Maryland Forest Preservation

Catonsville resident Kit Valentine, president of Friends of Patapsco Valley & Heritage Greenway, stands at the point where the Patapsco Valley State Park forest starts next to a site clear-cut for a residential development in western Catonsville. As state officials work to outline a plan for preserving forest land in Maryland, local advocates such as the Friends worry about continuing development and clear-cutting near the state park. (Photo by Nate Pesce / November 24, 2011)

The wooded property on Hilltop Road had always seemed like part of Patapsco Valley State Park, what with its untouched acres of forest bumping up against the thousands of acres of park land that cluster around the slithering path of the Patapsco River.

But the property on the edge of Catonsville is not park land — as is now quite obvious.

Today, most of the trees are gone, clear cut and reduced to a massive mound of sawdust to make way for a housing development being advertised as "Patapsco Reserve" by builder Richmond American Homes.

The project is just one example of widespread development along the park's edges in recent years that, has continued to diminish one of the region's largest forests at a time when state and local officials are increasingly looking for ways to prioritize forest sustainability and stop the net loss of forested lands statewide.

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In Catonsville, the trend is being seen specifically in the Hilltop development and the planned unit development on Thistle Road known as "Thistle Landing," also on the park's edge. Both projects are currently under way.

For Kit Valentine, president of the Friends of Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway, the changes to the Hilltop property constitute a "rape" of the land that is profoundly frustrating, partly because it undercuts his own group's efforts to protect the local environment, he said.

Valentine first came across the changes to the Hilltop property on Nov. 11, after he and his wife, Becky, decided to view the changing colors of the park's fall foliage, he said. The Catonsville couple stopped at a stream on the Patapsco Horse Center property off Frederick Road. There Kit pointed out the dozens of trees and bushes that the Greenway group had planted around the stream the week prior, Nov. 5.

Seeing the many acres of mature forest cut down on Hilltop, just after showing his wife the group's one acre of planting on the horse farm, made him more discouraged than he has been in a long time, he said.

"Our planting of one acre, no matter how beneficial we thought it would be in cleaning up the Patapsco River and the (Chesapeake) Bay, is a bitty effort to restore against a massive effort to destroy," he wrote that night in an email to state and county officials and a reporter. "We have got to stop clear cutting entire forests to build homes or public buildings. Somewhere, there has to be someone who can see and stop this insanity."

The clear-cutting approach to development was also taken in recent years when Westchester Elementary School and the complex that now contains the Arbutus Library, Recreation Center and Senior Center were built, Valentine said.

"They don't take out selected trees. They clear-cut the area, and that's what has me upset," he said.

Smart growth vs. green corridors

In a way, development in Catonsville – and across the river in Ellicott City and Elkridge – makes sense from an environmental perspective.

Catonsville, for example, is within Baltimore County's Urban-Rural Demarcation Line and the county's existing infrastructure, and has been targeted for smart, green growth, county officials said.

Still, the area's forests – including privately held forest properties like those adjacent to the park – should be eyed with preservation in mind, advocates said.

Advocates aren't alone. Officials at all levels of government have stepped up efforts to protect valuable forest lands. At the federal level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires the region's states and local jurisdictions to go on "pollution diets" as part of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load initiative, the goal of which is to ensure reductions of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment in the bay in coming years.

That has translated into a state "watershed implementation plan" that includes local efforts to restore buffer zones around streams and other waterways, including forests and parks.

That plan is just one piece of a much larger state effort to address forest preservation and sustainability that began in large part with the Sustainable Forestry Act of 2009, which prompted research into how best to stem the tide of forest development and created the state's Sustainable Forestry Council.

In October, the council released a preliminary draft of a "No Net Loss of Forest Policy," the final version of which was due to the legislature last week, said Steven Koehn, director of the state's forest service.

Koehn said the policy report is "supposed to set the stage for what we are going to call 'no-net laws,'" or forest protection legislation that individual legislators may draft after reviewing the report's findings.