Building the forest for the trees

The Baltimore Sun

Back in 1981, when longtime forester Len Wrabel and his wife, Marikay, moved into their Westminster home, it sat on an empty cornfield.

Not uncommon for Carroll County in those days. After all, it has more than a century's history of farming.

But today, the Wrabels, who run an environmental consulting service, have 55 species of native trees growing on their 2.5 acres, and they've planted 900 additional trees on a neighbor's property.

They are one of many families, developers and forestry officials who are trying to bulk up Carroll County's 70,000 acres of forests for the good of their own water and that of the Chesapeake Bay, polluted by chemical runoff that would otherwise be stopped by trees.

"We were the third county from the bottom in terms of forest land conserved," said Vicki Luther, county forestry official. "Now we're near the top."

Forests covered 95 percent of Maryland in Colonial times. Today, only 42 percent of Maryland remains forested, and trees are often coming down faster than they're being planted.

Although recent statistics from the Department of Natural Resources say Maryland is losing an estimated 10,000 acres per year to development, Carroll County is turning things around with its stringent forest conservation ordinance and forest banking program.

Today, Carroll County has an 82 percent forest retention rate, compared with the state's 65 percent. That means 82 percent of existing forest has been retained on construction sites during development while the rest has been cleared for new building. About 25 percent of the county's total land remains forested today, according to statistics. "Carroll County is doing quite well with its plan," said Marian Honeczy, state forest conservation program coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources.

Carroll County developed its forest preservation and conservation laws in 1992, building on a sweeping state forest conservation act passed in 1991. Today, anyone in Carroll County who develops a parcel of county land 40,000 square feet or larger must follow the forestry ordinance.

The ordinance takes a tiered approach - the toughest laws affecting agricultural lands.

If there are no trees, or very few trees, on the construction site , local law says business and industrial sites must still have 15 percent of their property forested; residential and agricultural property must have 20 percent.

Depending on the size and type of tree the builder chooses, "forest" can be defined as 100 to 700 trees per acre, Luther said.

That means even if the land is empty to begin with, builders have to plant seedlings to bump up the numbers to the required percentages.

If, however, there are enough trees to begin with, the builder can put that existing forest into a permanent "easement," or a promise that they won't be cut down in the future - ever.

A second tier of the ordinance takes effect if builders clear forest from the site. For every tree removed, builders have to plant a new one. Developers must submit a detailed forest conservation plan to show where construction will be, which trees will be kept on the site and which trees will be cleared.

Of the forest that's cleared, the land developer must also specify where the trees will be replanted.

The most desirable replanting areas are near streams, floodplains and wetlands. These sensitive areas need trees to soak up chemical and nutrient runoff before it reaches the streams - and ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.

The last tier of the law impacts agricultural land that's being developed. Carroll County requires a 2-to-1 tree replacement ratio on agricultural land that is sold for development.

Builders on those sites get their first 20,000 square feet of clearing "free," with no required replanting. They also get from 20,000 to 25,000 square feet at the 1-to-1 rate.

Above 25,000 square feet, they must replant two new trees for every one cut.

"We're trying to preserve land already zoned in agriculture," Luther said. "The 2-to-1 replacement rule is a preservation measure."

Maryland's forests cover 2.5 million acres. Department of Natural Resources officials say a quarter of that forest is owned by local and state governments. The rest is privately owned. And that's a big concern.

"People are more mobile. They move. There's a lot of turnover in the land. To manage a forest is a long-term commitment," said Karin Miller, director of the Maryland Forests Association in Grantsville, a leading association of forest professionals that works closely with state and local governments on conservation legislation.

About 65 percent of private forest owners own parcels of less than 10 acres. This "parcelization" of forests can mean trouble on many fronts. It is tougher to monitor forest health and growth, and difficult and expensive for timber workers to harvest wood from the smaller sites. Often, private owners don't know how to appropriately maintain their forest land. Trees can outgrow their useful lives - invasive species may come in and choke the natural forests - or the owners may clear the forest altogether.

This haphazard maintenance leads to lost or unhealthy forests and ultimately a decline in the air and water quality of the region, the association says.

"An acre of forest makes enough oxygen for 18 people," said Wrabel, who helped develop the county conservation laws. "The larger the block, the better."

To avoid forest "checkerboarding," Carroll County allows no forest replanting on sites less than three acres in size, Luther said. The builders have to do their planting on larger sites either within the residential or commercial development or in specially designated areas called forest banks.

"We'd have a terrible time inspecting it, if it were all on parcels less than three acres," she said.

Often, a commercial or residential project just doesn't have enough open space to make up for lost forest trees, Luther said. But that doesn't mean that they can't be built. The trees can be planted elsewhere - often in a bank.

"Fragments of forestation lack a plan, for whatever reason," Luther said. "We try to do everything we can to avoid replanting in smaller areas. It's better to bank forest off-site."

Carroll County has led the state in terms of forest banking, and both Luther and Wrabel get many calls from people wanting advice on how to set them up and how to use them. Wrabel has acted as a consultant on the forest banks since their inception.

Banks usually charge $10,000 to $12,000 a planted acre, usually in the form of credits. Many of these banks exist in areas of the county where buffers are sorely needed - such as near streams, wetlands or floodplains, Luther said.

For example, if a developer cleared two acres of forest on his subdivision, he could go to a tree banker and buy $20,000 worth of tree credit (at about $10,000 an acre) and satisfy his reforestation requirement.

Because these banks have been created in "high priority" areas of the county where buffers of trees are needed and because they are more contiguous than scattered handfuls of trees, they are more effective for the environment.

"A large tree bank near a stream is more beneficial, versus little-by-little forestation," Luther said.

"You don't want a forest at the corner of a busy intersection," said Randy Bachtel of Westminster, a civil engineer, cattle farmer and bank owner. "Sometimes it's inappropriate for a forest to be at a certain location."

Carroll County pioneered forest banking in the early 1990s - and many of its more than 70 banks are now sold out.

Bachtel was one of the first to be involved in forest banking, when one of his clients needed to bank trees. Later, he realized he actually owned high-priority areas within his 61-acre farm. So he started a bank. Bachtel's 8.5-acre bank lies across wetlands, steep slopes and floodplains, "land where my cattle couldn't go, anyway," he said.

"I decided to start a bank to help my farming income - and as a service to my consulting clients," he said. "It's a good idea to bank, if you own the high-priority land."

From the farmer's end, banking can also be an alternative to "selling off the farm."

"The banks help builders who want trees to get them; they help the landowners make money and avoid having to sell off parcels to developers," Honeczy said. "Many people have to subdivide their property just to pay taxes on it, or pay for their kids' education. If they planted trees in banks, they could also make money."

And since banks are best planted around wetlands, floodplains and stream banks - areas farmers often don't use anyway - it can mean income from otherwise unusable land.

Even so, many developers and land owners complain that there should be more financial incentives for tree conservation.

Relatively few financial incentives exist for conserving and planting forests, though forestry officials are pushing for more. If a property owner submits a forest conservation and management agreement, he can get property assessments at lower rates.

Maryland also allows forest owners who replant property to deduct twice the cost of that activity from their income for tax purposes. The state Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program pays farm landowners to create forest buffers, retire highly erodible soils and replant wetlands on agricultural land.

The state's $2.2 billion forestry and forest products industry ranks in the top five Maryland industries, supporting about 14,000 jobs and a major export from Baltimore's harbor.

Though forestry officials don't claim to want total forest preservation, they are shooting for as much conservation as possible.

"Our act is designed to conserve forests. That doesn't mean 'no net loss,'" Honeczy said. "Conserving the forest means managing trees to meet our needs whether it be income or nature or aesthetics."

There is no established forest/nonforest equilibrium goal, of say, 50-50 or 60-40. State and local forestry officials are planning to come up with a desired percentage later this year.

"We're against locking it up and leaving it alone," Miller said. "We're looking at ways to manage it to mean clean air and water standards. Forests are dynamic. It's a system meant to have turnover."

Today, 136 million acres of North American forest has been certified by professional, third-party organizations as being managed in an environmentally responsible manner, Miller said.

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