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To save the bay, save the trees

ConservationAgricultureNatural ResourcesForestry and TimberEnvironmental Pollution

What can we say about the half-acre of stream valley forest that developer William Tarbutton recently, blatantly bulldozed near Federalsburg on Maryland's Eastern Shore?

He will likely be fined by the Maryland Department of the Environment, which has recently proposed $240,000 in fines for previous violations by the Easton developer. He might get sued by adjoining landowner Charles Long, whose forest was part of what Mr. Tarbutton knocked down — "but I don't know if it's worth the lawyers' fees," Mr. Long said.

But Mr. Tarbutton won't have to replant a single tree of the 21,000 square feet he destroyed. He'd need to bulldoze a full acre to come under Maryland's Forest Conservation Act. (Several "protected forest" signs marking the woods were also bulldozed.)

MDE inspector Chris Westergard was only authorized by law to issue Mr. Tarbutton a sediment violation, requiring him to plant grass. Maryland's law protecting forests, by the way, is considered the toughest in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

Half an acre of lost forest is a drop in the sea of some 22 million acres of trees that green the bay's watershed; but it argues for improving protection of the bay's most critical landscape.

"For decades, the Chesapeake Bay Program has said that forests are the best, least-polluting land cover for the bay, yet we continue losing them," said Eric Sprague, vice-chair of a new Maryland initiative to recommend the watershed's first no-net-loss forest policy.

Indeed, forests are great sponges for airborne nitrogen and carbon dioxide; filters for sediment; and providers of shade and stability for stream environments and of economic and recreational opportunities from timbering to hunting, from birding to foraging for mushrooms.

A conservative estimate in the recent "State of Chesapeake Forests" valued these "ecosystem services" at $24 billion annually. But forests don't bill anyone for their services, and their contributions are woefully undervalued.

Chesapeake forests are stable or growing in far western and northern parts of the watershed, but this masks the more rapid losses in the regions of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia nearest the bay and its rivers, where we need them most for water quality.

Sprawling development is usually cited as the major reason we're losing forests. Meanwhile, agricultural politics, legal loopholes and fragmented ownership hinder attempts to replant forests to offset the losses.

Pennsylvania and Virginia vetoed language in the 2007 Chesapeake restoration plans to make "no net loss" of forests a goal, fearing it might reduce cropland.

The 2008 federal Farm Bill forbids planting trees on pastureland taken out of production, but farmers still get taxpayer money to leave pastures fallow. Federal and state conservation payments to farmers also give them nearly as much for buffering cropland runoff with grass as with planting trees. In the bay watershed, only Pennsylvania requires trees.

Maryland's forest law exempts agriculture from offsetting tree clearing with tree planting elsewhere. (To be fair, Maryland farms hold 40 percent of the state's forests.)

Power line rights of way are another big exemption from the law. Remember, it's the best law in the watershed; yet power lines proposed for Maryland alone could take out almost 10,000 acres of forest if they are built.

To move toward "no net loss," Maryland's draft forest policy recommends a number of measures in addition to ending some current exemptions:

•Make counties better protect high-quality forests such as big blocks of woods critical to wildlife, much as they now protect wetlands and other sensitive natural areas.

•Give local governments pollution and tax credits for increasing forests and for better protecting existing forests. Mr. Sprague noted that the high costs of meeting new bay water quality goals through sewage treatment and stormwater controls could make no-net-loss of forests highly attractive — if counties can get proper credit for it.

•Examine all possible places to offset tree losses, including large residential lawns. (The draft fails to explicitly extend this logic to farmland.)

•Raise mitigation requirements for developers who must cut trees so they would have to replace as many as four for every one cut.

•Provide technical assistance and tax relief for small, private forest owners who hold the majority of forests.

Strengthening Maryland's law is a start, but we need a watershed-wide vision of no-net-loss — or net increase — of this over-polluted bay's least polluting land use before we spend ourselves silly trying to do the whole job with technological fixes.

New England, a region similar in size to ours, has gained real traction recently with "Wildlands and Woodlands — A Vision for the New England Landscape," published by Harvard University Press. It imagines New England half a century from now with more people and development, but also with at least 70 percent of its 42 million acres permanently in forests, including 3 million acres of "wildlands," reverting to old growth.

Tom Horton, a former longtime reporter for The Baltimore Sun, is author of six books about the Chesapeake Bay. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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