Protect the trees that protect us


BEFORE SERMONIZING on an end to progress as we know it, let's take a moment for this sad, lovely note from a fellow tree-hugger, Helen Woods.

She was responding to my column of two weeks ago about the assaults on forests in Baltimore's Woodberry neighborhood and elsewhere.

She was struck by a reference to her alma mater, Salisbury University, sponsoring a talk by Julia Butterfly Hill.

Hill lived in a giant California redwood for more than two years to thwart loggers, becoming a hero to those who are fed up with our senseless cutting of trees.

It was ironic the university sponsored Hill, Woods said. She recalled how only a few years ago, as a student, she watched the biggest woods on campus get leveled for a dining hall.

"The only pair of great crested flycatchers on campus nested there," she wrote. "I loved their delicately colored plumage and demanding calls. I tried sneaking in at midnight before the cutting day and re-marking many of the trees with the orange 'save' ribbons sported by the handful being spared. Alas, the construction folks realized what had been done and removed my ribbons.

"I never saw another flycatcher on campus. Even the campus mockingbirds, which ironically do beautiful imitations of car alarms, soon forgot the song of the flycatchers."

Maybe it was possible to save more trees and retain the song of the flycatchers, and maybe it wasn't.

Of one thing I'm certain - such a "radical" notion, of letting forest values affect the development process, instead of vice versa, was never seriously considered.

It's easy to fork over several thousand to bring in "green" speakers like Hill. Paying attention to them is hard.

Salisbury University has plenty of company. The chainsaws are going every week, everywhere. Johns Hopkins is preparing to cut more trees for more buildings along lovely, less-and-less-wooded San Martin Drive.

Particular care, the project's architect told The Sun, will be given to sustaining the environmental balance there.

The architect has a curious, if common, concept of "balance" - one that always tilts one way, toward more bricks and asphalt.

It reminds me of a discussion years ago on balancing wetlands protection with development needs on San Francisco Bay.

Toward the end of a long meeting, a speaker noted that humans had filled 97 percent of the bay's wetlands - yet there they sat, debating the proper balance for the last 3 percent.

Around our Chesapeake Bay, after decades of environmental battles, we have finally achieved protection for our remaining tidal wetlands, and we're getting there for inland, nontidal swamps and bogs.

It's time to begin giving equal protection to forests. I'm not talking about ending commercial forestry, which has its place so long as it harvests and replants on an environmentally sound and sustainable basis.

Nor do I mean we never cut a tree again under any circumstance - just that, like filling wetlands, we do it only as a last resort, and even then replace all we cut and more in other locations.

Forests have environmental values the equal of wetlands, especially if we laid off cutting them until they achieved old growth qualities - which need centuries to manifest themselves.

Oaks don't even begin to come into their own in acorn production for wildlife until the trees are a century or more old, for example.

But long before that, forests are doing vital work. We have spent billions of dollars to remove about 25 million pounds per year of the nitrogen that is polluting the bay.

The bay's forests, by just growing, are removing an estimated 184 million pounds of nitrogen each year. Where we pave them, nitrogen washing to the bay leaps sixfold.

Increasing forests from the present 32 percent to 40 percent of the landscape in the Baltimore area would do as much good as investing $100 million in storm water controls, and $3 million a year in air pollution controls, says a study by the national conservation group American Forests.

Maryland, alone among the six states of the bay watershed, has a tree protection law, and it is doing a good job. But it was never intended to stop all loss of forests.

In a recent five-year period, 12,000 acres of forest were cut (out of a total of 36,000 acres under the law's purview), and about 4,000 acres of new trees were planted.

That's progress, but also 8,000 fewer acres of trees.

Of course, what a mess we'd have if we couldn't develop any more forest, right?

Just think, with forests covering 60 percent of the 41 million-acre Chesapeake watershed, we'd only have 40 percent of the landscape left to build on.

We've developed about 10 percent since the 1600s. Just think, we'd only be able to increase by FOUR TIMES the people and houses and roads and cars we have now.

It would be the end of progress as we know it. Just think.

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