Can We Protect the Chesapeake's Forests?
Jessica Smits
farmland by Jack Greer
geese in a pond by Andy Lazur
Both farmland and developed land send more nutrients and sediment downstream than forests. To rescue Bay water quality, the regionwide Chesapeake Bay Program has launched a "Forest Conservation Initiative," targeted to protect 695,000 forest acres by 2020. Credits: above, by Jack Greer; below, by Andy Lazur.

FROM HILLSIDES TO SHORELINES, TREES FILLED THE CHESAPEAKE BAY WATERSHED to the brim when the first Europeans planted their roots in the 17th century. Forests covered nearly 95 percent of the land. But by the turn of the 20th century, logging and agriculture had felled 60 to 70 percent of the watershed's lush forest cover.

Today, forests make up an estimated 58 percent of the watershed, according to the regionwide Chesapeake Bay Program. A marked improvement from 100 years ago, but still far from what experts say is needed for a healthy Bay.

With daunting deadlines for restoring the Chesapeake looming, officials and managers are looking to the trees for answers. Scientists widely recognize forests as the most beneficial land cover for preserving water quality. Trees help shield the Bay from pollution, acting as sponges that soak up excess nutrients and filters that trap water-clouding sediments.

Don VanHassent of the Maryland Forest Service puts it simply. "We spend a heck of a lot of money trying to clean the junk out of the water. Well, how about trying to keep the junk out in the first place?"

Forests help do that, he says. He thinks that they are the defensive line the Bay needs. But it's a defense under pressure. Since the mid-1980s the watershed has lost about 100 acres per day to development.

Keeping up — or at least catching up — with these losses means preserving forests before they become part of that depressing statistic. To that end, VanHassent and his counterparts throughout the Bay states are intent on "keeping forests in forests."

They've even been ordered to do so.

In 2006, the Chesapeake Executive Council issued a directive calling for retaining and expanding forests in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The Council noted that although its efforts to preserve land had been widely successful, they did not specifically target forests — the very land hailed as most important for the Bay. A comprehensive report, The State of Chesapeake Forests, which detailed the threat of development to the region's private forests, further spurred the call to action.

geese in a pond by Andy Lazur
Dark green patches show lands that are both protected and forested. Other forestlands, even when enrolled in conservation programs or easements, may not be permanently protected. Click on the image to view a larger version. Source:�Chesapeake Bay Program.

In 2007, in response to the directive, the Executive Council released a plan calling for permanent protection of 695,000 acres of forest (about the size of sixteen Washington, D.C.s) by 2020. The goal targets forests in areas of "highest water quality value" — such as those near headwaters, steep slopes, and riparian areas, and large interior blocks of forest that may connect to other preserved land.

As part of this "Forest Conservation Initiative," states must protect 266,400 acres (about six Washington, D.C.s) by 2012. But while the land conservation goal of the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement was met with great success — surpassed two years ahead of schedule — this new focus on forests has proven more difficult.

Sally Claggett from the Chesapeake Bay Program and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service reports that in the first year the watershed preserved about 85 percent of the annual target of 50,000 forest acres. Although this is a significant amount of forest cover, Claggett says that they were "not necessarily high-value acres."

She says that in 2009 they've been concentrating more heavily on working with the states to target high-value areas, which — while following the goal's true intent — may mean coming up even shorter.

Preserving forests is more challenging than preserving places like agricultural lands, she says, because there simply aren't as many preservation programs aimed at forests. Claggett says working with local governments is key. "Decisions on what to protect and where to protect often come from the local government."

Don VanHassent agrees. "It all starts at the local level with land planning and zoning."

The Heart of the Matter
Can we control population growth?
Washington beltway traffic by Sandy Rodgers

Forests fall and suburbs spread for many reasons. Bigger homes. Bigger lots. More cars and more highways. But underlying all this sprawl lies a driving force: an increasing human population and an economy based on growth. It's not a topic many want to take on. It's politically complicated. It runs afoul of our cultural assumptions. But Bay author Tom Horton confronts the issue in a provocative white paper entitled Growing, Growing, Gone.

Read about Horton's report in a web-only feature of Chesapeake Quarterly online, and learn what the Bay writer might say differently, if he were writing that report now. [more]

Credit: Sandy Rodgers.

VanHassent also teams up with local land trusts, conservation organizations, and forestry boards all across Maryland to reach out to private forest owners who may be interested in setting aside their land in a conservation easement or applying for funds through national efforts such as the Forest Legacy Program.

He is pleased that efforts to conserve forest in Maryland recently got a boost with passage of the Sustainable Forestry Act of 2009, which went into effect on October 1. Among other things, the act calls for enhancing outreach efforts and financial incentives to encourage landowners to protect their forests from development.

But what exactly does protection mean?

In most cases it means permanently protected from development, but there are always exceptions. In the case of easements on private land, VanHassent says each easement has its own terms. The degree to which they protect forests varies. Some may allow building a house or two, while others may not even allow maintenance tree harvesting.

Sally Claggett says that sometimes forests on "protected land" can be cleared for other uses. She witnessed this during a trip to Gettysburg National Military Park where she saw trees cleared to make way for a new visitor center and museum. Not all preserved land is managed with conserving the environment as its primary goal, she explains.

Military bases, which may boast extensive tracts of forest, also illustrate the complexity of forest preservation. While the land is often considered protected, if the military needs to build an airstrip or barracks, the trees will come down.

All of this makes focusing attention on protecting forests more important — especially forests with a strong influence on water quality. In recent years, riparian buffers, bands of vegetation along streams and rivers, have received special emphasis. Additional watershed-wide goals call for restoring and planting buffers, but even new plantings do not necessarily enjoy official protection.

In the end, Claggett says, it will come down to developing long-term partnerships with those who own or control forestlands to get the amount of tree cover needed for a "healthy, functioning watershed."

Partnerships, along with patience and perseverance, because it may take a while to get there. But at a rate of 100 acres of forest lost each day, will we run out of time?

December 2009
vol. 8, no. 4
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