Into the Forest

We are living in difficult times. The global COVID-19 pandemic has alienated us from family, from friends and colleagues, and from the routines, experiences and adventures that make up our lives. For many of us, the pandemic has also limited our connections to nature, wildlife and the outdoors. As we learn to adapt, we can start to plan our reunion with the wild places that we miss and that are so essential to our health, especially now.  As David Attenborough said, “In times of crisis the natural world is a source of joy and solace.” 

I’m crazy about the National Forest System, all 193 million acres, including each of the 155 national forests, 19 national grasslands, and even the single national prairie. Having to choose my favorite national forest place for National Forest Week is nearly impossible because they are all so amazing! National forests are carbon and biodiversity strongholds, supporting over 450 species listed under the Endangered Species Act, including in my home state of Montana, like grizzly bears, Canada lynx and bull trout. Like millions of Americans, my family’s water originates in a national forest: In our case, it’s Gallatin National Forest outside of Bozeman. And like generations of Americans I have been recreating in national forests for almost my entire life. I have fond and drizzly memories of camping with my family among the giant trees of Olympic National (rain) Forest in Washington state.

Vine maple in old growth forest Gifford Pinchot National Forest

Image Credit

David Patte/USFWS

Applegate Reservoir in the Siskiyou Mountains within the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest

Image Credit

Rick Swart/ODFW

The fall color of a subalpine larch (Larix lyallii) set against Mt. Stewart on the Cle Elum Ranger District, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

Image Credit

Dawn Fouts/USDA

So rather than having to choose among the ancient forests nestled between three volcanoes in the Gifford Pinchot, or the thrilling whitewater in Oregon’s Rogue River-Siskiyou, or the rugged Pasayten Wilderness and “ghost bears” of the Okanogan, I’ll offer this: When it is safe to do so, and with the utmost respect to others and the places and wildlife we all love, get out to your closest national forest, aim for the highest ridge, the oldest forest, the most riotous meadow of wildflowers or that sublime steam, and enjoy your public lands. The visit will do wonders for your soul during these hard times. 

Fall color September 25, 2016 in the upper end of Bear Jaw Canyon, Bear Jaw Trail Coconino National Forest

Deborah Lee Soltesz/USFS

To commemorate National Forest Week, a celebration of our national forests and grasslands, and to remind us of all the places we have missed and will now carefully take solace in, we pulled together the following stories from within Defenders after asking: What national forest have you missed most during the pandemic? 


Jim Clark/FWS

My favorite National Forest in the Southwest is Gila National Forest in southwest New Mexico. The national forest is 4,235 square miles and includes Gila Wilderness! Established in 1924 as the first designated wilderness by the federal government, Gila Wilderness covers 872 square miles. I love Gila National Forest because the skies are still dark at night, Mexican gray wolves roam freely and it is mostly silent in these wild lands.

Bighorn Sheep on the Bridger-Teton National Forest

Image Credit

B. Barthelenghi/USFS

Sheep Pass paintbrush in Bridger-Teton NF
Mountains of Bridger-Teton National Forest
Upper Green River Lake, the gateway to the Bridger Wilderness in western Wyoming
Grizzly Bear on the Bridger-Teton National Forest

Image Credit

B. Barthelenghi/USFS

The Teton Range, partially obscured by smoke from the Berry Fire, rises beyond the Jackson Hole valley.

Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming offers heart-stopping views of the Wind River Range (affectionately known as “the Winds”). This is my favorite national forest. I love backpacking through the lower-elevation forests and up into the alpine to feel surrounded by the granite peaks of the famous Cirque of the Towers in the Bridger Wilderness Area. When there is little chance of rain, I don’t unpack the tent but sleep under the planets and stars. During a 4th of July trip one year, my party got caught in a blizzard—a reminder to be prepared for anything in the high mountains. Bridger-Teton is home to bears, bighorn sheep, Bonneville cutthroat trout and a diversity of other wildlife. It is important to acknowledge that Indigenous Peoples lived and passed through this place and many still call surrounding areas home including the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and Northern Arapahoe Tribe.

Wheeler Peak with fall colors in the Carson NF

Carson National Forest is the gem of northern New Mexico. It includes one of the country’s newest Wilderness Areas –Columbine-Hondo – as well as Cruces Basin, Wheeler Peak, Latir Peak and part of Pecos Wilderness. It’s home imperiled species like the Mexican spotted owl and New Mexico’s state fish – the Rio Grande cutthroat trout. It also makes up a significant portion of one of Defenders’ focal landscapes – the Upper Rio Grande region. Ecologically, this area remains largely intact and provides important connectivity for a variety of species and holds significant potential to restore black-footed ferrets, bison, Mexican gray wolves, lynx and other iconic species.

County Road 41G Rio Grande National Forest
Aspens are reflected in Shallow Creek west of Creede, CO

Rio Grande National Forest holds a special place in my heart. Situated in south-central Colorado just north of the New Mexico-Colorado line, Rio Grande is the connective tissue that allows wildlife to move north-south along the spine of the continent. The high jagged peaks of La Garitas and Sangre de Cristos mountain ranges surround and protect the lowlands of San Luis Valley where wetlands annually host sandhill cranes and other migratory waterfowl. Streams flow down from the high snowfields providing refuge to remaining Rio Grande cutthroat trout, a species facing an uncertain future with climate change and dwindling intact habitat. The entire region is magical to me with crazy rock formations, a rich Native American and Mexican heritage, and broad expanses of roadless forests. 

The setting sun highlights the fall foliage at Lefferts Pond on the Green Mountain National Forest

Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont encompasses over 400,000 acres in central and southwestern Vermont and is the only national forest in Vermont. Even though it’s called Green Mountain National Forest, my favorite season there is fall, when the mountains and hills and valleys turn gorgeous reds, oranges and yellows. The Appalachian Trail, Long Trail and Robert Frost National Recreation Trail weave their ways through the mountains, passing diverse forests, streams, ponds and wetlands, and some stunning views. Moose, coyote, lynx, fox, bald eagle, wood turtle, black bear, Jefferson salamander, wild turkey, Indiana bat, beaver and many more species rely on this remarkable forest in Vermont.

San Joaquin River in Sierra NF

Image Credit

Pamela Flick/Defenders of Wildlife

shooting stars wildflowers

Image Credit

Pamela Flick/Defenders of Wildlife

Lake George in Sierra National Forest

Image Credit

Pamela Flick/Defenders of Wildlife

During these times of stay-at-home orders, I find myself daydreaming of warm summer days spent swimming in the emerald green depths of my beloved Merced River and being awash in starry night skies of Sierra National Forest backcountry. Each year, I lead an all-women backpacking trip and Sierra National Forest is one of our favorite destinations. We often spend a night at Huntington Lake and take a scenic drive to soak in Mono Hot Springs, perched on the banks of the upper South Fork of the San Joaquin River. Then we head into the Kaiser or Dinkey Lakes wilderness to enjoy splendid wildflower studded meadows, massive old- growth red fir forests and sparkling (and frigid!) high elevation lakes. The Sierra National Forest is home to endangered Pacific fishers as well as other rare species like California spotted owls, Yosemite toads, northern goshawks, American martens and Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs.

Mt Hood National Forest, Bull Run Lake
Tamanawas Falls, Mt Hood National Forest

My favorite National Forest in Oregon is Mt. Hood National Forest. Nestled in the Cascades Range and home to the stunning Mt. Hood after which it is named, it is also the closest national forest to the largest urban area in Oregon (Portland metro area). In just an hour’s drive is a magical escape from city life— whether its hiking to see stunning views of the Columbia River Gorge or of Mt. Hood and its meadows, mountain biking, bird watching, swimming or fishing in its many lakes, winter skiing or swimming in its countless waterfalls, Mt. Hood National Forest has something for every nature lover. Locally referred to as Hood, the forest is also critical habitat for species like the northern spotted owl, black bear, cougar, elk, river otter, chinook and Coho salmon, steelhead, marten, Sierra Nevada red fox, and as of 2018, Hood has its own resident pack of wolves!

Sunset at Timberline Lodge Panoramic

Protect Yourself and Your Community

Safety is a priority. Before heading outdoors, forest and grassland visitors are encouraged to:

  • Plan ahead and know before you go. Check local conditions before heading to your favorite outdoor destination. Visitors should be aware of state, county and local health restrictions that may prohibit some activities or prohibit visiting some areas on public lands. Visitors are encouraged to check with their local forest and grassland office before heading outdoors.
  • Follow guidance and orders. Take the precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and county, city and state public health authorities.  
  • Practice social distancing. Avoid crowding at trailheads, scenic overlooks, parking lots and other areas. If a recreation spot is crowded, look for a less crowded spot. Maintain at least a 6-ft. physical distance from others. Enjoy a scenic drive.
  • Be cautious. Avoid high risk or backcountry activities that may increase your chance of injury or distress. Law enforcement and/or search and rescue operations may be limited due to COVID-19 response efforts.
  • Prepare for limited services. Restroom facilities and trash collection services are limited. If a restroom is open, it may not be maintained or cleaned. Visitors are encouraged to take their trash with them when they leave. Follow Leave No Trace Principles, particularly when dealing with human waste.
  • Keep pets on a leash.


Peter Nelson

Peter Nelson

Director of Federal Lands

Peter Nelson leads Defenders’ efforts to protect wildlife habitat and biodiversity on federal public lands.


Wildlife & Wild Places

Temperate Rainforest Olympic NP
Vermont Forest in Autumn

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A busy Atlantic hurricane season could mean more fires in the Amazon

By Madeleine Stone

PUBLISHED July 16, 2020

A burnt area of forest in the State of Para, Brazil, in the Amazon basin, on August 27, 2019. The same ocean warming that’s expected to drive a busy Atlantic hurricane season is also seen making the Amazon drier, leading to more fires.Photograph by Joao Laet, AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the Amazon rain forest could be far worse than in 2019, researchers say, partly because of the same climate conditions that are fueling an active hurricane season to the north.

Last August, a spate of enormous, human-set fires in the Amazon sent smoke billowing over the Brazilian city of São Paulo, turning day into night and prompting an international outcry. But while those fires were unusual and alarming, the situation could have been far worse if the Amazon had been in a drought.

Unfortunately, drier-than-average conditions are exactly what’s being forecastfor the southern Amazon this year, thanks in part to an unusual buildup of heat in the tropical North Atlantic, thousands of miles away.

That oceanic heat has also caused the Atlantic hurricane season to get off to a record fast start, a harbinger of what is predicted to be an unusually busy season. Some research suggests a causal link between hurricanes themselves and bad Amazonian fire years — although that is a matter of greater debate.

“What I think is happening is the ocean is forcing both of those conditions,” says Chris Landsea, a research meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center. “It’s forcing active Atlantic hurricane years, and at the same time causing fires to be likely in the Amazon.”

A perfect firestorm

Doug Morton, a NASA Earth scientist who co-created a seasonal fire forecast for the Amazon, says the rain forest faces the “perfect storm” of conditions for fire this year. Those include a ramp-up in deforestation—a key driver of fires in the Amazon—and broader patterns in the oceans and atmosphere that could lead to drought.

During the first six months of 2020, an estimated 1,184 square miles of forest were deforested—a 25 percent increase compared with the first half of 2019. Jos Barlow, a conservation scientist at Lancaster University, says if the accelerated pace of deforestation continues, nearly 6,000 square miles of forest could be logged by the end of the year, since the most intense logging season is now commencing. That would mark the highest rate of deforestation since 2005.

Amazonian landowners typically set fires to clear land for ranching and farming, although many fires are also set in public forests by people attempting to claim new land. “I’m afraid everything points to this being another very bad year for deforestation,” Barlow wrote in an email. “And unlike 2019, these clearance fires used to burn the felled forests are likely to be aggravated by a drier-than-usual climate,” meaning they could grow faster, become harder to control, and even escape into virgin rainforest.

Indeed, seasonal forecasts indicatelarge swaths of the Amazon could be plunged into drought as the dry season, which began in June and runs through November, progresses. That’s due, in part, to ocean temperatures far to the north, which form a key part of the basis for Morton’s fire forecast.

According to Yang Chen, an Earth scientist at the University of California, Irvine, who developed the forecast with Morton, temperatures in the tropical North Atlantic are currently “way above average.” When that part of the ocean is especially warm, it triggers a northward shift in the Intertropical Convergence Zone, a belt of low-pressure air that delivers intense, rainmaking thunderstorms to the tropics. If this rain belt shifts further north ahead of the southern Amazon’s dry season, it causes the dry season to start earlier and be even drier than usual.

“In previous years, when the tropical north Atlantic Ocean was warm — in 2005 and 2010 — that triggered record droughts across the Amazon,” Morton explains. “And with those droughts came fires.”

A direct link to hurricanes?

Warm tropical North Atlantic waters also fuel hurricanes, which sends moisture to the west and then north on prevailing winds instead of south. In fact, research that Morton and Chen published in 2015 shows that active Atlantic hurricane seasons and severe Amazonian fire seasons go hand in hand. While both phenomena correlate with heat in the tropical North Atlantic, they correlate more strongly with one another.

Morton believes that indicates a causal link between the two. When tropical storms and hurricanes form, he says, “they take the moisture that would otherwise flow onto the South American continent… and drive it toward the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard of the United States. Essentially, it’s taking moisture away from the Amazon.”

Chen is less convinced that Atlantic hurricanes trigger drought in the Amazon directly, although he agrees that both “share the same reason,” namely, excessive heat in the tropical North Atlantic and its impact on weather patterns.

Landsea, of the National Hurricane Center, is also unconvinced of a direct causal link between greater numbers of Atlantic hurricanes and Amazon drought. He points out that hurricanes are “very transient events. They only last for a few days, and only account for a small percentage of the rainfall in the Carribean.” But he agrees that there’s “certainly an association” between the two phenomena.

Either way, the 2020 hurricane season should serve as a red flag for the Amazon : There have already been six named tropical storms in the Atlantic, a record for this point in the season, which only began on June 1. And hurricane activity is expected to ramp up as summer wears on and heat builds across the tropical Atlantic.

“We are anticipating it to get very busy,” Landsea says.

While visiting Inner Mongolia China. National Geographic’s Your Shot photographer Sharon Wan captured this moment of a herd of horses galloping across a dry field.

160 turtles caught in plastic waste rescued from Bangladesh beach

  1. Ecology
2 days ago

The Olive Ridley turtles floated to shore at Cox’s Bazar with a huge mass of plastic bottles, fishing nets, buoys and other debris

About 160 sea turtles, many of them injured after getting entangled in plastic waste, have been rescued after washing up on one of the world’s longest beaches in Bangladesh, an official and conservationists said Wednesday.

The Olive Ridley turtles began floating to shore at Cox’s Bazar with a huge mass of plastic bottles, fishing nets, buoys and other debris at the weekend.

Survivors were released back into the Bay of Bengal, but some were returning to the beach that stretches 120 kilometres (75 miles).

About 30 had died and were buried in the sand.

“This is the first time we have seen such a large-scale death and washing up of injured turtles on the beach. It is unprecedented,” said Nazmul Huda, deputy director of the local environment department.

“Around 160 turtles have been rescued alive… but after their release in the sea, some of these turtles have come back to the beach. I think they are too weak to stay in the sea.”

Many of the turtles sustained injuries from being caught in the estimated 50 tonnes of waste floating in a 10-kilometre stretch along the coast.

“Some of the turtles did not have legs or heads,” said Asaduzzaman Sayem from local conservation group Darianagar Green Boys.

“We rescued a 40-kilogramme (88-pound) turtle alive. It was entangled in plastic nets and it did not have legs.” Many of the turtles washed up on the beach in Bangladesh sustained injuries from being caught in the estimated 50 tonnes of waste floating off the coast.manyofthetur


Leading Bangladesh turtle and tortoise expert Shahriar Caesar Rahman of the NGO Creative Conservation Alliance said the creatures were “heavily stressed” and may not survive even after being freed from the waste.

“Local volunteers are trying their best to release them in the sea. But considering the injuries of these turtles it is unlikely they will survive,” he told AFP.

“So the best long-term solution will be to establish a rescue and rehabilitation facility for these turtles in Cox’s Bazar.”

The government is investigating why the turtles came ashore and sent two carcasses to a state-run university to be examined.

But Rahman said he believed the turtles may have become stuck in a massive plastic garbage patch floating in the sea.

“In the long term if we don’t manage pollution in the Bay of Bengal, many of these marine species will face similar fate,” he said.

Olive Ridleys are the most abundant of all sea turtles around the world, according to conservationists.

But their numbers have been declining and the species is recognised as vulnerable by the IUCN Red list.