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.
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.
Those findings show the state lost 7,000 acres of forest per year between 1950 and 2011, and , because of its high standard of living, will continue to attract more residents.
The report defines the council's "no-net-loss of forest policy" as "the stabilization of the rate of loss by 2020 with the goal of maintaining the state's existing 40 percent forest coverage," and proposes the Maryland Department of Natural Resources "pursue an integrated set of actions and measures that seek to stabilize forest loss."
The report speaks to the importance of both protecting "high quality forests" and off-setting forest loss whenever it does occur through reforestation in other areas.
"If we don't start to address this issue of forest loss, our hopes of restoring the Chesapeake Bay to anything close to what it used to be is really going to be an uphill battle," Koehn said.
The new report aside, both Baltimore County's department of environmental protection and sustainability and Howard County's office of environmental sustainability have a multitude of programs and initiatives that are playing a key role in outlining priorities for protecting such lands as well, county officials said.
Howard County has launched a Green Infrastructure Plan for preserving green "hubs" like forests, as well as green "corridors" that connect those hubs, officials said.
Baltimore County has similar programs, including a plan to preserve the Coastal Rural Legacy area, and has had some of the strictest buffer requirements in the state in place since about 1990, said Vince Gardina, director of the county's environmental protection department.
It also has guidelines under specific zoning categories that require a certain percentage of developed properties to remain forested.
Andrea Van Arsdale, director of the county's department of planning, said the county's URDL has been an example for contained sprawl nationwide, containing 90 percent of development within a third of the county's land. But the county also works to balance smart growth concepts with the need to protect resources within the URDL, like Patapsco Valley State Park, as well, she said.
Gardina said his department also actively works to purchase or buy easements on valuable private forested properties whenever they hit the market, but that funding is limited.
Cooperation through easements, planning
Despite all these efforts, forest advocates said the recent clear-cutting of land directly adjacent to the park shows more needs to be done.
And some are taking the fight into their own hands, rallying support for efforts to preserve private properties through easements and other initiatives.
In Catonsville, the nonprofit Neighborspace, which works to preserve green parcels in Baltimore County, is working with the National Park Service's Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program to come up with a detailed plan for conserving valuable land in the area.
A key part of that process will be figuring out how best to identify, improve and preserve the connectivity of green hubs and corridors, said Barbara Hopkins, executive director of Neighborspace.
Valentine agreed that connectivity is a major issue, adding his group has been working with both Baltimore and Howard counties to try to identify private lands near the park that could be purchased and added to the park or be placed under an easement.
"We're trying to get ahead of the curve," he said, noting once developers target a property, its preservation becomes all the more difficult.
"Once the developers have come up with and sunk costs into developing the plans, at that point it's kind of a lost cause," he said.