Save the trees, Md.

Op-ed: It's not just Maryland's Chesapeake Bay that's in trouble; the state's trees are, too.

For a state that thinks of itself as bulwark of environmental stewardship, Maryland is under serious ecological pressure. It's not just the Chesapeake Bay that's in trouble; the state's trees are, too.

In just the last 50 years, Maryland has lost 500,000 acres of forest (along with 873,000 acres of farmland). As forests and farms are replaced and fragmented by subdivisions and shopping malls, Marylanders — already living in the country's fifth most densely populated state — lose more than just open space. The average state resident now has one of the longest commutes in the country. Water pollution, caused in part by failing suburban septic systems and runoff from roads and parking lots, gushes into the Chesapeake. Bird, bee and butterfly populations, stripped of food sources and breeding grounds, continue to crash. Air pollution, and the asthma that inevitably goes with it, gets worse without a cleansing tree cover.

And everywhere, carbon dioxide levels rise, and the planet continues to heat up.

This pressure does not seem likely to abate. In the next two decades, state planners expect another one million people and 500,000 new homes to push natural and man-made systems — including another 176,000 acres of forest — to the breaking point. Replacing forests with chemically sanitized suburban lawns, for example, contributes to the 72 million birds that are killed nationwide each year by direct exposure to pesticides.

Maryland state legislators now have the opportunity to improve this dire situation. The Maryland Forest Conservation Act, first passed in 1992, requires developers to replace just 25 percent of the tree cover destroyed during construction. Builders can escape tree planting further by paying a fee instead. Neither of these requirements is sufficient to keep pace with the state's suburban sprawl.

New amendments to the law now being considered in both the House and Senate would require developers to replace 100 percent of lost trees and would increase the in-lieu-of fee to discourage tree losses. Hearings are scheduled for tomorrow, and rallies are being planned in support of the bill.

There are many reasons to like this change, beyond the obvious benefit it would provide for our endangered forests. It would increase incentives for developers to build inside existing cities and towns, where infrastructure like water and sewer lines, libraries and police stations already exist. Rather than tearing into dwindling forests to build new homes, it would encourage the redevelopment of previously built land, which would continue to revitalize downtowns across the state.

This would be very much in keeping with urban improvement efforts around the country. In Philadelphia, city officials and volunteers have been working to plant 300,000 trees in the city, including donating trees to homeowners with the expectation that they will spare the city further costs by tending the trees themselves. In New York City, 1 million trees were planted around the city between 2008 and 2015.

Locally, The Susquehanna and the Potomac rivers have begun to show the benefit of major forest restoration efforts on farms. Of the country's top dozen counties in preserving land, five are in Maryland, and plans are underway to continue this work. In Baltimore County, for example, limiting water and sewer lines to urban areas has helped permanently protect more than 60,000 acres of land. In Worcester County, a 2010 county land-use plan seeks to protect 200,000 acres of farmland — nearly two-thirds of the entire county. Baltimore City wants to canopy 40 percent of the city with trees in the next 25 years.

And it's not just municipalities doing this work. Over the past three years faith communities alone have planted 13,000 trees at their synagogues, churches and temples through a program called Trees for Sacred Places. This is not just landscaping — it is an intentional effort to rejuvenate the region's forest canopy, often with native trees that support hundreds of species of birds, insects, and mammals. At a more secular level, Marc Berman at the University of Chicago has done studies showing that having just 10 more trees on a city block improves a person's emotional well-being "comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $10,000 — or being seven years younger."

Worthy outcomes all. Developers should not take more from the land — or from society — than they replenish. And at a time when the federal government seems determined to ignore a host of environmental issues, Maryland legislators should rededicate state resources to protecting our forests.

McKay Jenkins (mckay@udel.edu) is a professor of environmental humanities at the University of Delaware and a board member of Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake. His new book is "Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet."

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