Mabel Smith

Mabel Smith, a member of the Historic Wilson Park Association, cuts a vine that is wrapped around a tree. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston / July 9, 2013)

A forest grows in Govans. As traffic rumbles by on busy York Road, cardinals flit about in a shady grove of trees sandwiched between a CVS drugstore and the Govans-Boundary Parish United Methodist Church.

In a city where some neighborhoods are practically tree-less, Baltimore is surprisingly rich in forests like this one. They're not that big, most of them, or maybe much to look at right now. Many are choked with brambles and littered with trash and debris. But a new survey has found Baltimore harbors nearly 2,300 forested tracts of at least a fifth of an acre in size.

They're oases of green that offer myriad benefits to urban residents, say experts, including cleaner air and water, habitat for birds and wildlife, and even edible plants. Yet they're at risk of being lost through neglect and a lack of legal protection from development, say advocates.

Now, with the help and encouragement of a nonprofit devoted to nurturing Baltimore's open spaces, some residents are beginning to reclaim the overgrown, overlooked patches of forest in their midst.

"You drive past this how many times, and you don't even know it's there," Miriam Avins, executive director of Baltimore Green Space, said while standing outside "Govans Urban Forest," as a student-painted wooden sign declares it. Narrow but deep, the woods fill nearly three-quarters of an acre.

Baltimore has about 2.6 million trees, according to the U.S. Forest Service, but about a quarter of them are distressed, dead or dying. The leafy canopy has given way to pavement and decay over the years, until it covers just 27 percent of the city's land, federal research has found. More than 50 percent of Atlanta, by comparison, is shaded by trees.

The city has set a goal of doubling Baltimore's tree canopy by 2037. But, Avins said, "We can't reach our tree canopy goals if we don't protect what we already have." And the forests, she said, are more than just a collection of trees.

Much of Baltimore's forested lands are publicly owned, but an analysis done for Avins' group found that fully a fifth of the city's forest canopy is outside of municipal parks. They're in danger of being lost, Avins said, even if not developed.

"In many forests, the vines are winning over the trees,'' said Matthew Baker, an associate professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, who analyzed the wooded tracts around the city for Avins' group. "Without human intervention, we will not maintain the same type of canopy we have."

Until recently, Baltimore Green Space focused on helping communities secure vacant land in the city for community gardens. But Avins broadened her efforts after a neighborhood dust-up over a wooded patch in North Baltimore.

"In Wilson Park, a new resident bought two wooded lots that were part of a large forest patch beloved by the longtime residents," she said. "He cleared them. Now there's runoff, fewer birds and other animals, and, of course, fewer trees."

Other residents are working to reclaim the remaining woods, which feature a large and apparently healthy American elm. On a recent sticky day, Mabel Smith and Charles Brown hacked away at poison ivy and other vines as thick as one's forearm girdling some trees.

"You free the tree up, it rejuvenates itself," said Brown, a former cabdriver, who said he learned to become a volunteer forest steward at classes taught by the Baltimore Tree Trust.

"It's a lot of work, but we enjoy it," said Smith, a longtime resident who said she appreciates the wildlife the woods appear to attract, including an eagle, deer and raccoons.

Not far away, Butch Berry leads visitors through "Springfield Woods," one of the largest private forest patches, a 21/2-acre woodland with a stream running through it.

"I played in here when I was a kid," he said. "I used to collect salamanders and snakes." Now the 58-year-old, who works for a Northwest Baltimore community development corporation, is spending his free time exploring it again, clearing it of debris and make it more inviting to the neighborhood.

"My goal is to make it safe enough for kids to play in," he said. The property is owned by a real estate company, but he said he's secured the firm's permission to work on it.

To neighbors of many urban forest patches, they "can seem scary and just places for dumping," Avins acknowledged. But she hopes to get residents thinking of them as "legitimate places" that are community assets rather than eyesores.

"It's really extraordinary," said Marla Emery, a research geographer with the Forest Service in Vermont who visited some of the city's patches recently. She saw grapevines that could be used to make dolmades, Greek stuffed-grape leaves; edible berries for picking; and even staghorn sumac, which she said could be brewed into a tangy tea rich in vitamin C.

"One little block or one of those patches full of woods can provide food from early spring until a hard frost," Emery said