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Woodland Salamanders Prove to be the New Canary in the Forest

The Ensatina salamander (Ensatina eschscholtzii) is a good indicator of forest ecosystem health. (U.S. Forest Service/Hartwell Welsh)

The Ensatina salamander (Ensatina eschscholtzii) is a good indicator of forest ecosystem health. (U.S. Forest Service/Hartwell Welsh)

With the Year of the Salamander now in full swing, there’s no wonder why everyone seems to be talking about these little creatures… they are the new canary in the coal mine when it comes to understanding forest health.

Woodland salamanders, small, ground-dwelling or subterranean, and primarily nocturnal creatures, are a common species in North American forests; and researchers from the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station say they are reliable indicators of recovery in damaged forest ecosystems. Read more »

Healthy Breakfast, Healthy Future

Cross posted from the Huffington Post:

Last Friday, I celebrated School Breakfast Week with a lively group of students at William H. Hunter Elementary School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I was joined by the Philadelphia Superintendent of Schools and various state officials as I participated in an event which emphasized the important role of the USDA School Breakfast Program in fostering a healthier next generation. This year’s celebration was extra special, with news that total program participation grew by more than 24 percent nationwide over the last six years. Nearly 14 million of our nation’s school children are now eating school breakfast each day.

Here’s why that’s so important: A well-balanced breakfast offers an important nutritional foundation for a productive and healthy day, at any age. School breakfast fosters success in the classroom, and also plays a critical role in helping children develop healthy habits that last a lifetime. Read more »

Arizona Tour Shows Native Farmers’ Dedication to Hard Work and Conservation

NRCS State Conservationist Keisha Tatem, NRCS Assistant Chief Kirk Hanlin (center) and Eric Juan with the Gila River Tribal Community discuss the efficiency gains of the concrete-lined irrigation ditch in the community. Before this ditch was lined, much of the water was lost. NRCS photo.

NRCS State Conservationist Keisha Tatem, NRCS Assistant Chief Kirk Hanlin (center) and Eric Juan with the Gila River Tribal Community discuss the efficiency gains of the concrete-lined irrigation ditch in the community. Before this ditch was lined, much of the water was lost. NRCS photo.

I come from generations of Mississippi River towboat captains and family farmers. From as early as I can remember, our family believed that if you were going to do a job, you’d better do it right, and that no job was either too big or too small.

Hard work was valued, and everyone always looked for new ways of doing jobs better. The river and the land have long supported our family. From time to time, I have an experience that takes me back and today’s trip was one of those times.

Recently, when I was crossing the Colorado River from California into Arizona, I thought about how many times I had crossed the Mississippi River from Illinois to Iowa or Missouri. But crossing this river was very different. Driving into Arizona, there was desert as far as I could see in any direction. This instantly sparked my curiosity. Read more »

The Buried Forest of Alaska’s Kruzof Island: a Window into the Past

Mount Edgecumbe volcano is on Kruzof Island in Southeast Alaska, just west of Sitka. The Mount Edgecumbe Volcanic Field consists of more than a dozen volcanic vents and domes. The field first erupted more than 600,000 years ago, and volcanic activity continued until 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. (U.S. Forest Service/Jim Baichtal)

Mount Edgecumbe volcano is on Kruzof Island in Southeast Alaska, just west of Sitka. The Mount Edgecumbe Volcanic Field consists of more than a dozen volcanic vents and domes. The field first erupted more than 600,000 years ago, and volcanic activity continued until 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. (U.S. Forest Service/Jim Baichtal)

Seldom does one find a way to directly date a prehistoric volcanic eruption, but 11-year-old Blake LaPerriere opened such a door for excited scientists in Southeast Alaska.

Last September, Blake, his parents, and his younger brothers were exploring a beach on southwestern Kruzof Island, part of the Tongass National Forest landscape and just west of Sitka, Alaska, where they live. Blake investigated a deeply incised creek behind a pile of beach drift where he found a standing burnt tree embedded in a tall bank of pumice. He brought it to his family’s attention, asking “Do you think that’s from a volcanic eruption a long time ago?”

Curious, Blake’s father Zach took photos and sent them my way. Read more »

USDA’s National Centers for Animal Health Makes an Impact on Agriculture

Under Secretary Avalos is shown buildings of the south campus by Dr. Elizabeth Lautner

Under Secretary Avalos is shown buildings of the south campus by Dr. Elizabeth Lautner

In February, I had the opportunity to visit USDA’s National Centers for Animal Health in Ames, Iowa. This campus hosts employees from both APHIS and ARS, who work together with tremendous collaboration.  ARS employees conduct research on diseases of economic importance to the U.S. livestock and poultry industries. APHIS employees work to protect and improve the health, quality, and marketability of our nation’s animals, animal products, and veterinary biologics.

Their critical work in research, biologics, diagnostics, training, and coordination with stakeholders is impressive. It is a true science center where the work is intricate, precise, and timely. The scientific research conducted on the campus supports policy decisions, sets international standards and assures the country and the world that U.S. livestock and livestock products are safe for consumers. Read more »

Secretary’s Column: New Farm Bill and 2015 Budget Expand Opportunity in Rural America

This week, President Obama released USDA’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, which supports our ongoing work to create jobs and opportunity in rural America.

The budget builds on the new opportunities available to us through the recently-passed 2014 Farm Bill to achieve reform and results for the American taxpayer; foster opportunity for the men and women living, working and raising families in rural America; and support innovation through strategic, future-focused investments.

My team at USDA has been hard at work identifying everything that will be required—regulations, guidance and other activities—to develop a plan to implement the new Farm Bill. Read more »