of snags to fuel biomass facilities is bad news for the climate and taxpayers, as well as for forest ecosystems.

A New Understanding of Forest Diversity

Rather than allowing logging proponents to exploit fear and misinformation about fire, we have a collective opportunity to learn from the current pulse of tree mortality and develop a greater understanding of the full diversity of California's forests. Dead trees, including large patches of snags, are a vital part of the forest. We should appreciate them, along with the natural processes that create them, such as beetles and wildfires. While forest protection efforts have historically focused on green trees, forests come in a variety of colors that also deserve protection, including trees with brown needles and trees with blackened bark. Their diversity provides the basis for a diversity of forest life.

Douglas Bevington is the forest program director for Environment Now and the author of The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear (Island Press, 2009).

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By Katie PohlmanAnimals  08:23AM EST
Take an Underwater Virtual Reality Tour of One of the World's Most Biodiverse Regions

Over a decade ago, Bird's Head Seascape was just another example of the damage overfishing and destructive fishing practices can cause on coral reefs. But, the community stepped in, and the region is now thriving.

Diver with Schooling Scads at Arborek Jetty.Photo credit: Jeff Yonover, Bird's Head Seascape

Valen's Reef, a virtual reality movie shot in 360-degrees, explores the Raja Ampat Islands in the Coral Triangle and the progress Bird's Head Seascape has made. Local-fisherman-turned-reef-scientist Ronald Mambrasar narrates the movie, recounting the history of the region and the Bird's Head Seascape initiative to his son, Valen:

"When the illegal fishermen came, we welcomed them at first. They brought us gifts. After they dropped bombs and poison, we would scoop up the fish for them. The fish and coral started to be lost. We knew it was not right."

Mambrasar was one of the locals who joined Conservation International and a group of international non-governmental organizations, local and national governments, universities, local organizations and coastal communities when the initiative started in 2004. The goal of the initiative was to balance the needs of the human population while protecting natural resources in the region. So far, the project has developed 12 multiple-use marine protected areas in the Bird's Head Seascape.

The red box marks the Bird's Head Seascape and the islands it incorporates.Photo credit: Bird's Head Seascape

Thanks to these efforts, the reef had rebounded: fish populations have recovered; sharks, whales and rays have returned; poaching has decreased by 90 percent; and coral is regrowing.

Mambrasar tells his son: "I want to be able to give you all of the nature that is here now."

The Bird's Head Seascape is home to the highest coral reef biodiversity in the world. Covering 22.5 million hectares, it is home to 1,711 species of fish, more than 600 species of coral, and 17 species of whales and dolphins. It also claims to have the most extensive mangrove forest and sea grass beds, and the world's largest pacific leatherback sea turtle nesting beaches.

Mobula feeding frenzy of the coast of southern Raja Ampat. The mobula, species of eagle ray, are swarming baitfish.Photo credit: Jeff Lemelin, Bird's Head Seascape

Almost 4 million hectares are protected by the 12 marine protected areas. The seascape also contains the coral triangle's first shark and ray sanctuary.

Take a tour of the seascape and listen to Mambrasar's story in the video below. Use the arrows in upper left corner to explore the views in 360-degrees:

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