Howard County is working on what officials call its "infrastructure," but the project doesn't involve bulldozers, road crews or loads of steel and asphalt. This "infrastructure" of woods, fields and waterways existed before there was a county — the task now is to keep it.
This is "green infrastructure," a term coined more than 10 years ago in the conservation world but more recently emerging in county policy and practice. Technicians and planners have completed a detailed countywide interactive online map showing this natural resource "network," including every property in the county's 162,272 acres, and now turn to specific ways to maintain and expand preserved land as part of an environmental protection plan.
The green infrastructure plan is mentioned briefly in a 160-page report by the Department of Recreation and Parks just submitted for the County Council's approval, representing "almost a launching point for the plan," said Joshua Feldmark, the county's director of the Office of Environmental Sustainability. With the map finished, he said, "now we get our strategy."
By that he means a way to keep what's there and go further, using an array of means, including preserving more land and helping property owners understand how they can help protect natural resources.
Visitors to livegreenhoward.com can search the map and perhaps see why it took Feldmark and his staff months to finish it. Visitors can start with a blank county map and click on an options menu to layer on the elements: not only street addresses, but also the locations of such features as streams, ponds, lakes, dams, flood plains and public parks.
As this is a green infrastructure map, it also uses the lingo that goes with the territory. The visitor can click on "hubs" and "corridors" to show what the site calls the "basic building blocks" of a natural network. These pop up on the map in orange lines showing the contours of land masses — many in the Patapsco and Patuxent river valleys to the north and south — and narrow darker lines that look a bit like squiggly highways.
The site defines hubs as large natural areas that can provide food, water and shelter to plants and animals. Corridors are strips of land linking the hubs, allowing species migration and movement. Usually, the site says, "corridors follow stream valleys and narrow forested areas."
The county's green infrastructure network has 51 hubs, including forests of 50 acres or more with a 300-foot buffer and wetlands of 25 acres or more, including ponds and reservoirs, with a 100-foot buffer. Think Patapsco Valley State Park, the Patuxent reservoirs and Columbia Association property including Lake Elkhorn and Lake Kittamaqundi.
The county has 48 corridors, some 500 and some 300 feet wide, 14 of which are considered "potential connections," because there are difficulties with street crossings or nearby development.
The hubs and corridors together make up 33,201 acres, or about 20 percent of the land in Howard. Most of that is part of the 35 percent of county land now in one form of preservation or another, much but not all of it in the rural section west of Route 32.
Roughly 1,700 acres in the network, however, are not covered by any of several state, county and private land preservation programs, Feldmark said. That means they're "at risk of being turned into developments" and will be a focus of much of the infrastructure project, he said.
The next steps will involve figuring out what to do about this land. That could mean talking with property owners to let them know their land is in an environmentally significant spot, and asking whether they would be interested in giving up their development rights to put the land into preservation. Short of that, the county will be asking owners to consider ways to make their property a more useful part of the system.
These steps could include planting trees, curbing lawn mowing and fertilizing, and installing birdhouses and bat houses. As an incentive for owners, the county might consider granting property tax credits. The government might also craft new regulations to better protect streams and forests.
The contact with property owners could be where the green infrastructure education, if not a sales pitch, comes in. The term was first used in Maryland by the Department of Natural Resources around the year 2000, said Christine Conn, a conservation planning specialist with the agency.
"What this does is it focuses our land conservation efforts to areas that can provide the greatest benefit" for protecting natural resources, Conn said. "It makes us smarter with the way we're using our money" for land preservation.
Preserving a piece of property that lies next to other environmentally sensitive land is likely to do more good than preserving land surrounded by development, she said.
John F. Wilson, an associate director of the Stewardship Group in Land Acquisition and Planning for DNR, said comparing natural resources to the "infrastructure" of roads, bridges, electric power stations and other man-made projects was a way to encourage people to think about trees, streams and undeveloped land collectively as something that is serving a purpose.
"We wanted to get people thinking of it in these terms to get them to value it and protect it," Wilson said.
The state has a "GI" plan, as do several other counties, including Baltimore and Prince George's counties, whose work in this field is considered "exemplary," Conn said.
Feldmark said the "argument isn't hard to make that without clean air and water we're in trouble. … This is fundamental to our role in protecting the [Chesapeake Bay]."
It's an infrastructure that requires little construction, but "without thinking about it, it's something we could easily lose," he said.